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Birches like Barcodes

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Art by Nick Hayes / Poem by Robert Macfarlane

Writing Nature in the Anthropocene: Responses to Robert Macfarlane’s Masterclass, in Conversation with Joanna Dobson (Creative Writing Masterclass Series at Sheffield Hallam University, 18 November 2020)

Response by Katharina Maria Kalinowski

How do “we” respond to the many Anthropocenes in times of accelerated ecological crisis? Is it possible to write the legible strata of the earth? Do we need new forms of writing to register invisible and incomprehensible layers of a world that exceeds the limits of our understanding (hasn’t it always)? At the borders of language, how can writing and activism intersect? Are “we”, humankind, “good ancestors” for generations to come?

Given the current state of the ecosphere, I’d be inclined to answer the last question with “no”. However, viewing humankind from a species point of view is problematic if we consider how explosive disparities shape the living conditions of the current generation on a daily basis. Following the argument that climate change is not so much anthropogenic as “sociogenic”,[1] the question concerning our heritage pushes against a homogenous humankind and opens up to a microcosm of stories with more-than-humankind/ness.

The entanglement of these stories in a larger system is encapsulated in the last line of Macfarlane’s intricate poem “Heartwood”: “Have you heartwood, cutter? / Have those who sent you?” Dedicated to trees facing “unjust felling”, the poem, part charm, part song, part wood, can be seen as a piece of lyrical activism that enchants without euphemising and interrogates without scapegoating.

One of the dangers of the (geochronologic) Anthropocene is its tendency to naturalise violent social and economic divisions and present the state of the world as inevitable. Here’s where writing can complicate, diversify, and wager on alternative scenarios; here’s where poetry can make something happen: what stuck with me most is Macfarlane’s cautious, yet unfalteringly urgent belief in the spell-binding potential of writing to re-invent form and to observe, to question, to touch, to affect, to change. Investigating what may be framed as the “golden spike” of the Environmental Humanities, namely the ever-present question whether poetry, or literature in general, can “save the earth”,[2] he offered an insightful response, unsurprisingly starting with “no” (again).

For Macfarlane, the “golden spike”-question needs revising; it should really be asking: can literature join forces with other movements and creative arts to contribute to political changes? The answer to this is, finally: yes, of course! Macfarlane’s “Heartwood”, which became part of the Sheffield tree felling protests, is only one of many examples of how writing can challenge the status quo and create a shared space to imagine other voices and other worlds. Generating sets of new, unexpected relations, his texts make me wonder about the connection between (natural?) birches and (artificial?) bar codes, and how we poetically embody nature as more than a consumable good changing ownership through a red-light beep.

In this sense, Macfarlane’s suggestion to “wearily embrace” anthropomorphic modes reminds me of Jane Bennett’s notion of vital materialism, in which “a touch of anthropomorphism” can “catalyse a sensibility” to a re-enchanted world filled with variously composed animate materialities vibrantly alive.[3] It further prompts critical reflection on anthropocentric assumptions determining what counts as human – and therefore as anthropomorphic – in the first place: it is arguably easier to categorise something as human-like than to categorise the human as something-like, as one among many unique beings that share their vulnerable lives in the Anthropocene.

Literature cannot afford to choose the easier way. Embedded in a socio-cultural, political continuum, writing is one among many active and expressive forms that can make the world not only more comprehensible but also more liveable. It is neither separate from other forms of activism, nor does it exclude them – literature is shaped by its ability to both amplify and make silence for other voices. Nothing sums this up better than the following comment posted in the Zoom chat, one of many words that stayed with me long after clicking on “leave meeting”:

Sometimes you have to tie yourself in knots about anthropomorphism and sometimes you have to spend your weekend dressed as a frog at the nature reserve open day to engage people and there’s space for both I think!

By Rachel Dowse, sent in the Zoom chat

[1] Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative”, The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 62-69 (66).

[2] The phrase is borrowed from John Felstiner’s book Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems, Yale UP, 2010. Question to the reader: What would poetry have to be exchanged with in this phrase to prompt a “yes” response?

[3] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke UP, 2010, p. 99.

Response by Melina Lieb

I no longer remember why, but I had felt a bit down on the day of the masterclass, and logged into Zoom hoping it would cheer me up. Instead, it left me even more pensive, though in a strangely reassuring way. I know that the world is in a precarious state, but often I don’t know how to cope with the anxiety caused by this knowledge. I suppose others feel the same, but I usually cannot hear them in the echo chamber of my own head. Talking or listening to people talk about the subject helps a lot. It might not immediately solve problems, but hearing your own thoughts and feelings reflected by others makes them more endurable. You are not alone. And as the saying goes: Every dripping wears the stone.[1]

Macfarlane found very fitting words for the feeling I’ve described: “The world has begun to make nonsense of realism”. The times we’re living in just are eerie and gothic. And this distortion is being recognised by literature. In Underland, Macfarlane pursues the question: “Are we being good ancestors?”. As Katharina highlights above, the answer too often is “no”. Driving through birch forests like barcodes, Macfarlane arrives at the only place where he would say that people have done a good – or at least, the best possible – job of being good ancestors. This place is Onkalo, the world’s first permanent repository for nuclear waste, on the Finnish island of Olkiluoto.[2] On hearing the name, I remembered watching a film about this place, years ago. It was called Into Eternity: A Film for the Future. I remember a match being lit in a dark cave, illuminating a man with a yellow helmet, talking in a solemn voice. I don’t remember his exact words, but he might have said what is stated on one of the movie posters: “We need you to know that this place should not be disturbed. You should stay away from this place. Then you will be safe”.

When the people who built and filled the storage are no longer there, the place will speak for itself. Will it seem as eerie to our descendants as it already seems to me now?

Speaking about speaking places, Macfarlane describes another potentially eerie site, though despite its “chilling” atmosphere, it has a fascinating charm to him. Orford Ness, a shingle spit on England’s Suffolk coast was a nuclear testing site but has now been given back to the wild and is protected by the National Trust. Inspired by this landscape, Macfarlane published Ness, his attempt at a different version of a medieval play on nature lashing back against the military-industrial complex. “Superheroes” of different genders, composed partly of organic matter, partly of the detritus of capitalism and consumerism – “speaking in swifts”, with “bones of plastic” – rush to the peninsula. Macfarlane recites, ending each verse with a warning: “Look, here he comes. – Look, here she comes. – Look, here they come. – Look, here as comes”.

The power of these words still remains with me. It is one of Macfarlane’s great strengths to send powerful words out into the world, spells, songs, charms, chants. They are simultaneously an ushering and inspiration, intended to be spoken and extended by as many voices as possible – especially young voices, children and teenagers, our descendants. May they find a new way of speaking, of getting over the eeriness of our times, together.

[1] This is a translation of the common German idiom “Jeder Tropfen höhlt den Stein.” A more common phrasing in English might be “Constant dripping wears the stone.” In this case, though, I wanted to place the emphasis on “every” drop.

[2] See also:


Katharina Maria Kalinowski is a bilingual poet and EUmanities fellow at the Universities of Cologne and Kent. Her creative-critical PhD project focuses on ecopoetics, the Anthropocene, and expanded forms of translation. Her publications include Magma, Epizootics, and the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry.

Melina Lieb is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz/Germersheim, Germany. Her research focus is on 21st-century British Nature Writing, ecocriticism and ecopoetry. In her dissertation she considers the role of the “common” in this field of literature, including aspects such as the everyday, the ordinary and the familiar as well as the shared and the political. Melina also writes her own prose and poetry inspired by the natural world, both in English and German.

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