Fugitive phenomena

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named.

Robert MacFarlane describing one of the disappearing words he’s collected which describe landscapes and the natural world.

I’m fascinated by language, and I’m drawn to these uncanny words that describe something specific by familiar. They have the alienated majesty of my own thoughts or observations captured in a single word, and they often have the power to change the way I perceive the world.

The Japanese word wabi sabi is one example of this. When I first heard the word, it immediately resonated with me. The idea of something becoming more beautiful with use was something I’d been thinking about already.

Learning about wabi sabi helped to crystalize some of those ideas, but also changed the way I perceived the world. It’s a concept I’ve returned to again and again when thinking about how things should be designed. Knowing the word fundamentally changed the way I experienced the world.

MacFarlane comments on this in his article.

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Not only is smeuse an amazing word, but it’s had the same effect on me. During my walks around our village I’ve noticed smeuses much more often than I did before now that I have a word for them.

It’s this point — naming something means noticing it — that lies behind MarFarlane’s project to collect seldom-used words that describe the landscape and natural phenomenon.

A recently published version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed natural words, such as “acorn”, in favor of digital words, such as “blog.” MacFarlane places his project in this context:

The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

There is a relationship between our experience and the words we use to describe it. It works in both directions. As our interactions with nature decline, so too will our our use of words that describe specific natural phenomenon. Those “fugitive phenomena” are less likely to be noticed, so why would we need words to describe them?

I worry that we’re spending less and less time in nature. I worry that we’ll lose more than just words. I worry that we losing the lessons that are learned when you spend time climbing a tree, buiding a den or losing yourself in the woods: self-reliance, cooperation, close observation of your surroundings. I worry even more because these skills aren’t prioritized by our current education systems.

I’m not convinced that collecting these words will necessarily change this on its own, but I believe that MacFarlane’s project is worthwhile as a part of a larger project to reverse this trend. Collecting these words takes a stand for taking the time notice these things that are rarely noticed. If they spark the curiosity of just a few people or change the way they view the natural world, then it’s well worth it.

The beyond-world

Baker became, during those years of chase, an explorer of what he called the ‘beyond-world’: the wild world of birds and small creatures that existed in hedgerows, in woodlands, in the air, and out on the coastal borderlands of the mudflats and saltmarshes. This ‘beyond-world’ was always occurring, mingling with our world of tarmac and cars and pesticides and tractors, rarely more than a turn of the head or a turn in the road away. Most people were entirely blind to this world, but Baker saw it wherever he looked. In his eyes, the Essex landscape—never more than 150 feet above sea-level, only fifty miles from London, heavily farmed—was as inspiring and elemental as the Pamirs or the Arctic.

Robert MacFarlane, writing in The Wild Places (p. 279), about John Baker’s idea of the ‘beyond-world.’ Baker spent an entire winter tracking peregrine falcons in Essex. Essex, for those of you who don’t live in the UK, is one of the least wild places I know of, aside from a city.

The idea of the ‘beyond-world’ immediately struck me. I love the idea of looking just beyond what is immediately before you to see something else: a plant growing up through a crack in the sidewalk made by the root of a nearby tree, a ruin giving way to nature in the middle of a giant metropolis or an insect you’ve never seen before just outside your door.

In the idea of the ‘beyond-world’ there is something of Rebecca Solnit’s grandmother sources, of listening beyond the single story to the endless stories unfolding around us.

When I lived in Austin, I twice had the experience of seeing the world before me fall away and reveal something else. I was once walking on 12th Street towards the ACC campus, when I reached the top of a hill. At the bottom of this hill was Shoal Creek. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. Suddenly, I could imagine the entire area covered in trees with just a dirt track winding its way down to the creek. It stopped me in my tracks and lasted only a moment before I went on my way, back in a city on my way to school.

The second encounter with a ‘beyond-world’ was a very different kind of imaginative rewilding. I was walking down 6th Street, when I looked at the buildings around me, just past the neon signs for clubs and bars. In that moment, 6th Street revealed its origins as a pioneer street, something from the Wild West. The architecture was still there, just barely covered over.

I now live in Hampshire, but work in London. London often has this effect on me, often when I’m crossing them Thames at night. There is a flood of histories, but also the strange, simple realization than I’m in London. That I’m living across the world from my home and that I know London better than anyplace I’ve ever lived.

Hampshire is not unlike Essex in some respects. It’s not terribly wild, at least not on our end of Hampshire. We live in a village surrounded by farmland, but we don’t have to go far to explore. My morning run takes me through two different woods and a holloway. On the weekends, we’ll often take an Ordnance Survey map and find a place we don’t know to go explore. These aren’t wild places. They are for the most part ancient rights-of-way, marked on the map in broken green lines. We’re often on these paths alone, and are surprised to come across other people. It gives us time to look at the world, to find a plant or insect we’ve never seen before, to discover interesting stones that may reveal something about the underlying geology or to find scattered hints of other people who have passed this way before.

I believe these mini-adventures are a way of making time to see the ‘beyond-world’ and make us all better at seeing it at times when we might otherwise rush past it.

Ruins

What is a ruin, after all? It is a human construction abandoned to nature, and one of the allure of ruins in the city is that of wilderness: a place full of promise of the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.

Rebecca Solnit, discussing what attracts us to ruins, in A Field Guide To Getting Lost (pp. 88-89). I’ve always been fascinated the cracked sidewalk and the plants that grow in those cracks. Even there, we can see nature undoing what we have so recently done, despite our efforts to hold nature at bay. And this does hold a certain fascination.

My brother once gave me a framed copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, which he’d typeset in one of the classes he was taking at library school. It still sits on my desk at home. This is certainly part of the fascination with ruins: the desert sands overtaking a powerful man’s great work, the thought of everyone’s eventual end.

I think there is something else that fascinates, though. Ruins capture, almost overwhelm, the imagination. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed by an unknown past when I walked through the ruins of Ostia Antica or Chaco Canyon. Ruins are invitation to hear stories you don’t yet know. As I stepped through the hushed ruins, I could almost hear them whispering those stories to me: story upon story upon story, waiting to be discovered. You can make up your own stories up—as Rebecca Solnit did in the ruins of the hospital that inspired her meditation on ruins—or you can seek it out. I think both are valid.

Ruins are inviting and fascinating because they tap into the deep human need for stories. Our efforts at preservation are an attempt to preserve what Solnit calls grandmother sources: the stories that we don’t already know, that don’t fit into the grand narrative, that offer different and valuable perspectives, that ensure we learn from the mistakes of the past.

Perhaps these forgotten stories are a part of what Solnit means when she speaks of “the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.”

Solastalgia and soliphilia

The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, after studying people living in an area transformed by open-pit coal mining, invented a word for the anguish we feel when beloved natural places change beyond recognition: solastalgia, which pulls from the roots of pain and desolation. Though we talk despairingly about how little people care about the environment, we’re now starting to recognize a different problem: Often, we care more than we can stand.

Brooke Jarvis uses Glenn Albrecht’s concept of solastalgia to try to understand our gut-level response to Chris Jordan’s harrowing photos of the plastic-filled corpses of Laysan albatrosses.

For Albrecht, solastalgia is just one of several psychoterratic diseases—earth-related mental health states. But Albrecht knows better than to focus solely on the doom and gloom. For each negative psychoterratic state, he has identified a positive. In his 2010 TEDxSydney talk, Albrecht identified solastalgia’s opposite as soliphilia.

Soliphilia is manifest in the interdependent solidarity and the wholeness or unity needed between people to overcome the alienation and disempowerment present in contemporary political decision-making.

The language here feels academic to me, but I like the underlying sentiment: people feeling enough of a sense of community and responsibility to make a change.

This contrast between the hopeless and the hopeful (or the battle between the forces of destruction and forces of creation, as Albrecht puts it in his TEDxSydney talk) also comes out in Chris Jordan’s later photos of Laysan albatrosses and their chicks.

For an introduction to solastagia, soliphilia and other psychoterratic states, Glenn Albrect’s TEDxSydney talk is well worth a watch.

Technobiophilia

It can be found in the images on our machines, in the spaces we cultivate in our online communities, and in the language we use every day of our digital lives. It began the moment we moved into the alien, shape-shifting territory of the internet and prompted a resurgence of that ancient call to life, biophilia.

Sue Thomas discusses the thinking behind the slighly clunky term technobiophilia. Biophilia is a concept that E.O. Wilson defines as “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” Thomas is extending the concept to encounters with lifelike process in the digital realm.

She gives the example of Deltcho Valtchanov’s 2010 PHD thesis, which “concluded that encounters with nature in virtual reality have beneficial effects similar to encounters with real natural spaces. In other words, it seems that you can gain equal benefit from walking in a forest as from viewing an image of a forest or, as in my case, from watching virtual goldfish as opposed to real ones.”

As a web geek that is also a bit of a nature boy, I’m both intrigued and skeptical. I tend to get my biophila fix in by getting lost in the woods, rather than getting lost in virtual woods. Fortunately, Thomas has recently written a what appears to be a well-researched book that will allow me to explore the topic further.

All you need is feet

“We have this idea now that all you need to run is a pair of shoes. It’s a common statement, right? Well, it turns out that’s not true. You don’t need shoes. All you need is feet.”

I’ve been researching barefoot running as one way of improving my form. Much of my reading, references Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, which I have yet to read.But there are also a lot of references to the research done on barefoot running by Daniel Lieberman of Harvard.

His hypothesis is that humans evolved over two million years ago to run barefoot when the African forests gave way to the savannahs. Much of the research he’s done seems to support this hypothesis, showing that a forefoot strike—which is much more common among barefoot runners—generates less impact than a heel strike.

The video is a great place to start getting an understanding of how barefoot running could help contribute to an improved running form. The Nature paper he coauthoured is also fascinating, but is much more technical. I had to get to grips with a lot of vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered since studying biology in college.

Endless stories

Endless stories, all crossing each other, and mine tiny, negligent, quick as a blink, where nothing much happened except this: I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there’s never a conclusion, where regardless of wars, tragedies, losses, finds, the sting or the sweetness of what’s gone in a life, or the preoccupations of any single time, any single being, on it goes, the open-air theatre of flowers, trees, birds, bees, the open vision at the heart of the old city.

Ali Smith, Park Stories: The definitive article, p. 12

Darwin: What’s the Big Idea? (Part 1)

Yesterday, Joanne and I went to see the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It’s a fairly large exhibition, and we only managed to see a little over half of it. Nevertheless, I’m already very impressed. We’ll be returning to see the other half later this month.

The exhibition feels very comprehensive, nevertheless, it feels very accessible. The reason for this is that the exhibition concentrates on several aspects of Darwin’s story. There is the science, obviously, about which more later. The exhibition also allows you to follow an adventure story: a bright, young man gets the chance of a lifetime to see the world. And there is also the story of Darwin the man and his relationships, both within the scientific community and with his own family.

What most impressed me was the gradual way in which the exhibition introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin’s letters and notebooks take centre stage here. The exhibition picks out key moments in the voyage of the Beagle and explores how each of those moments contributed to the slow genesis of his “big idea”. It is absolutely fascinating, and very well done. At the end of the section of the voyage of the Beagle, the idea of natural selection (or at least of evolution) seem almost obvious. At the same time, you emerge with an appreciation of Darwin’s hard work and eye for detail.

The design of the exhibition also deserves a mention. It is perfect. It feels simultaneously Victorian and contemporary (think McSweeney’s / The Believer with a slight steampunk edge). The graphics are colorful and eye-catching, without being over the top. The brass-edged glass cases in the Beagle section feel suitably nautical. A detail as simple as the faux stitching along the edges of the labels in the document cases captures a sense of a time when most documents were hand-written.

I have only two small criticisms of the first half of the exhibition.

The first is not really a criticism of the exhibition itself. We were told that an hour and half would be plenty of time to see the whole exhibition. It wasn’t. I’d recommend giving yourself at least three hours if you want to take in the whole thing. Fortunately, the folks at the Natural History Museum were kind enough to give us vouchers to come back to see the second half of the exhibition.

My second criticism — and it is really more of a regret — is that some of the scientists featured in the short film at the end of the Beagle section sounded almost defensive. On second thought, that ever so slight tone of defensiveness may have been appropriate given that the second section explores the reasons that Darwin took almost 20 years to publish his theory. From my brief glimpse at that part of the exhibition, it also explores the ongoing reaction to his theories.

Despite these small criticisms, the exhibition is a must see. The amount of research and hard work that has gone into it is worthy of Darwin himself. It is certainly worth the £9 entry fee.

Update: We also visited the London Ice Sculpting Festival, which Joanne has covered on her blog and I uploaded some photos to flickr.