'Stepping Out', by Bruce Hooke, The Art Farm, Marquette, Nebraska, USA. 'Striding along, expecting the road to stay solid below him, the man in the suit steps out, into the unknown. About to fall, he will crash to the hard, fertile earth. The eleborate plans in his briefcase scatter in the wind. By taking on the role of the man in the suit and photographing myself I seek to explore issues of power, authority and privilege.' Graphic: Bruce Hooke

By Michael Malay
9 May 2018

(Dark Mountain) – Today we bring you the last in our series of extracts from our thirteenth book, an anthology of new writing and art exploring what ‘being human’ means in an age of rapid ecological and social change. Dark Mountain: Issue 13 is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues.

We finish the series with Michael Malay’s essay on poetry and extinction, accompanied by an image by Bruce Hooke.

In “Blacksmith Shop”, Czeslaw Milosz describes a childhood visit to the local smithy. He remembers the blacksmith standing above the anvil, hammering away at a piece of iron, and the incredible heat of the furnace. A group of horses stand outside, ready to be shod, while a collection of tools await repair: ‘plowshares’, ‘sledge runners’, ‘harrows’. ‘I liked the bellows operated by rope’, Milosz writes, and ‘that blowing and blazing of fire’. Transfixed, he watches as the iron is bent glowingly into a horseshoe.

Milosz’s catalogue of objects is mundane. The poem lists the normal accoutrements of a blacksmith shop: bellows, a pair of tongs, an anvil. Yet there is an intensity to the speaker’s gaze, and a tenderness to the poet’s voice, that transfigures what it names. Held lovingly in the space of the poem’s recollections, the scene is restored to the primacy of the present tense. “I stare and stare”, Milosz writes, recalling the gusts of heat at his chest. “It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are.”

I had reason to think of Milosz recently, when, early last summer, the Polish government defied an EU court order to halt logging in Białowieża, one of Europe’s last primeval forests and home to the rare European bison. And the thought emerged: if one task of the poet, as implicitly defined by Milosz, is to “glorify things just because they are”, what might it mean to write poetry today, in an era of climate change, environmental degradation and mass species extinction? How might one bear witness to a disappearing world? (‘Daffodils at the end of January!’ a friend remarked, uttering a sentence his grandparents would not have understood. Meanwhile, current rates of extinction are 1,000 times higher than normal background levels, with dozens of species dying off every day. In a few decades, whole forms of life – whole ways of understanding – have changed.) […]

Today, one might say that the criminals are the Murdochs, Kochs, and Tillersons of the world, as well as the multinational companies – the BPs, Monsantos, and Cargills – who continue to plunder earth’s resources at a time of swift ecological unravelling. All the same, the marvels of reality continue too, in the form of great fish and bird migrations, the standing miracles of ancient forests, or the simple but mysterious thereness of the earth’s elements: air, water, earth, fire. Were Milosz still writing today, his ledger would still contain two columns: one for beauty, one for justice.

For all his exemplariness as a poet of witness, however, Milosz did not and could not foresee the complications of the current moment. Witness poetry implies the hope of restitution and redress – a rebalancing of the scales, even if that rebalancing is enacted aesthetically, through poetry, rather than institutionally, in the political sphere. But what hope for those countless creatures who perish without word or witness? What representations – legal, poetic, or otherwise – do they receive? Equally, how might one identify the deed, let alone the date of the crime, when the drivers of extinction and climate change are so widely distributed and its effects so unimaginably large? ‘O my love, where are they, where are they going’, Milosz writes in one of his poems, recalling a night when his friend pointed to a hare running across a wintry road. ‘I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder’, his poem concludes – but it’s an emphasis we might be tempted to reverse. In a landscape where brown hares are critically endangered – in the UK, their population has declined by 80% in the past 10 years – we do ask (appropriately, I think) out of sorrow. […]

It is easy to become despondent, indeed sorrowful, about these losses: each day we are confronted with appalling statistics about the loosening footholds (and wing-holds) of mammals and birds in the UK, not to mention thousands of insect species whose habitats are being fundamentally changed by human intervention. As Ursula Heise reminds us, however, narratives of ecological decline, which often borrow from genre conventions such as tragedy and elegy, can easily turn into narratives of human decline. Environmental ‘crisis typically becomes a proxy for cultural concerns,’ she writes in Imagining Extinction, a way of telling stories about the fallen experience of modernity. We therefore need to understand when sorrow is misplaced – when it is a projection of cultural anxieties onto nature – and when it stems from a genuine reckoning of what is being lost. The risk of not doing so is to tell a story that begins to tell us – a hopeless story about inevitable decline.

The other risk of declensionist narratives is that they ignore the capacity of certain creatures to adapt during times of change. As Chris Thomas argues in Inheritors of the Earth, some animals seem to be thriving in the present era. We have damaged the planet beyond any reasonable measure, he admits, altering its ‘great chemical cycles’ and acidifying its oceans, but ‘we are still surrounded by large numbers of species, many of which appear to be benefiting from our presence’ and adapting to ‘this human-altered world’. He also argues that we should situate today’s changes in their ‘appropriate historical context, which involves time spans much longer than we are used to thinking about in our everyday lives.’ This is ‘necessary because the story of life on Earth is one of never-ending change: be that the arrival and disappearance of species from a particular location (ecological change) or the longer-term formation of new species and extinction of others (evolutionary change).’

This is not to discount the losses of anthropogenic extinction, which are immense, nor the profligacy with which capitalism exploits human and non-human life. The long view that Thomas takes may also come with a subtle danger. Deep time consoles us by reminding us of earth’s endurance and continuity, but such a view may also desensitise us to the present, to the precious and fragile life being lost now. [more]

Dark Mountain: Issue 13 – Bearing Witness to a Disappearing World

1 comments :

  1. Anonymous said...

    I hope someone is keeping track of the record highs being broken. There seems to be a ton of them.  

 

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