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It is a bright morning in early March. The weather charts show that high pressure dominates northwest Europe: there is practically no wind and the sky is cloudless. A weak sun brightens the valley, weak because it is filtered through an early morning haze that nearly obscures Lansdown on the far side of the valley and softens my view of the city below. But when I step out of the shade of the high orchard walls into direct sunshine, I feel its warmth immediately, warmth that draws out a spontaneous exclamation of appreciation, almost a blessing.

I am in the orchard as part of my continuing exploration of the Anthropocene. My writing group have set me the classic creative writing exercise: I am to select five objects that immediately speak to me of the Anthropocene and use these as a stimulus for writing. My spontaneous response to the warmth of the sun reminds it is important not to think too much. As Gregory Bateson pointed out, it was important that Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was not conscious that blessing the water snakes would release him from the curse – “he blessed them unaware”. Had the blessing been a conscious act, the albatross would not have fallen from around his neck. I collect items quickly as they appear to hand, carry them back to my study and arrange them next to my computer:

  1. Three rocks, of pink Mull granite, Torridonian sandstone, and Hebridean gneiss, that I picked up from the western coast of Scotland on my ecological pilgrimage;
  2. An orange plastic net, with supermarket label (also plastic) still attached, in which we bought six tangerines from Sainsbury’s, that I pulled out of the garbage;
  3. Three white bird feathers, I think body or breast feathers, that I noticed lying under the bird feeder;
  4. A large scallop shell, probably collected for fancy food presentation, picked up from a damp corner. Now it is in the house I notice it holds three small slugs that have unfolded in the warmth and are slowly exploring their way up the edges;
  5. A sprig of blackthorn cut from the hedge on the way back from the Orchard, its buds just emerging pink against the dark bark.

Geologists suggest that the Anthropocene is a new geological era, replacing the Holocene, in which a clear trace of human impact will be visible to future geologists in a layer of rock. To qualify in scientific terms this layer of rock must be functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. But the idea of the Anthropocene also opens a host of new metaphors for the relationship between humans and their ‘environment’. Not least, the notion that humans have written themselves into the rocks of the planet challenges the familiar human/nature dualism and so the concept of the ‘environment’: for we are now so clearly part of the planet on or in which we have our being. For some commentators, this opens up ontological questions about the nature of human being; for others, the suggestion that humans have so radically impacted on the earth is an invitation to continue doing so, more thoroughly, with more sophisticated technology.

So is the Anthropocene good, bad, or simply ugly? Is it a mark of human transcendence of its origins in the natural world; or a re-cycling of the hubris expressed in the ancient myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods? To whom are ‘we’ referring by the term ‘human’- all of us, or just a privileged few? And does not the very name ‘Anthropocene’ hold more that a hint triumphalism? Is it obscene to consider we live in an Anthropocene?

I am supposed to be writing about the interconnection between my five objects. I will get round to that. But I want first to write something about how the process of collecting the objects drew my attention to wider planetary processes: the warmth of my carbon-fuel heated house as against the chill of the morning air outside; the still spring day and the re-emergence of life after the winter; the blessed warmth of the sun; the meteorological fact of high pressure – which I can intuit by the weather conditions but also ‘know’ because I was able check the Met Office surface pressure charts on my iPad before I got out of bed. For one clear theme emerges from my research into writings on the Anthropocene, is that human action has sewn the whole Earth together in extraordinary ways. Our profoundly interconnected world has transcended local ecological boundaries: we must think not just in ecological terms but also in Earth system terms. It demands that we attend to the ways in which local ecological events are impacted by the grand gestures of the planet, gestures that we humans, or at least the ‘scientific community’ have labelled: the long and short term carbon cycles, El Nino, the jet stream, the thermohaline currents of the ocean and Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, and so on.

As I sit at my desk, hanging between these grand gestures and the immediacy of the objects I have selected, I notice, as I list them for this writing, that they are all deeply implicated in human action. The ‘wildest’ presence on my tray is that which is most fortuitous and which I did not list – the three slugs (one of which is disappearing over the edge of the shell as I write). They came to me uninvited, unselected, out of control – I am slightly anxious they might escape and make a home in my office. I did intend to include a wild object when I cut the sprig of blackthorn, although in all likelihood the bush was planted by humans as part of the hedge that runs by the side the lane to the orchard. But once I had placed it in water in a contrasting white pottery vase, once I had imbued it with the hope that the flowers would unfold early in the warmth of my house, my wild twig was transformed into a human (aesthetic) construction. (And all the while I am writing this paragraph, the slug has found its way over the lip of the scallop and is navigating its way onto the tray that I used to carry the objects upstairs.)

Yet there is a difference between those objects on the tray that are, or have been, part of the biological world – the slugs, the shell, the feathers and the….. (Stop! I have to interrupt my reflections to write that the smallest slug, earlier exploring the bottom of the shell, returned to the rim and has lowered itself from the edge down to the surface of the tray on a silken thread. It is now traversing the wooden surface, leaving a trail of mucous behind it. I shall allow it to explore as far as the edge of the tray, no further!) As I was writing, the slugs, the shell, the feathers and the sprig of blackthorn, are formed as patterns of complex symmetry that indicate they were once part of living things; the rocks are composed of natural crystals – visible to the naked eye in the coarse-grained granite, hidden but still present in the sandstone – which are evidence of their origin in the cooling of molten rocks rising from the depths of the Earth; while the plastic net… well, just how was that formed? (A second slug has just navigated the edge of the shell and dropped onto the tray.)

When I was a young man, I worked for Imperial Chemical Industries as a personnel officer. Early in my training at Nylon Works, Billingham, I spent a week on night shift with the Shift Manager, who had overall responsibility for the whole plant. Much of the time we sat in his airless office, drinking cups of tea and responding to phone calls from foremen around the site. But several times each night we put on overalls, hard hats and safety glasses and went to walk about the various plants. At one end of the factory was the tall distillation plant that separated the raw material into constituent parts – an alchemist’s still on an industrial scale. At the other end were the autoclaves that subjected the raw chemicals to tremendous heat and pressure to forge the long strings of molecules – polymers – that characterize nylon and all synthetic materials. I remember looking at these autoclaves, watching in wonder when, once the mixture was cooked, the plant operator opened a valve and the liquid polymer streamed out in long threads. Once cooled, it was chopped into pellets, packaged in huge containers and made ready to be transported from the plant. That was in the early days of polymers, when they were manufactured on a relatively small scale in batch rather than continuous process. Those were days when we still bought meat wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper, when vegetables were dropped straight from the greengrocer’s scales into the shopping basket. But even then, ICI and other chemical companies were actively marketing plastic bags and plastic bottles as evidence of progress in the ‘modern’ age.

Polymers do occur in the natural world, giving cotton, starch and rubber their particular properties. Some of these remain beyond human reach: spiders’ silk, created at ambient temperature in a spinneret rather than in the pressure and heat of an autoclave, is stronger and tougher than steel. (I returned the slugs to the shell, but the pale one that led the last exploration has once again escaped to the surface of the tray; I will take them outside and release them). In contrast, man-made polymers – and I am immediately struck with the problems of language, consciously avoiding the term ‘artificial’ here just as I tried to avoid ‘nature’ earlier – are usually by their inherent properties and by design not biodegradable and so persist in the world far beyond their intended purpose – essentially forever. The orange net and plastic label stand here for the (literally) millions of chemicals that humans have synthesised and released into a world that has no way of dealing with them. A quick search on line reveals “A novel substance is either isolated or synthesized every 2.6 seconds on the average during the past 12 months, day and night, seven days a week in the world.”

I examine the label attached to the net. There is lots of information about the product: size 5 fruit; treated with wax coating; grown by Rumu, Spain; best before March 13; a list of nutritional values. At the very bottom, in quite small type, is a crossed out recycling sign and the information ‘FILM &NET – PLASTIC not currently recycled’. In its strange way, the net is a beautiful object: brightly coloured, strong, flexible, longlasting – aye, there’s the rub, it does what it is designed to do so very well, and then lasts forever, deathless, separate from the cycles of life, notionally part of what the imaginary future geologist will dig up, wondering at the extraordinary phenomenon that hit the world in this moment of geological time. And by dreaming up this future geologist, we contemporary humans project ourselves forward, imagining at least unconsciously that there will, in some distant future, be a civilization of hominids quite like ourselves with the same kind of interests and practices of inquiry. And Cicero thought his times were corrupt when he exclaimed “O tempora! O mores!” two thousand years ago. Why would a company select a material that will be thrown away immediately, yet last far beyond the sell-by date of the product, the projected life of the consumer, or indeed of the company?

I put down the plastic fruit net, and see that the feathers in my collection have blown to the floor. I pick them up and examine them. They are white and fluffy; not flight feathers, I guess they come from the breast or body of the bird. But why were they under the bird feeder? Was this evidence of some kind of struggle? Maybe a sparrowhawk ambushed the little birds in their early morning feed. But there is no evidence of a kill, and so either the sparrowhawk flew away with its prey, or the attack was unsuccessful. I look again at the feathers: they are quite large for breast feathers – too large and the wrong colour to be from a blue tit or finch, which are the usual birds on a feeder.

I could research further about birds and feathers, but whatever their origination, the feathers point to something of the wild, beyond human intention. I set up the birdfeeder in the orchard to encourage and support wildlife, but it seems it becomes the focus for another aspect of the wild world, attracting predators as well as songbirds. Even this small, low impact, intervention has unintended consequences. How, then, can anyone imagine that intervention into the wider dynamics of ecosystems will not have an impact beyond our imagination? The wild world keeps crashing into the best-laid, as well as the most foolish, schemes of humankind.

I am reminded of the film I watched recently of ornithologists netting and ringing seabirds – puffins, razorbills and petrels – on the Shiant Islands, those extraordinary volcanic rocks that rise out of the turbulent waters of the Little Minch. I visited the Shiants on my ecological pilgrimage, watched the puffins flying back and forth with sand eels for their chicks, so dense they appeared more like a swarm of mosquitoes than birds. I spent a nervous night at an exposed anchorage, the fragility of my situation echoing the fragility of the rocks, the little birds, the whole ecosystem. Utterly charmed by the place, it seemed to me wrong, intrusive, that we humans should interfere in any way with the birds on this wild place. There is precious little space left on Earth for wild animals just to be themselves. And yet, when I spoke of my reservations to a young ornithologist, I felt her sense of wonder as she told me how it felt to hold wild bird in her hand. “You should come sometime and try for yourself,” she told me, with a conviction that spoke volumes. And I know the importance of the information that is collected for the conservation of species. I know the wonder that naturalists have derived from the very recent discovery, arrived at through GPS tracking, of how the migrating cuckoo crosses the vast expanse of the Sahara: after resting in the Atlas mountains it climbs to a very great height and then flies and glides downwards right across the desert without stopping until it reaches the forests to the south. Despite this, something deeply non-rational tells me that we don’t have a right to this kind of information, although I am hard pressed to justify it. I think it intrudes on the privacy of other beings, allowing us to see them more as objects than as self-determining creatures, and thus is in danger of reinforcing a mechanistic and human dominated worldview. This is not fair on the true naturalist ornithologists, who are captivated by the full wonder of the birds. But just like my bird feeder, the new information about others species attract the predatory modernists who would use if for narrow human purposes.

This leaves me to write just a few words about the rocks. I pick up the piece of gneiss I collected on the west coast of Lewis. It lies in the palm of my hand – an old hand by human measures, but not even the blink of an eye in the 3.5 billion years since this rock was laid down in the early stages of the cooling Earth. What strange creatures we humans are, that we presume to measure the Earth, what hubris see a new era and to name it after ourselves!

 

Text that have informed my writing

Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: An Investigation into the Nature and Meaning of the Sacred. London: Rider, 1987, pp.73-76

Dalbey, Simon. “Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The Anthropocene Review 3, no. 1 (2015): 33-51.

Madrigal, Alexis Humans Have Made, Found or Used Over 50 Million Unique Chemicals. Wired http://www.wired.com/2009/09/humans-have-made-found-or-used-over-50-million-unique-chemicals/

Moore, Kathleen Deane. “Anthropocene Is the Wrong Word.” Earth Island Journal (2013).