Friday, 6 May 2022

No 127 - Can one make sense of Ukraine?


So rivetted am I by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I actually dreamed I was there, helping someone who was rescuing displaced cats. It may yet prove to be the third great crisis of our lifetimes, along with the pandemic and the even more destructive ecological meltdown. I knew little about the region, except that it had been invaded and fought over innumerable times – so often that historian Timothy Snyder titled his book on it “Bloodlands”. So here are a few things I found.

Putin’s fateful, appalling and ill-conceived invasion is just one of a very, very long series. 

In the year 370 it was the Huns.

In 882 it was the Varangians (no, I’m not sure where they came from, either).

In 1240, the Mongols sacked Kyiv; many fled to other countries. Five years later, the papal envoy Giovanni da Pian del Carpine reported:

"They destroyed cities and castles and killed men and Kyiv, which is the greatest Russian city they besieged; and when they had besieged it a long while they took it and killed the people of the city. So when we went through that country we found countless human skulls and bones from the dead scattered over the field. Indeed it had been a very great and populous city and now is reduced almost to nothing. In fact there are hardly two hundred houses there now and the people are held in the strictest servitude."[

In the 1470s a then-powerful Lithuanian/Polish combination did it again. At that time, ‘Rus’ to the east barely registered on the map.

In 1793 Catherine the Great invaded Ukraine, just one of several Russian autocrats who would exert dominance over an area that at one time formed the very heart of Russia, at other times opted for fierce independence, and at others still were as nasty to their neighbours as anyone. The tsarist ambition for a Greater Russia in some ways was merely continued by the Communists after 1917. This new-ish national sensibility was forged in contradistinction from the ‘West’, upon whose cultural coat-tails Russia had long and ambivalently dangled. The West helped stoke Russian antipathy and fear by themselves invading occasionally: Napoleon in 1812, others a century later in the aftermath of World War I, when Russia endured a gruelling civil war. Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny wrote:

In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kyiv changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food. [Quotations courtesy Wikipedia]

One of the worst was in 1941, when the Nazis rumbled through, levelling cities and shipping tens of thousands off to the gas-ovens. The Soviet response and backwash over Ukraine was almost as vicious; and it wasn’t long before Stalin’s policy of compulsory collectivisation starved millions more Ukrainians to death.

So one can imagine a cold-blooded Putin saying: “Why is everyone getting so excited? This has happened before!” One can see him choosing to model his attitude on a particular moment of Russian historical pride – Peter the Great, perhaps – spiced with KGB-trained Cold War paranoia, centuries-old resentment of perceived inferiority to the West, and fears of yet another encroachment, this time by NATO. He seems motivated, in short, by a monumental myth – and as Roland Barthes argued a long time ago, such myths are the greatest motivators of all. Napoleon had his myth, too; so did the British Empire, as Caroline Elkins shows in her magisterial new book, Legacy of Violence. Such myths serve to deny, justify, legalise or cover up acts of terrible violence inflicted on subject peoples. Putin’s propaganda is nothing new; every empire, every power structure, has one.

This is not in any way to justify the present invasion, which will deliver good to no one much except the arms manufacturers. Not even to Russia. And of course the situation today, due to the presence of thousands of nuclear warheads, looks more dangerous than any of those previous occasions.

What seems most mysterious to us now, perhaps, is why so many within Russia (and some outside) seem to swallow that myth and propaganda, even publicly support it.

I found myself going back to a book I’d read maybe 30 years ago, by the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslav Milosz. Poland has been through much the same turbulent history as neighbouring Ukraine, the same spasms of national and linguistic pride and independence, the same kind of incorporation into that one-time ‘Greater Russia’ that Putin seems set on reinstating. In his book The Captive Mind, first published in 1953, Milosz explores in detail how complex is that ‘submission’ to the autocratic state. Not a simple belief in the propaganda, not a simple sense of numbed victimhood, not even a simple survival strategy for potential dissenters; but something of all of these, varying from individual to individual. Milosz is concerned mostly with intellectuals and writers, especially from Poland, who had to find ways of accommodating themselves to Stalin’s hyper-surveillance. (To understand just how intense that surveillance was, read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, or Orlando Figes’ grimly absorbing study of everyday lives under Stalin, The Whisperers. There are moments I feel a little in sympathy with Putin’s sneering at ‘the decadence of the West’, but however messy and hypocritical democracy can get, the Stalin-style alternative is just unacceptably terrifying.)

What strikes me about Milosz’s book, even after 70 years, is how often it’s eerily prescient of today’s situation, unsettlingly parallel. Here are just some of the passages I picked out. A key component of the syndrome is Russia’s suspicious disdain for the West – far from new to Putin & Co. Despite the West’s technological superiority,

[The] Eastern intellectual asks, what goes on in the heads of the Western masses? Aren’t their souls asleep ... isn’t Christianity dying out in the West, and aren’t its people bereft of all faith? ... Don’t they fill that void with chauvinism, detective stories, and artistically worthless movies? ...  One has but to read Tolstoi’s What is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. [The Russian] must break that habit of imitation which was inevitable as long as French, English or Belgian capital, investing in the mines, railroads and factories [add, today, oil and gas] of the ‘Eastern Marches’, pushed its books, films and styles upon them. ... “

According to Stalin’s version of Marxism, the West is doomed: “The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of indecision.” [Trump? Johnson?] Hence, the average Russian is subjected to propaganda that “tries by every means to prove that Nazism and Americanism are identical in that they are products of the same economic conditions...” Putin seems to have bought this line entirely, relying on outdated philosophers who punt a Russian version of America’s “Manifest Destiny”, but a faith avowedly founded on pure reason and historical inevitability.

“The philosophy of History emanating from Moscow is not just an abstract theory; it is a material force that uses guns, tanks, planes, and all the machines of war and oppression. All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New [Stalinist, or Putinist] Faith. ... What is happening in Russia and the countries dependent upon her bespeaks a kind of insanity, but it is not impossible that Russia will manage to impose her insanity upon the whole world ...”

Milosz writes of the 1950s, but it is uncannily being reproduced today. Under such pressures of history, surveillance, external curbing of dissenting voices, internal self-censorship and guilt, little wonder that many find ways to ‘go along’, quietly harbouring any doubts while publicly writing odes to the Leader. It is not just a matter of lying to save one’s skin or position.

 “Finding oneself in the midst of an historical cyclone, one must behave as prudently as possible ... All [one’s] intellectual and emotional capacities are put to the test. ...What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectuals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure. [And] even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.”

This gives just a flavour of the subtlety and complexity with which Milosz unpacks the mentalities of people, especially poets and intellectuals, who find themselves caught up in the periodic whirlwinds of the “bloodlands.” It makes the courage of Pussy Riot and Navalny all the more remarkable – but look what’s happened to them. I suppose if there is any hope arising from this tortuous history, it’s that although these cities have been flattened time and again, time and again they’ve also been rebuilt. May the present-day sites of horror – the suddenly-household names of Kyiv, Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol – be similarly restored.

As for Milosz the poet, he refuses to give in to despair.

“The war years taught me that a man should not take a pen in his hands merely to communicate to others his own despair and defeat. This is too cheap a commodity; it takes too little effort to produce it for a man to pride himself on having done so. Whoever saw, as many did, a whole city reduced to rubble – kilometres of streets on which there remained no trace of life, not even a cat, not even a homeless dog – emerged with a rather ironic attitude towards descriptions of the hell of the big city by contemporary poets, descriptions of the hell in their own souls. A real “wasteland” is much more terrible than any imaginary one. ... Today the only poetry worthy of the name is eschatological [pertaining to the ‘end times’], that is, poetry which rejects the present inhuman world in the name of a great change.”

One has to wonder if we're not in similar eschatological times, history repeating itself, to be sure - but with contemporary variations.


Monday, 21 March 2022

No 126 - Three fabulous forest books


For forests, every day is World Forest Day.
Forests are millions of years older than we are, fundamentally responsible for creating an atmospheric, moisture and temperature regime that made our evolution and our present-day existence possible. If they are not exactly sentient beings, as some argue, they are certainly communities of intricately interlinked organisms of miraculous complexity and beauty, centuries in the making, downed in minutes. For millennia, humans have cut forests back and exploited them and failed to allow them to replenish themselves, along with their multiple inhabitants, from butterflies to bonobos – perhaps the richest sites of biodiversity the planet has ever known. Our ecological knowledge is now vast, the scale of anthropogenic catastrophe incontrovertible, yet governments and multinationals, exploiting the impoverished and servicing the rich, continue – stupidly, blindly, insanely, even criminally – to raze forest areas the size of small countries every single day. The unrelenting destruction of the Amazon rainforest is just one prominent example. My own iconic image is the heartbreaking one of an Indonesian gibbon swatting futilely at the massive blade of a machine a hundred times its size as it ploughs down the last of its homely trees.

Of course few of us are not complicit, as we pursue however modestly lifestyles dependent on power, transport, wood, beef, soy beans, palm oil. But one does what one can, contributing rescue funds, promoting local forest growth, and raising awareness. In the spirit of the last, here are three extraordinary books about forests I wholeheartedly recommend.

Nearly thirty years ago I discovered Simon Schama’s hefty book, Landscape and Memory (1995). (Since then the hyper-prolific Schama has become well-known for his books and television series on the history of England, on art, on eighteenth-century Holland, on the French Revolution, on the story of the Jews, etc etc.) Landscape and Memory launched me in one long stride into the line of study that has dominated my academic career: the intricate and unavoidable links between culture and nature, between trees, rocks, waters and literary expressions of individual and even national identities. As he puts it:

 Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock. ... [O]nce a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, or making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery.

 In one arresting section, Schama explores the role in Polish self-consciousness of the Bialowieza forest and its iconic European bison. This is ancestral territory for Schama, and the figure of the Jewish forester looms large. Though he could find little about his direct forebears, Schama visits the region, tramping through the forests and sampling bison steak, leavening the riotous historical detail with poetic personal experience. Most intriguing for me was how the 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz re-imagined the forests and elevated them into Polish national icons. These central Eastern areas – Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine – are what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands”, swept over by ravening hordes of insurgents for centuries, shifting borders, names and allegiances from year to year, riven with internecine spats and sundry rebellions. Putin is just the latest in a long series of devastating  invaders. Through it all, the forest and its bison have survived, though on an increasingly diminished scale. Ironically, they survived in part through the efforts of another invader, the Germans of 1941 – or more precisely Nazi No.2, Herman Goering, who declared Bialowieza a preserve to satisfy his own hunting proclivities.

As Schama discusses, this intersects with a German forest mythology. This one goes all the way back to the Roman historian Tacitus’ book Germania, in which he describes, not altogether disapprovingly, the leader of wild, wily, tough, almost hunter-gatherer forest tribes, Arminius. For the next two millennia, this natural, organic, self-sufficient  character would be periodically updated and refurbished to become a central mythic pillar of the German self-image through literature and art, even as agricultural and technological Germany became in reality something quite different. All this – and much more – is delivered in scintillating style, swarming with vivid historical detail and life, leavened by Schama’s characteristic dry wit. It’s historical writing at its very best.

Forests occupy only a third of Landscape and Memory, but they are the whole of Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, Forests: The shadow of civilisation (1992). While overlapping a little with Schama, Harrison ranges more widely over world culture and literature, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Joseph Conrad in twentieth-century Congo, from Plato to Wordsworth. As he outlines it, the forest was long that against which civilisation set itself. From being mere clearings in the midst of forbidding and frightening wilderness, human ‘civilisation’, now technologically dominant and exponentially expanding, has all but overwhelmed that wildness. Fear remains, though, as I learned from citified students I’d take out into our own tiny forest remnants for some practical ecocritical experience. So Harrison centrally asks: “What is that antagonism, however imaginary, all about? Why does the law of civilisation define itself from the outset against the forest? For what obscure religious reasons is our humanity, in its traditional alienation from the animal kingdom, incompatible with this aboriginal environment?” He proposes, in part, that the “destructive impulse with respect to nature all too often has psychological causes that go beyond the greed for natural resources or the need to domesticate an environment”. Two chapter headings capture the book’s trajectory: “From mythic origins to deforestation”, and  “The ecology of finitude.” Once upon a time the forests might have seemed endless (as they did to the early American settlers  depicted in Annie Proulx’s epic forest novel Barkskins; axe and saw destroyed that illusion with frightening rapidity.) Deforestation and its discontents are not new: Harrison quotes Plato, lamenting the deforestation of Greece (to build warships) four centuries before Christ:

 In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body ... all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.

Harrison ranges from the forest-friendly, goddess-centred ancient myths, through the forest exile of Nietzsche’s tortured philosopher-character Zarathustra, through mediaeval forest law and lore (Robin Hood’s context) to twentieth-century poets such as AR Ammons and the Italian Andrea Zanzotto. If at times Harrison seems to me to over-read, to over-psychologise his material, so that I find myself mildly disagreeing with his reading of texts I know well, such as Dante’s Inferno or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s nevertheless bewitching, challenging, educative stuff. A profound and unsettling work that leaves one in no doubt of the cultural (let alone real) importance of forests down the ages.

Finally, a most recent novel that actually matches up to the cover blurbs – “Exhilarating”, “Extraordinary”. American novelist Richard Powers’ The Overstory has taken the world by storm, having won that most prestigious and reliable of prizes, the Pulitzer. It has been doing the rounds of the book clubs, and has already been incorporated by university colleagues into their syllabi. Many other readers I’ve met, having read the book, have gone straight back to the beginning to start it again. It might have just a couple too many characters and strands in it; I suppose it is rather within that tradition of American novels that are as vast and sprawling as the continent, encompassing multiple plots, multiple locales and multiple ethnicities (think John dos Passos’ U.S.A., Tom Wolfe’s Time and the River, Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, Don de Lillo’s Underworld.) But who cares when the writing is this good, the invention of character so sharp and plausible, the dialogue so deft and funny, the philosophical underpinnings so unflinching and wise.

All the characters are in some way involved with trees, even when they don’t particularly think they are. They include a woman who makes it her life’s work to prove that trees communicate with each other; activists who camp in the topmost branches of a centuries-old redwood to prevent it being reduced to planks by commercial loggers; three generations of farmers who daily photograph what turns out to be America’s last chestnut tree, the rest having been blighted by invasive disease; a computer gamer. I have not encountered another writer who seems so effortlessly to capture contemporary society in both its material and techno-virtual complexity, and to expose so trenchantly its pretensions and idiocies. (The same can be said of his slimmer, but still devastating, parallel novel Bewilderment.)

Above all, with awe-inspiring research and knowledge, insight and wisdom, he illuminates the life, antiquity, complexity, vivacity, variety, beauty and vital importance of trees. I was raised in bush and mountain forest, so I needed no persuasion; but it would take an extraordinarily numb reader of any background not to feel seriously changed by this book, to have their view of trees fundamentally enhanced and illuminated. I’m far from convinced that any book or artwork, no matter how good, will radically deflect blind mass humanity from its present catastrophic course, but at least we have this one. I’ll leave you with just one representative passage, so juicy, oddball and wise, lessons so deftly refracted through character, you could take almost each sentence and meditate on its implications for a week.

 They drive from farm to farm, between last year’s blights and next year’s vanishing topsoil. He shows her extraordinary things: the spreading cambium of a sycamore that swallowed up the crossbar of an old Schwinn someone left leaning against it decades ago. Two elms that draped their arms round each other and became one tree.

            “We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about some of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree. [...] Here! Look at this. Look at this!” [...]

            Her father is her water, air, earth and sun. He teaches her how to see a tree, the living sheath of cells under every square inch of bark doing things no man has yet figured out. [...] Watching the man, hard-of-hearing, hard-of-speech Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze. As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.

 “Humility and looking”. Amen.



Saturday, 19 February 2022

No 125 - Nancy Farmer's Zimbabwean novels


No one I speak to
in this neck of the book world seems to have heard of Nancy Farmer. This is despite the popularity of her chosen genre, Young Adult fantasy; despite the fact that her novels have won a string of prestigious prizes; and despite the fact that several of them are set in southern Africa, specifically Zimbabwe.

She was born in 1941 in Phoenix, Arizona, but as a younger woman spent some 17 years in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, mostly doing entomological work – largely spiders in Mozambique, then tsetse fly control in the Zambezi Valley. (She and I must have come close to crossing paths at Rukomeche near Mana Pools, an area I also haunted for a time.) During this period she met Harold Farmer, then teaching English at the University in Harare, marrying him after a whirlwind courtship (a week, according to Wikipedia, exaggerating slightly). Harold was himself proving to be an excellent poet, publishing a slim volume with Longmans, Absence of Elephants, which I’ve written about elsewhere

Much affected by story-telling traditions among the peoples of Zimbabwe, Nancy went on to be a prolific, charming, wide-ranging and acclaimed novelist, writing mostly for the young of various ages. Her topics and settings vary widely, too, from the futuristic The House of the Scorpion, set in the violent Mexico/USA borderlands (possibly my personal favourite), to the more conventional Sea of Trolls (2004) with its northern panoply of trolls, dragons etc. I’ve said ‘charming’ and ‘conventional’, but that’s not quite right. On the one hand, Farmer doesn’t spare her youngsters the tough realities – Vikings throw babies into fires, girls menstruate, and so on, though she’s never gratuitous; on the other hand, she consistently obliges her readers to question prejudice and preconceptions. So, for example, the young protagonist of Sea of Trolls, kidnapped from Lindisfarne by Vikings, discovers they are not all as bad as they’ve been portrayed; in turn, the Vikings vilify and stereotype trolls, who also prove to be rather more complex, and so on. In this subtlety and quiet challenge, Farmer makes a writer like JK Rowling look decidedly derivative.

As befits most YA fiction, her protagonists are themselves youngsters, presented with various challenges and put through the mill of sundry adventures. This is true of her Zimbabwean novels, too. The slenderest and ‘youngest’ of three I’ll look at here is The Warm Place (1995). It’s not set in Zimbabwe as such, or even Africa more broadly, as it involves the capture of a young giraffe and her incarceration in a San Francisco zoo.  She finds herself able to collude with a chameleon who teaches her how to disappear, a rat with an aristocratic name and a brusquely dismissive manner but a good heart, and a wee lad who is one of the few humans able to speak with animals in the Common Tongue – all devising a plan to smuggle themselves back to Africa – which is, of course, the Warm Place. It’s funny, fanciful and economical even as it’s scathing about exploitative humans in general and the wildlife trade in particular. This might explain why it was more popular in Africa than in the US. Despite its fanciful elements, it’s observant about real animal behaviour and ecology, without ever being overtly didactic. Here as elsewhere in the novels, Farmer delights in slipping in African-style folktales, sometimes based on Biblical or Talmudic stories, lightly delivered by characters to each other, with both entertaining levity and ethical weight – the very essence of fine story-telling.

Two novels firmly set in Zimbabwe
are aimed at older readers and are more substantial; indeed they are satisfying reading for Ancient adults as much as for Young ones. A Girl Named Disaster (1996) begins with twelve-year-old Nhamo (‘disaster’ in Shona), living on the northern border of Zimbabwe with Mozambique, on one of the rivers running into Cabora Bassa dam. It’s an area familiar to Farmer from her entomological studies, and it shows. She also got to know local Shona culture, its artefacts and family structures, pretty well. Always a tricky business, writing into a culture not one’s own, but she manages it without condescension or stereotyping. (For non-Shona readers Farmer supplies several pages of glossary, cultural notes and extensive research bibliography.) Nhamo finds herself embroiled in arguments about a witchcraft event (this spiritual dimension is depicted as authentically crucial in the community even as members disagree about it), eventuating in her betrothal to a ghastly man. (Such arranged child marriages remain an issue in some parts.) On her grandmother’s advice, she escapes in order to find her long-absent father back in Zimbabwe. The Mozambique civil war growls in the background, hippos guard the river. The father doesn’t sound very promising, either… Suffice it to say things don’t go quite as planned. It’s all about what Farmer identifies as her main thrust, self-reliance.

Nhamo’s journey is epically unlikely, I suppose, but delivered in grounded and realist mode. The other novel is a rather different kettle of fantasy. The Ear, The Eye and The Arm (1994) won the most prestigious prize in this field, the Newbery Honor, among others, and is set in a futuristic Harare. The year is 2194, but the city is still recognisable in its general layout, its divisions between rich and heavily fortified northern suburbs and ‘township’ trashlands ruled by a shadowy matriarch. The transport system is suitably modernised, but Mbare retains the colourfully chaotic character of the informal market. And now the son of a General has been kidnapped … The eponymous body parts are in fact the three members of a detective agency hired to find him; each has a wildly distended organ appropriate to his role. But of course it is a trio of youngsters who are central to the search, racketing through various vicissitudes and strange hidden realms of the vast city. It’s all wonderfully inventive, easily visualisable, oscillating between terror and hope, disappointment and idealism, in its path to its inevitably satisfactory and triumphant ending. In that, at least, Farmer conforms to the comedic conventions of YA fiction.

It's all lovely stuff,
with deft, often funny dialogue and vivid description, and a natty weirdness quite unlike anything else to have emerged from Zimbabwe. Even in the novels, as in her slightly scrambled, candid and self-deprecating self-portrait on her official website,  you sense behind it a sweetly maverick person it would be wonderful to meet. Perhaps one might, in the deserts of Arizona, where apparently she and Harold (I hope) still live.


See for more books and paintings.

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

No 124 - Wild Coast Oil Exploration: Some seismic thoughts


Almost simultaneously, a British court prohibited Shell Oil from advancing their Camco development in the North Sea, while a South African court ruled that the same company may proceed with seismic shock exploration along the Wild Coast. The British decision seems aligned with the globally accelerating move away from fossil-fuel dependency and attendant environmental poisoning; the South African decision flies in the face of that more enlightened path. Both court proceedings were accompanied by vociferous street and online protests, in the South African case spearheaded by Oceans Not Oil. Like many others, I signed and shared their petition to halt seismic blasting, and like many others was dismayed when it failed.

I wasn’t surprised at the court decision, though. The whole process was approved back in 2013, and low-level seismic testing has been going on ever since, indeed at an “abnormally high level” (Russell). This latest surge of ‘activism’ is perhaps a classic case of too little, too late – though I guess there’s never a valid time not to be an activist. (It is a measure of the power of the multinational-government complex that ‘activist’ – i.e. someone who simply wants clean air, potable water, functional ecosystems, and uncontaminated food – has become equivalent to ‘villain’, even ‘terrorist’, punishable for temporarily blocking a pavement while the destroyers-in-chief rumble blithely on.) One of the court’s reasons for denying the application for an injunction was that Shell would lose money. Why anyone outside of Shell should care beats me, but it shows where the power lies.

Seismic exploration is certainly more prominent in the news than ever before, which is good. Many local papers also seemed warmly on the side of the protestors. But the issue is, to put it mildly, more complex than the overblown publicity on either side would have one believe. In an article in the Daily Friend, career contrarian and free-marketeer Ivo Vegter rated the anti-Shell movement’s chances as “nil”, and insinuated that few if any protestors had ever read a scientific article on seismic testing; he may be right, though it’s not obvious that he sampled all 160 000 petition signatories. (That he couldn’t get his fellow-journalist Mike Loewe’s name right doesn’t fill me with confidence about other of his ‘facts’.) I could niggle away at the details of Vegter’s piece, which is chock-full of its own simplifications, speculative asides, and distracting insinuations, but better to home in on the provocative questions he does raise. I am no more expert on the subject than he is, poorly qualified to judge whether this or that scientific study is valid. But when the petition came up I burrowed into the literature quite a bit, and have done some more since, and what follows are some amateur but hopefully stimulating thoughts. [Links to all sources at the end.]

It might help to think it through on three scales: close, intermediate, and global.

The closest range involves the present activity of seismic testing itself. One of the cornerstone objections to it is its potential damage to surrounding marine life. The stress is on potential, because the studies just don’t exist to make very secure predictions. Vegter claims that seismic testing has gone on elsewhere for decades without ever inducing ecosystemic collapse. Perhaps. (So has poaching rhino and abusing women.) Most objectors cite whale and dolphin strandings as evidence of seismic testing-induced disorientation, but our capacity to ascertain this is very limited. Studies are fairly plentiful to show that seismic blasts can damage the hearing of organisms from cetaceans through tuna and squid to crustaceans, and that they induce a variety of visible behavioural responses, from outright flight to disturbances in breeding and feeding regimens. Many if not most such effects seem to be ‘temporary’, but when testing goes on unremittingly for months, there’s no telling what ramifications might accrue. Some fish, for example, have been observed to dive deeper when testing occurs; if a particular shoal does that for weeks, impacts on birds like gannets which feed on them could be catastrophic. It takes only a few days to starve.

Two broad-ranging surveys of the science which I found especially rich and useful show that while the concerns are fundamentally valid, there are numerous caveats to consider. One survey, published in the Journal of Marine Pollution, was supported by the Australian Government, whose fossil-fuel policies are worse than abysmal, so perhaps one shouldn’t trust it absolutely; the second, conducted by David Russell for the Namibian fisheries industry, seems equally thorough despite its commercial angle, and it’s full of terrific technical detail. Just his conclusions are worth reading. Both surveys make many similar points. Their caveats include the following:

            1. There are various ways of conducting seismic tests of an ocean floor, 2D and 3D, each with varying impacts, frequencies, and intensities: “there is no such thing as a typical seismic survey” (Russell). Most discussions focus on airgun blasts, whose echoes off and through the underlying geology are picked up by a ‘streamer’ of sensors trailed behind the test ship. The effects vary hugely according to ocean currents, depth, hardness or softness of the floor, and life-forms’ proximity. Only at very close range – a few metres, it seems – might a creature actually die from the blast as such. Beyond that, impacts become extremely difficult to measure.

            2. A majority of the studies have been conducted in laboratories and tanks, a very different proposition to the turbulent environs of a living ocean. And almost all pick out an individual species to study, and only in close proximity to an airgun blast. So you might be able to determine with great precision what damage is done to a certain fish’s otolith ear-part in controlled conditions, but it’s less easy to measure the results in real-world environs, and dangerous to generalise. If purely physiological consequences are hard to predict, how much more so complex behavioural changes. Cascade effects must inevitably occur, but in practice few have tried to track even the most circumscribed threads in such infinite complexities.

            3. Different sea creatures ‘hear’ differently; not all have ears like mammals, but altogether other organs and equipment, from cilia and swim-bladders to pressure-sensitive skins, whose parameters we don’t even know how to monitor yet. Vegter notes correctly that other sounds in the ocean reach decibel levels equivalent to airgun blasts, but decibels (already a relative rather than an absolute measure), is only one crude approximation to the complexity of hearing; frequency, intensity, duration, pulse effects, pressure can all play a role. 

David Russell summarises:

There is very little evidence of direct tissue damage caused by seismic surveys. This can be partly attributed to the standard procedure of gradually ramping up the sound, and the constantly moving vessel, both of which tend to make the appearance of airgun noise be gradual enough to allow animals to avoid intense exposure. It is also clear that we have virtually no direct observations about the short or long-term physiological effects on wild creatures, since they cannot be examined.

Now, the defenders of seismic exploration (à la cigarette and opioid manufacturers and climate change denialists) will pounce all over these various uncertainties to suggest, essentially, that there isn’t a problem at all. It’s therefore fine just to carry on. Nothing is more revealing than the statements of the oil industry itself – and what they obscure or omit. It’s quite heavy going, reading through and behind the self-congratulatory slurry of business-speak that weighs down the web pages of PGS, a company that has been conducting seismic surveys off our coast for some years. Some things seem clear. a) They are happy to publicise their robust, not to say mind-boggling, profit margins. Good on yer, mate. b) They acknowledge that there might be adverse effects on marine life, but assert that their mitigation strategies are adequate. These include “trained monitors” aboard the survey vessel who will halt proceedings if any mammals are spotted nearby (good luck detecting all of them in a cubic kilometre of turbid sea, not to mention equally vulnerable octopi, turtles, larvae, corals, crabs, etc etc etc), and “exclusion buffers” around our several Marine Protected Areas. In both instances, while it remains uncertain what blast effects are beyond very close proximity, it is incontrovertible that they are audible for tens, if not hundreds, of kilometres, depending on conditions. Such buffers are illusory. Moreover, the company avers that everything is conducted within the relevant laws, safety requirements, Environmental Impact Assessments, and so on. Which may be true – but this seems to me only to reveal how feeble, how unhealthily pliant to the fossil-fuel business the regulations themselves are. The studied marginalisation of the Ministry of Environment on this issue is a local example; but even internationally the laws, whether in or out of sovereign waters, are muddled and unenforceable, and the most relevant international bodies, such as the Fisheries Commission and UNEP, are effectively toothless.

We are already spilling over into medium- and long-range considerations. Which is to say: they can only be artificially separated. For the moment, I want only to reverse the question, to ask: Are seismic blasts good for the marine ecosystem? All the uncertainties notwithstanding, there is only one possible answer: No.

Here we can think towards the next level. The intermediate term, which is to say the next decade or two, is fraught with potentially far greater problems. Assuming that the suspected millions of barrels of crude oil (read, poison) are discovered and extracted, we’ll be faced with the usual slew of unsightly rigs, constant ship traffic, flaring, almost inevitable spills, and leaking pipelines. The oil and gas companies provide not inconsiderable justifications, of course. These are primarily the provision of desperately needed jobs (both in the immediate infrastructure and in downstream ancillary industries), and the national localisation of fuel production (read, refined poisons). True to a point, though such assurances by multinationals have a fulfilment history that is patchy at best. Sure, the associated financial-commercial ‘ecosystem’ is almost as complex as the natural one, and it will be difficult to unravel. We are in a prickly double-bind, make no mistake. But major reformatory steps are within our capacities. Unlike dolphins and plankton, we have an array of choices. And this is what always gets me: with all our human ingenuity, are we really incapable of creating other kinds of jobs, redirecting engineers and financiers, shifting communities and labour to engage in cleaner sources of more justly distributed wealth? We could (we do it all the time, actually), but in this case the power-brokers resist breaking the inertia, even if it is crystal clear that fossil fuel-based (read, poison-powered) industrial expansion at the present rate is a recipe for environmental catastrophe.

At the broadest, most far-reaching scale, then – impacts on global climate and environmental health over the next century or more, say – the oil industry largely fails to think at all. Or worse, knows damn well but covers it up. PGS’s website acknowledges climate change as a concern, but confines itself to avowed mitigation measures within its own operations. Whatever those mitigations may be, they are not not adding to CO2 emissions, oceanic disturbances, extinction rates, and poisons production. It’s weird: do these people not have children and grandchildren to whom they would like to bequeath a healthier world? Do they not care? Oh ja, I forgot, humans have a seriously chequered and well-attested history of not caring. (Ask any refugee on the Belarus border.)

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate that many like me have benefited, directly and indirectly, from the vast array of technologies spawned by fossil-fuel power, from the joys of travel to the hygienics of plastic, from my oil paints to the refined steels of the medical equipment which has literally saved my life. (Or at least extended it a bit.) I would not have wanted to live in any other era (though a billion or two other folk may not have benefitted so much.) Like Macbeth in blood, we are stepped so far in oil that it’s hard to see ways out. Alas, even in the most propitious of futures, our Civilisation of Eternal Growth is doomed to use these fuels a bit longer. But it’s also now abundantly clear that we must collectively turn a corner, or we will literally weather a very terrible time. Ceasing further exploration would be a big step forward. Searching manically for yet more of the same, in one of the world’s shrinking still-beautiful and biodiverse regions nogal, is surely a peculiarly blinkered kind of madness.


Tuesday, 16 November 2021

No 123 - Seriousness: George Steiner, literary giant


I thought, for once,
I had a chance to air a tribute to a great writer before his demise – but, as usual, I dithered, and lately discovered to my great sadness that George Steiner had died last year, aged 90.

 You’re unlikely to have encountered Steiner unless you’re pickled in literary criticism – and possibly not even then, since the academic establishment has had a habit of marginalising him at crucial times. This despite him fielding hundreds of reviews and public lectures, publishing some 40 books (only a handful of which I’ve read myself), and eventually holding some exceedingly prestigious posts at the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Geneva.

 During my undergrad years, my beloved mentor Don Maclennan introduced me to Steiner’s 1975 magnum opus, After Babel. This is a daunting tome which, ostensibly about the problem of translation from one language to another, turns out to be so much more: an extended meditation on the phenomenon of language, on interpretation, on the slippery relationship between objects and the words that describe them, in the end on the nature of consciousness itself. I was instantly entranced by the opening pages, in which Steiner unpacks a longish passage from Shakespeare’s lesser-known drama, Cymbeline. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the play: it was the way Steiner showed how every word and sentence structure fizzes with its specific energy, history, and concatenations of meaning. He goes on to do the same with an extract from Jane Austen, revealing how her vocabulary and syntax was so specific to her eighteenth-century milieu, class and education that it is fundamentally impossible now to recreate in our own minds the fullness of her meanings. It is – to use one of his favourite words – incommensurable, never completely translatable, always slipping away into mystery – the mysteriousness of poetic creation itself. No neurological brain-scans can perceive how this facility operates.

 I was also blown away by Steiner’s own language-use: thick, metaphorical, laden with literary reference, slick. Every sentence was, is, a cultural education. If he name-dropped as densely as an encyclopaedia, it seemed to me not so much pretentious as authoritative. If he could bring into intimate proximity Homer, Goethe and Walter Benjamin, somehow you knew that he had actually read all three, in their original languages, thoroughly and with a penetrating understanding. Above all, he instantly convinced me of his seriousness. Unlike many popular polemicists, he was never playing intellectual games, but took the task of accurate, knowledgeable, and honest literary appreciation and cultural interpretation as vital to our very humanity. Even as a young and (he admits this) insufferably arrogant whippersnapper, he was openly intolerant of academic pomp and pretence. There would never be any hesitation in panning anyone’s sacred cows, so it’s little wonder that he was sometimes regarded warily. In our Honours course on Literary Theory, I remember professor Nic Visser sneering at Steiner as somehow behind the theoretical curve, but admitting a certain genius: “God, to be able to write like that!” But then Nic favoured Marxism, which Steiner dismisses as largely dangerous nonsense. I must have, in some half-baked instinctual way, agreed with Steiner: I ploughed through Nic’s photocopied reams of Marxist literary criticism, from Engels through Christopher Caudwell to Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, but – like cosmic rays passing invisibly through my body without disturbing a single cell – not an iota of it stuck. But Steiner: now here was someone whose eloquence and depth spoke to my very core.

 A certain dismissiveness persists. He is in various commentaries characterised as “literary critic”, which is right, but also absurdly narrow. There are few who could range as he did from linguistics to neurology (he nearly became a scientist), from writing on foreign affairs for the Economist to a book on Heidegger. He did, in retrospect, accuse himself of dabbling too widely, making certain over-hasty judgements, but – compared to a compulsive dilettante like me – even his dabbling has enormous and provocative weight. He knew enough to locate yawning gaps in scholarship and understanding, being fond of saying “we know nothing about” X or Y, concerning not the usual scholarly trivia, but the profoundest existential questions. (I took as epigraph to my novella The Flight of the Bat such a sentence from After Babel: “We have no history of the future tense.”)

 He is also routinely characterised as “French-American”, which doesn’t begin to describe this Euro-polyglot. True, he was born in Paris (just two weeks after my mother in April 1929): his Viennese-Jewish parents saw Nazism coming a long way off and got the hell out. And true, having moved again, he became an American citizen in 1944, and was later educated at Chicago (loved it) and Harvard (awful; they mutually vowed never to have anything to do with each other, though they still granted him a chair some forty years later). But he moved back to the UK and Switzerland, closer to his European roots; if he didn’t stay there, his beloved father said, Hitler would have won. Thus, “French” was only one touchstone in a man who also spoke English and German from childhood, and who became more than conversant with half a dozen further languages, from the Russian of Dostoyevsky to the Italian of Dante. The cultural richness he can thus draw on is fantastic. He deplores the snobbish monolingualism of so many Anglo-American academics, and of the extinction of so many of the world’s minor (but no less wonderful) languages by the global dominance of American English. The mythic splintering of the world’s languages “after Babel” he regards as engendering a manifold, irreplacable richness, even as it creates insuperable problems of cross-cultural understanding. It is among his abiding questions: How did that even happen? What is this universal “languaging” facility in humans that has spawned such cultural magnificence in literature, art (and above all for him) music? And how is it that such beauty can coexist with such cruelty and hate? As an inadvertent escapee of the Holocaust (he prefers Shoah), he repeatedly asks how an Auschwitz commandant could return home after a mass gassing of Jews and weep at a Schubert sonata.

 Perhaps the unflinching, even embarrassing acuity of such questions is what turns some away. The Wikipedia entry on his “Views”, for example, is exceedingly brief and feeble: fully a third is given over pruriently to a four-line quotation from his memoir, Errata (1997), about how he lost his virginity to a gentle prostitute (while ignoring pretty much all of the major ideas, including his lengthy condemnation elsewhere of pornography).

 I delayed writing this piece partly because I wanted to read Errata first; the rest of the work said remarkably little about him. Like some other readers, I was a little disappointed that Errata remained thin on the personal. It is mostly about the ideas that have coursed through his work, so there are compact discussions on translation, on his secular version of Jewishness, on language and music, and a characteristic whinge about the state of the academy, its “professionalisation” of mediocrity, the commercialised, shallow over-production of tens of thousands of unreadable theses. He is particularly scathing about the current predominance of “theory”, much of which he condemns as unreadable, even “mendacious”  posturing by “the circus folk of deconstructionism” which adds nothing to the appreciation of creative works themselves. Being rubbish at wielding theory myself, I’m inclined to concur. One reviewer sniffed that you would do better going to the other books to get these ideas’ full treatment, but Errata might equally serve as an introduction to them. (The other good way in would be Penguin’s A George Steiner Reader. Among its various extracts from the big works, is one from his only novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., which imagines Adolf Hitler re-discovered alive and well in the Amazon. Steiner seems to fancy he could/should have written more fiction – he did publish three volumes of short stories, which I haven’t read –  but I find Portage close to impenetrable.)

 In tiny snatches the life is revealed. An unspecified “car mishap” when driving with his wife Zara occurs, but only because Steiner wonders if his instinctive shout reveals a “first language”. (Inconclusive.) Something about old age provokes a numbing description: “a malodorous waste, an incontinence of mind and body made raw by the remembrance of the unfulfilled.” Ouch. He mentions his son and daughter just once each. Only in the closing chapters, when he pays tribute to various of his life’s teachers, do we get piercing and fond portraits of others, something verging on the anecdotal. (He can be quite anecdotal, slyly humorous, in his interviews on YouTube.)  Otherwise, he remains focused on the serious business, especially of teaching: “The signal reward for a teacher is to engage students whom he discovers to be abler than himself.” One of his mentors, R P Blackmur, he said, “let down by his poetry, burnished his prose to a pitch of obtrusive brilliance, of ornamentation so visible, so ‘palpably designed’ (Keats’ admonition) as to interpose itself between insight and object.” Some might say the same of Steiner’s own prose. It’s sometimes a relief to catch him writing a simple sentence.

 The concentration on education – his life-work, even more than criticism, which was being “a happy parasite” really – you might follow up in his book Lessons of the Masters (2003). Ranging across pedagogical encounters from Socrates to Schopenhauer, he drops lapidary thoughts to keep one thinking forever: “The pulse of teaching is persuasion ... and, optimally, collaborative dissent.” “Argument should end in poetry.” He worries that the age-old organic relationship between Teacher and Disciple is eroding in our age of internet and mass literacy; for all its power, it depersonalises: “Human fidelity, ... love and betrayal, are foreign to the electronic.” Perhaps. Personally, wedded to the face-to-face nature of ‘real’ teaching, I am so grateful to be spared having to teach via Zoom.

 Or one might pick up on his ubiquitous references to the great philosophers and read The Poetry of Thought (2011), in which he shows how thinkers, from Hellenism to the present, have used poetics to convey philosophic concepts. Plato formed fictional dialogues to pursue arguments; Nietzsche used the character of Zarathustra; Marx engaged constantly with literature; Merleau-Ponty wrote almost pure poetry. (I simplify horribly.) Again and again he returns to the primacy of the linguistic in forging human self-awareness, even though “The inherited fixities of vocabulary and syntax can never altogether bridge the gap between articulation and the flow and eddies of consciousness.” Because of that, Steiner believes, we in effect act constantly in what amounts to a state of religious faith, a belief, forever deferred, that we can articulate the world, that we can reach out to “real presences”, not just phantasms of our imaginations. Don Maclennan gave me his copy of Real Presences (1989), scored over with his wavering pencil lines and left-handed marginal ticks. Among the points he marked as worth attention: “I would define literature (art, music) as the maximalisation of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression”. Chew on that for a bit!

 So much more might be said of this “Platonic anarchist”, as he thought of himself. Much is arguable, but it would be facile to dismiss him as an outdated elitist. Steiner pursued excellence in all things, and so disdained those modes of political correctness which substitute easy slogans and a culture of complaint for the hard graft of creative reading and interpretation. Like the great literature he makes his stamping ground, he is worth going back to again and again. He has certain limits. He is European to the core: Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes scarcely register. Well, he has enough to work with. He does show signs of attending to more global, less literary concerns. He saw towards the end of his life some redeeming hope for humans in their increasing concern for animals and the natural environment. And Errata includes this passage, as good a summary of our planetary plight as any:

 All of us are guests of life. No human being knows the meaning of its creation, except in the most primitive, biological regard. No man or woman knows the purpose, if any, the possible significance of its “thrownness” into the mystery of existence. Why is there not nothing? Why am I? We are guests of this small planet, of an infinitely complex, perhaps chancy weave of evolutionary processes and mutations which, at innumerable points, might have gone otherwise or witnessed our execution. As it has turned out, we are vandal-guests, laying waste, exploiting and destroying other species and resources. We are rapidly turning to poisonous garbage this uncannily beautiful, intricately adjusted environment, and even outer space. There are trash-bins on the moon. Inspired as it is, the ecological movement which, together with a nascent perception of the rights of children and of animals, is among the few lit chapters in our century, may have come too late.



Saturday, 6 November 2021

No 122 - On Deadly Ground


Deep mine (c) Dan Wylie

Well, that was – predictably – a pretty bad film. I had decided to give it a look because it promised to be about a campaigner fighting heroically against Big Oil. (Objecting to Big Oil being trendy at COP 26 and all.) The film in question, On Deadly Ground, was predictably bad because not only is the lead actor Steven Seagal: he was also making his directorial debut. The film was roundly panned by critics, one of whom was rude enough to compare Seagal’s “lardy posterior” to the grandiosity of his ego. Predictably, Seagal’s acting comprises growling, wearing frilly leathers, and occasionally narrowing his eyes.

His role (I won’t worry about spoilers, because you’ll never want to watch it) is as a disillusioned oil company employee, Forrest Taft, who turns on his Big Oil boss, Michael Jennings, acted by Michael Caine. It must be the estimable Caine’s worst performance ever, as a monochromatically angry, foul-mouthed exec who has to complete a slew of pipelines and a gigantic refinery on Alaskan territories before his leases run out. Those leases, of course, are carved out of exquisitely beautiful lands belonging to Native Americans, who naturally object. (Such scenarios, as Donald Trump forcefully reminded us quite recently, are no idle fiction.) 

Jennings’ mercenary heavies try to kill the whistle-blowing Forrest (get the symbolism?), who is luckily rescued by local Native Americans. The heavies then sort of accidentally-on-purpose murder the wise old chief, who has already sort of initiated Forrest into the tribe via a myth-laden hallucinatory experience. Many feather headdresses, screeching hawks and incantations threaten to bury these people under a sludge of stereotyping, though their recourse to a man-bear legend of origins is well-enough attested. (Some critics call them Inuit/Eskimo, which is just wrong.)

Forrest is rather unimpressed by all this traditionalism, interestingly: he says to the chief’s bereaved and very pissed-off (and very beautiful) daughter Masu, that such mumbo-jumbo won’t cut it against Big Oil and their army of gun-toting mercenaries. His methods will. Masu (Joan Chen) joins him, and between them they go at it: super-efficient hand-to-hand combat (oh ja, Forrest also happens to be ex-CIA, which organisation has, as we all know, a spotless legal and environmental record), explosives conveniently cached nearby, swathes of gunfire and sprays of blood, downed helicopters, and a numbingly prolonged finale of spectacular explosions that reduce the refinery to wire wool. Each of the main heavies (including a young Billy Bob Thornton) get their come-uppance, and the chief’s daughter has the satisfaction of dropping Mr Jennings into a vat of his own crude oil.

So much, so Seagal, and the critics I read were almost uniformly scathing. What really upset them, however, was the very final scene, in which a suited-up Seagal soberly reads a speech to assembled reporters, tribal members and others. Against a backdrop of documentary footage of gas flares, highway traffic, smog, oiled seabirds and polluted rivers, Seagal lays out the venality of Big Oil, its collusion with governments, its knowing but shrugged-off damage to pristine environments, its roughshod mistreatment of the first peoples’ rights, rites and wilderness, the deliberate sabotaging of progressive technologies, and so on. The critics merely raged: how dare he get so preachy!

To be sure, the sermon fitted ill with the action genre: blowing up the refinery alone probably spewed more CO2 into the skies than the whole of Los Angeles on a bad day. Some doubted the sincerity of the environmental message. Yet it encapsulated what Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and a thousand other environmental scientists have been warning for decades. It might have been Greta Thunberg standing there, though Seagal’s a touch taller.

"Riot" (c) Dan Wylie

Note: the movie screened in 1994.
No one was listening. A quarter of a century later, nothing has changed, except we peer through an ever-thickening murk of rhetorical obfuscation and hollow promises from the very players who might make the greatest difference. I watched the film, after all, in the very week when the Big Oil execs were trying to fudge their way through questions in the US Congress. (Doubtless smug in the knowledge that government, the banks, and Big Oil finance and back one another in an Unholy Trinity.)

I thought to ferret out other ‘entertainment’ feature films concerning Big Oil, and turned up a couple of lists. One of them purported to survey the top 5, and included the superb Let There Be Blood, featuring Daniel Day Lewis, a truly corrosive exposé of early Big Oil’s horrors. This particular list, however, was compiled by one “Petroleum Service Company”, whose raison d’être was clearly to sell oil products  And guess what: you would swear from their brief summaries that the films were advertising the benefits of fossil fuel, and not – as they actually are – attacks on it. Either the site’s compilers are woefully ignorant of the films, stupidly misconstruing them, or deliberately concealing their critical content. Whichever way, I find this deceitfulness disturbing, short-sighted, and self-serving, arguably a minor case but symptomatic and frankly frightening. As noted by one slightly woolly but more academic article on the subject, “there are no positive portrayals of  oil executives in feature films after the 1950s”! Clearly, said executives don’t care. Or: they care just enough to try to cover their butts in such fraudulent ways.

Look, no one thinks a transition away from fossil fuels will be simple, so dependent has global society become upon them. Though many technologies already exist to make that transition, implementing them at scale will cause widespread disruptions to existing structures of industry and finance. (This is Australian PM Scott Morrison’s argument for doing nothing to reduce coal, though continuing the way we’re going is inevitably going to cause exponentially greater disruptions world-wide.) And panelling the egregious lies of Big Oil, however much they might deserve it, is to narrow the history and absolve all us users from responsibility. Big Oil also tries to shift the blame to consumers, in the way that cigarette, firearm and opioid manufactures repeatedly have: “Oh, we’re just responding to demand; it’s no concern of ours that our products sicken and kill people!”

"Toxic event" (c) Dan Wylie

But we are also in this situation
because over the last century or two millions of people have made trillions of little everyday decisions, in perfectly understandable and non-evil ways, to participate in petroleum’s benefits: from electricity to vehicles, from plastics to soaps, from syringes to paints, from telephones to tweets. Only today do we face the inescapable realisation that at the present massive scale we – the Six Billion Plus – are now over-poisoning the planet even as we benefit, while consuming its resources way, way faster than they can be replenished. And changing that – whether or not governments legislate, whether or not fossil fuel production and dependency shrinks voluntarily or otherwise – will entail millions of individuals making trillions of little everyday decisions to do things less damagingly. We might as well start. The greatest impediment to change is not so much technical as cultural.

OK, I’ll stop preaching now. Good night, Steven.


For more art and books see 

Sunday, 19 September 2021

No 121 – Representing Kruger National Park


I was conceived
in Kruger National Park. So said my mother, anyway, and she should know – ‘with the moon singing in wild grass/ to a lion’s pulsing roar’, as she put in a poem. Though oddly I haven’t been back to the scene of the crime very often, I realise that willy-nilly I’ve accumulated a number of books on Kruger, and sought out a couple of new ones. So here’s a scratchy and incomplete list of things to read on South Africa’s flagship, iconic wildlife sanctuary.

 ‘Flagship’; ‘iconic’ – the kind of language often bandied about. But flagship of what philosophy, exactly? Iconic in whose eyes? Almost a century old now, the KNP has meant many different things to different people.

 You might as well begin with the KNP’s very first Warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton (1867-1957). English-born, trained at Sandhurst, and erstwhile rider with an irregular Boer War unit called Steinacker’s Horse, Stevenson-Hamilton was first appointed Chief Ranger of the Sabi and Singwitsi Reserves, later incorporated into the KNP. He remained Warden for 44 years. Feisty and stubborn, he spearheaded a shift from unthinking extermination of wild animals to ‘preservationist’ ethics in the face of an often indifferent and dilatory bureaucracy. A competent administrator and writer, two books of his in many ways set the pattern for future accounts.

 The first, a memoir, he entitled South African Eden – an early hint of how a mythology of ‘pristine’ wilderness, of an imagined stable and original state to which the park should be returned and maintained, would come to dominate popular rhetoric and at times deleteriously skew management policy. In fact, the region carved out for the KNP was far from Edenic and untouched: it had been inhabited and used by humans for centuries, despite being malarial, and was all but bare of wildlife when Stevenson-Hamilton started. There were a mere 10 elephants, for example. South African Eden was first published in 1937; the 1993 Struik edition I possess includes a Foreword by his son, and is edited by Jane Carruthers, about whom more in a moment.

 Stevenson-Hamilton’s second book is more a study or survey of the KNP’s various animals, entitled Wild Life in South Africa (1947), thereby setting an exceptionally low bar for imaginative titles. Though richly amplified by personal experiences, it had some pretensions to science – there are short chapters devoted to the Orygine, Alcephaline, Tragelaphine, and Cephalophine Antelopes, for example. Four chapters on the lion, but not much on birds, and nothing on vegetation and insects. In a way, it is still marked by the Big Game obsessions of the hunting fraternity out of which the KNP partly sprang. But as Stevenson-Hamilton remarks in his foreword, even short lapses in time are liable to render accepted wisdoms about animal behaviour redundant, even dangerously deluded: ‘towards the end of a lifetime of observation, the student begins to comprehend how little he knows’. Any ‘mental complacency’ can cause ‘irreparable mischief’, especially as humans have ‘such absolute power over the existences of other creatures of the earth’. Nature, he concluded darkly, ‘has her own way of wreaking vengeance.’ Seventy years on, this is more pertinent than ever. One such delusion involved lions: generally regarded as inimical ‘vermin’, they were early on almost eliminated from park precincts – several hundred killed by Stevenson-Hamilton himself – until it dawned that ‘within their proper sphere, [they perform] useful work in Nature’s economy’. It took many more years for insight, experience and research to reveal the similar problems with mass-culling elephants.

 Stevenson-Hamilton’s extraordinary career has occupied a decent chunk of environmental historian Jane Carruthers’ time. Her biography of the man himself, Wildlife & Warfare (2001) is eminently readable. More important, perhaps, is her earlier compact study, The Kruger National Park; A social and political history (1995). This is truly the definitive history, not in the sense that it is the last word on the subject (it is not), but in that it defines the field going forward; no subsequent scholar can validly ignore it. Through meticulous archival research, Carruthers unveils the complex, often tooth-grindingly slow legislative build-up to achieving the declaration of the KNP in 1926, the conflicts between political blocs as power shifted from Dutch/Boer hands to British, the emergent influence of North American park policies, the role of the hunting lobby, of racist land-use ideas, and of government bodies long indifferent to the whole idea. The actual preservation of wild animals for the delectation of non-lethal tourists was only one of a slew of motivations for wildlife reserves in those early days.

 Above all, Carruthers decisively debunks the myth that Oom Paul Kruger was the lonely, heroic and forward-thinking advocate for the park. Not only was his interest in wildlife confined to the consumption of biltong (as Stevenson-Hamilton snorted), legislatively he had virtually nothing to do with it. The naming was a manoeuvre of nationalistic politics, no more. Less space in the book is devoted to the period after 1926, and unlike the warden/ranger accounts, remains focussed on what people were doing, rather than on animal behaviours. Especially important is a chapter on Africans’ presence and role. Far from being simply ejected from the KNP, though some two thousand were, local communities had always lived there, criss-crossed it, and derived a living from it (suddenly transformed into ‘poaching’ and ‘trespassing’). And some continued to live and work there.

Over the years, as the KNP became increasingly organised, visited, managed – a massive enterprise over an area the size of Belgium – many rangers came and went, and a number wrote memoirs. Their style became increasingly generic, rather like the nineteenth-century hunting accounts of which they are descendants, a mix of self-deprecating derring-do encounters with dangerous animals and pragmatic ruminations on management policies. I’ve by no means read all of these memoirs (including one by the appropriately named Kobie Kruger), but I have a couple to hand. The earliest is by one of Stevenson-Hamilton’s own colleagues, Harry Wolhuter. He too had been a youngster in Steinacker’s Horse in the Boer (sorry, South African) War, some members of which had plundered (poached) big game themselves. It’s interesting how soldiers and hunters at the time migrated and transformed themselves into a ranger elite, quasi-military to this day. Wolhuter’s Memories of a Game Ranger (see what I mean about unimaginative titles?), published in 1948, celebrated (also) 44 years of service under Stevenson-Hamilton: ‘no superior officer was more loyal, kindly, and considerate to his subordinates’. (In fact, that superior officer often confessed himself enraged by subordinates he considered naive idiots, but he was nice to Wolhuter in his Foreword to the latter’s Memories. He approvingly noted Wolhuter’s ‘tendency to understatement’, which also seems a constant feature of the ranger mode.) Richly endowed with small and competent line drawings, Wolhuter’s book drifts from lively narrative about his earlier life, war effort, and induction into game preservation, to chapters more strongly centred on individual species or groups of species, observations on behaviour leavened with laconic accounts of hair-raising encounters with cobras, lions, buffalos, etc.

 By 1995, when ranger Bruce Bryden published A Game Ranger Remembers, the world (except book titles) had changed enormously. The structure of the memoir, though, remains similar: a farrago of chattily delivered anecdotes devoted to experiences the ordinary citizen will never have, some clustered around particular species in racy chapters. As the blurb has it: ‘there is a great deal of shooting, and a fair amount of running away ... extraordinary characters ... hilarious mishaps ... and throughout, a great love and respect for both the wilderness and the creatures that inhabit it.’ But the modern ranger is also a scientifically trained ecologist (Bryden began his career doing lion research). Instead of shank’s mare and the occasional horse he has Land Rover, Bell 205 helicopter and R1 rifle at his disposal; he has to wade through as much dull administration as adventure; and he spends not a little time killing off animals perceived as overpopulating or being a ‘problem’ in and around a now ferociously defended park. Primary of course among these difficult animals is the elephant – a matter of deeply conflicted emotions to a man who loves elephants but is obliged by KNP management policy to slaughter large numbers of them. He defends the strategy of culling, even as he is contemptuous of armchair policy-makers – as was Stevenson-Hamilton. Pragmatic, tough, knowledgeable, determinedly humorous in the face of danger, with a conventional denial of stylistic flair that is itself a point of conscious stylistic choice: that’s our contemporary ranger.

The ranger memoir partakes not a little of the narrative techniques of fiction – and of course there are novels involving the KNP, too, though I don’t know of many centred on it. One I glanced at as part of my book, Death & Compassion, was a fairly trashy novel entitled Elephant Across Border by Colin Burke (1968). The border in question is the Mozambique-KNP boundary, which has ever been vexed (especially the northern frontier around so-called Crooks’ Corner). The international border had been carved right through resident human communities as well as traditional animal migration routes (the KNP, for all its size, is hardly a coherent ecosystem). The novel is set at that transitional period when fences were poor, poachers overlapped with so-called professional hunters, and the ranger was just becoming the new hero. In the story, the KNP provides sanctuary for a great elephant tusker, one of those which a certain class of macho posturers did – and still do – find it somehow satisfying to blast into oblivion. And of course the KNP features strongly in Deon Meyer’s thriller, Blood Safari. Know any others?


I was particularly taken with the title of Mitch Reardon’s book Shaping Kruger (2012), recognising as it does that various forces – both human and natural – have built the KNP: though it’s big enough for lots of natural processes to unfold independently of (or at least oblivious to) human interference, it is fundamentally an artefact. (He has also written Shaping Addo.)  He admittedly, like the hunters and rangers before him, focuses his 12 substantial chapters on the usual suspects of the ‘charismatic megafauna’ – elephant, lion, buffalo and so on – but he does devote some chapters to otherwise potentially overlooked mammals, including impala and roan antelope. In all cases, anyway, he writes well and illuminatingly. He explains intriguing behaviours; makes specialised and up-to-date research accessible; delves into the unfolding phases and failures of historical management; and has a poetic touch which elevates his descriptions a notch above those tempting clichés. Indeed, he is concerned to disburse the older ideas of some Edenic ideal landscape, in favour of fluid and sometimes unpredictable biodiversity models. The scientific/managerial focus is leavened with just enough rangery personal anecdote to bring it back to real encounter. The book itself is charmingly designed, with pertinent photographs in full colour. In all, I’d recommend Shaping Kruger as a very good place to start reading about the KNP.

 Another decent starting point might be David Fleminger’s Fair Game (2018). Though it’s entitled A hidden history of the Kruger National Park, it doesn’t really add new knowledge to the literary landscape, but for a first-time visitor to the field (or the park) it is certainly filled with short-section nuggets, ranging from the Delagoa rail line to Jock of the Bushveld, from elephant culling to the Makulele land claim. Stevenson-Hamilton nevertheless dominates the historical first half of this 200-page book. The second half is aimed more at the tourist, a what-to-do-and-see overview; though detailed, there are no illustrations and inadequate maps. The book falls a bit uneasily between potted history and guide-book, which explains why publishers wouldn’t take it on, and Fleminger had to self-publish. Still, it’s quite fetchingly written, with thoughtful discussions and rich information.

Finally, at least two recent academic books have taken new approaches to discussing the meanings of the KNP. Leslie Dikeni is a well-established researcher with the universities of Wits and Pretoria, with a pet project of challenging the government’s ‘deterministic’ developmental programme. He extends this interest in Habitat and Struggle (Real African Publishers, 2016) – on the awful uninformative cover the designer has unaccountably added an exclamation mark, which over-dramatises the analytical content. As one might expect from the recirculation of an academic thesis, the book bears an unwieldy subtitle, ‘A study of the outcome of the interface between government, NGOs, managers of natural resources and local communities.’ What the book shows, in effect, is that there are many interfaces, many competing interests and cultural understandings of the KNP and its surrounds that centralised planners brush over. For my literary taste there is unnecessary emphasis on sociological methodology, which I suspect is not as revolutionary as Dikeni claims, nor are his conclusions ultimately terribly exciting. It’s ‘complex’, basically. What’s most interesting is the range of interviewees Dikeni encounters, from ministers to rangers, from local chiefs to park workers. He includes extracts of the interviews themselves, so one can see how Dikeni’s questioning progresses, and get glimpses into the life-stories of multiple actors. Albeit somewhat bitty, these provide the central interest for me.

Jacob Dlamini
is already well-known for his book, Native Nostalgia. In Safari Nation (Jacana, 2020) he produces another ‘social history’ of the KNP. Essentially he picks up the shorter discussion of Africans’ presence contained in Jane Carruthers’ earlier history. He doesn’t radically challenge Carruthers’ foray, but greatly extends it, drawing on a range of previously untapped documentary resources to amplify how Africans were always, and remain, intimately involved in the KNP region. (You wouldn’t believe it paging through no.14 of the Kruger Magazine in which, some ranger recruits excepted, scarcely a dark face appears.) Dlamini expounds illuminatingly, inter alia, on the migrant labour system, which built a rail line, transit camps and some of the main roads within the park, and the growth of tourist-travel and hunting interests within the black middle-class, particularly before formal apartheid. Contrary to common belief, black visitors were never legislatively excluded from the KNP, but they were not enticed by comparatively meagre facilities. Handily illustrated by period photographs, pamphlets and maps, Safari Nation fascinatingly reveals an almost wholly ignored side of South Africa’s history of travel and leisure. It is a period and arena which actually shows, he concludes, that ‘the welfare of whites did not have to come at the expense of blacks’, and ‘the black actors who thought seriously about the KNP did not oppose conservation on principle. They opposed injustice.’

 Perhaps the most telling photograph of all in Safari Nation is one of the author standing dwarfed by the massive, jowly, not say Stalinist-style statue or bust of Paul Kruger at the KNP’s Kruger Gate – symptomatic, one might say, of the persistence of at least some myths, parameters and attitudes in the face of change. How to extend the good foundations, then, and shed the unfruitful ones, in our current age of land hunger, pandemics and climate change?