24 April 2018, University of York
Cover image: Tammy MacKay, ‘Rhinoceros (State III)’, Photopolymer Print, Rhinoceros Series (2017) in Extinction Network (2018) ‘Northern Animals #3: Extinction in the Anthropocene’, University of York
As my project centres on species extinction, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend this one-day workshop, organised by the Extinction Network Project collaboratively joined between PhD candidates Rosamund Portus, Cecilia Tricker and Sophia Nicolov and six academics (two of which are my supervisors Professor Jill Atkins and Dr Robert McKay) from various disciplines such as social and environmental accounting, literature, media, conservation, and philosophy that aims to conduct interdisciplinary research that contributes to the understanding and prevention of extinction of various species.
The campus is located in beautiful Heslington East, and the walk into the campus takes me through an expansive grassy meadow studded with daisies and geese freely roaming, attracted by the small (manmade – I’ve asked) lakes on each side of the path I’m walking through. And although the area is so beautiful and peaceful, the university unfolds as I turn the corner, and I can’t help thinking, going to an event on extinction, how many animals were killed and how many lost their homes in the building of the campus.
Our first session starts off with Professor Abi Curtis discussing her prize winning book Water & Glass and the Question of the Animal
We are privileged to have for our first talk Abi Curtis, the acclaimed author of Water & Glass , winner of the Eric Gregory Award, professor of Creative Writing at York St John University and poet. Today she is discussing her novel and its main aim to examine how the animal and human are connected and how fiction attempts to disrupt current perceptions of this relationship.
I urge you to read the book, but for those who haven’t, it is set in a post-flooded, post apocalyptic world (which reminds me a little of the new book by Phillip Pullman), where the protagonist Nerissa Crane is a vet in charge of the animals that are being saved in an ark called the Baleen, a futuristic sea craft. The novel has a flashback structure moving between pre-flood life, revealing the characters’ life before the flood. The book features many animals such as rats, whale, orangutans, river dolphins, giant squid – quite the futuristic Noah’s ark.
The book explores animals and otherness and how to think about the relationship between humans and animals. Curtis discusses Derrida who says that the question of the animal is about the holy otherness. The character of the rat, Molloy, acts as a witness, escapes the ship but has no fear of humans “because he doesn’t know how awful we can be”. This naivety to me is reminiscent of purer times, or indeed a sort of ‘heaven’ accomplished where the ‘wolf will lie down with the lamb’.
The book is also engaging with the uncanny, and Curtis mentions the poem Mollusc, written by Les Murray who, like Curtis, attempts to think about how we might translate beings’ subjective experience into English. One way in which Curtis uses the uncanny is through the character of the giant squid that in the novel is symbolic of all the dark things people had to leave behind before the flood, coming up ‘to get them’. The giant squid has been difficult to witness before until a team of scientists inserted a pod deep in the ocean. Someone in the audience commented on this exploration and ‘discovery’ (discovery to me suggest as though the being hasn’t existed or was lost before it was ‘found’) as a masculine endeavour, closely linked to patriarchy and colonisation. Indeed, I see these types of endeavours as an aggressive invasion into other animals’ homes, and potentially subjecting them to grave danger, which is counterintuitive for extinction prevention.
The book’s underpinning aim is to argue that we are not separate from animals, disrupting that otherness and finding out what it means to be a human. The genre is sci-fi written in a poetic register, with language borrowing from more traditional poetry than sci fi. While a flooded world seems like fantasy, it is a possibility in term of the climate change.
Curtis promises that “all is not what it seems, and even the relationship between the human and the animal is called into question”.
Creative activity: Future Visions
Our next activity is probably my favourite of the day. We are asked to pick an animal that is of interest to us and think about the animal’s story: where do they live? What would they say? How does the animal see their relationship to humans?
Here is my creative animal. I chose to represent the mite because like humans, mites eat and sometimes kill their host, just like humans are treating Earth.
After we share our creations, lunch is completely vegan, using paper towels and the amount leaves very little waste. It was thoughtful and conscientious. There was vegan milk and water jugs, echoing with integrity the meaning of the event.
After lunch, Dr Debbie Maxwell tells us about her project titled Telling the Bees: Creative collaborative explorations and stories of the honeybee.
Telling the Bees projects aims to share and gather knowledge and stories across communities about the global significance and challenges facing pollination and the honey bees. The project focuses on honey bees specifically (rather than on wasps, for example) because they are perceived as more culturally acceptable insects, and so are a species that humans connect with emotionally.
Telling the bees was in fact a practice that took place in medieval England (and in other parts ofEurope). According the custom, bees were told important events that happened to the farmer or the farmer’s family such as death, birth, marriage, etc. The belief was that if bees were not allowed to mourn, they would leave the hive as a penalty. Additionally, their myth is connected to industriousness and are models for society.
Changing practices in bee keeping before the invasion of the varroa mite and after the invasion, the focus on monoculture, neonics, and industrial bee keeping are explored in this project through folklore and oral stories (Maxwell focuses on Scotland) which used to inform practice, and the changing stories around them.
By conducting interviews with amateur bee keepers, the project examined the relationship between the bee keeper and the bees through folklore in terms of practices asking questions such as: ‘Do you talk to your bees? Do you think bees recognise your scent?’
“Everyone has a bee story,” says Maxwell, and I start thinking about my own. I think about my earliest memories of bees. I find that my relationship with bees improved since I was a child. I used to be extremely scared of them and was never stung (a fast runner!). Now I love seeing bumblebee. It was lovely to host a couple of cold and tired bumblebees one April evening, giving him or her agave and taking mites off their back. It was such a joy when the next morning, with loud buzzing, the bumblebee was ready to go and flew away.
The final session is given by Professor Callum Roberts: The Changing Face of Nature Television in the Anthropocene: Insights from Blue Planet II
In this final talk, Roberts relates his experiences working as a scientific adviser on the BBC Blue Planet series, appearing in the Deep Trouble episode, discussing the troubling impact humans are having on the oceans.
Roberts’ book, Ocean of Life discusses how humanity is altering the sea. The sea were thought to be beyond human control but that has dramatically changed over the last two centuries. There is no place in the ocean which is not influenced by people any longer. Therefore, one of the aim for Roberts as scientific advisor on Blue Planet was to increase the scientific content of the show and turn down hyperboles that are so common for media outlets (the biggest, the hottest). Importantly, Roberts aimed to incorporate more environmental messages and was concerned with how to balance the entertainment value with the educational.
When we watch the trailer, I can’t help but notice the moving music, the extravagant shots, the focus on the cleanliness and purity, completely devoid of context. While I am indeed in awe of the beauty of ocean life, I am deeply saddened and hurt knowing the loss of life currently taking place. As Roberts acknowledges, unfortunately, Blue Planet set out to put across the beauty of the oceans. The trailer makes no mention of environmental crisis.
Chris Jordan’s work on plastic in the ocean takes a different approach to nature documentaries. His film Albatross (watch online for free) may not be a Sunday night entertainment, but it is definitely more powerful than Blue Planet in communicating the urgency of tackling environmental issues. Roberts suggests that there is a rejection of the ‘clean’ pure image of the big documentary films m,oving towards exposing the lies of wildlife television and highlihgiting the urgency we are experiencing.
Following Roberts’ talk is a very interesting discussion on the changes in nature programmes. Roberts suggests that 20 years ago, nature programmes were more scientifically oriented than they are now for a variety of reasons ranging form the genre and purpose of the show (for entertainment), trying to reach a wide audience, and attempting to not alienate viewers with ‘preachy’ environmental messages.
Importantly, Roberts’ committment to raising awarness of environmental problems and protection of oceans does not stop here. His MP engagement with Michael Gove and the UN are vital to achieve a greater protection of marine life.
Finally, I would like to thank Rosie, Cecilia, and Sophia for organising this fascinating day. The day was varied, incorporating multisensory thinking I look forward to Northern Animals #4!
A big thank you to the Grantham Centre for making this possible for me to attend.