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. 

Arthur C. Clarke, 1917-2008
March 19, 2008, 10:54 am
Filed under: Books, Nature writing

From Profiles of the Future

One thing seems certain. Our galaxy is now in the brief springtime of its life—a springtime made glorious by such brilliant blue-white stars as Vega and Sirius, and, on a more humble scale, our own Sun. Not until all these have flamed through their incandescent youth, in a few fleeting billions of years, will the real history of the universe begin.

It will be a history illuminated only by the reds and infrareds of dully glowing stars that would be almost invisible to our eyes; yet the sombre hues of that all-but-eternal universe may be full of colour and beauty to whatever strange beings have adapted to it. They will know that before them lie, not the millions of years in which we measure eras of geology, nor the billions of years which span the past lives of the stars, but years to be counted literally in the trillions.

They will have time enough, in those endless aeons, to attempt all things, and to gather all knowledge. They will be like gods, because no gods imagined by our minds have ever possessed the powers they will command. But for all that, they may envy us, basking in the bright afterglow of creation; for we knew the universe when it was young.

Minehead blue by Gary Neaman, all rights reserved

Pictures: Hubble ultra deep field image from NASA; “Minehead Blue” by Gary Newman, all rights reserved (and with many thanks)

Electric Beeches
January 11, 2008, 6:56 pm
Filed under: Books, By, with or from EtS, Nature writing, Trees

Beech tree by TreehuggerOver the holiday I read Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings (Amazon UK), a fascinating and enjoyable book about which I may well have more to say, but which I currently wish simply to digest and to put into the context of some other current reading.

However, this passage from Edward Carpenter (mystical socialist and, wikilegedly, the man who introduced the sandal into Britain) that he quotes in a chapter called “Electric Beeches” struck such a chord of recognition with me that I thought I’d share it here, along with the passage in Eating the Sun it reminded me of:

It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early spring. Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and upturned fingertips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged into the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of earth and sky, and full of the most amazing activity.

— Pagan and Christian Creeds, 1904

Now reverse the polarity:

Think of a beech tree in winter, its leaves lost, its architecture revealed in dark lines against cold grey cloud. Do what Robin Hill used to urge his children to do to cultivate the artist’s eye—take away the tree’s established “common sense” context by turning round, bending over and looking at it upside down through your legs. Its growth looks less like something pushed from the earth than it does something drawn from the sky. Its limbs, branches and twigs spread into the air like ink into blotting paper or cracks spreading through glass, embodying something between desire and transubstantiation.

The tree’s form tells the truth. The tree grows into the air because it grows out of the air. The bulk of the tree is not made from the soil beneath it—indeed, the soil is in large part made by the tree. Both soil and tree are made from carbon drawn from the sky above. Trees are built from sun and wind and rain. The land is just a place to stand.

— Eating the Sun, 2007

“No longer a separable organism” strikes a strong chord with me, and “ramifying into space” always seems like a good idea. Most crucially, “Sharing and uniting the life of earth and sky”, as Carpenter had it, is more or less what photosynthesis does, and as such what I set out to celebrate. But it does it by pumping celestial energies into the earth, not vice versa. As in electric circuits of a more mundane sort, the earth is the sink, not the source.

Beech tree picture from Treehugger, under a creative commons license. And while we’re at it here are some more beeches from talented people on Flickr

Prince Charles — not my hero
October 25, 2007, 5:14 pm
Filed under: Farming, Nature writing, Published stuff

Since one of the infrequent commenters here actually asked, I dug up what I wrote about Prince Charles (One of Time’s Heroes of the Environment) in Newsweek International, June 14th 1999. It’s basically just another example of my tedious banging on on the subject of “nature”, but still current, in that I don’t think my views on this aspect of the subject have changed much in the intervening eight years.

Getting Nostalgic About ‘Nature’

In the debate over genetically modified crops, the question isn’t what’s natural–it’s what’s right. And that’s hard political work.

One of the few diverting aspects of Britain’s largely joyless European election campaign has been the Natural Law Party’s approach to the issues. Other parties say simply that a particular version of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe would be a rather good or bad thing–whatever. The Natural Law Party [now defunct, alas], on the other hand, promotes the values of Transcendental Meditation and yogic flying, an advanced form of the art which consists of flapping your knees while bouncing around in something like the lotus position. Apparently this has already lessened levels of violence in both Merseyside and the Middle East. The Natural Lawyers do, however, have one concrete political policy. The party wants a Europewide ban on all genetically modified crops.Prince Charles

In this, if in little else, the Natural Law Party is very much in the mainstream. The British public has taken against genetically modified crops in a big way. Activists uproot them and supermarkets attempt not to furnish their customers with them. This week the Prince of Wales–a landowner and organic farmer–came out against them for the umpteenth time, a piece of non-news that still managed to provoke headlines throughout the realm.

Europeans have in general been more skeptical about genetically modified crops than Americans, who have so far swallowed the idea, and the food, with relatively few qualms. And among the Europeans the Brits have been particularly adamant in their refusal to have any truck with such things. The recent history of British agricultural politics–the culling of millions of cows for fear that their increasing madness was spreading into the population at large–has left the public profoundly distrustful of unnatural tinkering in the food chain. The prince says that he wants us to reject all genetic modification and instead work with nature for the long-term benefit of humankind.

The problem with this desire is that nature has no interest at all in the long-term benefit of humankind. Nature has no interest in anything. And even if it did, mankind has been overriding nature routinely for millennia. That’s what agriculture is all about. A natural Britain would be a woodland that could feed only a few–when not covered by the glaciers of a natural ice age. Selective breeding–a subject royalty understands in its bones–removed nature from the farmyard long before the first endonucleases started to cut up the first artificial strands of DNA.

People like the prince use nature not biologically but nostalgically, to refer to a time when things were not so dashed artificial. This is the perennial window dressing of the reactionary, nature as an ideological prop for people whose notion of what is natural tends to include their own position in society. For the prince–doubtless considered by many, if not himself, as Britain’s natural sovereign–nature is part of our very souls, which is why we have an instinctive nervousness about tampering with it. His love for authentic British farming practices is thus part of his sense of what the nature of the British people is, an ideology of blood and the Soil Association.

It is no shock that a man whose own genes have a constitutional importance should worry about genes elsewhere. And some issues that the prince brings up are legitimate causes for concern. The effect of genetically altered organisms on the wider environment needs to be understood better than it is today. The idea that this technology may be controlled by very few companies is disturbing. It fuels widespread fear that genetic modification will serve only as a handmaiden to agribusiness, rather than producing higher-yielding crops to be distributed equitably among farmers in developing countries. But these are all arguments for getting the genetic modification of crops right, technically and politically: not for abandoning it as intrinsically immoral simply because it is unnatural.

The question is not what is natural. It is what is right. Reaching a judgment about that means balancing a lot of different issues and interests: the freedom a company should have to pursue profit within the law; the fear of harm to health or the environment; the altruistic wish to develop technologies that genuinely help developing nations; the self-interest that leads people to want cheaper or better food. Balancing these things is hard political work. But it is possible, and democracies have shown themselves in the long run to be pretty good at it. Democratic efforts to such ends, however, are not helped by a counterproductive nostalgia. Beingyogic flying unhelpful is not against the law, nor should it be. But the fact that Charles gets a platform on such matters purely because of the situation he was born into is still offensive. The bouncy-bottomed Natural Law Party may stand for a lot of tosh, but at least it stands for elections. That puts it one up on the prince.

Prince Charles picture from Smileykt on a creative commons licence; yogic fliers copyright apparently unknown.


Sick of nature
September 21, 2007, 7:25 am
Filed under: Nature writing

WaldenIn a flattering post that takes up the ideas I went into here, Back40 draws our attention to Sick of nature, an essay on nature writing and its problems by the author David Gessner (his website) in which he lets off considerable, amusing and thought provoking steam about his craft/calling/curse/whatever

I AM SICK of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean. It’s been almost four years now, four years of sitting quietly in my study and sipping tea and contemplating the migratory patterns of the semipalmated plover. Four years of writing essays praised as “quiet” by quiet magazines. Four years of having neighborhood children ask their fathers why the man down the street comes to the post office dressed in his pajamas (“Doesn’t he work, Daddy?”) or having those same fathers wonder why, when the man actually does dress, he dons the eccentric costume of an English bird watcher, David Gessnercomplete with binoculars. And finally, four years of being constrained by the gentle straightjacket of the nature-writing genre; that is, four years of writing about the world without being able to use the earthier names for excrement (while talking a lot of scat).

Worse still, it’s been four years of living within a literary form that, for all its wonder and beauty, can be a little like going to Sunday School. A strange Sunday School where I alternate between sitting in the pews (reading nature) and standing at the pulpit (writing nature). And not only do I preach from my pulpit, I preach to the converted. After all, who reads nature books?

Gessner goes on to discuss Thoreau‘s Walden and Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire (which should have been a bigger influence on Mapping Mars than it was) with an insightful eye and a great turn of phrase, before concluding thus:

The best writing in this genre is not really “nature writing” anyway but human writing that just happens to take place in nature. And the reason we are still talking about “Walden” 150 years later is as much for the personal story as the pastoral one: a single human being, wrestling mightily with himself, trying to figure out how best to live during his brief time on earth, and, not least of all, a human being who has the nerve, talent, and raw ambition to put that wrestling match on display on the printed page. The human spilling over into the wild, the wild informing the human; the two always intermingling. There’s something to celebrate.

Meanwhile at Back40 our host, who works the land for a living, talks about the local and global.

Though I am in fact rooted in particular land, fully engaged in a specific place, it is global in Oliver’s sense. I have long seen it this way too. It isn’t only the carbon but also the nitrates, synthesized in electrical storms and that falls in rain, and other minerals that fall from the dusty skies, carried across the Pacific from China on high altitude wind currents, as well as the things I put on that land – everything from Dutch grass seeds to British cattle genes via New Zealand. Even the weeds are immigrants from every continent – as am I.

I prize a vision of natural systems that explicitly acknowledges all of this in dynamic relationship. To truly see it you need to somehow split your focus to include the micro and macro, the very far and the very near, the past, present and future, all at once. It’s hard to do, but worth the effort I think.

That last bit is my point exactly.

Picture of Walden Pond plaque from Mary Ellen Goodwin, picture of David Gessner from his site, all rights presumably reserved.