A sense of planet and a sense of place
July 26, 2013, 12:53 pm
Filed under: By, with or from EtS, Nature writing

I was touched and flattered to find myself recruited to the ranks of nature writers by their dean, Richard Mabey, in his defence of their genre against an attack by Steven Poole.

Poole’s phrases “recent nature writing” and “nature writers” amount to an indiscriminate homogenisation; current nature writing is the broadest of secular churches. Oliver Morton’s engaging personal saunter through the world of photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, for example, might be more properly labelled imaginative science writing, just as Robert Macfarlane‘s literal wanderings in his masterpiece The Old Ways is really imaginative travel literature.

Quite how well I fit there, though, I don’t know. I was thinking of exploring the matter in a blog post, but then realised that to quite a large extent I have already done so on this very blog, responding to a 2007 piece by MacFarlane that talks about the essence of nature writing.

Eating the Sun is definitely “in search of some version of ‘nature’”, and it is more of a first-person narrative than I necessarily expected it to be. But it does not share “a passionate engagement with ‘the land’”. Indeed rather the reverse. One of its original aims, which I think is probably fulfilled to some extent, but perhaps not as explicitly as it might have been, was to celebrate air as the basis of life — which it is for plants and thus, indirectly, for us. One aspect of this is to encourage an appreciation that the air is universal where the land is particular — the carbon taken in by trees in Brazil has come in part from your lungs and mine, the carbon taken in by the rose on my terrace has come from all the lungs of the world, not to mention coals that have sat buried for a million centuries.

One of my reasons for writing about photosyntheses was specifically this — that it was a way to talk about the living earth that did not have to be a way of talking about specific places (though there are specific places in the book, some of which I love deeply). I find ideologies of land and rootedness worrying intellectually and hard to partake in emotionally; I suspect them of being innately regressive and conservative. One of the great opportunities of the current carbon/climate crisis is to create what might be called an ideology of air — of valuing and caring for something common to all and intrinsically global, and of creating a passionate engagement with the open sky and the endless sun.

That still holds pretty true, and I am struck, re-reading it, by how well the ideology-of-air stuff at the end sits remarkably with my current conception of what the geoengineering book needs to do.

A passage from Eating the Sun takes on a similar set of distinctions:

I am not as sensitive as I might be to the subtleties of place. I lack a capacity for the sure recognition and the ready retention of names and distinctive detail. Learning to parse the shapes of leaves or the textures of rocks does not come easily to me, and I have never lived long enough in a non-urban landscape for such things to have seeped in through the capillaries of unattended observation. Given all this, the belief that life’s nature needs to be captured at the levels of the molecule and the planet—at levels perceived by the intellect and not the senses—provides me with some succour. It is far more abstracted than traditional ways of feeling close to nature; it is argued more than absorbed. Yet though it doesn’t grow out of the experience of life in the world, I find that it still serves to enrich that experience and to render it more profound. It ties the sky to the seed and the rain to the rock in a way the details of rustic experience cannot. I can see that there is something sad about a oneness with the world that can be felt as easily—sometimes more easily—from the window seat of an hermetically sealed and environmentally damaging passenger jet than when sitting on a riverbank and picking out the trout swimming upstream. But for all that this belief is a creature of the mind, rather than a sentiment grounded in birdsong and summer scents, it has meaning to me that I cannot reduce to analysis and it has the power to move me. And I think it can enhance more traditional forms of empathy with nature. It enriches the way I see trees on a scarp, or grass in the wind, or moss on a cliff, or a star in the sky, even though I can rarely recognise the species, rocks or constellations I may be looking at. A sense of planet can amplify a sense of place.

So I am not entirely sure I really belong there — but I am more than happy to be included in Mabey’s broad church, and flattered to be singled out. As long as no one minds that I don’t know the scriptures or when to genuflect.

PS — there’s more along this line in the “Nature writing” category on this blog, including, as it happens, previous posts inspired by Steven Poole and Richard Mabey.

The Worldfalls
August 22, 2012, 10:39 am
Filed under: Nature writing, samples/work in progress

I’m fascinated by the fact the Earth-system is a massive conduit of power, with energy flowing into the system in the form of sunlight, flowing out of it as infrared. The flow involved is simply extraordinary: 120,000 terawatts. That’s 10,000 times the amount that flows through our industrial civilisation – all the world’s reactors, turbines, cars, furnaces, boilers, generators and so on put together. Yet so firmly are we tethered, and so smooth is the flow, that we hardly notice this torrent thundering past and through us. It just feels like the world.

So here’s an image to try and capture the immensity of the flow in which we are embedded. Picture Horseshoe Falls, the most familiar, forceful and dramatic cataract in Niagara Falls, in full spate.

Now increase the height of the falls by a factor of 20; a kilometre of falling water, a cascade higher even than Angel Falls in Venezuela.

Now increase the flow by a factor of 10. Instead of 30 tonnes of water falling over each metre of the lip of the falls every second, allow 300 tonnes of water per metre.

Finally, widen the falls. Stretch them until they span a continent, with billions of tonnes of water falling over them every second. And don’t stop there. Go on widening them until they stretch all around the equator: a kilometre-high wall of water thundering down incessantly, cutting the world in half, deafening leviathan in the abyss.

That is what 120,000 terawatts looks like. That is what drives the world in which you live.

All that is solid…
August 6, 2010, 8:23 am
Filed under: Earth history, Geoengineering, Nature writing, Published stuff

The Economist has an occasional column called Green View which looks at all sorts of environmental issues, though with a preponderance of climate stuff: in the past few months we’ve looked at arctic ice, business and biodiversity, tuna farming, Svalbard (of course), Climategate, malaria and climate change, the Hartwell paper, future urbanisation and a bunch of other stuff. Since I’m the Energy and Environment Editor I sort of own this slot, though I don’t write every one of the pieces that goes in. And since there’s a lot less blogging around these parts than there used used to be, I thought some of you might like to know this.

This page lists a whole lot of the columns (and a few other things that have strayed in by mistake), but as of a few weeks ago it is probably not being updated any more due to a change in the way we publish things on line. A couple of weeks ago there was a piece on what geoengineering could mean for different regions that might be of some interest to readers of this blog. Excerpt:

Uncertainty about who might do best from what sort of project allows discussions of geoengineering to take place without the parties to the debate knowing in any detail where any nation’s specific interests might lie. This introduces what the philosopher John Rawls called a “veil of ignorance”; making decisions as if such a veil existed, Rawls thought, was a good basis for justice. (If regional outcomes could be predicted accurately, a different Rawlsian idea, that of the difference principle, might come into play. This states that just action consist not just of improving things for everyone, but specifically for improving things for the worst off, and would give the effects of geoengineering on the least developed countries a particular importance.)

And this week, rather atypically, there’s a piece on the Earth’s core, and the way things you don’t expect to be transitory turn out so to be. Excerpt:

The Earth is a recycling scheme that has been running for a third of the age of the universe. Microbes and plants endlessly pull carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere and pump them back out in different forms. Water evaporates from the oceans, rains down on the land, pours back to the seas. As it does so it washes away whole mountain ranges—which then rise again from sea-floor sediments when oceans squeeze themselves shut. As oceans reopen new crust is pulled forth from volcanoes; old crust is destroyed as tectonic plates return to the depths from which those volcanoes ultimately draw their fire.

Anyone who likes that second piece might want to check out the essay in Seeing Further (Amazon UK) which I blogged about here, or the Earthrise piece I did for the Times a few years ago, which also covers some similar ground. (Out of ideas, or following a ceaseless process of re-creation? You decide…)

Svalbard diary
June 28, 2010, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Nature writing, Published stuff

The view from Mt Zeppelin, about 22:00

I’ve just been up to Svalbard, in the high arctic, for a symposium on climate change. Here are some excerpts from a correspondent’s diary over at The Economist.

Day 1

…How sustainable it is for 40-odd people to travel a very long way in order to attend yet another meeting on climate change is obviously open to debate. At the same time, old Arctic hands say that it is impossible to appreciate what is happening in the Arctic without at least some experience of being there, and there is no real way of proving them wrong. There’s also the possibility that the combination of people, topic, setting and isolation (because of the nature of some of the research Ny Alesund is a wi-fi, Bluetooth and mobile phone-free zone) will conjure new freshness into potentially tired discussions. Certainly it’s not an opportunity to turn down. [whole entry]

Day 2

…Perched up above the last working Longyearbyen mine (“Mine 7”, which produces only enough coal as the town’s power station needs) two radio telescopes gaze up into the sky. One, like most such dishes, can swivel around. The other is fixed, looking almost straight up; built to study the aurora, rather than the stars, it can see most of what it needs by looking straight up the earth’s near-vertical magnetic field lines. When turned on, these radio telescopes use as much as 20% of the electricity generated from the coal that is being mined out of the ground beneath as they tickle the northern lights above, listening for faint echoes. [whole entry]

Day 3

…The air is cool. The light is warm. The colours have changed in response to the sky. The soil, such as it is, seems darker, richer. The plants have taken on a fuller set of greens, mixed through with lichen orange and the persistent, almost-afterburn purple of saxifrage in summer flower, deeper the longer you look. Standing water, of which there is a lot, has turned sky-vault blue—except for that which forms the larger, more distant ponds, and reflects the mountains beyond. The fjord, by contrast, is lighter now than the puddles, almost milky. [whole entry]

Two of the "Three Crown" peaks, after midnight

Day 4

…In the late afternoon (sun west by southwest, over the airstrip) the symposium took to the water, heading to the top of the fjord to look at the glaciers under clearing skies. Bijou icebergs floated almost stationary in the still water. A flock of kittiwakes, startled, flashed up from their station at the point where meltwater and seawater meet. Scientists talked of kelp and copepods. The ice at the end of the Kongsfjord towered above us. But less so than once it would have. Many of the other glaciers no longer reach the sea, retreating to their mountain lairs, folded moraines left behind them.

Studies of fjord-floor sediments show that the glaciers are further back now than they were when Vikings sailed to Iceland and Greenland (and, possibly, Svalbard, though if so they left no trace of their presence for their descendants other than disputable references in some sagas). It is possible they were this shrunken in the northern hemisphere’s early post-ice-age warmth, 8,000 years ago, but that is not certain.[whole entry]

Day 5

…By the time the passengers for the third flight have been ferried out to the airstrip, perhaps a kilometre out of town, the top of Mt Zeppelin, at 474 metres, is in cloud, too, and snow is beginning to blow in from the northeast. The base’s radio telescope, part of a worldwide network that defines the absolute reference frame for GPS navigation, among other things, scans the now slate-like sky with a whirring creak. It is because of the dish’s sensitive measurements that wifi, bluetooth and mobile phones are banned in Ny Alesund. The Dornier turns up, we pile in, and the base quickly vanishes below us. It will be the last fixed wing flight out of Ny Alesund for a while. [whole entry]

Ny Alesund, from the airstrip

All pictures by me, available under Creative Commons share-alike: More pics here

George Hay lecture
April 18, 2010, 8:26 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Nature writing

The Science Fiction Foundation kindly asked me to give the George Hay lecture at this year’s Eastercon, on the subject of geoengineering. Quite a lot of the talk explored my ideas about how the issues raised by geoengineering resemble in many ways those raised by nuclear power and weaponry, and on this occasion I tried to put them together in the tradition of the technological sublime, as discussed by Leo Marx, David Nye, Lyotard and others. It’s possible that the SFF will at some point put up a video. I don’t have a complete text, and didn’t clear copyright on most of teh images, so I won’t be putting the whole thing up, but here’s the conclusion, or perhaps the coda — an appreciation of Olafur Eliasson’s remarkable and unforgettable Weather Project:

The turbine hall of Tate Modern is a vast space, and much of the art that has been shown in it over the past ten years has failed in the face of its immensity; little things were daunted by it, big things cluttering it up to ill effect. Olafur Eliasson’s work, though, brought the sublime to it. Undaunted by the huge volume, Eliasson effectively doubled it by mirroring the ceiling, making a spaceship hold large enough for other spaceships to chase through. And within that space, he recreated the sun, encapsulated and encompassed in an idea of art. To quote Edmund Burke again — “Such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea”. Throughout the hall, 200 metres long, people stared at something more vast than they were used to indoors, more present than they were used to outdoors, an idea that was also an experience. And when they looked up – or lay down, as we did, in large numbers, unbidden – they saw themselves, in the mirrored ceiling, clearly down on the floor, and clearly high above the sun in which they basked. It was a shrunken world, but not a constraining one.

For an experience of the sublime, it was unusual in many ways. One was that it was enclosed, not open. The great electric architecture of the building itself stood in for our power to encompass anything – even the weather, even the sun – with our minds. And that made it reflexive, too. To experience it was to see not just the sun, but to see yourself in the sun, seeing the sun.

And not just yourself. Because another oddity was the sense of solar solidarity. Mostly, in facing the sublime, one is alone – that is, in fact, the point. The weather project didn’t allow solitude. You, anyone you were with, anyone else who was there, were all in it together – down on the roof, up in the mirrors, flanking the sun. It was a sublime with a sense of the personal – and the collective. As such, it was an inspiration.

UPDATE: Looking at this post I realise that out of context it is pretty much impenetrable. The idea was to try and find an image for what the sort of solidarity that might make geoengineering governable might actually feel like.

Images from Flickr users Mushkush and Istvan under a Creative Commons licence; more nice flickr images here

How to see the world
January 26, 2010, 6:00 pm
Filed under: Artworks, Nature writing, Published stuff

Photography is

the desire to see what the world looks like in our absence

— Jean Baudrillard, quoted by Steven Poole.

“Are you going to move our stuff?”

“No, that’s the view. We’re in the picture”

— William Fox and Mark Klett, quoted in Fox’s Viewfinder, a book about Klett’s rephotography project

It struck me reading Poole’s review that an awful lot of the concerns in my writing, most recently in “Globe and Sphere, Cycles and Flows: How to See the World”, which is my essay in the Royal Society collection, Seeing Further, sit firmly in the space defined by those two quotations, the second one of which is the epigraph for Mapping Mars.

The ability to see the Earth as an astronomer would another planet marked a fundamental shift, the long-term effects of which we still cannot gauge. It has provided valuable new perspectives and treasure troves of data. But no image can reveal everything; and every revelation obscures something. For all that it is an image of the whole, the vision of the Earth from space is necessarily partial. By leaving things out, it makes the Earth too easy to objectify, too easy to hold at a distance, too easy to idealise. It needs to be offset by a deeper sense of the world as it is felt from the inside, and as it extends out of view into past and future. Because of the changes we are putting the planet through, we need as many ways of looking at and thinking about it as we can find. We need ways to see it as a history, a system, and a set of choices, not just a thing of beauty – one which, from our astronomical perspective, we seem already to have left. There are other ways to see the beauty of the world than in the rear-view mirror of progress.

How better, though, can people see the world than as a fragile blue marble separated from their own experience, cut off from any cosmic continuity by a sharp 360º horizon? And why, given the objective truth of the world as revealed by Apollo, should we even try? To the second question, the answer is that there is more than one way of seeing, just as there is more than one way of speaking. There are times when seeing the Earth as a discrete object, a thing in a picture, is peculiarly helpful; there are times when something else is called for.

Not to be a tease, but if you want to get an answer to the first question you better get your hands on a copy of the book (Amazon UK), though  it must be said that some of the ideas were worked through in a rather different way in my Earthrise piece a couple of years back.

Image from Mark Klett, permission sought used with kind permission, all rights reserved

Eating the Sun: Now in paperback
September 2, 2009, 7:39 pm
Filed under: By, with or from EtS, Nature writing, Reviews received

I should have mentioned this before (self promotion FAIL) but in early August Eating the Sun finally became available in paperback (Amazon UK for £6.99, or any other vendor you choose). New cover goes for a slightly Richard-Mabey-ish vibe, which is probably a good idea; as I’ve said before, the book does have stuff to offer people in the nature writing tradition. That said, the way the word “Sun” ends up as subterranean in this cover treatment does seem a little odd to me. US paperback (with yet another cover) to follow later this fall.

A nice thing about this is new reviews, specifically, so far, a new review from the excellent PD Smith in the Guardian:

This is a book about “the most important process on the planet”: photosynthesis. Plants grow by “eating the sun”, trapping its energy and using hydrogen from water and carbon from air to produce flowers, fruit and seeds. The “scrap of sunlight” converted into organic matter by the world’s plants each day is equivalent to the energy in the global arsenal of nuclear weapons. But, by releasing the energy locked away some 300m years ago in fossil fuels, we have upset the delicate balance of the carbon cycle and made “the atmosphere itself as artificial as a Capability Brown landscape”. From molecules to the planetary scale, Morton’s beautifully written book reveals how life is made from light. The living landscapes we inhabit are shaped by photosynthesis, and Morton’s sense of wonder at the pervasive influence of this process is nowhere stronger than while walking across the South Downs near his home: “It’s grassland like this, more than any other habitat, that gives us both homes and horizons.” A rich and wide-ranging study.

Having taken these words from The Guardian, I should point out as they would that you can buy the book through their bookshop at the RRP of £9.99, if you like.

Peter Smith, you should know, is among other things one of the best people to follow on twitter

Cosmic Gall
January 27, 2009, 10:32 pm
Filed under: Books, Nature writing

John Updike, who died today, had far greater claims to fame than this poem, from 1960, first published in The New Yorker and collected in Telephone Poles and Other Poems. But it’s a poem that I love. I once loved it simply for its fun and for the wow-ness of neutrinos; now I do so also, in part, because it deals with the fundamental paradox of my line of work. When you write about the material, however wonderful you may find it or make it, it remains but the material, and there will always be ways in which matter can be dismissed.

NEUTRINOS, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
and painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
and pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed — you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

Related thoughts can be found in a This I Believe essay on NPR

Image from Flickr user Henry, under CreativeCommons license. Wish I could make some sort of micropayment for rights on the poem.

Eathrise @ 40
December 24, 2008, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Earth history, Global change, Nature writing, Published stuff

From today’s New York Times

It takes nothing from the beauty and power of the image, though, to point out that it was the photographer, far more than its subject, who was isolated, and that the fragility is an illusion. The planet Earth is a remarkably robust thing, and this strength flows from its ancient and intimate connection to the cosmos beyond. To see the photo this way does not undermine its environmental relevance — but it does recast it.

To substitute these flows for the fossil fuels poised to despoil our planet and also run out on us — worst of both worlds — is an epic task. But the message that frames all the other messages of “Earthrise” is that we can rise to epic tasks. Look where the photo was taken. “If we can put a man on the Moon …” quickly became shorthand for society’s failure to achieve goals that seemed far simpler. But still: we put a man on the Moon, and that does say something. Efforts on a similar scale aimed at harvesting the energy flowing about us are entirely appropriate, and could make things a great deal better. We cannot solve all problems; some climate change is inevitable. But catastrophe is not.

“Earthrise” showed us where we are, what we can do and what we share. It showed us who we are, together; the people of a tough, long-lasting world, shot through with the light of a continuous creation.

Happy Holidays

Tim Knowles — Tree drawings
July 30, 2008, 9:46 am
Filed under: Artworks, Nature writing, Trees



Tim Knowles (via Patrick Appel standing in on The Dish) is an artist who lets his trees do the drawing, and I wish I had known of him before, for example when he had an instillation at The Economist building earlier this year. Natural movements of the branches and well positioned canvases make the trees into devices that record movements of which they have no knowledge. Recursively, he photographs the set-up, too, apparently for parallel display. Here’s his online gallery

I think I would absolutely love this work. It certainly sets my mind whirring about nature and the unintended and their connection. One thing it reminded me of was a microcosmic reprise of David Nash’s Wooden Boulder (documented on his gallery’s site, though you have to click around to find it), in which the eponymous object rolled down a Welsh river and into an estuary and out to sea over many years; the natural movement shapes the artform. That thought led me to Google and via Plinius’s Some landscapes (a great resource to which you may be sure I will be returning) I came to this comment by Nash in an interview in Sculpture magazine

I think Andy Goldsworthy and I, and Richard Long, and most of the British artists’ collectives associated with Land art would have been landscape painters a hundred years ago. But we don’t want to make portraits of the landscape. A landscape picture is a portrait. We don’t want that. We want to be in the land.

At one level you could see Knowles as continuing this process by enabling natural self portraits; not self portraits by the tree, but self portraits of the tree-wind process. But that obviously doesn’t really tell the story, because the invisible intervention of Knowles himself is obviously also part of the subject, in the way that it permits the powerful orthogonality in the display — the record of movement on one side, the captured-moment stillness of the photo on the other. (I’d put in a quote about the meaning of the space between frames here, but I seem to have leant my copy of Understanding Comics to someone…)

I suppose one way to read the works is as post-situationist “happenings” — very post, in that the set up, the game, is defined without any overt reference to society and then highly aestheticised, and I suspect from a position of very little knowledge that situationists would have disapproved of both those things. Another way in would be to see them in the context of Bruno Latour’s notion of the inscription device, nicely outlined by George Goodall on his blog Facetation — but here, this being art not science, the inscription device is not made invisible, but re-rendered in parallel. 

I would, pretty obviously, love to see these pieces — and much of his other work, a lot of which also works on the basis of the unintended: movements of the wind, postal delivery services, etc. Here, for example, is a picture of the full moon reflected in the Serpentine on a long exposure.

More on Inhabitat, Le Territoire des sens

Image by Tim Knowles used under “fair use” for purposes of review.