Wednesday, 25 October 2017

No 51 - Geology, literature and marvellous life

It may be an invented memory, but I do seem to recall, back in 1983, the first rumblings of controversy over the plan to divert the N2 highway around Grahamstown, instead of through it.  Moreover, because Army property straddled the obvious route through flat land on the northern side of town, it was decided to drive the bypass through the tortuous hilly country to the south. This would involve some exceptionally deep and (as it turned out) unstable cuttings.

Don Pinnock, resident in Grahamstown at the time, described the “farce” of a public meeting about it (in his delightful book of essays, Love Letters to Africa):

Few townspeople wanted the bypass. Grahamstown’s traders talked of lost revenue, hotels of lost guests, romantics of a lost town along the N2. There were predictions of horrendous car accidents along the new speedway (eventually, they proved correct). But this was the mid-1980s and the apartheid government wanted a fast road that didn’t go through poor townships where youths burned tyres, threw stones and worse. ... The people objected. But this wasn’t democracy, it was a lesson in self-interest. The plans for the bypass were approved.

The cuttings, however, have provided more than one unexpected bonus. One was that Guy Butler, doyen professor of English at Rhodes University and leading light in establishing  the 1820 Settler Foundation, managed to rescue a number of the larger sandstone boulders from the roadworks, and set them up as compass stones outside the Settlers’ Monument where it looms over town like a beached crate.

I started with these pseudo-Neolithic menhirs in my introduction to the recent (I think fourteenth) edition of the annual Literature & Ecology Colloquium, this time held at Rhodes. I started the Colloquium in 2004 as a forum for the few academics in the country who were interested in conjunctions between literature and environmental concerns. I felt that since the ecological crisis is unquestionably the global crisis of our times, at least some of us literati ought to be thinking about how we can contribute to educating our students about it. In the intervening years, with the willing participation of sundry colleagues and institutions, the Colloquium has migrated around the country, drawing into its ambit various scholars, both established and emergent, to think outside their usual boxes and extend their chosen subjects in ecological, or ‘ecocritical’, directions. We have explored numerous themes along the way – animals, trees, birds, pedagogy, belonging, water, shorelines and more – and spawned a decent range of published articles in journals and books.

This time, the theme was geology. Eyebrows were cocked, but the more I thought about it, the more avenues this seemed to open up, especially in the Southern African context.  I hoped that the Colloquium would attract a range of papers on local manifestations of the geological in our sundry literatures. For whatever reasons – the timing, lack of funding, Grahamstown’s vast isolation, bemusement at this crazy idea, or whatever – it didn’t really. Charne Lavery did talk about the various islands sprinkling our territorial waters (which are more extensive than our territory on land!), but her interest is more pelagic than geological; and Dirk Klopper offered a wide-ranging treatment of the weird consort of the occult and palaeontology shadowing some texts, including Olive Schreiner’s famous novel, The Story of an African Farm.

Several papers were not about our region, but opened up further possibilities. Sam Naidu introduced us to a crime novel about Mexican migrants into the US caught in the geological wastes of the Sonora Desert, reminding me of the rich literature of the Kalahari and the Namibian deserts (I thought of Laurens van der Post in the Tsodilo Hills, or the unlikely ‘doughnut’ mountain formation in Wilbur Smith’s The Burning Shore). Tsitsi Sachikonye talked about the effects of volcanoes and earthquakes in the Caribbean novels of Maryse Condé (no irrelevant matter, as Mexicans, Japanese, Italians, Pakistanis, and many others just in the last year, will tell you). And I thought about the quake-induced tsunami with which Jane Rosenthal closes her futuristic novel of the Karoo, Souvenir.  My erstwhile PhD student Jyoti Singh’s paper on William Blake’s phantasmagoric use of geological features raises a perpetual question: when does reality, or realism in writing, and scientific observation, spill over into the realm of symbolic meaning, and why?  This question also haunted Alan Northover’s paper on Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, Shaman, an imagining of Neolithic lifeways which indirectly evokes the famous rock paintings of France’s Chauvet Cave. I am reminded here of the numerous travelogues, stories and poems in Southern Africa invoking Bushman rock art for all sorts of spiritual purposes, as well as of other caves: the Cango caves of Anne Landman’s novel Devil’s Chimney, for example, or the sinkholes in Michael Green’s novel of that title.
And so it goes on... so much more to explore in this geological vein.  Mountain aesthetics, road-building, riverlines, shorelines... all geological. Vegetation distributions and water availability are fundamentally governed by the geology being just what it is. Our extensive farming literature is dependent on soils: that’s half our economic history. The other half is driven by mining and powered by fossil fuels; one could start with Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, and track the literary history of mining’s impact on our society all the way through to the laments of Marikana.

Which brings me back to the N2 cuttings, which – as Don Pinnock explored in the aforementioned chapter of Love Letters to Africa – spawned a second unexpected benefit. The bulldozers inadvertently uncovered a shelf of Devonian black shales which, local palaeontologist Rob Gess discovered, held in its splintery grip the most astonishing array of fossils: primordial yet complex plants and seaweeds, marine bivalves and jawless lampreys and sea-scorpions and the lobe-finned fishes which are our own ancestors.  Rob Gess closed our little Colloquium with a guided tour of some of his fossils, many unique to world palaeontology, some of species hitherto entirely unknown: chalky scratches of bone in the blue-grey shale, soft-body impressions of juvenile lampreys, complete right down to the ring of teeth around the suckering mouth.  Fantastic: 360 million years of geological history swimming up into a petrified present, the moment of death frozen in implacable rock.

So one is hurtled back through incalculable tracts of time. As Goonie Marsh, geologist complete with unruly beard, tanned knees and sandals, laid it out in his marvellous pocket survey at the Colloquium: not only is it hard to get one’s head around the numbers and the layered taxonomies of aeons and periods and formations, but also hard to accept that humanity is an eye-blink in those aeons, our advent and eventual demise to be regarded dispassionately.

Well, we literati aren’t very good at being dispassionate: we live for the love and turbulence, the loyalties and betrayals, the emotional horrors and beauties of our briefly embodied lives, as captured in the compressed and flexing time-spans of literary works. A poem or a paragraph can connect materiality with thought across millennia. Section X of Grahamstown poet Don Maclennan’s enigmatic ‘long short story’, A Brief History of Madness in the Eastern Cape, hints at both continuities and differences:

It was raining the day Mavis and I arrived in Georgetown.  So we went to the museum.  We whispered along the corridors of exhibits, the dumb past all entombed and labelled.  There was one in particular – a piece of mesozoic fossil beach.  It should have been displayed with searchlights on black velvet, like the crown jewels, in a chamber all of its own.  It is a chunk of fossil life, with thousands of different shapes and sizes of crustaceans packed into each other, eating and being eaten, like a Notre Dame gargoyle, foot in mouth, shell overlapping shell, and endlessly impacted palimpsests.
                        Then there was also a collection of Settler culture – not so tightly packed as the fossil, but clearly in the making.  Individual life agonies imprinted on these derelict possessions – spectacles, baby bows, bridal nighties, fading, intimate diaries.  Each one posed a question for the future.

Two sets of communal life-forms, packed in analogous displays. The questions for the future? What is the meaning of the past for us?  How do we penetrate its dumbness?  Are we so different from those mesozoic life-forms?  Is there something that makes us uniquely human?
To that last question there is the obvious answer: language and poetry – or to put it in terms of an image Maclennan returned to often, the making of bread from stones – of culture from the material of the world.  For Maclennan, as for many of us, the most enduring fascination and mystery is that human culture, with all its predatory idiocies and its artistic glories, should somehow have arisen from sheer geology and become conscious and, even more astonishing, loving and ethical in its awareness of ‘individual life agonies’.  In an unremittingly over-written but provocative recent book, Stone: An ecology of the inhuman (2015), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen avers:

Stone becomes history’s bedrock as lithic agency impels human knowing. Neither dead matter nor pliant utensil, bluntly impedimental as well as collaborative force, stone brings story into being, a partner with language ... a material metaphor. ... [W]hen imagining deep time, a shared vocabulary of cataclysm reveals an abiding inclination to stories of rocky entanglement, to the making of exigent and unexpected art.

This last Colloquium was great fun and unquestionably educative. But I feel the enterprise has reached the end of its natural life, at least in its present form. Someone else, with a different vision and energy, will have to take it onwards now. Wow: fourteen years of it – gone by in a geological eye-blink.