Fuck the 'new' Nature Writing
....marking the failure of eco-engage to encounter total revolutionary critique......
Memoirs of an indefatigable note-taker
December 6th 1813. Byron writes in his diary: “this journal is a relief. When I am tired - as I generally am – out comes this, and down goes everything….I have just thrown a poem into the fire (which has re-lighted to my great comfort), and I have smoked out of my head the plan for another. I wish I could as easily get rid of thinking.”
For many years I have been an indefatigable note taker. The extent of it causes my head to spin, and as the years role by it gets worse, not better. In this emptiest of empty worlds, paradoxically my curiosity constantly expands - though I do draw the line at Formula One. And even then I am curious as to why people continue to follow it, forever on the look out for the moment of breakthrough when spectators crash the barriers, not the cars.
Despite having a pocket computer, I still have several notebooks on the go and which I try to keep separate. A keyboard cannot match the spontaneity of a pen, and when, for example, looking through a microscope at a hatching butterfly egg, a note book and a Biro is undoubtedly the more flexible and appropriate tool. And when depressed, to scribble pain on a page is about all one can manage to do.
Notwithstanding my best efforts to keep topics apart, one subject constantly threatens to spill over into another. Whenever I do this I make a mental note of the fact - and then forget where I have buried it, only for it to take me by surprise later, and when I least expect it. This note taking is a whirlpool of impressions, facts and opinions that constantly threatens to drag me under. But how to order this material? Should I even try to do so? Shouldn't I just let it roll and roll and accept that all attempts to impose a discrete ordering undermines the spirit of this note taking and is not really me in any case? Anything less fails to show how I arrive at my ideas and diminishes me as a person. Moreover, I firmly believe those who can narrow things down, are able to do so only because they lead a narrower life. So why not push things to extremes and see what comes up, for capitalism, more than ever before, is now a total culture requiring a total response? And I did let rip - only to find I was drowning in the flow. The following is like some compressed file put together around what I initially wrote, constructed from the building blocks of the far-flung note taking – and which still needs opening.....
Nature diaries ------ and
We were only eight years old when we first started to keep nature diaries (c/f Mabey Baby also on the RAP web). We had moved from a small railway halt in Co Durham on the fringes of a vast industrial estate that during the Second World War had produced armaments. To disguise it from the air, the armaments factories had been covered in spoil and clinker taken from local pit heaps and blast furnaces. As very young children this was to be our playground, farmers' fields and country lanes unable to offer anything like the same enticements. And so was born in us the combined love of nature and industrial wasteland which has never left us and that we still regard as home. From a very early age we knew we were more likely to find skylarks, flocks of lapwings and gold finches on the heaped-over factories than in the surrounding countryside. Still in primary school, our hearts and minds were flung open to an "industrial pantheism", experiencing in places that were then, and still are, regarded as eyesores, a profound, unforgettable sensation of connectedness. On these wastes intermingled with tarred railway sleepers, rusting rails, forgotten boilers and half demolished brick huts, nature teemed effortlessly. And we knew which industrial workers to trust and who would come down to our level, remembering, perhaps, that sites like these had also once been their playground. Looking back these men, who were sometimes setting snares, also helped increase our powers of observations.
|Above: Pages from a childhood Nature Diary|
This expansiveness diminished somewhat amid the soot and grime of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Sad to say only one diary survives from that time. But leafing through it, whether in the shape of disused quarries, railway sidings or mill yards, the presence of industry is always there as a backdrop. I was particularly struck by the evocative power of one entry that reads: "Sat 15th Jan 1954. At half past nine it started snowing. It was a very silent day, not a tree stirred". Otherwise the diary is memorable for its documenting of butterflies not known to be then present in industrial West Yorkshire, like the common blue and meadow brown. Brought to the attention of Yorkshire naturalists only in the last ten years, these observations dating from the early 1950s indirectly led to the discovery of a remarkable colony of grayling in Healey Mills MarshallingYards in lower Calderdale during 2003.
Though sporadically at first, sometime in the late eighties and after a lapse of three decades, I began to keep a nature diary once more. Whenever I wish to refer back to then, invariably I cannot immediately put my finger on what I am looking for, having first to wade through a mass of other material. I therefore resolved to keep a notebook specifically devoted to observations in the field. So every time I go out, mainly in pursuit of butterflies, I record the exact date and quickly note down other details. Stacked on a shelf are fourteen volumes of notes that have been thrown down in massive haste in case I forget a detail that may eventually turn out to be of some significance. To say the least these tatty volumes make for disjointed reading. However their lack of premeditation is a welcome release from the bane of considered writing.
To these notebooks another has been added entitled "anatomical details", although the varying degrees of magnification provided by the microscope allows me to observe and photograph everything from living butterfly eggs to a single scale from a butterfly's wing. The number of prior entries extend from August 2006 to August 2007, the last entry detailing a magnificent derive we took through Grimsby docks. There is the same rapid fire, staccato delivery as in my nature diaries: "a sunken boat, its funnel projecting from the water - a shop with a sign on which is painted "ice and ocean"- in the window a chandelier and a pair of rubber gloves - a rowing boat on a mound of earth with starlings resting on the rim, on closer inspection only half a boat as if sawn in two – on the prow of this part boat someone had recently sprayed 'Gemma' - the Jubilee Café - a black wooden hut - behind it a small stove with a tall chimney some 8ft high - plastic chairs and a mean table. In fact there were chairs to be found all over the docks left just as quayside workers had left them. No one ever tidied them away. The strangeness and emptiness of it – opposite the Jubilee Café a failed installation made from a disused dockside crane - to one side a broken down planter covered in Canadian fleabane from which soil was spilling out onto the road- on the top a discarded brief case - magnificent, cryptic concrete structures now abandoned - huge frame-less windows rising above the docks like empty cinema screens peering onto nothing and with no audience - a couple of turnstones hopping about – their quick, jerky gait was markedly more hurried than the flock on the tiered breakwater on the approach to Cleethorpes- the sudden transition from freshwater to saline plants - mugwort then sea purslane and spurrey – and as for the insect life - could it be almost as good as England's rainforest... and more likely to survive because the place will be saved from the scorched earth of gentrification unlike the Thames Estuary? After all N. E. Lincs is a fragment cut off from any real post modern development; a land that neo liberal time forgot.
Over the years the details have tended to uncouple and become less focussed on butterflies and habitat as the world forced its blanket attention upon us. I wonder too if the hopes we had invested in a resolution of the class struggle had not now been transferred onto nature and that the struggle for nature is obliged to take on anti capitalist perspective, the issue of an anti-statist autonomy mattering as much as it did to a lapsed workers' movement. The treatment meted out to us over the fate of the Dingy Skipper on the spoil heaps of South and West Yorkshire was also a requiem to the defeat of the miners' strike and which, by the same token, also sealed the fate hereabouts of this endangered butterfly. To the eternal shame of conservationist bodies, especially Butterfly Conservation and other Dingy Skipper deniers, this holocaust of the species has passed off with never a mention. Thus two linked communities were cleaned off the face of the earth, their memory lingering on in photographs and shaky film footage.
Whenever we took photographs, and latterly film, in the field we endeavoured to capture the small as well as the large, minute detail as well as background. In 2008 the binding polarities were taken to their furthest extremes, when, in a gale on the top of the Langdale Pikes, I succeeded in filming a microscopic close up of the eye and antennae of a mountain ringlet, its "eyelashes" whipped by the wind shaking the butterfly and minutes later a panoramic view from Sergeant Mann, the Langdales' topmost pinnacle, my tripod tethered down by rocks. All this was hastily scribbled down later that day, the unearthly fluorescence of the hair moss and lichen tachiste rocks noted and how when gasping for breath, having just ascended Dungeon Gyhll, the mountain landscape appeared to heave as if breathing. This scrawl that passes for writing is not just badly written; it is frequently undecipherable!
|Above, top left: Stickle Tarn and Harrison Stickle. Above, top right: Pike of Bliscoe. Bottom, left: Mountain Ringlet seeking shelter in a gale on a Langdale summit, 2008. Bottom, right: Eye of same Mountain Ringlet butterfly.|
The photographs that we have taken in the field mostly lie unscrutinised, shut away in wallets. Space permitting, they could profit from a greater exposure because over time one begins to notice things, their continual presence becoming less habit forming as if time is required to enable them to release their secret. Propped up on a work surface is a photograph of a oleander hawk moth taken with Notting Hill's cloud clipping edifice of Trellick Tower in the background. I had imagined to myself how wonderful it must be to encounter the moth resting on vegetation or walls in dusty urban settlements at the base of the Atlas Mountains. And it remained like that until by chance a woman, in recovery from breast cancer, remarked on it and I took down a copy of Skinner's Moths of the British Isles and showed her a plate of hawk moths. We both immediately noted the museum specimen lacked "depth", that the moth's top wings appeared much flatter than they did in my photo. Here the wings gave the illusion of an alternating concave and convex undulating surface with a plant like stem running through the top wing, the effect greatly increased by the moths natural resting position than in the splayed out museum specimen. The overall effect was intensely three dimensional and resembled more the skeletal remains of an animal's skull that has lain on the ground for some length of time and is already turning mouldy. That or overlaying foliage in which light and dark varies an effect that has evolved to trick likely predators. I looked at the top wings of other hawk moths and wondered if photographs taken in the field would tell the same story, particularly in the case of the silver striped hawk, striped hawk, spurge hawk and bedstraw hawk, all from warmer climes where a greater adaptation to the starker effects of light and shade would be called for. I then went on to note that the under wings showed less variation throughout the Sphingidae than did the top wings, and that the colours were toward the warm end of the spectrum – red, pink, orange, yellow and more saturated, though broken by two dark bands that followed the outlines of the wing margins and with just the hint of a third more or less parallel to the abdomen. Did these colours and bands have any evolutionary significance, or were they just junk adornment that just happened to gratify our aesthetic sensibilities? In any case it was a rare delight that this one photo glanced at a thousand times but never once really looked at, had triggered such a train of reflection. But could repeated exposure to the same moving images ever do the same, creating insight rather than overwhelming it? Or would one forever remain trapped in the same endless, ground hog, loop screaming for release from a medium becoming ever more invasive and threatening to take over one's entire personality?
|Oleander hawk moth before a darkening storm over Trellick Towers, Notting Hill, 1998|
- and the new nature writing -
For some time now there has been talk of a new nature writing which we were contemptuous of from the start. The very idea one should define oneself as a writer has long been bankrupt, despite the many blood transfusions and repeated bailouts that grow ever more desperate, the whole gamut of art being capitalisms' final redoubt. Writing henceforth must remain a mere adjunct to expression, a prelude to action rather than yet more words, words, words. The "new nature writing" aspires to an engagement with reality, but because ecological critique is not wedded to a rigorous critique of capitalism, stays put at a sentimentalising, even deeply conservative, notion of the humanising of nature and its interconnectedness with us. Instead of developing the Thesis on Feurbach by Marx, this drift has led to the reclaiming of Feurbach for ultimately reactionary purposes. In Crow Country, Mark Cocker describes the way rooks followed the spread of European farming from the cutting down of the primeval forest to the present day. Though appalled by today's agi-business, ultimately Coker's tone is resigned and rooks become a symbol of our heritage, and so indirectly the key to our salvation: rookeries were recorded in the Doomsday Book and subsequently regarded as a sign of baronial entitlement.
This engaged approach to nature lived on as a romantic sub culture composed largely of working people to whom the mere passive recording of the facts was an in built anathema, knowing that their chances of a better life depended on practical change. Concurrent with this there was a modernising literary fashion stemming from the Cambridge professor F. R. Leavis linking the practise of poetry to the practise of rural crafts like that of the wheelwright, the whole edifice being predicated on a rejection of industry, the industrial working class and the class struggle that went with it. Though we are spared the embarrassment of the new nature writing breaking into song, some of this attitude still remains though brought up to date by the avant-garde aware Richard Mabey, particularly in his fulsome praise of the wretched eco artist Andy Goldsworthy. More or less intuitively the new nature writers know they must not revive the corpse of romanticism down to the last detail otherwise they will become a laughing stock. The undeniable power of Crow Country partly comes from its unconscious assimilation of the revolutionary avant-garde of the first decades of the 20th century for what we have here isnot poetry but the actual poetry of facts. The same goes for Richard Deakins Waterlog and Wildwood which though interspersed with quotes from Clare, Ruskin etc, seeks to practise Keats not imitate him. To get to know about pond and river life Deakins would swim in them, "taking part" even more than Keats, it has to be said," in the experience of things". In Crow Country the landscape is viewed, at least partially, through non-human eyes.
Yet another example of this budding genre is Phillip Hoare's Leviathan - or the Whale. Like so many other works written by natural historians and biologists, we are repeatedly reminded of Kant, as though his imprimatur would, unawares, stamp everything produced after him. What could evoke the Kantian sublime more than when swimming beside a Sperm Whale, Hoare experiences "a sensation of beauty, a feeling of something limitless, unbounded, an almost religious feeling", and though made to feel small, he cannot rid himself of his (rational?) ego: "I felt insignificant" he says "but not quite". Hoare is not a natural historian, marine biologist or cetologist by training, having studied English Literature at university.
The two novels that had most impressed him were also ours, both written within four years of each other: Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Though both were written at the height of the novel as the literary genre both anticipated the complete collapse of the novel. In fairness, we would add two others that still excite with possibility: Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne at the moment the novel was kicking off in the 18th century and inevitably Ulysses and its aftermath in Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce in the first few decades of the 20th century both of which finally laid waste to anything promised by the artificial novelistic conceit. (Ever after, the novel has meant absolutely nothing no matter that as a dead form it is more ubiquitous than ever marking a cocooned, reified, dead or dying existence).
Though Hoare refers to Wuthering Heights as a novel he never describes Moby Dick as one but simply as a book, an omission that is not thought through because not entirely conscious. Hoare perceptively notes the book "stands outside itself from the very start", weighted with exo-literary minutiae: alongside typical taxonomical details are also weird ones, rather in the same manner Pliny would include descriptions of fabled monsters in his natural histories. Millennia later, natural historians would disdainfully dismiss these apparitions, though logic requires that we begin to accept that the human capacity to imagine is also part of natural history. Now necessitating a radical reappraisal, its meaning has remained unexamined, superseded by the exigencies of scientific method and the need for accurate recording .The book's legendary beginning "Call me Ishmael" is like the sound of a wave breaking and Ishmael himself is a walking conceit of discordant suggestions, continually "sidestepping his own narrative" and interrupting the reader with "diversions and digressions, pulling him aside with hell fire sermons or musical interludes, with anatomical allegories or sensual dissertations on spermaceti oil".
Hoare dips in and out of Moby Dick becoming "engrossed only for my attention to wander". We can also pick up Wutherings Heights and more or less open it at random in a way one cannot do with the historical novels of a Tolstoy or Balzac, for here time frames reign supreme. In these two books the form of the novel, though only two centuries old, is – as previously pointed out - already breaking down, their extraordinary power residing in this formal dissolution. Though there is a narrative structure, it is also one we help create and personal to each of us, time coming to something of a standstill in these two seminal contraries of the novel. Hoare half grasps he is the beyond of Moby Dick but never quite. Human beings are absent from his evocation of a pre-lapsarian world as is also a critique of art: "it was as if human kind never happened, as if the ocean had reverted to another Eden". The worry is that in bringing to light an endangered world in which, as oceans warm and the food supply of whales dwindle, there is no space for man. We are hardly at the beginning of this development that could eventually turn into the horror of horrors.
Moby Dick especially began slowly to obsess the growing revolution of modern art in the first few decades of the 20th century though nothing like to the extent of what was to succeed it - the modern art of revolution – which still remains to be realised. And wasn't it so because the book deals with so much in a wide ranging, even disconnected, passionate totality which constantly leaps out of the pages and sentences in a call for imaginative activity and action? Inevitably it gave rise to Charles Olsen's perceptive theorising about Melville which complimented the American beat lifestyle and action painting of the 1950s though rather more coherently than the recuperative, often tired, artistic limitations these movements entailed. Nearly four decades later and Loren Goldner was to add further extensive reflections to this wide ranging critique instigated by the quest that was Melville's life and the expression of that complex, wild experience. In fact Goldner in his Herman Melville: Between Charlemagne & the Antemosaic Cosmic Man was able to to formulate an original and sensitive critique of the present failure of social revolution in the continent of North America. The essence of Melville particularly as expressed through Moby Dick means such cavalier interpretation is wholly in keeping with the spirit of the original and doesn't feel one iota out of place. (Needless to say the academic pantheon around Melville memorabilia will have none of this and Loren Goldner was forced to publish his contribution through his own auspices - something we are entirely familiar with and the 'new' nature writers are not!) The fact that Moby Dick is now being placed high up in the pre-history of eco critique may bode well though if the raw urgency of imaginative action which is the very heart of Moby Dick isn't emphasised it may also prove to be nothing more than another dead end. For let's face it: most action proposed by even the better part of the ecos falls well short of the basic trajectory needed, hidebound by statist perspectives and professional status meaning infinite reforms of the present system of capitalist accumulation encountering moral duty is the only game in town. But first a few asides......
It is time to get down, dirty and very personal. Overtime, the records I have kept of butterfly jaunts, though always dashed down with an eye to other details, also include accounts of brief encounters in the field. These have, we believe, a tendency to turn more impassioned than at any other time since the mid 1600s, an upside down world producing a nature turned upside down. This development is so momentous it's best not to dwell on it too much since it can tip a person into insanity. Suffice to say that birders are more conscious of it than lepidopterists because of the mass decline of summer migrants. The annual migration of five billion birds between Africa and Europe is on the scale of the Gulf Stream or Indian monsoon. As regular as clockwork they arrive and depart – or rather once did. All "new nature writing" is aware of impending eco collapse. What is substantially less obvious in this writing is the extent of capitalist induced social collapse that destroys not just the complex irreproducibility of the planetary ecosystem, but personal relationships as well.
Apart from a meticulously kept nature diary and sporadic entries arising out of the building scene, there are countless pages of tortured stuff recording the messy details of breakdowns following failed relationships with the opposite sex, the kind of thing one doesn't want others to read, is embarrassing to re-read but also contains moments of insight so naked, intensely private and self revelatory that only the heart of darkness can unlock. Am I forever to be denied a companion prepared to put up with the rigours of fieldwork? Both Mabey and Cocker have endured quite severe depressives episodes but theirs is not an expression of the all-round hopelessness the approaching end of human time is bound to produce. In Cocker's case we feel in the background the comforting presence of domestic orthodoxy and it is difficult to escape the conclusion his unfailing crows are a continuation of time-honoured ritual, both human and animal: "Crow Country" is as motionless as socio-biology gets. How different my life has been, how ripped apart in comparison because more open to experiment and a yearning for total change. I wonder too if my fondness for the wild life havens of industrial dereliction over countryside canons, means my experiences and outlook are indelibly marked by relationships forged in the melting pot of the inner cities and which I genuinely believe, though fragmentary and courting the non-existent, are superior, when all is said and done, to ones based on more traditional premises. If the human race is to have a future, this is the way forward, not least because it breaks the reproductive spell of a planet now threatening a holocaust of children so dreadful as to end forever the desire for reproductive success.
Building work notebooks and the displacing of writing, music and nature
Two years ago in 2007 I remember sitting in a garden with others and all of us at the end of our tether because we were unable to plastically realise the building dream of the woman who owned this darned house. It was an old 19th century house with all ceilings and walls on the piss the mortar between the bricks being little more than dust. We had made a large kitchen out of three rooms each with different ceiling levels and walls that did not read through and so had to be evened out. We had just about made a silk purse out of a sows ear, as we, in desperate need of reassurance, told ourselves over and over again, and given the subsidence, a better job was not possible. Yet it did not meet with approval because the by now passé, energy wasteful, halogen head lights were literally millimetres out in some places. We were made to feel incompetent chancers and we were on the verge of jacking the job when my eye was drawn to a piece on John Coltrane written by the Guardian's music critic John Fordham in which this musicologist for the first and last time excelled himself: "Coltrane's huge yearning tone, sermonising intensity and revolutionary technique allowed him to sound like several saxophonists rolled into one, but for all that he always sounded as if striving for what still lay out of reach. It wasn't just the search for more music, or a different music, It sounded like the search for another world or another life" (13.7.07). Jack Kerouac had also written brilliantly on Lester Young but this was different because it hinted at the transcendence of music. But would the great 'Trane have ended on a building site like we had, dreaming of a far, far better world whilst being hounded by a pernickety client whose ideal of building were the bleak interiors of Canary Wharf and who went off to work looking like a prostitute in a see through dress, the better to sell properties to rich overseas buyers? Pushed to these extremes, temperatures rise and analysis grows razor sharp, each sally, in this mounting crescendo of insight, prompting an even smarter response, a carpenters pencil and scrap of paper torn from an open bag of plaster, all there is to note down some of the choicest turns of phrase, and then only very infrequently, the inspired bon mots mangled, because written down much later when the writing hand is free. Forget bad writing - like a latter day cuneiform, it hardly qualifies as writing at all. Nor is it apparently good building work either, and we would leave work resembling more a wart-covered toad than a human being. I was reminded of a passage from Lautreamont that could have been written especially for us, with the days events in mind: "I cast a long look of satisfaction upon the duality that composes me ----I find myself beautiful! Beautiful as the congenital malformation of man's sexual organs – or - as the fleshy wattle, conical in shape, furrowed by quite deep transversal wrinkles, which arises from the base of the turkey upper beak"; or rather as the following truth: "The system of scales, modes, and their harmonic series does not rest upon invariable natural laws but is, on the contrary, the result of aesthetic principles which have varied with the progressive development of mankind, and will vary again"; and "above all like an iron clad turreted corvette". The reference to music could have been lifted word for word from a then current textbook, though hardly a standard one. Again it is a vivid demonstration of Lautreamont's magpie-like clashing together of unrelated material whose bizarre possibilities for good and evil also reflect a cock-eyed totality out there, one in the process even than of becoming misshapen, phantasmagoric and very ominous.
I greatly regret that I did not keep a more thorough diary of the building sites we have known over the past 35 years. For working at the coal face of the property boom was, looking back, an extraordinarily rich experience and had this personal record been more complete, had I thrown down literally everything that came into my head, for every piece of fiction appearing in estate agents descriptions, in government statistics, in economic analyses or in trade union records I could have substituted a real story. So I often have to rely on memory to fill in the gaps, like the bricklayer who saw rise up in front of him on Dartmoor, a brick wall of vast proportions reaching to the cloud base. Or another brickie who was back living in his parents' council accommodation, his own house seized by his aspirational, estranged wife who had married him for his building skills and taken out an injunction against him, prohibiting him from seeing his kid. To cope with his depression he would stare for hours into his parents' aquarium and try for all he was worth to think himself a fish with a memory span of less than two seconds. That way he could forget his wife and child. We were often struck by the way builders, particularly those with general building skills, commanded a premium in the marriage market, complimenting that of an endlessly rising property market. They were in fact Gasoline Alley's new rock stars and could marry up, if they chose to, but only on condition they became aggressively more entrepreneurial.
Many years ago we worked with a couple of ex-Catholic Irish lads from Belfast who had been laid off with some reasonable redundancy from the Harland and Wolfe shipyards. They had no wish to ever become sub contractors and were dating a pair of lasses from the all girl pop group Bananarama, then just breaking into the charts. Naïve colleens though the girls were, it was inevitable they would be swallowed whole by the music industry and would in turn spit out their Irish chippies. Years later we saw one of them, now a broken man, on his own and talking to himself. He had become a subcontractor, addicted, like a moth to a flame, to frequenting the rock musicians' hangout, the Horley Arms, in Camden Lock. With property on its ass, building merchants are suffering as never before, B&Q advertising its wares to the accompaniment of a thirty year old former hit single by – Bananarama! Hardly back to where they started from, though, more's the pity.
Sometimes a record of events related as much to nature as to building. During the total eclipse of the 1990s we were working on a boat moored in the Thames. As the midday sky began to darken we stopped working, noting how under Battersea Bridge the mallards began to roost, some tucking their heads beneath their wings. Out in midstream on an empty Thames barge, a dozen herons became as eerily motionless as their ornamental tin counterparts. As the moment of totality approached, corks popped, and the inevitable rockets launched, the crowd gathered on the embankment breaking into applause. During the last eclipse in the 1920s, in the little Pennine town of Giggleswick then directly in the path of the eclipse, people had fallen on their knees. Which was worse, we wondered, religious dread or natures' grandest spectacles become a performance to be cheered and clapped at?
- Nature as merely another media circus -
The immense contemporary problem for us and the essential one we have to deal with is the passive consumption of nature; nature as something to be viewed, as simple entertainment; a nature X Factor to be switched on and off as we surf with boredom; an hour long TV spectacular between soaps, football results and late night pornography, and all relating to the omnipotence of money. It is nature as spectator sport celebrating an absent life, something which isn't practised let alone something we immerse ourselves in or consciously live with. We delight in the discovery of a miniature, multi-coloured parrot in an undiscovered rain forest while killing the dull little black beetle scurrying across our sterile carpets bought with a 30% discount from Dunelm or Allied Carpets. Keats exhortation in theearly 19th century to seek out "negative capability" which by
now should have flowered on a mass scale with the concept deepened magnificently - meaning a large amount of us would now have some idea what it is like to be a bat or a beetle - has virtually disappeared without trace.
It as though some horrible, benighted recognition that should never have seen the light of day has been born within us like a Maldorean monster which says nature is dying, if not already dead and so fucking what for at least we have the compensation of celebrity culture. Or, if not that, at the very least celebrities will save the planet as they engage in saving everything else. It's a realisation intimating that the final extinction has already taken place and from now on a dying nature can only be catalogued and filed away tucked into an eternal one thousand gigabyte yellow folder drifting endlessly in cyberspace as we hasten ever faster to our final encounter with stardust.
Everything is circumscribed by an all powerful fatalism blithely masquerading as its exact opposite heralding the era of the living museum; of a pickled in aspic nature inseparable from a living sculpture intertwined with each other forever! It is the era of a spurious radical nature as permanent gallery exhibit writ large; a space to be charged for by every visiting, cloned consumer replete with officious aesthete police touting a disposition of silent, supine worship.
We are still at the early stages of the financialization of nature. That eco artists are without a doubt the emissaries of this process was clearly evident from the recent “Radical Nature” exhibition in the Barbican Centre in London during the summer of 2009. The exhibition's mast head was a field of wheat planted and harvested in Battery Park at the tip of Lower Manhattan in 1982. Called simply “Wheatfield - a Confrontation” it is now famous, but it would be in a far better world if it was now regarded as infamous - with the essential proviso 'infamous' for the right reasons. The fact that the wheatfield was planted on land worth $4.5 billion neatly disguised another totally ignored fact that it has to be the most value-added wheat field in history. The harvested grain travelled to 25 cities around the world in an exhibition called the “International art show for the end of world hunger” organised by the Museum of Minnesota. Superficially a protest against the crudest, most blatant, form of commerce, it raised the prospect of an art farming in which crops can be valorised according to whether they are labelled art or not. The artist, Agnes Denes, has been able to live off it ever since and was indeed “recreating the work on a scrap of forgotten land in industrial East london" as an associate editor of the New Scientist put it (15th
August 2009), insensible to the way the recreation was being used to greenwash the Olympiad site and increase real estate values. What other farmer in history has lived off the proceeds of a two acre wheat field for well over a quarter of a century? The artistically modified seeds were carried away by people who planted them in many parts of the world and, given time, Guggenheim Seed PLC may come to rival Montsanto. However we can be certain of one thing: AM seeds will be a lot more expensive than GM seeds – and far harder to combat.
Truth about nature must also be denied like never before in a kind of strange oscillation between depressing fact and a euphoric make believe about the future as nature is aestheticised from all quarters. It has been said recently by the media in general in the slightly better, climate-wise spring and summer of 2009 in the UK that we have had a glorious year for insect activity. A brief respite, a slight rally, has been hyped beyond all cognisances of even minimal truths. On the simplest of levels, any nondescript, casual observer will tell you in comparison to the buddleia bushes of even ten years ago the florets are empty of the pollinators which, in their turn, were empty in comparison to the late 1980s and so on as we travel backwards in time. One example will suffice: a few photographs, well courted by the media, portray a pretty picture of eight or so Heath Fritillary butterflies resting on a frond of bracken in East Blean Woods near Canterbury thus merely sharpening the appalling con we are forced to swallow. Yet none of the official, 'important' lepidopterists and other experts will say anything leading about this for fear of courting pariah status as they eternally look over their shoulders frightened of their shadows and forever hedging their bets.
|Above left: Heath Fritillaries, East Blean Woods. Above right: model of the butterfly dome, St Alban's|
Indicative of such grovelling toadying, every individual belonging to this crew is singing the praises of that monster of monstrosities; the huge geodesic structure now being built to house the lucky (?) representatives of enough of the world's dying invertebrates near St Alban's in Hertfordshire. Nobody even dares murmur that this artificial palace of hospitalised beauty is a sure sign the battle has been lost before the forces have even engaged in resolute skirmishing. Yet this monument to death is clapped, clapped and clapped again. Oh the noise of that joyful din! Yet more than ever this artificial twisting of paradise signifies that the rest of the real environment, even in the vicinity of St Alban's – e.g. the vicious widening of the M1 – can go hang.
In a similar vein the London Pestival exhibition on the Southbank artsy/fartsy scene gets bigger and more sophisticated by the year as the combination between artist and insect is gradually made more rounded or rather conical like some aesthetes giant wasp's nest. Aren't we the lucky ones because wasn't it ourselves in Icteric in Newcastle in the mid 1960s who first set the Pilkington father and now latterly son on this path as the figure of Mark Pilkington certainly figures large in this display? Cynics and buffoons will certainly say we blow our own trumpet, yet it is no more than truth still hidden from history! There is little point here going into all the ins and outs suffice to google Pestival to provide yourself with a host of irrelevant details giving some idea what the project is about, though obviously the central, salient facts are missing. In 2009, computer aided design & build took centre stage via a giant mock-up of a termites nest suggesting such a form of construction is the way out for architecture at a dead end rather like some updated repeat of the mid 1960s Archigram project but this time around replete with an eco veneer and just like aeons ago, helps keeps the idiotic role of architect alive and kicking. Needless to say, we were reminded of the Icteric beetle (see “A Malicious Dunciad in Newcastle” elsewhere on the RAP web) as natural architecture which we unceremoniously threw into the sea at Tynemouth sometime in 1966-7 as already our critique of architecture way back then was becoming more sharpened. No need here to go into psychogeography and all it implied though perhaps it's worth pointing our fulsome praise of the free-for-all relationship between human beings and nature conceived as living space, in a probably ex-colliery allotment in Maltby, South Yorks which we have referred to as the Maltby favela in one of our present films on the demise of the northern Dingy Skipper butterflies to get some idea of a more fruitful way out of the impasse of modern and post modern architecture. More than ever this curious favela – for want of a better description - is a space put together over the years without the aid of the scurrilous profession of architecture!
Yet this art/nature/architecture syndrome pulls all the “the little learning is a dangerous thing” nitwits in everywhere and their numbers are mushrooming and among them sometimes those with the beginning of an idea who could really go somewhere but tend to be derailed by one obfuscation after another. Among these serried ranks can be placed an organisation like “Buglife” which starting out with combative spirit in the road protests of the 1990s directing spot on telling criticisms of English Nature (now Natural England) over the demise of the Desmoulin's whorl snail etc on a Newbury by-pass translocation, (a process whereby threatened species are moved to a new location where they invariably die) relinquished their early promise as more and more they courted official media and were equally more and more patronised by middle-of-the-road eco organisations. The outcome is also today part of the backbone of Pestival. Unable to go down the searching, difficult path of a new total, revolutionary, autonomous critique they have been placated by half measures and “Buglife” is an awe of environmental art!
Alas, we fear something of the same fate, though coming from different angles, may befall “Workers' for Climate Action” who've played such an inspiring part in fomenting the employee occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight in 2009. We note more and more – like “Buglife” before them – they resort to interesting letter writing to newspapers like the Guardian whom it seems never refuse them. (The Guardian has always refused ours when we've been stupid enough to put pen to paper addressed to that crock of shit!) We note naiveté too though this time through a touching faith in trade union structures as means towards eco/social emancipation without even cautioning about the need for open assemblies outside of any bureaucratic interference. And for sure, their critique of art will probably be non-existent and they could so easily fall for “Pestival” display events. But we shall see....
The occupation of the wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight laid bare the limitations of the eco movement even in its most progressive aspect, namely the Workers for Climate Action group. An initial enthusiasm was rapidly tempered when it became apparent how much they were still in hock to traditional trade union ideology, the ideology of nationalization and ultimately a workers' state, though this time a 'green' workers' state. However it did mark something of a break and may possibly have occasioned a bit of a rethink in the ranks of the green movement, forcing greens to disinter the real, unofficial, history of the workers' movement that for over a quarter of a century has been declared dead and buried, along with, it is essential to add, the official workers' movement. To say the least there is much catching up to be done and so little time in which to do it. And meanwhile we are still left talking to ourselves and brick walls.
Amid the hubbub caused by the occupation which briefly caught the headlines – Bob Crow the Gen. Sec. of RMT (Rail/Maritime/Transport union) ably summed occupations up as “immediate, focussed and high profile and can force a dispute into the headlines at short notice” – it was soon forgotten that the Vestas plant on the Isle of Wight was a non unionised plant. However this was not true of the Visteon occupation earlier in the year. Visteon was a spin off from Ford and when Ford's decided to close the plant, the staff received just six minutes notice to clear their lockers and get the fuck out. The redundancy terms were far inferior to what they had been promised and after an initial plan to ram the main gates; a back way into the building was found. Local people, some with no connection with the plant, joined in with the struggle and saw it as their own – just as was to happen on the Isle of Wight. A placard appeared “don't need politicians, don't need bosses, workers take control”. A classic statement of its kind and which, if it were to become fact, Leninists, Trotskyites etc would be the first to oppose, workers control of a Ford plant, no matter how radical in terms of rejecting politicians and bosses, simply does not make sense today when it is essential all production is fundamentally altered and redirected according to whether it is sustainable or not. Reimagined is how ecologists like to put it, which gives a hint of the creative flair that is vital to success but not that actual workers need to be mobilised from the ground up in order to carry it out. To save the planet and teach the majority of ecologists a lesson, workers of the world have still to unite.
The slogans that issued from the Vestas occupation, though not as abstractly radical, somehow struck deeper by recognising it was humanity's future that was at stake. The occupying Vestas workers called for the nationalisation of their enterprise unlike the Visteon workers who did not (perhaps realising that this option really was a dead duck), adding, “its about the history of humanity”. However at this point the occupation was open to be taken by the ideology of a “green new deal” which has been much aired since the financial crises hit but not acted upon primarily because it does focus on manufacture and goes against the grain of a country still sold on financial capitalism and the need to protect the hegemony of the City of London whose present sway, as regards these islands, is historically unprecedented. It is an acutely disabling power and the number of people who can no longer open a pot of paint or use a screwdriver is astonishing. It is as if a fatwah has been issued against all practical capacities and the “British genius” for invention put permanently on the dole. To even mention the international division of labour is nigh on forbidden and that the growth in consumption and the spendthrift profligacy that goes with it has been made possible by the off shoring of production and by the willingness of countries, mainly in the east, with a huge trade surplus to fund the deficit. However the demise of the dollar and the decision by China, Russia and France to stop using the US currency for oil trading could mark the end of an Indian summer of a hoped for, and speedy return, to an economy built on financial speculation. Purchasing treasury bonds denominated in a currency likely to go into free fall is not an attractive proposition. Yet again finance capital is as vulnerable as ever to self-slaughter.
Like it or not the greens are very much a part of this disabling tendency and harbour a dislike of blue collar workers. And so it should come as no surprise that come Climate Camp in the late summer of 2009, newspaper coverage had dropped any mention of the Vestas occupation. Given the anti-worker hostility that is endemic in this country, one felt this was not mere oversight but policy and one the greens are more than happy to go along with. On August 31st a letter from Workers for Climate Action appeared in the Guardian claiming that the
newspaper’s reports had not mentioned the presence of the Vestas workers who “are still fighting for the nationalisation of the plant” and who are “taking part because they understand that workers organisations and the fight against climate change are inseparable” The letter concludes “trade unionists should join the debate”.
Workers for Climate Action had obviously got wind the turbine factory was due to close long before it was officially announced. Some weeks prior to that they had set up camp outside the main gates and spent long hours talking to the workers who were employed inside. According to the Guardian of July 25th 2009, "Initially they were met with scepticism but gradually small numbers of workers began to be persuaded that action could make a difference”. The group, to their great credit, obviously played a major part in getting the workers to occupy the plant. The ease with which they were able to talk to the workers must have been greatly facilitated by the fact there were no official trade union representatives present to put them off their stride. Like as not, the latter would have regarded the camp as undermining the negotiations with Vestas management to keep the plant open and would have advised their members to steer clear of the trouble makers, even saboteurs, parked outside. So how come Workers for Climate Action were now directing their appeal at bona fide trade unionists, as if to say people who are not in trade unions can play no part in the struggle? This is a leftist prejudice of the first order and one that throughout history has been disproved time and again initially in some of the writings of Bakunin and William Morris and, a little later, eloquently spelt out by Rosa Luxembourg in her agitational, book length, pamphlet “The Mass Strike” through to the late 1960s and 1970s where this disposition was more prominent than ever e.g. a huge swathe of the revolt of May ’68 in France was un-unionised etc. Then suddenly a vast dumbing down took place and a direct outcome of the grotesque neoliberal experiment. This theoretical humbug must in part be put down to the catapulting of Workers for Climate Action briefly into the limelight and the fact that Bob Crow of the RMT was prepared to sign a joint letter with them, which the Guardian published without further ado. But even without Crow's imprimatur, letters from the group were published in the newspaper. However if the letters had born witness to the hobbling role of trade unions and political parties in revolutionary moments, and how it will be no different come a genuine green revolution, then, for certain, not one letter would have been published.
So many of these people who make up this half way house critique, though not perhaps Workers' for Climate Action, are precisely the ones who will see in the Guardian's recently created 10:10 campaign (the pledge to cut your personal emissions by10 % within the year) a means of future freedom via fluffy eco get-togethers; the stirring counterpart to the inevitable bureaucratic sclerosis of the Copenhagen climate summit. For isn't the social basis of 10:10 those individuals who've spent their lives climbing somewhat the career ladder oriented around 'concerned' occupations or businesses spewing out high ideological good intent who've flocked to the Guardian's cause? For sure they'll cut somewhat their carbon emissions and tamper with their lifestyles a little but, for certain most will refuse to go down that very difficult, extra mile abandoning their bullshit professions, their buying and selling, or even their augmented purchasing power and/or their love affair with celebrity – minor or major. Like journalist Mad' Bunting they will be adept at a pernickety reeling off of carbon statistics they've improved upon, though essentially they'll never move beyond a holier than thou, deeply hypocritical, essentially moral response to commodified superabundance (for some) making sure their status in this wretched society remains an eternal given.
So it is left to us; those who've been cast aside and thrown away; those without official status either, culturally, politically or scientifically to say the obvious: Down with this huge sideshow – and slideshow – of utter bullshit .There are more of them than us, more, much more. Most of us don't have the means to buy big - or even medium expenditure - carbon polluting items. Most do not own a house, live the suburban existence, or even had/have a car and literally have no empathy with Mad Bunting’s hand wringing over a deluxe, very polluting, Aga cooker. Most too have always travelled by public transport and, as we know, George Monbiot finds buses depressing. So what about us who've never ever found this to be true?
Sadly we also know that most at the real sharp end have little awareness of the impending eco catastrophe and lack any sophistication in reeling off variation upon variation of green thoughts in green shades. However, the constant media bumph spewing out tales of an eco woe not accurately presented means that a minority of sharpenders are beginning to read through the phased alternate lines and are coming to the conclusion, whilst still hanging on somewhat to their fluffy teddy bears, that their carbon front print is very small indeed, so what are they exactly supposed to feel guilty about? It is not a climate change denial alibi neither because it inevitably seems to bring with it heightened, general eco awareness that big storms are on the way headed by an uprising of the dispossessed.
This patchy though growing awareness emanating from the ecos of no property and slight consumer pulling power can only really get somewhere by relying on themselves alone, minus the false friends of eco consumption and the have your cake and eat it alternative. This isn't denial rather its opposite as there is nothing today in dominant society which is creative or worth having. For sure interesting facts, interpretations, tendencies or what have you can for instance be taken from the 'new' nature writing providing all hesitations, half-measures and double dealings of these litterateurs are redefined by a down home energy and a previous wealth of hard, practical experience.It means if necessary we must court arrest through intelligent intervention aimed at getting across – through the publicity of an anti publicity - a sharpened eco awareness as an essential part of renewed, total revolutionary critique. The future points to extreme divergence: The spectacle is marginalising like never before all real thought, contribution and achievement, because in the era of a state supported free market buttressing the rich and super-rich we can only rely on our own genuine internet 2 samizdat, our own blogs, or more permanent ebooks as the facebookers, youtubers, twitterers forever dallying with the society of entertainment are cast aside. As for the rest, a dying, official, all pervasive media wants no truck with us in any case and more importantly, we no longer need to have any truck with them.....
Stuart & David Wise: Autumn 2009