Aldo Leopold, 1947, writing after the unveiling of a statue dedicated to the memory of the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon, shot in September 1899
Men still live who in their youth remember the pigeons.
Trees still live who in their youth were shaken by a living wind.
But a decade hence, only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.
There will always be pigeons in books and in museums – but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights.
Book pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause at mast-laden woods.
Book pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada.
They know no urge of seasons, no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather.
They live forever by not living at all.
Etta Wilson, resident of Petosky, Michigan, and eye witness to the events in the woods there in May 1878
Day and night the horrible business continues. Bird lime covers everything and lies deep on the ground. Pots burning sulphur vomit their lethal fumes here and there, suffocating the birds.
Gnomes in the forms of men wearing old, tattered clothing, heads covered with burlap and feet encased in rubber boots, go about with sticks and clubs knocking down the birds’ nests, while others are chopping down trees and breaking off the over-laden limbs to gather the squabs.
Pigs have been let loose in the colony to fatten on the fallen birds, and they add their squeals to the general clamour when stepped on or kicked out of the way.
All the while, the high, cackling notes of the terrified pigeons, a bit husky and hesitant as though short of breath, combine into a peculiar roar unlike any other known sound, which can be heard at least a mile away.
Of the countless thousands of birds bruised, broken and fallen, comparatively few can be salvaged — yet wagon-loads are being driven out in an almost unbroken procession, leaving the ground still covered with living, dying, dead and rotting birds. An inferno where the pigeons had builded their Eden.
1857 Ohio State Senate Select Committee report
The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.
Once upon a time
An old story tells of a commonwealth of birds, where there were countless different birds of all shapes, sizes, temperaments, appetites. Their vast principality spread from ocean to ocean, from snowy mountains in the north to desert in the south, with birds perfectly adapted for every space.
Wandering the seas and coasts were loons, grebes, albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters, storm petrels, tropicbirds, pelicans, boobies, gannets, cormorants, darters, frigates, jaegers, gulls, terns, skimmers and auks. Diving in the lakes and bays were herons, bitterns, storks, ibises, spoonbills, flamingos, swans, geese and ducks. Birds of prey roamed the skies: kites, hawks, eagles, harriers, osprey, caracaras, falcons and vultures.
Grouse, ptarmigan, quails and turkeys nested on the heaths and uplands, while cranes, limpkins, rails and gallinules dwelt in the marshes. Coots, oystercatchers, stilts, avocets, plovers, sandpipers and phalaropes trod the shores. Owls and nightjars hunted in the dark. Parrots showed off their dazzling plumage. Cuckoos laid their eggs in others’ nests. Kingfishers, woodpeckers, tyrant flycatchers, larks, swallows, jays, magpies, crows, titmice and nuthatches ate caterpillars in the forests and meadows. Dippers, wrens, mockingbirds, thrashers, thrushes, gnatcatchers, kinglets, pipits, waxwings, and shrikes all sang their hearts out. Vireos and warblers were known as the sprites of the woodlands. Meadowlards, blackbirds, orioles, tanagers and finches lived in jubilant flocks. Swifts, hummingbirds and pigeons were superb aerialists.
Eventually, humans arrived too. The birds watched them, and saw how they hunted, how they sang songs, how they raised their children. A conference was called, to see what should be done. After long deliberation, the birds decided to welcome the humans to their kingdom, and discussed who should offer what gift. The Carolina parakeets and the Ivory-billed woodpeckers offered their plumage. The Bachman’s warblers offered their songs. Great auks offered their soft down and their glistening fat. And then the birds looked around to see who would offer themselves as food. All eyes fell on the passenger pigeons, of whom there were so many. And the passenger pigeons said yes, there are enough of us: some of us will offer our bodies to the humans as food, to make them welcome, to share our beautiful world with them.
So a single white passenger pigeon flew down from the conference to a Seneca camp by the side of the Allegheny River. She landed on the shoulder of the oldest person there, and told him what the birds had decided. I don’t know what he said in reply.
Life is all about information. Whether you are a plant, a tree, a chimp or a human, all living things are continually influenced by information from the past. The more useful the information we can get, the better able we are to solve our problems in the present in order to survive. Through the process of natural selection, such information has come to reside not only in the DNA of lifeforms but in some species it has also evolved to be, maintained externally in the form of culture. As a group’s knowledge and understanding of the world are handed down from generation to generation, our interactions with the world scrape away our ignorance, bit by bit, so that eventually we are better able to solve our problems, or else we and our ideas die.
However, not all ignorance gets scraped away by the cold, harsh truth of nature but is instead protected in order to continue to confer considerable power onto an individual, ideology, institution or civilisation that is built around that vision, which they therefore insist must be maintained at all costs. Although we should never underestimate the stubbornness of ignorance, history has shown us that eventually there comes a time when such powers and such visions must adapt or die as the inaccuracies of their vision lose out either to competitors whose perspective is more accurate, reliable and more useful; or they lose out at their own hand as their analysis of reality is fundamentally flawed, unreliable and less useful to solving the problems that life can present – ours is but one of many civilisations since 8000 BC that have risen and fallen by first exploiting nature and then by suffering the weaknesses that over-exploitation brings and the ensuing reduction in resilience to what may once have been minor threats that ultimately lead to collapse.
The fraying Western worldview of industrial civilisation is made possible by the harnessing of cheap energy, which has allowed for a boom in human population growth and standards of living unlike anything that has come before it. The cultural information passed down that helps us to harness this power and the industries arranged around its exploitation has proven to be truly transformational, allowing us to overcome countless problems related to our survival. But now, when used, this same information has led to global energy insecurity, over-consumption, widespread destruction of non-human life, environmental degradation and climate change, all of which threaten to undermine the natural and social systems of the planet.
Furthermore, through a type of neo-colonialism, transnational corporations have ensnared the world in the Western rhetoric of economic growth, comparison and competition that fossil-fueled societies make possible and with it has come greater economic and social inequality and instability, as well as exploitation, giving rise to growing levels of conflict and ill-health both mentally and physically. Instead of solving many of our problems, the reproduction of Western culture is instead globalising them in the pursuit of continued profit.
It’s been said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism, so ubiquitous is the ideological project of neoliberalism in the modern world – like goldfish in a bowl that are totally ignorant of ‘water’, we often fail to notice how colonised our consciousness has become by capitalism and how our resulting ideology permeates our perception and participation of a vast amount of our lives. So much so, that we find ourselves using the same thinking that caused our problems to fix them. After the recession of 2007 and the growing litany of environmental harms our development has caused, including climate change, Western governments have doubled down on more neoliberalism, not less: greater austerity, greater inequality, less regulation, greater global CO2 emissions – all in the quest for continued economic growth. We find ourselves hitting the accelerator instead of the brake as we mercilessly try to do things better, when really we should open our eyes to the ‘water’ all around us and start to do better things.
Our problems are those of ideology, belief, perception, values and identity – in essence, we need a shift in our ideology, our culture and our identity if we are to overcome our current problems. This is a complex and overwhelming task without a singular and correct way of achieving it. But for what it is worth, I would argue that a good place to start that makes possible many different responses is to look to science and to learn what it can tell us about ourselves and our relationship to nature.
Over the last century, developments in our scientific understanding of human origins have shown us that we are not separate from nature and put here but that we are in fact fundamentally a part of it. Contrary to the claims of anthropocentrism (human-centredness) that have been maintained solely by cultural inertia, man is not separate from nature and put here but is in fact interdependent and interconnected with it as all things share one origin. Despite the fact that this information has not been culturally assimilated as yet, this understanding provides a shift in pre-analytic vision that engenders alternatives to our current, flawed cultural information. It allows us to see the water of Western ideology and encourages us to think anew from an ecocentric rather than anthropocentric point of view, which, as is discussed below, has the potential to reframe our identity, our values and therefore our culture so that we and future generations may be better placed to solve the problems essential to our survival.
The first discovery in question comes from the 1920s, when by observing that the galaxies are moving away from us in all directions and that the ones furthest away are moving fastest, Lemaitre and Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. The principle of this discovery also infers that if we were to rewind time so that the expansion becomes a contraction we can see that at one point in the very distant past everything in the universe was in one place, that it originated as a singularity, an almost infinitely dense and infinitely small point that expanded to form the universe as we know it today.
The other discovery of existential importance here is Darwin’s work, the facts of which have permeated our culture but its understanding in combination with Lemaitre’s and Hubble’s work, in the main, has not. In taking the theory of evolution to its natural conclusion it demonstrates that all life on Earth has descended from a single common ancestor, often called the Last Universal Ancestor (or LUA), a single-celled organism not too dissimilar from a bacterium today which is estimated to have lived some 3.7 billion years ago. From both discoveries we can see that every living thing shares a common origin as do all things in the universe and the story of how we came to be here takes on a whole new light.
Our story, as we know it so far, begins at a single point of near infinite density at the quantum level that saw an inflationary kick that released the energy of the Big Bang, which as it cooled, gave rise to hydrogen and helium atoms; as the gravitational fields of these atoms drew them together into clouds that amassed over millions of years, their growing friction and compaction saw the birth of the first stars that lit up the universe; inside these stars hydrogen atoms (1 proton) were fused to form helium (2 protons), helium atoms fused together to form heavier atoms and so on and so forth. Through a cosmic cycle of birth and explosive death, bigger stars were formed that could fuse even more protons into atoms up until iron which has 26; elements heavier than iron, such as gold with 79 protons, couldn’t be fused in the hearts of even the biggest stars, instead they needed a supernova, a stellar explosion so large it would have outshone a galaxy and emitted more energy in a few weeks than our sun will produce in its entire lifetime.
The next time you look at the gold in your jewellery, you can remind yourself that you are wearing part of the debris of a supernova that exploded somewhere in the depths of space. You can also remind yourself that as such stellar fusions and explosions produced all the elements in the universe, including the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, calcium, phosphorus and many other atoms that make up you, that you yourself are made from such Big Bang debris — albeit filtered through the countless iterations of cosmic evolution that saw the emergence of our galaxy, solar system and planet, from which emerged the LUA and all the species that came and went, to the ones that remained including us, Homo sapiens. This almost magical sounding story of what happens when you leave hydrogen alone, governed only by the laws of nature for 13.8 billion years, is also much like its contents in that the story itself is constantly evolving as we learn more about it. It is not a static meta-narrative but a developing, dynamic story that changes the more questions we ask of it and the more we discover about the universe over time.
The fundamental conclusion of this story is that we are part of an on-going cosmic evolutionary process. Every atom in our bodies was forged in the death throes of stars across the universe; we share DNA with all life on Earth be it trees in a rainforest or fungi in the Cornish soil, the woman across the road or a dog you passed in the park. Despite the cultural inertia of anthropocentrism, science tells us that we are not separate, we are one. When we re-position our perspective in light of this recently deciphered origin narrative it sheds new light on what it means to be human. It’s no longer all about us but about something much larger of which we are a part. Without the knowledge and understanding of this story, anthropocentrism creates a false duality that separates and alienates us from our home and fundamentally from ourselves.
The Copernican-style revolution of our identity that emerges from the scientific origin narrative re-situates not only our idea of where we are but of how we came to be here. It challenges us to think about what it is to be human in that it shows us that we are as much a part of the universe as the Milky Way, that we are in fact a way for the universe to know itself. The hegemonic notion of anthropocentrism in the West misses this completely and is therefore not adequately aligned with our understanding of reality and of the evolutionary process to help us solve our problems. The continuation of our current Western ideology may therefore see us deviating from the arc of evolution to reside alongside the countless other empires that failed to see the water and that subsequently disappeared as a result.
Explorations of non-anthropocentric human identities based on critical reflection of the world around us are therefore essential, and would hopefully reclaim the argument for a shift in self-realisation away from the more flimsy ‘scientism’ of New Age proponents. Findings from such explorations should also seek to influence our culture not by moral or ethical insistence alone but by facts, knowledge and understanding, by reason, reflection and insight and most of all through stories that share our understandings and feelings of what it is to be human in the 21st century. And of course, it should also be noted that the scientific origin narrative and the ecocentric perspective that it encourages is an ideology too, one that needs and should welcome continual readjustment in light of new information. In this sense, the group maintenance of an ecocentric perspective is not about its continuation but its constant questioning and improvement.
However, it is important to note that such a shift in perspective as outlined above does not ensure some kind of deliverance, far from it – there is no such panacea. The notion that such a shift can help us avoid our crises simply by sharing a new story of our origins is misgiven, but that it might help us deal with them and recover from them is more plausible. Our crises aren’t going away just yet and certainly not in response to a story in the short-term. However, the point of this origin narrative is to reframe our identity and thereby reframe our culture and values — our pre-analytic vision — in order to better solve our problems. This process, I would imagine, would take a considerably long time and is in little danger of being of concern to our mainstream, industrial society anytime soon. Nevertheless, such a reframing might help those in the margins to keep going and to share a vision and set of values that bring us together at a crucial and fundamental level.
We are living in a particularly transitionary phase of human history, a time of great uncertainty as one thing ends and another is yet to become. Due to this difficult perspective and point in time it is easy to see why so many want the security of continuing business as usual even if it means denial but we need to step back a little and see our current predicament from a larger historical viewpoint, perhaps even a cosmological one that goes beyond our individual lives.
Our role in all of this is therefore an even more challenging one that asks us to further displace our egos by working for an end that we may very well never see in our lifetimes. Rather than jumping ahead to a post-apocalyptic utopia, primitivism or technological salvation, we must instead sow the seeds for a world we ourselves may not live to see come to full fruition and do so amidst a backdrop of great upheaval and conflict. We’re planting trees in the margins that will grow whilst much around them will die. Ours is a long journey that requires great patience and great vision to cut a path for our children that we ourselves may not get to walk in full. This isn’t to martyr ourselves or to suffer but to liberate ourselves from the shared cultural delusions of Western civilisation and take on new responsibilities, to wake up to the water all around us and to enjoy a different way of seeing the world and ourselves that is fundamentally joyful and emancipatory.
Though there might not be an end in sight, or a clear and discernible goal, we can still have a direction of travel because to help us on this journey we can at all times be guided by two well established pieces of advice that from an ecocentric perspective take on greater significance: ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’. To take our first steps then, let us take a look at ourselves, our planet and the life upon it as well as the cosmos itself in light of all we have discovered and ask: what is it to be human and how should we live as a result?
There is a place in Bolivia where you can live with animals, as an animal. In my early twenties, I found my way into the jungle and started working with rescued big cats. And everything I thought I knew about myself, and the world, changed.
Her name was Wayra. Her mother had most likely been shot by hunters and she had been taken, as a baby puma, to be sold on the South American black market. She became a house pet until, at the age of ten months, she grew too big, aggressive and demanding for her owners to care for. So they left her at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi (CIWY), a Bolivian NGO that runs a series of animal refuges across Bolivia. They look after creatures like Wayra, many of which, due to their history, can never be released. CIWY lacks money, governmental support and manpower, and utilises the steady stream of travellers to give volunteers like myself the chance to work with cats, monkeys, birds, tapirs… a list of abused creatures that often feels endless.
CIWY’s core principle is to give the animals lives that are as close to how they would be in the wild as possible. There is a strong focus on enrichment, and with the cats this means that – wherever possible – they are taken out of their solitary jungle cages and walked, by volunteers, on jungle trails. Come floods, fires and mosquitoes, each cat is walked every day with an almost fanatical determination to ensure they are given a little slice of freedom.
Wayra was terrified when I met her. So was I. Having come from a desk job in London, I wasn’t sure about this jungle business. There was no electricity, no internet, no real washing facilities, no way to keep ‘the wild’ out. There were construction duties, such as lugging rocks on your back through waist high water, armadillos in the toilet and worms that hatched under your skin.
But I was privileged enough to spend all day, every day, with a puma. In the morning Wayra would lead me out of her cage and, tethered to each other on a rope, we would walk together through the trees. She would hiss and spit, bite and scratch me. But as I grew less scared so did she, and at some point the bites stopped. They became licks and licks became long naps side by side at the lagoon. When she caught the scent of a monkey, she let me chase it with her. When she swam, I swam too. These were animal encounters of the first order. And, as anyone who’s formed a relationship with a non-human will understand, she was the closest friend I have ever had.
Eventually, when I returned to England, I was heartbroken. I was the weirdo in the corner, the one who smelt slightly stale and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I couldn’t get it. I had been living with animals – I had been an animal myself, as was proper – but then suddenly, I wasn’t. I was ‘human’ again. And isn’t there something wrong there because, shouldn’t I be both? I had come to understand that I was, integrally, animal, but now that understanding made no sense.
In the end, after much faffing about and a bit of misery, I decided to set up a charity called ONCA. This stands for One Network for Conservation and the Arts and we launched in November 2012. Overturning an empty shop front in a dilapidated part of Brighton, we made the only inner city contemporary art gallery and performance space in the UK that asks questions, tells stories and initiates conversations about environmental change. Our exhibitions include visual art, storytelling, poetry, puppetry, performance, debate and music. We have curated projects about bird extinctions and the ice caps, journeys and migrations, plastic pollution, unrecyclable Christmas paper, bees and dogs and whales, human happiness and human loss.
When I first started, many people didn’t think there was much longevity in the idea of an environmental art gallery – particularly in a city centre. Environmental art is often stigmatised by the view that it doesn’t have much weight; it is the kind of art that observes rather than questions, documents rather than enquires. But as our sense of place in the world is beginning to change, so are artists stretching the boundaries of what ‘environmental art’ can do. Environmental art is becoming an essential and critical medium in our drive to understand the coming future. I was, and will continue to be, surprised that there was no other gallery that wanted to address, on a permanent basis, these types of questions. I believe such questions deserve and demand physical homes, and placing those homes in cities enables the most unlikely and disinterested audiences the chance of engagement. From the unconcerned town dweller to child to eco-activist, there is a permanent hub for debate and education, stories and conversations – both positive and negative.
ONCA has now been open eighteen months. We recently ran a programme of exhibitions about animal encounters in the forest, a theme that is very close to my heart. This is, of course, why I started the gallery in the first place. I wanted to address our disconnection from the animal inside, and the boundaries that we hide behind to ensure we remain strictly ‘human’. Some people have asked, but what represents more clearly our separation from the animal kingdom than an art gallery? Creativity is what sets us apart, and so how can a gallery enable us to reevaluate our connection, or disconnection, from other creatures? Everything there will be human-centric by nature and, as always, the stories told will be ours and ours alone.
We recently curated an exhibition entitled Exile. It was about this very issue, and we brought together over 30 artists, performers, storytellers, poets and puppeteers, trying to tell stories from a non-human viewpoint. Each piece explored the fragile relationships in our ecosystem and questioned whether humans can, in fact, be both animal and human.
One artwork that was particularly successful was a video piece entitled Licking Dogs by Angela Bartram. The camera zooms in on the profiles of a woman and a dog, facing each other. The participants spend the film licking, often enthusiastically French kissing each other. The woman, Bartram herself, stays constant whilst the dogs change. Some dogs are more enthusiastic about the process than others. One small black dog chooses not to engage at all, and there is an uncomfortable few minutes where he tries to look anywhere but at Bartram. The whole piece is so difficult to watch that many people refuse to. Why is it so repulsive? If it were a cat and a dog, a donkey and a dolphin, we would find it bizarre definitely, but the licking wouldn’t turn our stomachs. And this encapsulates the question that was at the centre of Exile. Who do we think we are, why do we think we are any more special than all other creatures on this planet, and how, ultimately, can we articulate this?
During an ONCA/Brighton University debate exploring how becoming animal can help to promote ecological activity, panelist Joanna Coleman cited Dr. Neil Theise’s estimation that we have 400 trillion cells in our bodies, only 4 trillion of which are human. She then went on to discuss Australian environmentalist Val Plumwood’s personal account of a crocodile attack whilst canoeing in the 1980s in Kakadu National Park:
Few of those who have experienced the crocodile’s death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror.
And yet, rather than spurning a ‘massive crocodile slaughter’, as Plumwood says most crocodile attacks in North Queensland often lead to, this experience inspired Plumwood to reform her understanding of place in the world. In 1996, she wrote about it in an essay entitled ‘Being Prey’:
Before the encounter, it was as if I saw the whole universe as framed by my own narrative, as though the two were joined perfectly and seamlessly together. As my own narrative and the larger story were ripped apart, I glimpsed a shockingly indifferent world in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being, I am more than just food!’ was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat. Reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible.
Large predators like lions and crocodiles present an important test for us. An ecosystem’s ability to support large predators is a mark of its ecological integrity. Crocodiles and other creatures that can take human life also present a test of our acceptance of our ecological identity. When they’re allowed to live freely, these creatures indicate our preparedness to coexist with the otherness of the earth, and to recognize ourselves in mutual, ecological terms, as part of the food chain, eaten as well as eater.
Our denial of this, of our true meaninglessness within a greater cycle, strikes hard when we consider the title phrase of our debate. Becoming Animal – why should we need to become, when we already are?
Debate chair Alan Boldon, Deputy Head of School at Brighton University for Research, Economic and Social Engagement, suggested that such events as Becoming Animal, where metamorphosis and paganism sit alongside conservation and science, do not happen enough – particularly in university settings. We all wear the blinkers of particular disciplines, but to see clearly we must seek help from others as we build up new visions of the world. ONCA is a gallery for the building up of these new visions. We bring people together from different spheres, and new discourses – new ways of seeing – are developed. Prior to Exile, we brought one hundred artists and young people into the gallery and asked them to create a piece of work, inspired by a tree, no bigger than 20cm cubed. Alongside this, we committed to planting one hundred new trees in central Brighton. Each artist and artwork symbolized a root, the same but infinitely different. Each interpretation was unique and, presented as a gallery exhibition, it appeared to me like the idea of tree itself became richer. I saw tree like I had never quite seen it before.
On the 18th September, the third in our series of forest/animal exhibitions launched. To the Trees: A Changing of Home is a solo exhibition by artist Jennifer Hooper. Hooper’s work is based on her nine-week residency at Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi in Bolivia. It feels, almost, as if the gallery has come full circle. I brought back the idea, and now Hooper has installed the jungle and its animals within it. Sadly there is no Wayra as she was too nervous for Jennifer to meet, but that doesn’t matter – for me, she is always there. What she taught me over the years lies at the very heart of ONCA. During the Becoming Animal debate, award-winning nature writer Eleanor O’Hanlon discussed how she believes Eden not to be a place, but a state. A state, both commonplace and normal, which we can return to if we live in balance with the earth and its creatures. I have never in my life experienced this balance more than when I was in the jungle with Wayra, when I looked in another’s eyes and knew it didn’t matter what skins we wore.
People ask what I want the gallery to achieve. It is, and will always be, a medium through which to tell stories about the changing environment. But now I see that it is also about articulating this idea of balance. And exploring, through as many different mediums and skillsets as possible, how the city can – or rather needs to – feature in this balance. ‘My tears taste of fish’ is a line from a poem by eco-poet Susan Richardson, told beautifully during Becoming Animal. I find it difficult to imagine, my tears tasting of fish, as I sit at my desk and watch the cars speed by. Up on the hills later on, as the grass curls under my feet, it is easier. I would like to feel then that through places like the gallery and writers like Eleanor and Susan, we can bring these kinds of animal encounters – these not becomings of animal but beings – into daily life. And at some point, we can truly be animal again.
ONCA, One Network for Conservation and the Arts, is an environmental arts charity based in the South East of England that runs exhibitions, workshops and performances at their gallery venue in Brighton, initiating conversations about ecological change and raising awareness for frontline conservation projects.
According to my gardening client, whose father owns (but doesn’t live in) a big house with a bigger garden and a swimming pool in one of the remote corners of this island, life is a game of numbers. The more hours you work, the greater the results. The more money you have in the bank, the better you feel at three in the morning when the air is thick with regret and the only way out is death. He didn’t put it quite like that. In fact, I suspect he does not suffer too much from being awake at three in the morning. His numbers add up, after all, and he uses them to justify his existence and to hide from the pain of it.
My numbers do not add up. This is why I am awake at three in the morning, lying alone in my single bed, aged thirty-five, listening to rain, or birds, or whatever those noises are that start out normal but turn vast and terrifying when they make contact with the old tin roof that keeps the lid on my house. I mean shed. Not by any stretch of warped imagination could this be called a house. Kind people, when they see the books and the turntables and the cello and the clutch of cobwebbed and stringless guitars brought back from various countries where the sun shines more often and the music is superior, might call it a studio. They might say that I live in my studio. Although if you asked the birds, I have no doubt they would say that I live on the ground floor of their nest, and they only tolerate it because, like them, when the sun shines I sit outside on my milk-crate perch and sing.
I am lying awake trying to answer a question. It was put to me by a seven-year-old; bright, beautiful and innocent enough to expect an honest reply.
‘Aunty Catrina, why does your garden smell of wee?’
I’d been scrumping. The floor was covered in apples. Some bruised, some rotten, all ugly enough to be laughed out of the supermarkets, who don’t know the joke’s on them. Unlike supermarket apples, these apples actually taste like apples. The bitter-sweet taste of an English autumn, of bonfires and childhood and home. The tree is an old friend of mine. It blossoms unseen by the side of the road. Even though the tree has never been pruned, or managed in any way whatsoever, there is an excess of fruit. Even the worms can’t keep up.
I was wrapping the apples in newspaper and packing them carefully into boxes for the winter. Apples, when packed this way, last for months. Which is good for my budget. My niece picked her way through the apples and came to squat on the floor next to me. She tugged my arm and put a hand on each of my cheeks and turned my face around so I was looking at her.
‘Aunty Catrina, why do you live in a shed?’
‘Someone has to’ I say, handing her a twisted apple, which she gamely bites into.
‘Like I have to go to school?’
And now it’s three in the morning.
And I am aware that my niece deserves a real answer. Because one day my story will be her story. My puzzle her puzzle. Unless the telling of it somehow changes the ending.
But what do I tell her?
I could tell her about all the things I wanted to do with my wild and precious life. How I wanted to go exploring. To see with my own eyes all the wonders of the world. To ride camels and climb mountains, test myself against the elements, find my own limitations, make my own mistakes. And then, when I had finished wandering, I wanted to come home and write love songs and death poems and books about fear, because I’d felt love and I’d touched death and I’d faced oceans of fear and found oceans of courage, and, frankly, after all that life I didn’t want to go inside and sit in an office working to prop up someone else’s failing economy.
I could tell her I belong to a dispossessed generation, who came of age too late, after all the houses had already been hoovered up for spares and pension plans.
Both stories are true.
Bats fly into the curtainless window. Imaginary spiders crawl up my legs. I look at myself through my niece’s eyes, measure myself in terms of all the things society holds dear — access to a hot shower, a toilet and a fridge, money in the bank, good clothes and a big television and a secure job and marriage and kids and paid holiday and maybe a pension for when I’m old, and I realise I have none of these things. Not one. And even less besides.
‘Honey,’ I could say. ‘Houses cost too much.’
And I could quote Thoreau and say that ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’
I could tell her how much I long for security and a warm house with a separate kitchen, and yes, a bathroom, and thick white towels (this more than anything) but every time I get near any of that I throw it away, because what is required from me in return is nothing less than my soul, and I cannot surrender my soul, however cold and lonely it is at three in the morning.
But I don’t want her feeling sorry for me. And neither should she. I have an excellent degree from an excellent university, where I learned about everything, and it cost me nothing. She won’t have my chances.
I get up out of bed and light the camping stove that used to be in my van, before it died, and I sit on the chair that’s as old as me and made out of a tree much older and stare out at the darkness.
The kettle is boiling. I go outside and fish around in the broken shower tray, that doubles up as my kitchen, for a cup, flicking the slugs off and rinsing it under the cold tap.
Outside smells. It smells of stardust and infinity and muck and mist and October.
And I stand there, my bare feet all wet, and I realise that what I want to do is stick two fingers up at my client and the eyes of society and everyone else who insists life is a game of numbers, and tell my niece about washing at night under a freezing tap and glancing up at the whirring, whirling constellations of planets. About harvest moons and pre-dawn skies and the sound of the ducks in the morning. About chopping wood and growing spinach and watching the sun go down slowly over the fields to the west.
I want to sing her a love song sung to me by a dying world, whose verses I heard whispered on the howling wind. Because I am afraid that if I don’t it will all be forgotten — built on, buried, burnt out and lost forever, leaving not a rack behind.
The sun sets in the west as always but the street is awash in a flickering light. Debris idly floating by. A barely perceptible thump as a section of façade folds over and glides into the water. It’s all so effortless, this letting go of that which was solid, ordered and reliable; in this big water everything is brought to an equilibrium, made equal. Whether you float or sink is just a question of time.
The water is slowly encroaching on my space. First order of each day is to get out on the stoop and check the benchmarks. A wobbly drawing of a ladder on the wall, black slashes of coal. I make a new line for today’s level. The progress of the water has slowed down considerably since the first floods, but it keeps on rising at a steady, relentless pace. I have a day, perhaps two, before it’s too late. Everything here will be swept away. All accommodations in this part of the country are transient, prone to flooding, evacuated when needed. I have known this for some time. Everyone knows that. First it was a question of moving valuables out of harm’s way, simply shifting boxes and things up a shelf or two, hoping and thinking that the water would recede soon enough, that all would go back to normal, dry up and once again provide for its inhabitants. But it stayed under water. The rooms ceased to function. Dark reflections of slow eddies in the ceilings; passageways no longer passable, a submerged version of domestic life that turned furniture, doorhandles and kitchen counters into ghosts of their former selves; childlike pictograms slowly dissolving and drifting apart in wet entropy.
A high point on the island beckons in the distance. Somewhere down below are the train tracks and the highway that run parallel to where the shore used to be. The infrastructure is gone, buried under an impenetrable mass of muddy water. Faint, faint blue sparkles lit up the first nights as wires and junction boxes shorted out. Short-lived spectacles to herald a new era with sparkle and fizz for fanfare.
I go scavenging for plastic bottles, pieces of wood, rope, string – anything that will provide lift out of the water. When I was a kid we used to build makeshift rafts out of logs tied together with heavy ropes, but they always became too heavy, the wood getting waterlogged quickly, and the vessel more of a semi-sub than an upright raft. I think plastic bottles, oil drums, tyres. I need some kind of sheet for a sail. And a mast. A rudder. If I can get these things accomplished, I can set sail at daybreak.
ʻTengo que get the fuck out of aquíʼ was an art project I did in 2010 at Gnesta Konsthall, a small independent exhibition space just south of Stockholm. I had been invited by Niclas Zander, curator and artistic director of the venue, to do whatever it is that I do when I get an open invitation to participate. In retrospect, my attempt with the raft was a first step in a series of works that have a deeply personal therapeutic value for me; they help me, in their haphazard and sometimes erratic ways, to come to terms with a feeling of imminent collapse of the world as I know it.
Rafts first came to my attention when living in the south of Spain. Our house was on the coast in the mountains and on clear days you could just make out the faint blue Atlas ridge across the water. News of immigrants attempting the passage filled the papers. Theirs was a treacherous journey on overloaded boats and rafts followed by a dangerous trajectory through a fenced-off Europe in search for work and a better life – for the lucky few that made it over. Sometimes I would run into small groups of immigrants on small dirt roads high up in the mountains. They would ask for water and directions. Encounters of dumb luck and blind faith. To build a raft out of necessity is not the same thing as building a raft for pleasure or art, but the notion came to me to do it as an as an exercise, to gain an understanding – and to prepare for a situation which although not presently real, very well may become a reality in a not-too-distant future. An attempt at empathy and compassion. An attempt at translating hyperbolic headlines of social, environmental and personal disaster into physical experience; to establish a viable connection.
In the end there was a raft that made a journey from work of art to child’s toy by way of a stint as an imagined rescue vessel. The raft itself contained within it several more stories – tales of waste and prosperity, of a society beset by affluenza and greed, of good intentions and pastoral landscapes. My scavenging for materials took me way beyond the area I had originally allotted myself and led to an interesting exchange of ideas – the fictitious situation of my need to build a raft made real by the practicalities of freezing cold water and a local history of floods. An official at the local water treatment plant was most helpful and gave me a bunch of discarded plastic containers used for hydrochloric acid. A piece of old tarpaulin made a good sail. My attempt was followed by an audience of onlookers at the shore, parents patiently waiting for the wind to pick up and their kids increasingly eager to see the man in the suit out there fall into the water – ʻCan he swim, Mum?ʼ
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.