In scorn of Nature, Art gave lifeless life

Age is an artist that continues to paint experience after experience over the worn and tattered scenes that are no more. For most of us, however, the pentimento is obvious, and never quite disappears beneath the crust of what we insist on adding. And yet, we continue to paint in hopes we’ve got it right at last: that what we are now portraying is what we should have seen those many years ago. All the while, of course, the colours thicken on what we layered on before, adding nothing to our knowledge, only curtains that cast shadows on the canvas -the past no more than tricks of light.

And yet I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to Art than the depiction of long forgotten histories in words or canvas -far more, in fact. Art is the plaque in the cornerstone that reminds us of how things were, the figure-ground that taunts our hallowed view of present days -the stories that we have come to revere.

But we are, all of us, Art; we are the stories that we tell, and the ones that we have heard. We are what we have seen, however vaguely remembered, and parts of us are shadows that follow us around like memories.

So, it occurred to me that Art could function as a synergist: its effect is greater than might be expected from what it depicts. If nothing else, a painting -like an old photograph, perhaps- allows us to see what was and compare it with what is. Some difference is usually to be expected, I suppose, but if the change is sufficiently irreconcilable to our expectations, it may speak to those little ears within that are alert to dissonance. In other words, it may spur us to a conclusion, an action, that we may not have felt was either necessary or justified before: the past ‘screwing our courage to the sticking place’, to slightly paraphrase Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

I hasten to admit that my epiphany is far from original, but I was pleased to find a thorough examination of it in an essay in BBC Future written by Ella Saltmarshe and Beatrice Pembroke, the founders of the Long Time Project which ‘champions art and culture as a route to helping people think and act more long-term.’ https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190521-how-art-and-culture-can-help-us-rethink-time

‘For most of human history we haven’t needed to think long-term,’ they write. ‘” As futurist Jamais Casio puts it, “In a world of constant, imminent existential threats, the ability to recognise subtle, long-term processes and multi-generational changes wasn’t a particularly important adaptive advantage.” Yet today, the nature of risk has changed. We no longer live in a world of clear, local cause and effect, and the greatest threats to civilisation are happening on the timescale of decades or centuries.’ And yet, ‘While our minds might be not be wired to deal with long-term threats and priorities in the abstract, they are wired for two things that we can control: story and emotion… Art can stretch our time frames, helping us develop what geologist Marcia Bjornerud calls “timefulness”: the ability to locate ourselves within eras and aeons, rather than weeks and months.’

The authors go on to document the ‘growing body of deep time work that locates us in the epic geological history of the Universe, evoking awe and wonder.’ And it seems to me that such an approach may help to bridge the ever-widening gap between indifference and despair: the unwillingness to confront the existential threats that seem to be confronting us at every turn -from the paucity new antibiotics able to deal with increasing microbial resistance, the growing mistrust of vaccines in the face of overwhelming evidence for their efficacy, to the elephant looming in the dark, stuffy room of climate change. We are often so frightened by these, and other things, that we turn our heads away, and like children hiding under a blanket, think we have found a refuge from the elephant and his kin. But somewhere inside, we know we have solved nothing, and if we turn again to look, we find that it is staring at us still.

Sometimes, when things seem too remote for action, too unlikely to affect us, or worse, too horrible to contemplate, we benefit from intermediaries we trust to explain what we have failed to understand and to guide us through the fear. Change is normal, but only when it doesn’t colour outside the expected boundaries -then it turns to chaos. In the words of Shakespeare again -this time King Lear- that way madness lies; let me shun that. So, as the authors write: ‘If we can work with art and culture to stretch our time frames so that we care about the long-term future, then hopefully as a species, we will have a future in the long term.’

And sometimes, it is also the little things changing that we’re reluctant to face.

“Is that where you used to live, Grampa?” My 4 year old grandson stared at the picture I had shown him with a doubtful expression on his face. “Can we go and see it…?”

I could only smile at his enthusiasm. I was a child myself when I’d lived there and my parents had long since sold the house to developers, but at the time it was on a quiet, unsidewalked street lined with trees. Now, years later, it was lined with multi-storied apartment blocks and parked cars.

“It’s changed since then, Cas,” I explained. “And our house isn’t there anymore…”

“Where’d it go?” he asked, his face now puzzled.

My answer was a little shrug. In truth, I missed the house with its wide wooden steps and covered porch. It had trees in the front and back, and a garden where my mother used to grow vegetables that she’d preserve for the long, protracted winter season. I’d told Cas about it many times, but had only just found the grainy photograph for him to see.

“Is the street like our street now?” He ran to the front window of the little apartment his mother and my son were renting while they worked their way up their respective corporate ladders. I had agreed to babysit for the afternoon.

I walked over to the window and looked out with him; I had to nod my head. “Yes Cas, very much like this street.”

He stared out the window for a while, and as I started to walk away, he turned to me. “Why did you let them do it, Grampa?”

The question caught me by surprise. “Do what, Cas?”

“Tear down your beautiful house and take away the trees?”

I had to sigh. “I suppose my mommy and daddy were getting old and needed to move to some place smaller that was easier to take care of…” In fact, they were both gone now.

He thought about it for a moment. “Did their new house have trees and a garden, too?”

Cas seemed so earnest that I didn’t want to disappoint him. He’d never met his great-grandparents; he’d never had to endure their gradual decay in the extended care home in which they  ended up. So I nodded. “Yes, they moved to a place with trees and a little flower garden.”

A big smile suddenly appeared on his face and his eyes twinkled with pleasure. “That’s good,” he said, with a sudden adult expression on his little face. “My daddy says we’re going to move to a place with trees…” He glanced out of the window again. “Trees are important when you get old, aren’t they Grampa?”

They certainly are Cas, I thought and nodded with a sigh. Trees will always be important.

We will build a wall…

It’s humbling to realize that, despite my age, there are still some things I’ve never heard of. Or, is it because of my age…?

I suppose I could be forgiven for being unaware –I almost said uninterested– in things that trend nowadays, the inference being that, lacking in statistical significance, those things which appeal to a segment of the population to which I am not credentialed have been assigned a new category. But what about issues that have been bubbling about for almost a century, albeit far enough away that I am seldom directly affected? And yet, distance excuses nothing. I hear of hurricanes, and distant floods. I am all too aware of the melting of Greenland’s glaciers, not to mention similar changes in Antarctica, so why would Africa be any different? News of terrorism, political coups, and natural disasters there abound in everyday news, so how could anything as filled with potential as a decades long project to arrest the steady creep of desertification into sub-Saharan Africa have crept past me?

The Sahara is the second largest desert in the world, after Antarctica and throughout the history of the region, it has undergone millennial climatic oscillations. From about 11,000 to 5,000 years ago (during the early Holocene epoch), trees, lakes, grasslands once covered the arid Sahara. ‘The Green Sahara was the most recent of a succession of wet phases paced by orbital precession that extends back to the late Miocene. When the precessional cycle approaches perihelion during boreal summer, the increase in insolation drives a strong land-sea temperature gradient over North Africa that strengthens the African monsoon, bringing rainfall deep into the Sahara,’ according to a paper authored by geologist Jessica Tierney of the University of Arizona and published in Science Advances http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/1/e1601503.full

The last few millennia, however, have been dominated by aridity and a fear that the desert is slowly creeping southward. And while, apart from the Nile arriving from much further south, little was felt to be able to reclaim the desert itself. So, the idea of preventing further encroachment along its southern borders –the Sahel- was proposed.

As the Smithsonian Magazine reports, ‘The Sahel spans 3,360 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, a belt stretching across the southern edge of the Sahara. Rainfall is low, from four to 24 inches per year, and droughts are frequent. Climate change means greater extremes of rainfall as the population skyrockets in the region, one of the poorest in the world. Food security is an urgent concern. By 2050, the population could leap to 340 million, up from 30 million in 1950 and 135 million today.

‘In 1952 the English forester Richard St. Barbe Baker suggested that a ”green front” in the form of a 50km wide barrier of trees be erected to contain the spreading desert. Droughts in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel from the 1970s onwards gave wings to the idea, and in 2007 the African Union approved the Great Green Wall Initiative.’ https://qz.com/1014396/the-plan-for-a-great-green-wall-to-beat-back-the-sahara-needs-a-rethink/

The idea was that a green ‘wall’ from from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east would not only halt further desertification, but the people in this area would benefit with jobs, increased arability of the land, and maybe even tourists.

As it was originally conceived, however, it seems retrospectively naïve. Perhaps the Smithsonian magazine summarizes it best: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/great-green-wall-stop-desertification-not-so-much-180960171/ ‘”If all the trees that had been planted in the Sahara since the early 1980s had survived, it would look like Amazonia,” adds Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute who has been working in Africa since 1978. “Essentially 80 percent or more of planted trees have died.” Reij, Garrity and other scientists working on the ground knew […] that farmers in Niger and Burkina Faso, in particular, had discovered a cheap, effective way to regreen the Sahel. They did so by using simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms. Slowly, the idea of a Great Green Wall has changed into a program centered around indigenous land use techniques, not planting a forest on the edge of a desert.

‘The African Union and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization now refer to it as “Africa’s flagship initiative to combat land degradation, desertification and drought.” Incredibly, the Great Green Wall—or some form of it—appears to be working. “We moved the vision of the Great Green Wall from one that was impractical to one that was practical,” says Mohamed Bakaar, the lead environmental specialist for Global Environmental Facility the organization that examines the environmental benefit of World Bank projects. “It is not necessarily a physical wall, but rather a mosaic of land use practices that ultimately will meet the expectations of a wall. It has been transformed into a metaphorical thing.”’

I like metaphors, especially wall metaphors… Edge metaphors in particular. There is something intriguing about what happens at boundaries when things alien to each other, let alone inimical, meet. There is usually a testing of one another, a probing for similarities, weaknesses, and then often as not, attempts at breach. And if both sides absorb the assaults, the wall then becomes a compromise –not maintaining a separate identity, but melding, as it were, into a new entity. A new creature.

So, although it may be true that what lies far away on either side stays true to itself, the wall is a relationship -a neither-nor that exists as a bridge to each. Walls, are like skin: it separates us from the world beyond, but it also joins us to it. The Green ‘Wall’, in a way, highlights this. Rather than artificially planting trees, the farmers allowed the tree roots still in the ground to regenerate –these, presumably, were already adapted to the local conditions. ‘Tony Rinaudo, an Australian with Serving in Mission, a religious nonprofit, working with local farmers, had helped the farmers identify useful species of trees in the stumps in their fields, protect them, and then prune them to promote growth. Farmers grew other crops around the trees.’
For example, ‘One tree, Faidherbia albida, goes dormant during the wet season when most trees grow. When the rains begin, the trees defoliate, dropping leaves that fertilize the soil. Because they have dropped their leaves, the trees do not shade crops during the growing season. Their value had long been recognized by farmers […] but they were never encouraged to use them.’

So, far from being a wall, the Sahel is more of a chain, with different parts linked together, however tentatively. However unlikely.

You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link.
This is but half the truth.
You are also as strong as your strongest link.
To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean
by the frailty of its foam. Kahlil Gibran…

Metaphors are powerful things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-great-green-wall-of-africa

 

 

Treemail?

Treemail? You’ve got to be kidding… Or is this simply a natural progression from Emailing your fridge, or telling the front door of your house to lock when you’re at work -something that in four or five years will be so banal and unsurprising that pointing it out as interesting will ensure that you are similarly categorized?

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33560182 is the BBC News article that first brought this intriguing idea to my attention.

The original idea was to help preserve the trees in Melbourne, 40% of which were either struggling or dying in the regional drought. The authorities mapped all the trees and gave each one a specific ID. Then they decided that if they put these online, people could Email the city if they noticed any problems with a particular tree. Great idea: digitize something and it you’ve reified it; make it accessible and voila: an individual accorded all of the rights and privileges of anything else with which you can communicate.

Individuation, the process of distinguishing one thing from another thing -how, in other words we know that an individual is one thing and not someone or something else- is a fascinating subject. There are several fields that have adopted the idea. Jung, for example used the concept to describe how an individual becomes a unique subjective entity out of all the potential that existed subconsciously before he or she did so. And of course, social media long ago tapped into it to customize news to match the preferences of the reader (for example, see my essay https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/the-polarization-bias/ ).

But I have to say that, for me, the most thought provoking aspect of the notion is the philosophical one. If I can delve into some rather abstruse background, it may help to explain what I mean. In medieval philosophy, one could ask what something was –what group it belonged to and what it shared with others of its kind (plant or animal, for example) and this was known as quiddity –Latin for ‘what it is’. This grouping into categories, as it were, was contrasted with the uniqueness of a particular thing in that group –the thisness of an individual. In other words, that which caused it to be this particular thing, and nothing else. This concept goes by the name –stay with me for just a moment- Haecceity, from the Latin haecceitas, meaning thisness.

If nothing else, you have to love the words…

So the distinction would be something akin to the difference between the concept of a woman -quiddity- and the concept of Indira Gandhi (a specific woman) –haecceity.

What makes something unique, though? Surely not simply a name. There were apparently around 77,000 presumably unnamed trees in Melbourne when they decided to individuate them. Few of them were previously noticed as individuals, unless perhaps they exhibited some feature that stood out from the rest. Most were probably beautiful in their own ways, and each was certainly, on closer inspection at any rate, unique. But they were still trees –quiddities: background, shadows in the larger Gestalt, by and large- until they were granted numbers. Identifiers. First names, if you will.

And why is that so exciting? Because each has suddenly become real. Each emerged like a crystal precipitating from a previously undifferentiated matrix. Each is now recognizable, like a friend in a crowd -someone you know. And in a world of faceless, anonymous strangers it is nice to be able to smile at something familiar –the climate-friendly helper you’ve finally met. As Polonius says to Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel

Haecceit them, I guess…