Peter Abbs, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Sussex, England, was a guest at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in late March when he gave a lecture on the subject of “eco-poetics”. The first part of this lecture is reprinted below; part two will be published next month.
I would like to share with you some notes on the place and meaning of eco-poetics or what could be named, more broadly, eco-aesthetics. I will approach the subject both as a poet and as a critic, sometimes with personal passion and a sense of outrage, sometimes from a more distant perspective, historical and ecological.
I would like to begin with a modest eco-poem I wrote about my grandfather who was head gardener at Upper Sheringham Hall in Norfolk on the east coast of England where he spent most of his adult life growing flowers and vegetables, tending shrubs, and conserving root vegetables and fruits through the winter. It’s a poem in the pastoral tradition, but I wrote it, first and foremost, as a tribute to my grandfather:
Back bending to the ground, almost anonymous,
You could pass this place and hardly notice him;
A figure in a garden of espaliated pears, wallflowers,
Asparagus, broccoli. Silent connoisseur of soils
Crumbling in his hands the unseen filaments, cysts, spores:
A lump of clay breaking into life, the dull charisma of years.
But not only here,
I see him on long summer afternoons
Alone in the hot glinting greenhouse,
his pragmatic fingers
Rubbing the earth to a tilth,
then funnelling the countless seeds
From their small dry packets into moist runnels.
Then some evenings,
a handkerchief draped over his eyes,
I catch him in the arm-chair,
his book slipping from his knees,
Those lean hands still at last
– and I imagine all that seed
Germinating in the dark. Clean white shoots. Nubs of green.
But now I have to make a confession… As an adolescent I did not rate my Grandfather. He seemed as far away from authentic living as I could think possible. I have to confess that I all but despised the dull repetitive cycle of his life with his back bent low to the dull clods; utterly unnoticed in his work, he struck my angry teenage mind as a massive irrelevance – a silent uncomplaining man who had been all but rubbed out of history or, if he was still in history, seemed like a servile clone. At times I felt he was a relic from the distant past, moving to the limited formulaic rhythms of an outmoded Medieval world with its offensive caste-system. I felt there was more dullness there than charisma.
Now, as you can see from the poem, I feel somewhat differently. There remains a negative judgement somewhere in me - for there was so little critical and reflective consciousness in his life! And yet it seems to me there was something hugely positive there; my grandfather was in intimate daily touch with the earth in a creative manner which many of us have all but lost: the relationship of seed to soil within the compass of the changing seasons. He had developed to a high degree the art of cherishing and conserving the fruit and vegetables we take from nature, the habit of observing closely and lovingly the biological life that surrounds us, taking pleasure from all that is specific, all that is rooted in rotational time and local place. He was devoted to the quiddity of things.
To put it in a more abstract way, my grandfather possessed the skill of working creatively with the biosphere, enhancing, at the very same moment, his own life and the earth he worked. His was the skill of sustaining the habitat, of cherishing and conserving. It is a very different rhythm from the one that marks our own time or has marked historic time from the Industrial Revolution. Once a week he did his shopping in the town of Sheringham. He cycled in on a Saturday morning, went to Confession, visited the library and bought the few things he needed. I imagine his weekly list of needs to be as follows:
4 ozs of tobacco
1/2 lb of boiled sweets
library book (a ‘cowboy’ or ‘thriller’)
6 oxo cubes
What a contrast to the great trolley-loads of goods individuals take from the supermarkets today. What a dramatic change in patterns of consumption in less than three generations! Contemplating my grandfather’s shopping list is a chastening experience. It marks a shift in consumption so dramatic that it is, at first, hard to credit.
Often, perhaps, we have intimations of disaster in very small things. Suddenly we see a world in a grain of sand or sense a huge disaster in one tiny drop of polluted water. The Romantic essayist, De Quincey, put it like this: “the least things in the universe must be secret mirrors to the greatest”.
Do you sense, like I do, that it is very hard to experience silence these days? Even in the heart of English countryside one hears always the intruding swish and hum of traffic. Or have you felt the sudden absence of a particular wild animal or bird: the spikey trundling hedgehog or the speckled missel thrush – both now threatened with extinction in England? Or have you had the experience of swimming in warm Mediterranean water to realise suddenly the sea is vile with human excrement, plastic bottles and black rings of oil? Small intimations that something is badly wrong, that the music is out of key, that a destructive energy is subverting the harmony of life?
The following poem by the Anglo-American poet, Anne Stevenson, catches just such a moment of apprehension:
The Fish Are All Sick
The fish are all sick, the great whales dead,
The villages stranded in stone on the coast,
Ornamental, like pearls on the fringe of a coat.
Sea men who knew what the ocean did,
Turned their low houses away from the surf.
But new men, who come to be rural and safe,
Add big glass views and begonia beds.
Water keeps to itself
White lip after lip
Curls to a close on the littered beach.
Something is sicker and blacker than fish.
And closing its grip, and closing its grip.
Such small apprehensions that ‘something is sick and closing its grip’ we now know – from scientists, climatologists, ecologists, even in the last year from the headlines of newspapers – have a terrible pertinence - for the prospects before us are, in fact, on closer analysis truly terrifying. Some predictions give human life less than a century! This, it is claimed by some serious ecologists, is possibly the last century of homo sapiens and of thousands of other species – and all because of our own blindness and rapacity. It is this prospect of some planetary devastation that gives the emerging concept of eco-aesthetics a razor edge, a power to lift the hair on our heads, a power to inaugurate the lost language of prophecy. It brings to a burning climax the long tradition of pastoral poetry going back to Theocritus and Vergil. The lovely woodlands of Arcadia, the beauty of the Garden of Eden, the green pastoral landscapes of Wordsworth, the animated landscapes of Constable, Turner and the French Impressionists have never been more threatened or our relationship to them more systemically destructive. We could say, speaking in the high symbolic language of Romanticism, that Blake’s dark satanic mills – or is it Sainsbury’s and Wallmart’s, Tesco’s and MacDonald’s? – have triumphed.
One way of defining eco-aesthetics is to conceive it as the long pastoral tradition of European culture in extremis, taken to the very edge of apocalypse. But, surely, this is overstated? Too hyperbolic? Almost fanatical?
To answer, let us consider more carefully the ecological background to eco-poetics, the pastoral tradition in breakdown, not as poets see it, not as visionaries see it, but through the sharp lens of ecology: to see our situation as the dominant community of natural scientists view it. Here are a number of predictions and informed speculations which bring out dramatically the nature of the ecological crisis we are facing and which puts eco-poetics at the very heart of the aesthetic agenda. The predictions relate, in the first instance, to the phenomenon of global warming – that is, to the immediate and long term effects of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (Co2s), emitted by the burning of fossil fuels as they form an insulating blanket around the globe of our earth. Since the Industrial Revolution the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has doubled and, as China and India enter the consumer technological age at an alarming tempo, is set to go on increasing for decades to come. It is calculated that in twenty years time China will have overtaken the USA as the top emitter of greenhouse gases.
It is claimed that, as the mercury moves slowly up the world’s thermometer, it is likely that the global temperature will rise by up to 8 degrees Celsius and that, with the consequent melting of the glaciers and ice-caps, the sea levels could rise by 7 metres – well over 20 feet.
As the mercury rises slowly up the world’s thermometer, it is predicted that within 50 years all the great coral reefs will have disappeared, that most of the great rain forests will have been reduced to tufted desert (savannah), with the dramatic loss of innumerable species, from polar bears and lions and tigers to 1,200 of the world’s birds, to untold millions of micro-organisms, many of them in the Rain Forests, many of them not even classified yet thought absolutely essential for the health of the biosphere.
It is predicted that many of the great cities of the world could be submerged under the rising tidal water: London, Sydney, New York, Amsterdam, Venice… And that because of the evaporation of lakes in the increasingly hotter, more tropical countries - India, Africa, China - there will be such a critical shortage of water that it could engender the first global wars for that simple natural resource.
When the war against Islamic terrorism was at its height, an advisor to the government for the environment in Britain announced that the war against terrorism was as nothing compared to the threats to our planet posed by global warming. With these figures and predictions one can see his point with a terrible clarity. And yet for any adequate ecological over-view one must not stop at global warming – for that is one hugely menacing force among many others, and the great lesson of ecology is that one must always consider the totality of the interacting pattern, to look holistically. Thus to global warming we have to add further destabilising factors such as:
the general pollution of nature,
the general depletion of resources,
the general soil erosion.
And also the daunting scale of human numbers. We are, quite simply, crowding the earth: millions of people all clamouring to live out the glossy advertisements, the now global phantasmagoria of endless consumption.
The human population stands at the moment at the figure of 6.4 billion. In 1600 there was only half a billion. In the next 35 years it is expected to reach 9 billion and then to slowly stabilise. 9 billion people! What an extraordinary increase!
Then think of the demand all these lives, trained to live out the colour supplement consumer dream, will make on the already diminishing resources of the planet as it reels under the effects of global warming.
These figures and predictions and warnings have still to burn their way into our jaded minds. We seem to be sleepwalking into a catastrophe of our own making.
The question is: how do we set in action creative forces of a corresponding magnitude not only to avert the larger disasters but, as importantly, to remedy the fault, the fact that we are now aggressively forcing nature, the whole multi-faceted biosphere, to her very limits? This is the seminal question of our time. And it requires a quantum leap of consciousness in unprecedented social and ecological circumstances.
(to be continued...)
A lively discussion and exchange of ideas followed Peter’s lecture and John Pack, Director of the Aegean Center, took the opportunity of announcing his plans to utilize the latest technology in alternative energy to establish the school as a self-sufficient “green” building and as an example for others to follow. “The technology is beautiful” John effused – eco-aesthetics in action! More information on this and other eco projects on the island will be covered in future issues of Paros Life.
With the exception of ‘Head Gardener’ all poems have been taken from Earth Songs ed Peter Abbs, Green Books, 2002.
For further reflections on eco-poetics see: www.peterabbs.co.uk.