So I was walking westward along East 10th St. early in the afternoon, feeling a little jet-lagged, having just got back to NYC after a month’s stay in Berlin. Moments before I’d said goodbye to Ruth as she boarded the M8 bus on her way to the West Village.
My first day back in a place I’ve been away from for a while can feel fresh and full of possibility, though I noticed that winter had been very slow to release its grip on old NYC this year and the sky was still grey, the trees unpromisingly bare and the sparrows disheveled as they pecked at a pizza crust along the sidewalk. A sudden rumble percussed the air – disconcerting louder than the usual construction noise, the ground shaking. My iPhone buzzed with an incoming text:
Ruth: “Did you hear that?”
Oliver: “Yes I did.”
She calls and tells me the people getting on her bus are talking about some kind of explosion.
“It’s probably nothing,” I said, (as if I knew what I was talking about)
But New York is an incredibly noisy place and one gets used to the din of sirens, pile drivings, and demolition noise that punctuates the background infrasound of thrumming traffic, the vibration of subways and the whoosh of steam conveyed through pipes hidden under the street.
So that was that, I thought and ducked into the barber shop I always go to 2nd Ave, to get a hair cut. It wasn’t busy and I hardly have any hair so it took only a few minutes to restore my stubble and by the time I got out, I could see grey smoke billowing up a short distance down the avenue, just south of the venerable Gem Spa news stand. A crowd had gathered and the first emergency vehicles were rolling in.
There is something horribly magnetic about a fire and I found myself heading toward it without even really thinking; though it was, broadly speaking, on my way home.
The intensity and volume of the smoke was getting worse by the minute and by the time I was a block closer, the fire department had deployed its high ladders and were blasting water from above onto the five story tenement, which by now was almost completely engulfed with the fire spreading to the adjacent. From that point on things moved very quickly, and in a few minutes we were being herded backward from the existing police cordon, at which point the intitial building blew up. It was surreal, horrible and one felt completely helpless knowing that what was happening, what one was seeing at that moment likely involved the loss of life – how could it not? Some of the onlookers were already sobbing or frantically calling or texting loved ones they thought might be in the vicinity and were not yet accounted for.
I exchanged a few words with the long time East Village character, Jim Power, a.k.a. the ‘Mosaic Man’, who had been darting in and out of the chaos on his motorized mobility scooter, sharing bits of news with onlookers and comforting the more obviously stricken. But what does one say in such a situation, other than to communicate one’s concern for the victims, the shock that such a thing has indeed happened; that this unremarkable building, with its sushi place, people’s apartments, their stuff, their lives, a building like so many others, a place that one might have even taken for granted, a mere blip in the optical subconscious–unless of course one lived there, knew people there–had so abruptly been ripped from our midst?
I worked my way eastward, away from the fire scene, looking back at the roiling column of smoke that by now must have visible throughout Lower Manhattan. Everywhere I looked, people had stopped in their tracks. Even five blocks away, knots of people gathered on the street corners, pointing at the sky and shaking their heads; all of us one moment in the midst of our quotidian routines and then presented with the sudden spectacle of disaster. That night the media confirmed what many on the street had been speculating – that the explosion, which cost two lives and injured 22 people was due to illegal modifications to the gas lines in the building. A couple of weeks later I happened to speak with one of the ConEd workers first on the scene and he lamented the criminally shoddy gas-fitting and shared how furious and frightened he was at the many cases of dangerously careless workmanship he so often encounters in his job, and how this continues to put all New Yorkers at grave risk.
During the weeks that followed, as the ruins got pored over by teams of investigators and then proceeded to be gradually demolished, the intersection of 2nd Ave and 7th Street had the air of a grizzly carnival with satellite news trucks jammed into every available niche, television journalists recording their live spots against the backdrop of straining heavy machinery, mounds of simmering rubble and disaster tourists, posing for selfies – the tragic obliteration of half a city block endlessly mirrored in a mis en abyme of Instagram and Twitter updates; its cause, not terrorism as had been feared, but carelessness and callous indifference. And so Manhattan is left with yet another hole, a lacuna, which the forces of turbo-capitalism will soon fill. But with what?
Even without such tragedies, the streetscape of the East Village is changing so rapidly I am almost always in a state of cognitive dissonance, looking for familiar landmarks that have disappeared, seemingly overnight, subsumed by the juggernaut of gentrification. These are ‘micro-worlds’ complete with endemic communities, ways of being, and so many of them are being lost: the affordable mom-and-pop eateries, the Hispanic botanicas, the dive bars, the squats, the bait stores along Houston – even the cars parked on the streets belie a degree of conspicuous wealth that would have been unthinkable but a decade ago. Though still a diverse and vibrant place, the neighbourhood has lost much of its character, its eccentricity, and has morphed into a theme park of its former rough-hewn self. The blogger Jeremiah Moss tracks this steady diminishment in “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York”, which reads as a chronicle of cultural extinction. But Moss hasn’t given up and is at the vanguard of a resistance movement he calls ‘Save New York’ and he recently instigated a ‘Small Biz Crawl’ to help out vulnerable East Village businesses affected by the fire. But is authenticity, so reified, still authentic, or are have we fallen victim to some idealized nostalgia? The East Village at the dawn of punk rock was a much grittier, more menacing place with ubiquitous crime along with the cheap rents and opportunities for squatting. But it was this set of conditions that allowed a vibrant non-commercial culture to thrive, the fumes of which the East Village is still running on to this day. At some point though, this will be forgotten.
When small establishments close down and are replaced by banks and chain stores, a sense of ‘placelessness’ descends. The likes of Subway, Starbucks and Urban Outfitters are essentially machines, ‘non-places,’ as the critic Marc Augé puts it, interchangeable with others anywhere in the world provided they share the brand. The human interactions occurring within–optimized, efficient and perhaps even affordable, are insipid, anonymous and non-relational and I would argue, contributory to the epidemic of loneliness we are now facing. A sense of allegiance, a feeling of belonging to the local, a culture of identifiable place, is lost when that place becomes just another instantiation of a globalized retail platform. When our every public interaction is imbued with overarching commerciality, we have a recipe for psychological disaster.
In her Guardian essay: ‘The Future of Loneliness,’ Olivia Laing makes the case that the internet, in particular social media, is the ultimate commercialized non-place, where the made-up-ness of one’s on-line persona commodifies personal relationships into ‘likes’ and ‘re-tweets,’ distancing the messiness, the imperfection of the real; resulting, says Laing: “ in being looked at and not seen.” We engage with each other in a state of ‘hyper-anxiety’ – constantly surveilled yet never understood.
Laing goes on to reference the quite excellent ‘Surround Audience’ exhibition now on at the New Museum, which for her epitomizes this anomic, yet narcissistic aesthetic. When I visited the show, the work most literally embodying the sense of pervasive social isolation for me was the series of quarantine chambers designed by the Chinese artist Nadim Abbas, entitled: Chamber 664, 665 and 666, each containing an abject sleeping bunk and some personal effects that can only be contacted through a pair of thick rubber gloves – a metaphor it seems to me, as apt for ebola as it is for Facebook.
That this epidemic of loneliness, this feeling of ‘not being seen’, might have consequences far beyond individual indisposition is what the Marxist critic, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, suggests in his provocative reflections – ‘In the lonely cockpit of our lives’ on the recent Germanwings crash, by now widely believed to have been an intentional act by its co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz. For Berardi, neo-liberal capitalism, with its relentless competition and ubiquitous connectivity, is responsible for us running into the ‘embrace of the black dog’ – the system’s demands have transformed our social lives into ‘a factory of unhappiness of which it appears impossible to escape.’
He goes on to declare:
“(Lubitz) did what he did because he could not get rid of the unhappiness that has been devouring contemporary mankind since advertising began bombing the social brain with mandatory cheerfulness, and digital loneliness has been multiplying the nervous stimulation and encasing the bodies in the cage of the screen, and financial capitalism has been forcing everybody to work more and more time for the miserable salary of precariousness.”
A more extreme form of Berardi’s proposition was foreshadowed, in part violently, in the early 1970’s, by the radical German therapist, Dr. Wolfgang Huber and his Socialist Patient’s Collective, who believed that psychiatric disorders stemmed from the capitalist system and could only be cured by a turn to a Marxist society. Though the therapeutic aspects of Marxism as it has thus far been applied can most charitably be described as ‘mixed,’ the psychological stress engendered as contemporary neo-liberalism subsumes all aspects of our lives into a pervasive, competitive commerciality need to be taken much more seriously. The system’s increasing inhumanity, its emptiness, is clearly driving people crazy yet rarely do we critique its basic legitimacy. Horrific events like the Germanwings crash may well be the symptom, not the disease.
via National Geographic
The overwhelming sensation of diminishment in our working lives and in our relationships with each other is compounded in turn by the vertiginously decreasing finitude of the natural world on which our human institutions, our very lives, depend. We are bombarded with heartbreaking images of ending –the last male western white rhinoceros left in the world, with his abbreviated yet still too valuable nub of a horn, encircled in his placid grazing by a full-time phalanx of armed guards, there to protect him from poachers. We’ve reached the point where there is not a single territory on this planet where such a lonely and iconic creature could live out its life outside the market system. So it is doomed to die.
That we are in the midst of an anthropogenic ’Six Extinction’ event is well known and the artist Brandon Ballengée (who I was in a show with at the Media Sanctuary in Troy New York last spring) recently produced a series of works called ‘Frameworks of Absence’ in which he represented the lacunae of extinction quite literally, by cutting the images of extinct creatures out of historical prints and burning them, leaving behind ghostly white absences amid backgrounds depicting their idealized habitats.
With or without extinction, climate change will create absences in what we have once held familiar. Researchers have recently estimated the velocity of climate change in temperate zones to be approximately a meter a day, poleward or upward; meaning that in a given nature reserve, the localities having now the coldest conditions will be hotter than the places that are now the warmest, within a hundred or so years – the mountaintops becoming as hot as the deserts they loom over are now, and so on. This means species requiring specific temperature ranges will have to migrate higher in latitude or altitude to survive, provided there are no barriers to movement, which in the real world is often not the case. Alpine and polar organisms will be particularly vulnerable, as they often already inhabit the extremes of what is topographically possible and will likely run out of accessible places to move – ‘deterritorialized’ literally, into oblivion.
Other species, now at home in more southerly regions, will need to move northward, as their accustomed haunts become uncomfortably hot. In places such as the North American west coast such migration would be impeded by almost insurmountable man-made obstacles in the form of massive cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which interrupt the continuum, the cline, of available habitat.
In such cases we might initiate preemptive, ‘assisted’ migrations, which I have investigated over the past years in my ‘Neo-Eocene’ project – a logged-over acreage in coastal British Columbia, where I have planted hundreds of young coast redwood, giant sequoia, walnut and gingko trees, all native to more southerly zones, in anticipation that continuing warming trends will create conditions more favourable to them, and less favourable to the vegetation now considered to be native. So far so good, with the coast redwoods making the most impressive progress, thriving unassisted, almost 1000 kilometres north of their closest native range. The sequoias too are making considerable gains, which is reassuring given the prognosis for their survival in their Sierra Nevada home is increasingly grim, to the extent that by some estimates natural sequoia groves are unlikely to make it through the area’s shift toward permanent drought without artificial irrigation and the construction of fire breaks. Is there not a certain poignancy to the fact that we might only manage to preserve something of the primeval sublime of the sequoia groves through the epic administration of artificiality? But then the climate itself has become a human artifact. We broke it we fix it, I guess, only we can’t fix it, not really, not any more. But absence makes the heart grow fonder. Which makes the Anthropocene the biggest lacuna of them all.
George? Who were you George?
I’m standing beside a plexiglass vitrine at the American Museum of Natural History. In it are the taxidermied remains of George, the last Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise, who died suddenly on June 24th 2012, of so called ‘natural causes.’ At the time of his death, George was estimated to be about 100 years old – a spring chicken by tortoise standards, and sadly he passed away without carrying on his illustrious line. All other members of his Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni subspecies predeceased him, their once considerable numbers decimated by passing sailors who hunted them down as easy to catch and easy to store meat that could be kept alive in the holds of their ships for months. The few Pinta tortoises the sailors missed mostly starved to death after goats got introduced to Pinta in 1959, which then stripped away the vegetation they needed for food and cover. How George survived alone, until he was discovered when he came out of hiding in 1971, is still a bit of a mystery but he was soon shipped off to the Charles Darwin Research Station on nearby Santa Cruz in the hopes he might mate with females of a related subspecies and perhaps sire hybrid offspring to make situation of his genetic extinguishment a little less final. But it was not to be and George during the years of his confinement remained something of a sad curiosity, the embodiment of a ‘zombie species,’ still scrabbling around but already functionally extinct.
When George died in his enclosure, his head pointing poignantly in the direction of his drinking pool, his remains were promptly frozen and shipped off to the AMNH where he was set upon by a crack team of embalmers, who (it has to be said) did an amazing job making them look almost perky. The AMNH produced an informative video documenting the taxidermist’s macabre prestidigitations; the agonizing decision making of choosing the appropriate pose, getting the correct drape of his wrinkly skin right, the touchings up with paints and varnishes, the fastidious attention to detail neccessitating even splotches of authentic Galapagos dust to be daubed onto George’s eviscerated carapace.
In his temporary mausoleum in the museum’s Astor Turret, George draws quite a crowd and he rather gives the impression of a reptilian Lenin, serene beneath the glass of his tomb, while crowds of supplicants stream by to pay their respects or merely snap a selfie or two while standing next to what was after all ‘the last of his kind.’ Other than a striking similarity in head shape, both lonesome George and Vladimir Ilyich shared the quality of becoming even more iconic after death, more laden with gravitas, their formaldehyde and wax-infused corpses the recipients of both veneration and revisionist history – George the last survivor of an imagined, prelapsarian, South Sea eden; Lenin the last ‘authentic’ Bolshevik.
The preservation of corpses, whether through taxidermy, embalming, or ritual mummification, seeks to reframe the life of the deceased into an idealized, one could say fetishized state; the gory circumstances of the death, the bleeding bullet holes torn through the flanks of the game animal before its final agonized collapse, the sunken flesh of the terminally ill patient after a long confinement, all cleverly obscured to make them look as they were in life, or rather, as they should have been according to the aesthetic agendas of their posthumous manipulators. Whether it be a valued hunting trophy or the body of a notable lying in state, what we are dealing with here is the grammar of propaganda and we should see it for what it is.
Lenin for instance appears as if he is rather beatifically following the whispers of his visitors from just under the lightest of naps, a fatherly figure enjoying a well-earned rest after finally putting things right with the world. Our tortoise George is displayed with an eagerly outstretched neck and custom-made eyes, beady and enthusiastic, as if he were about to embark on some pleasant chelonian journey, to a parallel universe perhaps where females of his kind still exist and the unpleasant finality of his extinction no longer needs to be contemplated. Though I won’t get into specifics of Lenin’s multifarious legacy, I’m not going out on a limb to say he’d have more than a little to account for if he ever woke up from that satin lined coffin of his. As for George, his carefully posed death puppet of a body has been spun by the AMNH and the Galapagos Conservancy, not as a symbol of our abject failure to preserve threatened fauna (which by some estimates we are losing at a rate of 140,000 species per year) but as an icon of high-minded wild life conservationism.
While I am all for a ‘glass half full’ outlook (and there have been some encouraging recent gains regarding Galapagos tortoise breeding), the AMNH’s attempt to transform poor dead George into a crowd-pleasing, feel good, story is one symptom of the museum’s larger initiative to revise their kill em’ and stuff em’ legacy into something more palatable to the contemporary metropolitan audience. It is of course laudable that the museum is now a ‘force for the good’ and active in world-wide efforts at conservation; a leader in the research of global biodiversity, but by papering over its extensive and enthusiastic record of ’collecting,’ that is to say, killing of scores of rare animals to create its famous, crowd-pleasing displays, we are deprived of an opportunity to learn from the institution’s history and to celebrate how far attitudes have generally come.
Let us look at the history of one of the AMNH’s iconic assets, the Akeley Hall of African Animals, a veritable temple of dioramas, each representing a major ecosystems of the continent. The centrepiece is an entire herd of elephants, massacred specifically for the display and arranged on a plinth what is described as an ‘alarm formation.’ Among them are a mother and calf shot by none other than Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit, who were actually over in Africa shooting elephants for AMNH’s rival, the Smithsonian but they generously bagged a couple of extra for their friends in New York, who after all needed a lot of them for their imposing composition and anyway, one gets the impression they were kind of on a roll. Even by the standards of the early 20th century, there would have been little scientific justification for this carnage and the herd of elephants frozen in mid outrage had a lot more to do with creating a spectacle than advancing any frontiers of zoological knowledge. These days we might more rightly regard this abomination as a reminder of the cruelty, barbarism and entitlement of the self-styled Great White Hunters of times gone by, a regrettable monument to what happens when colonialist privilege meets excess testosterone. And yet the AMNH makes no obvious effort to explicate or contextualize any of this. Their messaging to museum-going children is still that: ‘dead elephants are cool!’
The bulk of the hall is taken up by the dioramas proper, exquisitely painted tromp-l’oeil backdrops of arid, acacia studded plains and seething, hyper-vegetated rain forests in front of which naturalistic groupings of dead animals have been placed – rhinos wallowing in mud, apes clinging to jungly vines with adorable infants suckling at their breasts, antelopes of all shapes and sizes, big cats, giraffes, and just about any other creature one might expect to be found prowling, galloping or climbing through the idealized environs of a primeval Africa.
What the museum consciously underplays here is that these beguiling displays celebrate not only Africa’s once manifold biodiversity, but an entirely different aesthetic–a competitive materialism on the part of First World collectors, who in their fetishization of the exotic, spent considerable sums tracking down and killing some of the rarest, most elusive creatures on the planet to bring back as publicly exhibited trophies (let’s call them what they are) and to not so subtly underscore the power relationship between American empire and what was even then an increasingly subjugated global ’wild,’ a disappearing frontier of primeval ecosystems in the midst of colonialist exploitation. The dioramas, with their illusion of intimacy exist within the dissonance of us thinking that somewhere out there is still the possibility of an Eden while at the same time knowing that what is in front of us is an arrangement of dead skins propped up on armatures of wood wool and mothballs.
The not so subtle message of the AMNH’s dioramas is:
’ Nothing is beyond the reach of our guns,’
‘To the victor – the spoils!’
By the time the museum’s Hall of Asian Animals was being set up by Colonel John Faunthorpe and Arthur Vernay, a wealthy, British-born, New York antiques dealer, some animals such as the Sumatran rhinoceros and Asiatic lion were already going extinct in their native habitats and much was made of the lengths Vernay had to go through, the many appeals and entreaties he had to make to get the hunting permits needed to kill still more of them for his displays.
Was it all for a good cause, this science-minded collecting of critically endangered animals such as the mother Sumatran rhinoceros, shot along with her little calf for the edification of Gotham’s discerning, museum-going public? From a present day perspective, their dark little diorama seems particularly sad, a testament to a completionist obsession, the acquisition of rhinoceroses as if they were hockey cards or Royal Doulton figurines, regardless of the precariousness of the animals’ status in the wild; in fact spurred on by their tantalizing scarcity.
There is no doubt that in the past the demand from museums seeking rarities hastened the extinction of more than a few species and it would be helpful for our understanding of changing attitudes if the AMNH would take it upon themselves to highlight this dark side of their collection building. To be fair, this acquisitiveness was the norm for most natural history museums of the 19th and early 20th centuries, in both the public and private spheres. They weren’t always the bastions of wildlife conservation they now promote themselves as. While valuable taxonomic understanding can indeed be gleaned from specimens killed in the field, the slaughter of whole herds of elephants and entire rookeries of seabirds – even the nestlings peeled from their delicate skins to be stuffed and varnished– could never have been justified as ‘science’ even by the standards of the day. These are circus sideshows we should rightly view them as archaic, even vulgar. Though the Halls of African and Asian animals can perhaps be reconsidered as historic monuments to the quaint but also cruel attitudes of a bygone age, the museum’s media hoopla around their taxidermification of poor, dead George, seems anachronistic to say the least. We learn very little from a dead Galapagos tortoise, no matter how cleverly he is mounted. George now exists as an art-directed ‘thing,’ optimized to look the way we expect him to and no longer a ‘being,’ with his own agency and life world. We screwed up and he went extinct. No amount of paint and fibreglass will change that tragic fact.
The Sea and the Desert is a chapter in Henry David Thoreau’s chronicle of his extensive ‘sojourning’ around Cape Cod in the 1860’s.
We might think of rising sea levels and creeping desertification as uniquely contemporary symptoms of anthropogenic climate change but Thoreau noticed them way back in his day, recording with his characteristic eye for detail, a great many meteorological, ecological and human phenomena that together create the shifting territory of the thing we call ‘the Cape.’
This desert extends from the extremity of the Cape, through Provincetown into Truro, and many a time as we were traversing it we were reminded of “Riley’s Narrative” of his captivity in the sands of Arabia, notwithstanding the cold. …. In one place we saw numerous dead tops of trees projecting through the otherwise uninterrupted desert, where, as we afterward learned, thirty or forty years before a flourishing forest had stood, and now, as the trees were laid bare from year to year, the inhabitants cut off their tops for fuel.
Though Cape Cod has been in a state of constant flux ever since it was first bulldozed into place by the glaciers of the last ice age, there is a certain poignancy to its more recent, post-colonial history, as one of the first landfalls of European incursion into North America. The successive human waves that broke upon its shores left their own layers of deposition–the accumulated strata of hopes, ambitions and failures are embedded all over the landscape, if one knows where to look.
Thoreau encapsulated the protean quality of the Cape so beautifully:
The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime.
It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up,—a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them. The carcasses of men and beasts together lie stately up upon its shelf, rotting and bleaching in the sun and waves, and each tide turns them in their beds, and tucks fresh sand under them. There is naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.
There is still a seething, hissing quality about the place; a sort of fragility too, as if all the quaint human infrastructure, the architectural bric-a-brac of National Seashore information kiosks, the tourist shops and thriving gay bars of Provincetown, the upscale beach houses and black-topped roads could all be washed away with the slightest turning in the weather.
Given my interest in disturbance ecologies, I was thrilled to be offered an artist’s residency at one of the Cape’s oldest houses, at a place called Phats Valley near the town of Truro. I was joined there by my friends and collaborators, Liz Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse of the New School, whose artistic practice focuses primarily on matters geologic and the study of deep time, and who both have had a long term aesthetic engagement with the landscape and culture of the Cape.
We set ourselves a mission of a contemplative nature: to endeavour to capture something of the essence of our locality in its current, Anthropocenic, moment; to attune ourselves to its ephemerality by simply walking, pausing and observing. Our inspiration was the 17th century Japanese poet Bāsho, who set set out on a five-month journey, documented in his poetic chronicle: Narrow Road to the Interior. While traveling, Bashō drew upon and modified the traditionally collaborative haiku practice known as renga, which incorporates sensations of place, events and allusions to literature, history and myth. Renga, in its most basic form, is written by multiple authors who link their verses, building upon each other’s words under the inspiration of the environmental and social contexts of the moment (the trees in bloom, the stage of the moon, and who else is present at the renga party.) At its best renga embodies the impermanence, the ‘this-ness,’ of an instant in time.
Deleuze gave (this) ‘this-ness’ a name, calling it haecceity, from the Latin ‘to behold.’
A season a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject. They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and to be affected.
A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (with Felix Guattari)
With the inspiration of Thoreau and Bāsho to guide us, Liz, Jamie and I set out under the great blue vault of a magnificent late summer sky to begin what the theorist Jane Bennett refers to as microvisioning, in reference to the way Thoreau practiced his art of engaged observation and deep attention–not an overly probing or systematic scrutiny–but rather more of a perceptual wandering; a seeing without preoccupied looking.
Go not to the object; let it come to you…
(Thoreau’s Journal 4:351)
From our base at the verge of time and space on the margin of Phats Valley’s picturesque salt marsh, we sojourned to various nearby localities, making a daily practice of easing into our immersive awareness, starting our sessions with conversation and tea before we delved into contemplative observation and ultimately, the generation of the renga stanzas. These take the format of (5,7,5,7,7) syllables. .
(5, 7, 5,7,7)
My gaze it returns
To dying rays of sunshine
A vulture circling
In an otherwise empty
Blue anthropocenic sky
Liz and Jamie’s long-standing relationship with the Cape complimented my situation of never having been there before, and writing together gave us the chance to meld our sensibilities and subjectivities, our responses to the environment and the material conditions we encountered; both in the perfect individuality of the moment and in the larger geologic and historic frameworks where these moments seem to float. I had just been at the massive (600,000 person strong) People’s Climate March in New York City–a watershed moment in the public acknowledgement that something ought to be done–but what did it all mean? Through renga, I hoped I might get a little closer to some kind of understanding
Our daily practice evolved as a kind of meta-narrative, a record of our pausings, when we made the time to observe and acknowledge the this-ness of a given moment within the multiplicity, or white hiss, of all the other moments, extending through space and time.
We ended our residency with a public renga writing party and shared a lovely afternoon with a group of intrepid poets, who composed the renga with us on large rolls of paper, tacked to the outside walls of the historic Phats Valley headquarters. The whole event is nicely documented here on Liz and Jamie’s blog. Thanks in particular should be given to the residency coordinators Ann Chen and Davey Field of the Nomadic Department of the Interior, who made our residency possible. The house, dating back to the American Revolution, has been in Davey’s family since the early 1960’s and staying there was truly a delight, though when I first walked in, about to spend the night in it alone, I could sense there was some kind of ghost or other (palpable though not visible) presence sharing my abode. As is my custom, I introduced myself to the empty yet somehow electrically charged air of one of the attic bedrooms, and from that point on a cosseting calmness descended and I was able to sleep most soundly. Ghosts very much need to be acknowledged I think, and might appreciate a certain degree of politeness. After all, who knows what it might be like for them having to put up with us clattering around like boors in the overlapping domains of our reality?
Be it the accumulated spirits of the deceased inhabitants or the drifts of plastic waste piling up on its beaches, Cape Cod is all about layers. It is a shifting palimpsest that appears to will itself into being; reconstituting itself out of the products of its own decomposition and perpetually reemerging as the new Cape, out of the shifting, drifting sediments of the old. With its vitality, agency and interconnectivity to the deep, swirling cycles of geology and weather, Cape Cod is truly a hyperobject.
In order to engage such an ephemeral subject at a given instant, we thought it helpful to embrace Thoreau’s concept of ‘incomplete learning,’ an experience akin to what one feels when starting a foreign language, when the sounds and meanings are not yet clear and still largely perceived as an undifferentiated continuum–with the inherent capacity to startle, yet without being subsumed into the banality of explicated meaning.
‘Not until we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves’
(Thoreau, Walden 171)
Jane Bennett makes reference to this non-judgemental, rather Zen-like practice of observation, in her 2002 ‘Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics in the Wild,’ where she builds a convincing case for his surprisingly post-modernist tendencies.
The Phats Valley house and its immediate environs exist as a kind of microcosm for the cycles of ebb and flow, erosion and sedimentation that so define the ‘Cape-ness’ of the Cape. The salt marsh is bisected by an artificial ithmus– the abandoned causeway of the Cape Cod railway, now the domain of sombre pitch pines and scraggly sumachs. In its rubble, I found anthropocenic mineraloids– fragments of slag, coke and brick constituting the geologic stratum of a once thriving Steam Age civilization that existed here during the 19th century. The quaint house, archetypical Americana, with its prim clapboard and gnarled, rustling trees, now seems a world away from the spectre of machinery. The long driveway floods during the higher tides, adding to the sense of splendid isolation.
Yet the view from the front door, which now looks out over an olive-coloured expanse of soughing cord grass and wheeling marsh birds, was once very different; the railway passed by just a few feet away, and I can imagine the chugging, clanging locomotives vibrating the windows of the parlour, backlighting the curtains with a roiling orange glow as they pulled their squealing train cars on into the magnetism of their destination.
That is all long gone now of course–another layer obscured by more recent sediment, continually accreting. The topmost strata is unmistakable in that it contains massive inclusions of discarded plastic, the most ubiquitous material of our age. In the relatively short time of its existence, plastic has spread throughout the biosphere, substantial parts of which, particularly in marine environments, can now legitimately be called the plastisphere, as organisms have already adapted to the problematic material by colonizing it and breaking it down into an even greater multiplicity of substances potentially harmful to man. Indeed, Plastics “R” Us!, as water-soluble plastic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and flame retardants already circulate in all of our bloodstreams.
At Phats, the plastisphere is most visible in the zone of flotsam deposited at the high tide line. Plastic dominates this territory in a surprising variety of material expressions, creating an overall aesthetic experience that borders on the beautiful or the repulsive, depending on what frame of mind one is in. I include some photos of these happenstance assemblages at the start of this post.
Poking around those drifts of discarded polypropylene, polyethylene, styrene, vinyl, polycarbonate and nylon, I wondered what will form the stratum of the next geologic age? Will it be the ashes of human extinction that mark the dawn of the post-human, the way the K-T boundary delineates the quick and brutal end of the dinosaurs? Or will we be someday heralding the age of the neo-human, having somehow morphed into a species with greater sensitivity to the material realities of the planet on which we evolved.
Whatever will come next?
North Troy NY brownfield savanna
safari into the Williamette Cove brownfields
Those of who call ourselves ‘environmentalists’ have a tendency to imagine a prelapsarian wilderness that once was pristine and then became progressively defiled and diminished through the carelessness of humankind. But the earth had been through many environmental catastrophes long before we came along– though this doesn’t exactly excuse us from our manifold sins. The infamous Chixculub asteroid impact suddenly ended the long reign of the dinosaurs and the more insidious yet equally catastrophic evolution of photosynthesis deep within the cells of certain cyanobacteria contaminated the earth’s early biosphere with oxygen– a fatal poison to the majority of organisms present at the time, resulting in what is now known as the oxygen catastrophe, a mass die-off of the earth’s biodiversity and a climate change event that froze the planet in the longest snowball earth episode in geologic history.
What is unique in the present (Anthropocenic) moment is that we know we are causing a massive and likely suicidal ecological crisis and yet choose not to do anything about it. Here we are at the tail end of 2014 with atmospheric CO2 levels higher than they’ve been for 800,000 years and the 6th mass extinction accelerating to the point where the earth has lost half of its wildlife species in the past 40 years. Political leaders, particularly those of oil rich countries like my native Canada either willfully ignore the scientific consensus or in the most egregious cases, (again Canada), actively censor the findings of scientists and even weather forecasters. Because a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Or is it?
In a recent video, Žižek makes the perhaps startling case that there is considerable poetry in our present situation, that is to say, our disavowal, our state of knowing that something is true and yet acting as if it wasn’t. He argues that to “truly love the world, we must love its imperfections,” including, presumably, the ones for which we are directly responsible. “In trash,” he declares “is the true love of the world,” a sentiment similarly observed by a Zen priest in the masterful little documentary, Tokyo Waka, which explores the world of Tokyo’s ubiquitous and trash loving crows. To be more precise the priest observes: “In trash is the residue of desire,” a sentiment perhaps less direct but still elevating garbage to a kind of reified affection.
To follow that logic, when an entire landscape becomes trashed, it should be particularly worthy of our love and it was in this spirit that I embarked upon my summer explorations…
But first some background: The Superfund was originally set up in the America in 1980 to identify and facilitate the cleaning up of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. In theory this might have created sufficient funding and legislative willpower to deal with this dangerous and unhealthy problem but between partisan politics and bureaucratic ineptitude, implementation fell far short of what was needed.
Though most people would want steer clear of toxic wastelands, I wanted to see if there were any adaptive ecological processes operating there that might be transforming these zones of exclusion into useable habitats. I had the strong sense that conventional ecologists and environmentalists might be missing something very important, that nature was capable of doing an end run around our destruction, if only we would get out of the way. My summer safari took me to sites on both sides of the continent–Troy, NY and Portland, Oregon–and what I observed there gave me some hope and insight into nature’s surprising ability to colonize the messes we have left behind.
I was invited to Troy by my pal Kathy High for a collaborative investigation into the area’s extensive brownfields. Once known as the ‘collar city’ for its shirt, collar and textile production, Troy is considered the birthplace (and graveyard?) of the American industrial revolution. A fortuitous confluence of rivers made it possible for early factories to harness abundant mechanical (and eventually hydroelectric) power as well as to cheaply transport products and raw materials. Like so much of America’s industrial heartland, the area has suffered from economic decline and many of its once thrumming factories lie in ruin in within highly contaminated terrain.
Some of the worst sites are situated along the banks of the picturesque Hudson River, which transitions here from tidal to freshwater, the end of a long estuary. Downstream, all of the Hudson is classed as a Superfund site because of extensive contamination by PCBs, a potent carcinogen, dumped for decades by the General Electric Corporation as a byproduct of manufacturing transformers and other electrical components. PCB’s are a persistent organic pollutant (POP) that bioaccumulate in the river’s fish, making many species unsafe to eat–including the reputedly delicious striped bass that spawns nearby at the junction of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers.
chimney swifts over North Troy
Despite being a very degraded ecosystem Troy’s former industrial landsa are full of surprises. As part of a summer youth program, I led a ‘bio blitz’ of a community garden that had been established on a brownfield site near the Sanctuary for Independent Media. It wasn’t long before we found a magnificent stag beetle hiding in the rotting stump of an (invasive! exotic!) Ailanthus tree. High overhead, chimney swifts traced their invisible arabesques into the topaz air of the summer evening. This species, has long adapted to human presence and as indicated by its common name, makes its nests in disused chimneys. The chimney swift is a close relative of the Vaux’s swift, which puts up a spectacular display every evening as great clouds of the birds funnel into in a large chimney at the Chapman School in Portland, Oregon.
A local Troy resident told me she had recently found red-backed salamanders under debris in her backyard yard, situated quite near some of city’s most contaminated industrial sites, with nothing that might be deemed ‘intact’ woodland anywhere in the vicinity. With the sharp decline of amphibians worldwide, even in protected national parks, it might seem surprising to find them surviving in such anthropogenically disturbed habitats but this is consistent with findings in the UK where rare newts and other amphibians as well as lizards, slow-worms and grass snakes make their last stands in these unprepossessing environs, among the trash, eroding pavements and ruined buildings. In fact brownfields turn out to be far more suitable habitat for these delicate little creatures than is the intensively managed agricultural landscape that has obliterated large tracts of Europes’s biologically diverse ‘Kulturlandschaft’.
stag beetle in Ailanthus stump
At a Superfund site at the foot of Troy’s Ingalls Ave, I watched turkey vultures soar over an edenic looking mosaic of meadowy expanses that have cloaked the heavily contaminated soil. These neo-savannahs are punctuated by lush groves–a botanical mosh pit of weedy natives like box elder, black locust and cottonwood mixed in with exotic Ailanthus and Paulownia. All of this is gloriously unmanaged, left to its own rampancy, and though the species constituting this habitat are largely considered ‘invasive,’ they embody a new kind of ecological becoming, their novel juxtapositionings and processes of succession–a ‘Nature 2.0′ in the making.
If we put aside our purist bias, we might celebrate brownfields as territories of regeneration and marvel at how they adapt to the disturbances and wastes we leave in our wake. One might even regard them as ‘wilderness’ of a certain kind as they are one of the few ecological realms we have let slip from our control–leaving them free to reconfigure themselves and follow independent trajectories of neo-evolution.
Troy NY’s future brownfield rangers
The collapse of industry though, leaves more than just picturesque ruins and novel habitat in its wake. For human communities,‘Detroitization’ means decaying infrastructure, diminished economic opportunity and the adverse health effects of pervasive chemical contamination. If sufficiently de-toxified, these lands can be rehabilitated as perfectly reasonable urban nature parks (see my previous posting on Berlin’s Templehof airport) but the challenge is to do so without diminishing their often surprising biodiversity.
Troy might be an ideal location for a Brownfields National Park, where local youth could work as ‘brownfield rangers,’ leading tours of the area’s ecological and historical heritage as well as doing field studies and cataloging the species to be found there. Though this necessitates a change of perspective in what we North Americans typically think of as a ‘natural’ park experience, it is high time we open our minds to such opportunities. Brownfields are the future. Brownfields are us!
Over on the other side of the continent, I met up with artist Marina Zurkow in Portland, Oregon. Together, we led artistic incursions into a Superfund site on the edge of the Williamette River. We explored first by water, using a flotilla of kayaks peopled by an intrepid collection of individuals who responded to our call for participation in what (to the less adventurous) might have seemed an arcane enterprise. We conceived our expedition as a kind of group imagination exercise and christened it -“IF YOU SEE IT–BE IT!” in the spirit of the biosemiotician Jacob Von Uexküll, who did such groundbreaking research on the spatio-temporal worlds of animals, which he termed the ‘Umwelt.’ Aboard our tiny craft, we collectively tried to imagine/channel what it might have been like to navigate the contaminated and disturbed riparian environment from an animal’s point of view (water striders, otters, sturgeons, etc.) – inhabiting (in our mind’s eye) their biosemiotic state, ‘becoming’ them, as it were, in a collective thought exercise.
Marina’s long term plan is to construct a raft-like roving laboratory she calls the Floating Studio for Dark Ecology, on which artists and researchers ply the river, exploring its narratives of contamination and recovery as well as disseminating practices of contemplation and engagement between its human and non-human communities.
Our early evening voyage proved suitably anthropocenic: a bald eagle gliding through the shimmering cottonwoods of Ross Island–a section of river whose bed is being continually scoured by heavy gravel mining machinery–the blue tarp and scrap lumber bricolage of homeless encampments festooning the banks of the Williamette–the third world within the first world, the metabolic waste of neoliberal capitalism as it eats its way through our material reality.
Neo-ecologies of Williamette Cove
Once again there were fascinating and new ecological assemblage in these zones of dereliction and abandonment. Washed up on the industrial shore of a former shipyard–exquisite hydrozoans of a type I have never seen before:
The brownfields of the former factory site at Williamette Cove, though dangerously contaminated with heavy metals, wood preservatives and organic pollutants, proved not so ‘brown’ after all and were resplendent with novel botanical groupings–neo-succession! Native species like Arbutus menziesii (Madrone) formed habitat groupings with such hardy exotics as Paulownia tomentosa (princess or empress Tree) and Crataegus monogyna (European hawthorn). It is thought the empress trees made their original landfall in North America via their fluffy seeds, once used as a packing material for porcelain and other fragile goods originating in China and Japan. A gust of wind and an open crate at the dockside and their botanical colonization of the continent would have been begun.
In addition to brownfield neo-ecologies there is a parallel and equally fascinating neo-geology emerging from the material detritus of our age. Mineralogically, these are mostly composites and conglomerates or pyrolized residues of industrial processes such as coke and slag, as well as ceramics that have been fired into the form of brick, tile and pipe, much of it broken up into rubble. This so-called ‘urbanite’ is dominated by concrete and ferro-cement in various states of decay and petrochemically based asphalt and asphalt concrete, widely used in paving.
Sometimes though, a geologic object occurs that is of more obscure though still clearly anthropogenic provenance. At Williamette Cove, we came upon an exquisite specimen–a fossil of sorts–consisting of a fused mass of ribbed metal fragments, the armouring of industrial electrical cable, set within a matrix of a more indeterminate material, which might have been partially incinerated plastic. Perhaps this mystery mineral was formed when some itinerant metal collector tried to salvage copper wire by throwing scrounged cable into a campfire to melt off its rubber insulation and loosen the metal cladding. I may never discover this exquisite object’s true origin and it might well become the topic of frenzied conjecture to some future archeologist, wondering what our experience was like as we drifted deeper into the fraught and turbulent horizon of our anthropocenic future.
zone of alienation
zone of regeneration
In Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, a mysterious guide leads a couple of characters known only as ‘the writer’ and the ‘professor’ into a post industrial ‘zone of alienation’ where it is promised one’s innermost wishes can be granted and where the rules of physics no longer apply. The ‘Zone’ is completely abject, a place of weeds, broken machinery and the ruins of factories and yet it is hauntingly beautiful in a way that is triggered (perhaps) by our deep yet unconscious familiarity with such landscapes –the places Walter Benjamin called the optical subconscious, the quotidian zones in which we are so fully at home we don’t even realize we live there.
These aren’t the iconic, aspirational landscapes of snow-capped mountains, palm fringed coral beaches and glittering urban skylines –the stuff of screen savers and photo murals in tacky restaurants, but rather the prosaic localities we continuously experience, perceiving them peripherally, from the corners of our eyes yet rarely explicitly acknowledging. The French term ‘terrain vague’ comes closest to the way these places feel and they might take the form of a trash-strewn railway embankment or an abandoned car park with rank vegetation coming up through the broken pavement or perhaps one of those forlorn, zones of contamination we refer to as brownfields, which have become the global hallmark of industrial decline.
I think back on my Amtrak journeys through the rust belt of America, marvelling at the Piranesian grandeur of once opulent railway stations left to crumble at the trackside, the ruined vaults now sheltering only birds which dart in and out of the shattered arrays of windows. The train keeps chugging lethargically (it is Amtrak after all, itself a symbol of decline in American technological ambition) through dour, neglected expanses, prosaic, ugly, endless –you can’t really call it ‘countryside’ exactly– but for the occasional scruffy woodlot and oily wetland which passes between the wrecking yards, quonset huts and derelict factories. This is (as Deleuze might call it) a ‘striated’ landscape that interleaves the decaying residue of a once prosperous age of material production with a resurgent, weedy nature –an ecology of discard, a ‘zone of alienation’ where anything might appear– a muddy field strewn with bone white shards of dishes and upturned toilet bowls, the twisted wreckage of a carnival rides left over from, what? A tornado? Perhaps, even–though I did not experience it–the fulfillment of one’s deepest wishes…
But is this not the state of the world as we all now know it? It’s the Anthropocene, baby, and collectively we’ve chewed up every inch of biosphere; extirpating, contaminating and cultivating ourselves into this, the global ‘Nature 2.0’ reality, where even the unfolding of weather and the chemistry of the oceans have become extensions, artifacts of human existence. So past the point of no return are we that we might as well discard nostalgic notions of ‘wilderness’ and adopt a new, Anthropocenic grammar, already envisioned by the likes of Žižek and Morton, which more aptly describes the hybridized, pervasively humanized environment in which we now live.
Our planet has essentially become one, big ruderal ecology (from the Latin ‘rudus’ meaning rubble), characterized by the large-scale extinction of species–passenger pigeons, big cats, rhinos–as well as entire ecosystems–Madagascar, the Arctic, coral reefs. And yet there is a curious, parallel process of adaptive evolution occurring in the disturbance ecologies and debris fields (called anthromes) we leave in our wake.
At Chernobyl (one of the greatest ecological and social messes we have ever been responsible for, a byword for lethal, irreparable contamination and epic technological failure) some bird species–and by no means all of them, as many kinds there have significantly declined–but certain bird species seem to be surviving by evolving a tendency to produce more cancer-fighting antioxidants which help resist the effects of the pervasive radiation. Scientists are calling this “unnatural selection” and it is already driving evolutionary change.
In much of eastern North America, the wolf was largely wiped out during European colonization but it has recently come back not as a wolf exactly, but a kind of hyperorganism–a three way hybrid between wolf, dog and coyote that pushes the boundaries of what it even means to be a species. With the precipitous decline of the ancestral wolf, an ‘eye of the needle’ effect ensued in which wolf genetics became more ‘soluble,’ more open to other singularities and contagions, a necessary precondition for the evolution of a new, protean canid, able to prosper in the niche now available for some canny predator able to exploit the pervasively humanized and ecologically degraded environment of second growth forest and exurban sprawl–the kind of places that are an anathema to the so-called ‘pure’ wolves of the primeval wilderness but which offer abundant prey resources of lawn-fed deer and genetically moronic pets. Enter the ‘Coywolf’ or Eastern coyote. They might be a product of ‘unnatural’ selection, but they sure are hungry!
Such novel recombining is occurring at a multi-species level too, with entirely new hyperecologies evolving as weedy, native species commingle with invasive exotics, all of them jostling and repositioning themselves into configurations that never would have existed ‘naturally’ but which now comprises recognizable and widespread landscapes of brownfield savannah and emergent, wasteland forest that are found throughout the world in pretty much any place we have exploited and then turned our back on. Many of these organisms are the hardy cosmopolitan nomads we are all used to seeing, such as tree of heaven (also known as the ’garbage palm’), black locust, pigeons and rats, but perhaps surprisingly these unprepossessing assemblages can support a diverse array of other species, some exceedingly rare, which hail from habitats like gravelly steam banks and dry heaths now largely obliterated from a hinterland dominated by chemical intensive farming and vast, ecologically sterile acreages of housing developments and big box stores.
In the UK, where humanized landscapes are particularly well studied, it is estimated that up to 15% of the nationally rare insects and spiders are dependent on brownfields for their survival as do several species of reptiles, orchids and other rare plants.
I was delighted last March to visit the grounds of the now disused Templehof Airport in Berlin, which as a result of citizen pressure has been set aside as a kind of publicly accessible ruderal ecology park. Here one is greeted by the incongruous site of windsurfers careening along miles of abandoned runways while skylarks hover high over vast swathes of tawny grassland, singing and establishing territory in their annual rite of spring.
Along with a surprising diversity of meadow dependent birds – wheatears, shrikes, whinchats and so on, 236 bee and wasp species have been recorded on the grounds, more than 40 of them endangered or near extinction, particularly those dependent on the open, sandy microhabitats that have all but vanished in the over-managed environs of the countryside.
gestapo prison excavations
This wonderful interleaving, this striation, this ‘to-ing and fro-ing’, between architectural ruin and ecological renewal is to my mind a tremendously optimistic model for the future of parks in general and for our appreciation of landscape as a whole and it is in promoting this aesthetic that Berlin is very much at the fore. The Templehof park doesn’t try to paper over its problematic Nazi past but lets us grapple with it by preserving the forbidding Fascist architecture and letting us watch archeological excavations of Gestapo prisons and slave labour camps taking place on on its grounds.
At the same time we are offered profound hope by witnessing innate processes of ecological and cultural regeneration get encouraged, not in an over-planned or commercialized way, but from the ground up, in a way that is distinct from the banal, generic late capitalist aesthetic that so frequently defines urban renewal initiatives elsewhere. By being leaving it alone, Templehof is able to renew itself.
Though the global ecological crisis is deep and inestimably tragic, we can perhaps allow ourselves to cautious celebrate the evolution of a new kind of nature, a ruderal nature, where kestrels soar across the heat haze of abandoned runways that are slowly becoming encrusted with lichens and grasses and where rare wild flowers can find a toehold among the rubble of some of history’s worst crimes against humanity. The sky is filled with the coloured sails of paragliders and a bumblebee is making its first foray into the vast warm vault of another spring.
sailing the runways
skylarks nest here
where it all went down…
The great blue bowl of the California sky has doubtlessly presided over some strange affairs, but perhaps none is stranger than the serial cycle of entrapment and petrification that started around 38,000 years ago in a collection of deceptively limpid ponds in what is now a quiet park in downtown Los Angeles. After it rains here, the play of sunlight and clouds is mirrored on their lambent surfaces, beneath which lies a menacing secret: for what first might appear to be a refreshing pool in an arid terrain is only a thin film of water obscuring an abyss of sticky bitumen, which has been oozing steadily from petroleum-bearing rock formations deep beneath the earth.
These are the notorious La Brea Tar Pits and since the days of the Pleistocene their peculiar configuration has served as both death trap and mausoleum for thousands of creatures–great and small, thirsty and merely curious–who venture into them and get stuck in their viscous pitch. Like a giant version of the ‘cockroach motel,’ once they ‘check in’ they never ‘check out’ and indeed the thrashing and bellowing of trapped victims attracts predators, whose natural wariness proves no match for the promise of an easy meal, ensuring they too are quickly doomed after jumping in for the kill. And so for thousands of years, whole conglomerations, entire food chains of animals have met their ends here: predators and prey sinking down alongside each other, each creature naïvely repeating the fatal mistakes of its predecessor: sabre-toothed cats and Dire wolves, with fangs and claws sunk into the contorted bodies of mastodons and camels, all of them frozen in elemental struggle as if in some Classical frieze. Not even the carrion eaters escaped the gruesome fate. Outsized vultures, giant condors and hideous, meat-eating storks, wheeling and squabbling for landing rights on the bloated corpses and almost corpses, snagged themselves when a carelessly extended talon or trailing pinion made contact with the merciless tar, that pulled them in, flapping and screeching , never to fly again. As well as being deadly, the tar has miraculous powers of preservation. The seething, interconnected beds of bone that have accumulated there have kept scientists busy ever since they first started excavating back in the early 1900s. Many of the rich paleontological finds are on display at the adjacent George C. Page Museum.
When I was a boy in Toronto back in the early 1960s, a small piece of the La Brea Tar Pits was on display in a dusty diorama at the city’s Royal Ontario Museum. This was a few years before the ROM adopted the loathsome trend for ’interactivity’, which consigned much of the museum’s extensive palaeontology collection to back rooms, out of public view, and what we got instead was an ersatz mishmash of mood lighting, audio tape loops and fibreglass models of dinosaurs standing aura-less amid plastic palm trees. Anyway before all that stupidity, I remember how transfixed I was ‘just looking’ at the thing itself, without being told how to think about what was in front of me – the tea coloured skeleton of a sabre-toothed cat, its outsized canines filigreed with tiny age cracks, poised to stab the neck of a hapless ungulate (a proto-camel? an extinct horse?) which had already begun to sink. It was the futility of it I remember the most, that both animals died together in the same inescapable way, the first doomed by thirst (or bovine idiocy), the second by carnivorous savagery. And I knew this scenario was to play itself out again and again because it was elementally and inherently unavoidable. Presiding over the sad scene was a tromp-l’oeil painted backdrop of a clot of vultures, hanging like wind-ripped umbrellas in the branches of a skeletal tree, and in broad brush strokes, a distant herd of mammoths melting into the horizon.
When I finally, this spring, got to tour the La Brea tar pits firsthand, I couldn’t help but see them as a kind of trope for contemporary times.
LA is a strange enough place to begin with–its palm-studded freeways and rivers of twinkling windshields pouring into the heat haze of the hyper- illuminated horizon–a place at once banal and startling, the High Baroque of American drive-thru suburbia amid scintillating beaches flooded in a golden, Canaletto-esque light. There are people there, of a certain age, whose faces have been so surgically altered it is as if they’ve been sucked through a magic wind tunnel. The mismatch between their wrinkle-less heads and the sun-withered bodies is chimerical, as if bands of Surrealist ‘exquisite corpses’ had gone AWOL, pulling themselves off the canvases and walking around. Los Angeles is the very essence of the American Anthropocene and yet prehistory bubbles and belches everywhere just beneath the surface. The city sits astride a massive oil field, where serried ranks of mini malls and tract homes lie nestled in the napes of brown hills and rustling eucalyptus groves, the edges of which bleed into a kind of terrain vague of ponderously nodding pump jacks tirelessly sucking petroleum out of a deposit dating back to the Miocene– a geologic epoch already long gone by the time the first mammoths sank into the tar.
Wandering through the pleasant grounds of Hancock Park, the past becomes the present and one soon encounters a pair of giant, chocolate-coloured ground sloths, like outsized Easter confections, placid and dim-witted in expression, yet armed with menacing fore claws that could easily rip the face off almost any attacker. As late as 10,000 years ago, these ungainly beasts lumbered across what was a vast North American range – their remains having been found from the Yukon to Mexico. At La Brea, they were regular victims to the suffocating tar.
yours truly and the ground sloths
In a still bubbling tar pit encircled by construction fencing, a family replica of gigantic Columbian mammoths replays a pathetic tableau. An adult is hopelessly stuck in the pit, its mouth agape in panic, its trunk frozen between the great curved brackets of its tusks, frantically gesturing to its mate and calf who stand helplessly on shore. The theme of serial entrapment and the futility of instinct gets amplified as soon as one enters the museum, which is packed with reconstructed skeletons and glass cases full of phylogenetically arranged remains, memorializing the legions of hapless creatures who died there over thousands of years, who just couldn’t stop themselves from making the same fatal mistakes over and over, in a senseless and recurring cruelty against which no benevolent god or Walt Disney narrator would intervene to warn ‘Stay out of those pits, yo!’ If only Spielberg had been in charge…
In paleontological terms, the tar pits are what is known as an ‘evolutionary trap.’ These create a stimulus that certain species are unable to resist and the results are often fatal. A contemporary equivalent has been the sad epidemic of dying albatrosses we’ve been seeing on Pacific Islands, their body cavities packed with bits of plastic that they seem programmed to snatch up from the waves and swallow in place of their natural food. Like the victims of La Brea, they just can’t help themselves.
Back at the Tar Pits, the Dire wolf (Canis dirus) seems to have been a particularly slow learner. To date the remains of over four thousand of them have been found there with doubtless many more to come. One of the more impressive displays at the George C. Page is a long, back-lit display, like something out of a high-end shoe store, containing hundreds of Dire wolf skulls, each an embodiment of one individual’s lack of impulse control. It seems that whenever a pack of them came upon an animal in distress in the tar, they would pile right on in on top of it, dooming themselves by their own overly developed killer instincts and susceptibility to peer pressure. The fact that the Dire wolf seems to have been exceptionally competitive, didn’t help matters. Males in areas where there was high population density developed outsized fangs with which to fight each other. It’s hard not to imagine the pack dynamic being a rather savage affair, especially when they chanced upon a bleating animal, trapped in tar. For the Dire wolf, there likely wasn’t a lot of time for second guesses. Though heavier and likely much meaner than their little cousin the coyote (Canis latrans), the Dire wolf failed to survive the Pleistocene, while the coyote still thrives in LA’s hills and canyons, feeding on what it finds in trash cans and snatching up unguarded pets. Though the Tar Pits weren’t the only factor in the Dire wolf’s continent-wide extinction, the evidence of its behaviour at La Brea indicates an inherent inflexibility, which must have been a major handicap in what, at the end of the Pleistocene, was a rapidly shifting set of conditions including changes in climate and the incursion of the first Paleo-Indians into its environment, who competed aggressively with the wolf for prey.
dire wolf skulls
Though we may think our species’ ability to show foresight gives us particular resiliency–after all we started out in minuscule numbers, survived an Ice Age and proceeded to take over the world–we find ourselves now under a similar delusion to that which befell those hapless beasts at La Brea. Could it be that in the black, viscous materiality of petroleum we have finally met our match? Though we may think we have mastery over our fate, we seem blind to the possibility that it might be a substance that has control over us…
As an evolutionary trap– a nemesis–petroleum is the perfect agent. It is the very essence of death, a distillate of corpses from untold myriads of prehistoric organisms, which has quietly waited for us beneath the earth. If substances possess their own agency, as Jane Bennett surmises in her (2010) Vibrant Matter, is it so far-fetched to suggest that petroleum is luring us in, manipulating our innate behavioural vulnerabilities to ultimately absorb us into its oozing corpus? Like the sabre-toothed cat and Dire wolf before us, petroleum has exerted its ability to hypnotize, to communicate directly with our vulnerable animality, bypassing our much vaunted capacity for reason and discernment. It’s not that big a leap from the Tar Pits to the Tar Sands…
As happened to the Pleistocene creatures who got stuck in it when they put aside their caution, petroleum–ever protean– has set its exquisite trap for us in the form of a fata morgana, which gives us the illusion of eternally abundant and convenient energy with no long-term consequences. We are probably already in too deep to realize what has happened; that we are becoming petroleum, absorbed by the wily substance to become one with its subterranean deposits.
The Anthropocene might be remembered as a geologically brief period during which our species was allowed an overdraft, a blip during which we extracted a quantity of the black ooze before we had to repay our loan with the highest of interest; our lives, and those of the countless other organisms we took with us after we have made the planet uninhabitable. In so doing, we are offering up billions of putrefying corpses, untold tonnage of petrochemical garbage and entire landscapes of withered vegetation to be re-incorporated into the geologic, where unstoppable tectonic regimes will reprocess it into the mother of all oil fields.
So it is a mistake perhaps to wax too moralistic about our failure to rein in our natural impulsivity, to plan sensibly or imagine a future free from our addiction to this substance. Our connection to it might be too deep, too genetically encoded for us to resist through mere self critique.
Following the logic of the Dire wolf, our own species is competing increasingly viciously for what is (for the geologic moment anyway) a limited resource. The power elites in localities dependent primarily on petroleum production (Russia, Nigeria, Libya and others) have drawn whole societies into animality and impulsivity.
Even Canada, long a role model for liberal democracy, has slid into this petro-brutality. Under the prime ministership of oil-mad Stephen Harper, its government has declared a totalitarian war on scientists who study climate change and associated environmental contamination. The uncomfortable facts they keep bringing up highlight Canada’s abysmal record on these matters, which, aside from being an international embarrassment, threaten to push the usually complacent Canadians into a confrontation with the ecological Real (boring!, depressing!), invoking questions the Harper government is determined not to let us ask. Important and long-standing research facilities and environmental monitoring stations have already been shuttered, their scientists sacked and the scholarly material packed away or even thrown into the garbage. Those few scientists still working have been given STASI style minders, through which all communication with the public must be vetted. They even shadow the scientists at academic conferences to make sure they don’t say anything deemed ‘off message’ to the government’s single-minded agenda.
Yet given that our attraction to petroleum is demonstrably biological, can we really blame the individual oil worker, warlord or myopic Canadian bureaucrat? By doing their part to hasten mass extinction, they are in the service of the long term interest of petroleum itself. By extending its sticky tendrils through a higher dimensional space than most of us are letting ourselves imagine, petroleum assumes the characteristics of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls a ‘hyperobject,’ an entire set of relationships, interactions agencies and desires of which we are but a small and transient part.
tar sands (via National Geographic)
dwarf birches and tundra
suddenly – reindeer!
The morning broke grey and brooding outside the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and after a quick breakfast, we were on the trail, hiking up Saana Fjell, guided by Erich Berger of the Finnish Bioart Society. The idea was to familiarize ourselves with the geology, ecology and cultural history of the vicinity so we could dive into our research plans as soon as possible.
The Australian bio-hacker, Oron Catts had already been here for a week to do some scouting for his group’s ‘Journey to the Post-Anthropogenic’ project. They planned to perform a comprehensive bio-archeological survey of the crash site of a German Junkers 88 bomber that came down on Saana in 1942, which included a metagenomic analysis of the plane’s debris field and a recreation of the crash trajectory using a remote-controlled drone.
It wasn’t long before we passed the tree line where the mountain birches gave way to an expanse of open tundra sweeping out before us in a swath of russet heath and exposed rock, with quivering patches of silver cloud here and there snagged on the crenellations of the topography. As if on cue, a small herd of reindeer appeared over the crest of a nearby hill and galloped across our field of view, cocking their heads as they past us and then just as quickly melting into the gloom of the opposite horizon. It is hard to judge distances here in this cold desert. An unusual rock formation in the distance might be small and quite close by or enormous and very far away.
I felt for a moment as if I had been transported back to the Pleistocene, as the landscape I was looking at was what much of Europe and North America would have been like at the end of the last Ice Age, though (other than the reindeer) there wasn’t any of the charismatic megafauna such as the woolly mammoth and the cave lions I would have had to concern myself with back then. Semi-domesticated, reindeer have sustained the local Sami people since ancient times and they are of the few creatures (other than snails) to manufacture the enzyme lichenase, enabling them to survive on lichen during the winter months.
How this delicate ecological balance will be affected by climate change is unclear but to my mind it doesn’t look good. Lichens exist in fairly specific temperature and humidity conditions and in Kilpisjärvi many are symbiotic with the birch trees, themselves a cold-dependent species. A continued warming trend in this region is bound to mean diminishment of suitable reindeer habitat. This has already occurred in North America, where the closely related Woodland Caribou has steadily disappeared from the southern portions of its range.
Standing in the middle of this iconic subarctic landscape, it is hard to imagine rapid changes occurring. For thousands of years, the processes shaping it have been gradual and incremental – the slow scouring of glaciers advancing and retreating, the infiltration of frost with its insidious heaving and splitting, the seasonal flows of meltwater into the lakes and rivers. The cold accentuates the sense of Deep Time here. Rocks dragged by ancient ice flows sit solemnly in place as if they stopped moving only yesterday. The sparse, slow growing vegetation is no match for the overwhelmingly geologic feeling of the place. Even minor disturbances stay visible for centuries.
But add even a small degree of warming and there would be potentially huge changes. Vegetative growth would ramp up, allowing trees to flourish in areas that were once windswept barrens. It is easy to imagine the slopes of Saana darkening as the Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris), now found only intermittently in the Kilpisjärvi area but quite common further south, finds conditions more suitable to it and becomes a dominant species. True tundra and the flora and fauna that depend on it could disappear from the area entirely.
lone Scots pine
Fast-forward a little further and there could be a whole host of new species that find the once frigid environs of Kilpisjärvi newly tolerable. A good many of these are likely to be weeds, which thrive on man-made disturbance. Investigating the grounds around the research station, I soon found a small clump of English plantain (Plantago major) a cosmopolitan weed, dubbed the ‘white man’s footprint’ by North American First Nations, who noticed it growing wherever European colonizers had disturbed the original ecosystem. The humble plantain is just the beginning. I predict that larger weed species will soon be gaining a foothold at Kilpisjärvi; their seeds imported on tire treads or blown in with the wind.
I wondered how it might look here when Ailanthus altissima, a tree variously known as the ‘Ghetto Palm’ or ‘Tree of Heaven,’ moves into the Finnish subarctic. Originally from China, Ailanthus is exuberantly invasive, and has already moved into ruderal (ruin) ecologies throughout the world without any signs of stopping. This tree has the astounding ability to feed off concrete, allowing it to thrive in cracks in pavement, the roofs and facades of under-maintained buildings and pretty much any other place its myriad seeds are able to lodge themselves long enough to germinate.
As the global south becomes uninhabitable due to increasing drought, wildfire and relentless heat, it isn’t hard to imagine a newly temperate Kilpisjärvi becoming a major magnet for climate refugees, human and non-human. Higher annual temperatures, as well as attracting different flora and fauna, could make the cultivation of cereal crops a possibility and perhaps other kinds of intensive agriculture, now more characteristic of Central Europe. This could transform the wild, transhumance landscape into a ‘Kulturlandschaft,’ the subarctic wilderness giving way to ploughed fields, perhaps even orchards. There might be a property boom as the open range lands once suitable only for reindeer husbandry become hosts to cash crops and housing estates. The effect on the traditional Sami lifestyle would be incalculable.
A climate-changed Kilpisjärvi would be a kind of ‘hyperecology’– a co-mingling of adaptive, cosmopolitan weeds, perhaps a few resilient local organisms and a steady in-migration of biota from the south. Outside the national parks and reserves, post-climate change nature will have even less of a free hand. There is massive industrial development afoot for Lapland, particularly mining and its ancillary industries which threaten to blight vast tracts of the relatively pristine landscape with open pit mines, tailings ponds and processing infrastructure, which, as well as inevitably introducing all sorts of pollution will create a new terrain vague of slag heaps and factory wastelands. These ‘brownfields,’ ubiquitous in much of the industrialized world are the preferred habitats of the globally distributed ragamuffin flora: Ailanthus, Buddlea and Robinia, which find the toxic and impoverished soils to their liking.
Industrialized, intensely cultivated and densely populated, the Kilpisjärvi of the not-to-distant future might look strangely familiar to any present day resident of a more temperate latitude. Yet what has been predictable there for so long will soon become much more extreme. We may all find ourselves moving north.
But climate change isn’t likely to stop at this arbitrary point. The heat will likely continue to build, especially if mankind continues dumping carbon into the atmosphere and particularly if the much feared ‘runaway greenhouse’ effect kicks in. What then for Kilpisjärvi? The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum that happened some 55 million years ago gives us a clue. In those days, the weather north of the Arctic circle was sultry and humid the year round. In addition to the Sciadopitys trees I described in my previous posting, vast swamp forests of Metasequoia and Taxodium spread out across the far north of Eurasia and North America, with turtles and crocodiles plying through the black water and mire. It would have resembled the bayou country of Louisiana or subtropical China, with snow and ice pretty much non-existent, a far cry from the frigid Kilpisjärvi of today, which can be icebound 200 days a year.
Northern regions are well on track for a repeat of these subtropical conditions according to the most agreed upon climate change models, which predict an up to 4 degree Celsius rise globally by the end of the century, with a strong likelihood that changes in high latitudes will be more extreme. Though the biota will surely be more impoverished than it was in the Eocene, not having had anywhere near as much time to evolve, an anthropogenically tropical Lapland would be a mind-boggling yet disturbingly real possibility.
Though our species’ effect on climate can (and will) precipitate far-reaching changes in areas like Kilpisjärvi, there are many planetary processes playing out over which we have no control. The evolution of biota over Deep Time is as much happenstance as forward movement, with periods of great flourishing such as the infamous ‘Cambrian Explosion’ interspersed with ‘reversal’ or mass extinction, either organically or extraterrestrially engendered, which often obliterate whole classes of once dominant organisms and provide opportunities for minor ones to come out of the wings.
Past instigators of mass extinction have included: asteroid impacts, widespread volcanic eruptions with concomitant ocean acidification, even the evolution of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria, which released the toxic gas oxygen into the atmosphere to the detriment of the once dominant anaerobes. Any and all of these scenarios will likely play out again somewhere in the fullness of Deep Time, but barring the elimination of all life on the planet, it is worth speculating on the impact such upheavals would have on the vegetated landscape.
For example, what would happen if flowering plants, also known as angiosperms, dramatically declined, perhaps taken out by some pandemic or selective evolutionary pressure? They’ve really only been common since the Cretaceous and it isn’t hard to imagine Kilpisjärvi’s abundant so-called ‘lower’ plants – mosses, club mosses and liverworts, moving into the vacuum and attaining gigantic proportions, as was the case during in the coal swamps of the Carboniferous Period.
Neo-Kilpisjärvi with giant club mosses
A reduction in the availability of sunlight due to volcanic ash or widespread dust storms could have equally bizarre consequences. With green plants and algea in decline because of the challenge to photosynthesis, there would be a selective advantage for fungi, which might take over Kilpisjärvi forming bizarre, colossal structures as they did during the Devonian Period, some 400 million years ago, and again during the mayhem of the Permian mass extinction. Whether our own species would survive under such extreme and alien conditions is an open question, but life of some sort is almost certain to find a way. Perhaps fungi will regroup to form the planet’s supreme intelligence. Some would say, they already have!
It is this last point that gives me a vestige of hope. We Homo sapiens are a problematic creature, a classic, invasive species that thrives on disturbance, tends toward monoculture and displaces competing biota from its habitat. Yet in the overall scheme of things we are likely to be a transient phenomenon. We will either precipitate our own extinction, (and if the surviving ecosystems of the planet could sigh in relief, they surely would!), or we will find a way to live within our ecological means and develop a more equitable arrangement with the fellow denizens of the biosphere. My stay at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station offered me the ideal vantage point to consider this conundrum. What we are in now is not so much of a ‘watershed’ moment but more of a ‘timeshed’ moment!
Neo-Kilpisjärvi with giant fungi
Saana Fjell – Kilpisjärvi (in a warmer season!)
Sciadopitys in Helsinki Botanical Garden
What will the future look like?
A reasonable question and one which the human race has spent a long time thinking about.
I felt quite honoured to be asked to participate in this year’s ‘Field_Notes – Deep Time’ artist’s residency which took place this past September at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station in the spectacular subarctic environs of Finnish Lapland. I was part of a working group led by my pals Liz Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse and our mission was to explore the concept of ‘Deep Futures in the Making.’
In many ways the bleak solitude of Kilpisjärvi proved the perfect vantage point from which to delve into ‘Deep Futures,’ both due to the majestic, timeless feeling of the landscape but also the unique vulnerability of the fragile ecosystem, which like others at high latitudes is likely to suffer disproportionately from the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Perhaps biting off more than I could chew, I tasked myself with compiling what I called a ‘Speculative Botany’ for the future of subarctic Finland, based on what is there now and what is likely to happen in both the near and the long term.
The effects of global warming on arctic and subarctic ecosystems are already proceeding apace and in addition to the well known images of abject polar bears stranded on rapidly melting ice flows, there have been many other effects on northern biota. Here in North America, more southerly species such as robins (Turdus migratorius) and Pacific salmon are colonizing high arctic latitudes. A little to the south, vast tracts of Rocky Mountain forest are turning brown under an unprecedented onslaught of pine beetles, whose numbers are no longer kept in check due to milder winters and hotter summers.
So what about ‘Deep Futures?’
Environmental conditions are changing so rapidly that I frequently get the feeling I have already woken up Rip Van Winkle style in some deep future, where the things I have long taken for granted are no longer recognizable. Like the frogs that used to teem in the ditches of my suburban Toronto childhood. They are now disappearing worldwide, their once exuberant choruses silenced by a strange new fungal pandemic. The Western black rhino has just gone extinct – all of them. Gone. Wiped off the earth by relentless poaching. Neither you nor I nor anybody else will ever have a chance to see one. We blew it. And countless other species are on the brink of the same fate.
Climatologically, the obvious effects of anthropogenic warming are now everywhere and we are seeing weather events that are routinely more extreme than anything experienced in the recent past, though they have long been in our collective imagination. Reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian 1960’s fantasies – ‘The Drowned World’ and ‘The Wind from Nowhere’ we now live in a world where ‘superstorms,’ extreme flooding and the disappearance of Arctic sea ice are the new normal
With the scientific consensus emerging that global temperatures will continue to rise by at least 4 degrees C by the end of the century, I wondered what might happen at Kilpisjärvi, which presently finds itself in a delicate mountain birch forest ecosystem, where normally the snow doesn’t melt until June. Already it is clear that with less severe winters, plant productivity and abundance in many far northern areas has significantly increased.
What novel re-groupings, permutations and combinations might occur as the climate of Kilpisjärvi warms up? Will the existing plants grow more rampantly or will they begin to find the new conditions intolerable and fade from the landscape? There are some basic principles I thought I could extrapolate from. For example, rapid climate change is likely to favour generalists, often weed species, capable of riding out a wide variety of conditions and quickly colonizing disturbed habitats. Cold-loving, habitat specific specialists will have a much more difficult time and would disappear from many of their more southern haunts.
the future of arctic fauna?
How long might it take for major changes in the biota to occur? There are so many things to consider. For example, birds can colonize newly habitats quickly, which in turn will be a vector for certain plants whose seeds travel long distances inside their digestive tracts to be deposited on new terrains. Wind borne seeds and spores are likewise rapidly distributed. We humans are perhaps the greatest agents for the dispersal of species, transporting them deliberately or by accident, through the shipment of goods, gardening and even on the soles of our shoes. The deeper the future, the more daunting the range of possibilities, so I thought it reasonable to start with the situation in Kilpisjärvi at the present day and project onward into deeper and deeper horizons of time, with a corresponding decrease in certainty.
I am an artist, not a scientist, so I knew my speculations would be more qualitative than quantitative, but I figured it was worth trying to extrapolate obvious trends and imagine how they might unfold in both the near and long term.
A few hours after first touching down in Helsinki and pleasantly catatonic from the jet lag, I took a long walk through the venerable Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden. It is a habit of mine to visit the botanical garden of any city that is new to me and I was curious to see what the Finns managed to cultivate at such a high northern latitude. And I wanted to establish some sort of a baseline for what would typically constitute northern flora. Admittedly Helsinki is a good deal further south than Kilpisjärvi but is nevertheless considered the world’s most northerly metropolitan area and I reckoned the climate of Kilpisjärvi would begin to drift toward that of present day Helsinki as the planet continues to warm. Established in the early 1800’s Kaisaniemi has the agreeable and lush historicity of an old, lovingly maintained park, a world within itself of specimen groves and steamy glasshouses, where the casual stroller or the committed anomophile can each commune with the diverse array of the botanically possible.
From the very beginning gardeners have always pushed the envelope of what can be cultivated in a given climatic zone and Kaianiemi is no exception. For example there is an enormous walnut (Juglans regia) tree, sprawling and laden with nuts far to the north of its usual more temperate haunts. I was delighted to see one of my favourite living fossils, the monotypic Sciadopitys verticella, commonly referred to as the Japanese umbrella pine, as it is now only native to a small area of Japan. Yet during the Eocene Thermal Maximum 50 million years ago there were whole forests of these trees in the vicinity of what is now Finland and the resin they produced was so ubiquitous it makes up the bulk of the area’s famous Baltic amber. During that long ago time, the average temperatures on the earth were extemely high, as high, in fact, as it is expected to rise again within this next century, due to man-made global warming. Could it be that Sciadopitys might one day hop Kaianiemi’s garden fence and make itself at home again in the forests around a newly tepid Baltic? I wonder…
In contrast to how compact everything generally seems to a North American traveling through Europe, the distances in Finland are quite vast. The day after arriving in Helsinki, I was en route on the seven hour trek to Kilpisjärvi, which began with a one hour flight north to Rovaniemi,‘the hometown of Santa’ and the capital of Lapland (not necessarily in that order), followed by a six hour bus ride on a two lane highway to almost the 70th parallel. As the scenery passed by and the tires hummed and the vegetation grew more sparse, we were able to acquainted with each other and start thinking about how we might address a topic as vast as ‘Deep Time.’
On a more prosaic note: I loved the bizarre and über-Nordic aesthetic of the coffee-shops in roadside Lapland, a few of which we were able to sample on the bus ride to and from Kipisjärvi. Amazingly, there is a pension for Thai food up here. Their secret ingredient – reindeer meat! And by the way, the wood carvers are definitely on drugs – perhaps some taiga version of the magic mushroom… Check out the whacky wooden dwarfs that are the regional specialty. The carving style out-Seusses Doctor Seuss! Oh those long winters! I think I understand the flying reindeer now…
An hour or so from our destination, and the landscape morphed into a vast, misty expanse of exposed rock, russet heath lands and dwarf birches, their branches stripped of all but a few remaining yellow leaves despite it being only mid September – still, as far as the calendar is concerned – summer! When we finally pulled into the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station it was almost dark. The air had a thin, alpine quality about it and the massive silhouette of the Saana fjell loomed over us like some giant recumbent beast. We were told we’d be climbing it the next day and we collapsed into our beds…
Sanaa socked in with cloud
bonfire of the crocodiles
“What remains is the red wind in the field with the name of the rose upon its lips”
(Russian metaphorical poem)
It’s an unspecific hour; morning probably, but not according to my biological clock, which is still mired in the mudflats of sleep. I’ve just touched down at Helsinki Vantaa Airport and outside the glass curtain walls, an anemic subarctic sun washes across tidy parking lots and spills over the crowns of the birch trees that quiver golden against the cold blue vault of the Nordic sky. It’s only mid-September yet fall has locked itself in.
The life force seeped out of me somewhere over Greenland and I need somehow to absorb enough caffeine to re-start my misfiring nervous system and begin to part the skeins of translucent eye plankton that drifted across my field of vision since I stumbled off my Finnair flight. Not that Finnair is a bad airline -far from it! My flight had none of that Nilodor meets stale sweat and leatherette odor that greets the nostrils on the cheap airlines I usually take, where the business model increasingly seems focused on finding new and exquisite tortures for us coach class customers so that we’ll start coughing up money for what used to be free:
Want to eat something? Check baggage? Board in a timely manner or sit in a seat that won’t cut your circulation off? It ‘ll cost you. The limits of human endurance have already been reached though I can’t help wondering what the next iteration of airline indignity will be. Perhaps a charge for using the toilets or maybe getting rid of the seats entirely and piling us up like sacks of UNHCR rations to be lashed into the hold with bungee nets.
I try to get my mind off these things as I settle into the first coffee shop I see, maneuvering my espresso and wheelie bag toward a vacant table. It is quiet and ordered here. The men’s room is awash with simulated birdsong and the beautifully designed faucets and the hand dryers actually work. There is none of that under-serviced, held together with duct tape and gum quality that pervades most American airports these days.
There’s not many people in here – some airport guys in orange safety vests and a large, older black woman in a black raincoat and multi-colored headscarf. She seems to be wearing a lot of layers.
On the TV monitor above us, there’s a morning talk show in progress, which the cuts to the image of a helicopter pulling a very large and very dead crocodile up from a muddy waterhole with a long steel cable. The Finnish celebrities discuss this for a moment as the shot goes to a close up of the cable tightening around the monstrous animal’s neck and then pans out to the silhouette of its great carcass swinging back and forth beneath the helicopter until both are engulfed into the vast pink inflammation of a tropical sunset.
The guys in the orange vests next to me have stopped talking and seem riveted to the screen.
The shot now is of the mountainous dead reptile slumping down in front of a group of park ranger type people dressed in khaki safari gear. A couple of burlier guys unhook the cable and the helicopter rises up out of the screen and we zoom in on several of the ranger people clamber over the tree trunk sized corpse with calipers measuring tapes and syringes. A dour looking guy in a blue uniform talks into a walkie talkie and looks on. A young ranger woman aims the lens of her large camera at the once mighty creature’s head and we cut to a close up of the sad, shrunken eyelids, which have deeply into the sockets underscoring that it has been dead for a long time. A florid faced man with a large pair of pliers pries out one of the crocodile’s enormous scales and drops it into a jar of liquid.
This seems somehow cruel and disrespectful but the crocodile is dead after all.
The scene changes and we see more dead crocodiles this time scattered like logs along a wide river bank. There are dozens of them and many are belly up, their lighter colored undersides looking swollen and puffy in the high contrast light, the armored skins seeping sickly death fluids, though this is only visible for an instant and perhaps I am extrapolating. Something is clearly killing those crocodiles and everyone seems to get that. It is being made very obvious. Carrion birds circle and land to prod haphazardly at the carcass but they don’t look too enthusiastic at the quality of what lies before them. Perhaps the crocodiles are poisoned or the corpses are not appealing to them or just too far gone. Too far gone for carrion birds? I find that hard to believe. The camera zooms in on some foot tracks and pans toward another muddy pool where we see the corpse of a smaller crocodile, six feet or so in length, festering in stagnant water. ‘It has crawled off to die here’ the narration must be telling us, albeit in Finnish, which for me is completely inscrutable, and anyways the sound is turned way down.
A ranger guy in very short khaki shorts (what is it about tropical Caucasians and their really short shorts?) loops a cable under the smaller creature’s forelimbs and watches it get winched up, deus ex machina, by the helicopter hovering overhead, which then ascends as before, dangling its payload against the picturesque, distant thunder clouds, pregnant with rain. This smaller croc gets dumped into the back of a pickup truck.
In the next shot we see a very large pile of dead crocodiles, which have been accumulating at some kind of a staging area. The helicopters keep arriving bringing more of them in. A couple of grad student type women are stacking logs and branches into a conical pyre type arrangement. We see a section where the crocodiles of all shapes and sizes are being dragged toward the pyre, the smaller ones being dragged by their tails the larger ones hauled in on buckets of heavy earth moving equipment or pulled in winches. The camera zooms in on gasoline being poured on the pyre. We pull out to a long shot of the burning pyre with its oily smoke roiling into a peach colored sky. People are milling around beside the conflagration in a kind of agitated way though some are just standing there with their hands on their waists.
It is night time now and we see a crocodile, apparently alive with its jaws fastened together with heavy duty duct tape. We cut to a flashback of it being pulled out of a waterhole and it is wrapped up in a painful-looking ensnarement of ropes and cables, which makes me think of Japanese rope pornography and its trussed-up women, only this time it involves an antediluvian reptile, so there is nothing sexual about it, at least not obviously so. With an electric drill, a man bores a hole through one of the larger scales on the dorsal crest through which he loops some kind of an electronic tracking device. This crocodile will probably never enjoy privacy again, I imagine, but this is probably ‘for the good of the species’ or something like that. The men finish calibrating the tracker and unfasten the ropes before gingerly backing away. The crocodile stays motionless for a moment then explodes into the dark water in a burst of spray. The men wander off with their flashlight beams bobbing up and down against blurry vegetation and everything seems calm for the moment.
The celebrity panel starts their banter again and the spell of the program is broken. The guys in the orange vests resume their gruff, unintelligible man talk and I can’t tell at all whether they were appalled by what we all just saw or are just talking about work. The black woman with her many layers of clothing stands looking at the screen a moment longer then gives out a long, sad sigh and slowly walks away.
Fuligo septica in my back yard
Physarum polycephalum close up
Those of you who’ve followed my blog for a while will know I am fascinated by the intellectual capabilities of slime moulds…
This is the time of year when the dark coniferous forests near my house get brightened up by their white and yellow blobs of sentient goo. Around here, they are mostly the common slime mould Fuligo septica – otherwise known as ‘Dog Vomit slime mould,’ a rather harsh name, in my opinion, for such an engaging life form.
Far from being vomit or mould, these slimy masses are actually swarms of social amoebae that have combined their protoplasm and nuclei into a single super-organism called a plasmodium.
Once formed, the plasmodium creeps along the forest floor until it reaches a tree stump or log, at which point it climbs to a high enough vantage point from where it releases its spores into the slightly more active air. These drift, land, and eventually germinate into another generation tiny amoebas that one day will seek each other out, meld together and then start their complicated social migration process again.
This is all very fascinating, but the reason slime moulds have been the subject of such intensive research is that their plasmodial masses show an uncanny ability to solve computational problems – which is all the more remarkable given that slime mould has neither brain or a nervous system and its constituent amoebae are about as rudimentary a life form as you can get. But when large numbers of these simple beings are networked into a swarm, the principle of emergence takes over and we begin to see a unified intelligence. The rules governing emergence are fairly simple – as long as each individual is aware of and able to exchange basic sensory information with its neighbours, stimuli can be transmitted throughout the network, which can then react as a sentient whole, flowing toward attractants or away from danger.
This simple yet powerful mechanism is behind the flocking of birds, the flow of traffic and the evolution of memes on the internet. It is a non-hierarchical, ‘ur’-intelligence, an organizing tendency imbued in the very vibrancy of matter itself.
The lab rat of the slime mould world is the easy-to-raise species Physarum polycephalum and as such it has been the subject of much experimentation. Lured by oatmeal flakes, Physarum can outperform robots in solving mazes and it will figure out mathematically complex problems such as how to most efficiently connect an arrangement of arbitrary points, making it astonishingly good at designing highway networks and other mesh-like systems. Though brainless, Physarum has a rudimentary spatial memory. It recognizes where it has already explored by sensing the slime trails it has left behind, allowing it to focus its foraging energy on covering new ground.
Inspired by my time hanging around with the bio-geeks at Brooklyn’s GENSPACE, I decided to put old Physarum to the test by giving it some problems I thought worthy of its impressive powers.
slime mould navigating a model of an IKEA
1) The IKEA vexation:
For years I have been irked by IKEA stores. What is the most efficient way to navigate through one of them? I find IKEA to be especially frustrating and always have had trouble finding my way toward the exit without being overcome by an anxious ‘trapped’ feeling. For me, IKEA is prime habitat for what it called the Gruen transfer – a deliberate architectural strategy aimed at disorienting people in shopping malls; an invocation of spatial confusion that makes us lose track of our original intentions and buy stuff we don’t need. I wondered if the slime mould could resist such distractions and efficiently find its way through an IKEA without getting sidetracked? To put this to the test, I built a tiny petri-dish sized model of the floor plan of the IKEA, modeled on the store in Richmond, British Columbia, which is more or less typical. Each department was baited with an oatmeal flake and I plunked a little bit of Physarum culture down near the store’s entrance to see what it could do.
slime mould says ‘yes!’
second choice ‘hazy!’
at the moment of ‘yes or no?’
2) The Future is out there:
Decisions involving the future are hard for me to make, especially if there are a lot of equal seeming options. Throughout history, we’ve consulted soothsayers, fortune tellers and ouija boards in hopes we might get some guidance on how to choose between those many forks we encounter in life’s road. I’ve often despair and then make a seemingly random choice. If slime moulds are so good at solving problems in the here and now, how might they do in sussing out what hasn’t yet happened? Could they help me ‘Magic 8-Ball’ style make decisions on what to do next? Well, I was a little too clumsy to build a proper ‘8-Ball’, but I managed to make a reasonably convincing ‘6-Ball’ simulacrum, by cutting six (approximately identical) radial paths into the agar of a petri dish and having the slime mould choose which one it wanted to go down. I baited each ‘choice’ with a flake of oatmeal and labelled them: ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘outlook good,’ ‘reply hazy,’ ‘somewhat likely,’ and ‘don’t count on it!’ I’d ask the slime mould a (secret) question then wait a few hours to see what it decided.
Well those of you who have had scientific training are probably about to bust a blood vessel about now, but bear with me!
Perhaps predictably, the IKEA ‘maze’ problem was quickly solved by Physarum. It relentlessly streamed from one ‘department’ to the next in search of its oatmeal rewards and within a couple of days, it arrived at the exit hungry for more. This is a very basic slime mould-solvable problem. Physarum tends to behave in what is called a ‘ballistic’ manner; once they have sensed a stimulus they will try to flow toward it taking the most direct route possible.
Except when they don’t
Because unlike a non-sentient being, slime mould will often abort its migration toward an attractant, if it senses a rival has gotten there first. Sometimes though, competitors will merge into one happy super organism and share the the love and the bounty.
inputs A and B seeking oatmeal
A and B combining to one output
This makes for some interesting possibilities for ‘non-digital’ logic. Let’s say we place slime moulds, (let’s call them ‘A’ and ‘B’) in each of the two forks of a ‘Y’ shaped path and put an oatmeal flake in the remaining leg. If the slime moulds were to behave consistently that is to say ‘digitally’, you would have the basis for what is called an Exclusive ‘OR’ gate, a common component of computer logic. There has been some great research done on this by Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England.
Given the slime moulds’ usual aversion to the presence of a rival, the one that gets to the bait first will dissuade the other. So in logic gate terms the presence of ‘A’ or ‘B’ (the inputs) will generate an output, i.e. either ‘A’ or ‘B’ gets to the oatmeal.
‘A’ and ‘B’ can’t both reach the oatmeal because the presence of one will (most of the time) repel the other, so the gate is considered ‘exclusive.’
But because slime moulds, though simple, are living things, with their own agency, they don’t always do what we expect. When the slime moulds ‘A’ and ‘B’ break convention and flow together to share the oatmeal, the logic gate becomes ‘non-exclusive,’ i.e input ‘A’ or ‘B’ or both can appear as outputs. Sometimes even that doesn’t happen and a slime mould gets distracted and decides to loiter around the perimeter of the petri dish, boycotting the experiment despite the presence of oatmeal. Who knows why? Are they following their bliss? Or are they just confused? To my mind, these ‘exceptions’ to the behaviour we deem ‘logical’ are the most interesting results. If we develop a new class of biological computers based on slime mould logic, the outputs generated might have a charming and useful variability. This could be used to more closely emulate the real world ‘twitchiness’ of such social phenomena as how people behave in the marketplace (they don’t always act rationally or in their self interest), or how they participate in riots or elections, which are also less than rational processes.
this time- both outputs are generated!
And as for predicting my future, the slime mould oracle was initially quite decisive. It answered my first (secret) question with a resounding ‘Yes,’ but then started creeping around to investigate other nearby possibilities. To me that seems like a perfectly reasonable approach.