Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, “Signs and Wonders,” by Delia Falconer, was originally published by SRB on March 22, 2019.
I’m walking to Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair in Sydney’s Domain at high tide, scanning the small bay in Woolloomooloo, as I always do, for fish or stingrays. There’s nothing to see in the flat green water nudging the sandstone cliffs of the tiny beach, or below the seawall; I can’t even spot the usual mullet nosing around the floating walkways at the marina. A few years ago, I might have assumed the variation in numbers was seasonal, hoping for better luck next time. But since 2016, when the figures started to come through that we have lost around 60 percent of the world’s wildlife over the last half-century—not only exotic animals but common creatures like giraffes, sparrows, and even insects—it’s hard not to see today’s emptiness as a sign of catastrophic absence.
Things seem to carry a terrible freight these days. Swimming at Nielsen Park, in Sydney harbor, an ancient river valley filled by melting Ice Age waters that stabilized seven thousand years ago, I find myself wondering how high the water will rise again when the ice caps melt. “Every time I see a bird or bee these days,” a friend says when we are talking on the phone, “I find myself wondering if it’s the last.”
The sense of loss is everywhere, as each day brings news of unfolding disaster. Vanishing creatures are only part of a suite of ongoing catastrophes we are starting to recognize under the umbrella of the Anthropocene. Heating of the atmosphere and the rise of CO2, loss of forests, disruption of weather systems and sea currents, pollution from plastic and microplastics, and ocean acidification; together, these have accumulated the force of geological change, pushing us out of the stable patterns of the 12,000-year-old Holocene and into a human-influenced new epoch.
And yet within the small span of one’s own experience, it’s hard to measure causes and effects, let alone how fast things are turning. As the world becomes more unstable, in the grip of vast and all-pervasive change, it’s difficult to discern exact chronologies, relationships, and meaning. In this unfolding context, small things take on terrifying and uncertain correlations. It’s as if, I found myself thinking as I scoured the water for fish, that in trying to see into the future we’re returning to the dread speculation of the past. We’ve entered a new age of signs and wonders.
In ancient Rome, priests and officials called augurs would look for omens of the future in the weather, the movement of animals (especially animals encountered out of place), or the flights of birds. These days, we’re scrutinizing the same things to tell the future, not as signs of the gods’ will but of our own actions.
Were the gale-force winds last November simply unseasonal, I heard people asking in the playground, or evidence of global warming? Where are the summer cicadas, my mother asks—she can’t remember hearing any on Sydney’s north shore for years—and why have brush turkeys and rabbits started appearing in her garden?
Scientists are pursuing these questions with more rigor: modern augurs, staring at birds’ intestines, they are trying read both the accumulated past and the future. Surely some of the most iconic images of the last decade have been Chris Jordan’s photographs of dead albatross chicks on a beach on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, in the Hawaiian Archipelago, in the north Pacific Ocean. In these pictures, which went viral, the birds’ rib cages have collapsed to reveal, within the soft shape of decomposing feathers and bones, stomach cavities filled with dozens of bright pen lids, buttons, and bottle tops. The atoll is more than two thousand kilometers from the nearest continent. In a recent issue of Griffith Review, Cameron Muir describes watching scientists pump the stomachs of shearwater chicks emerging from their burrows for the first time on remote Lord Howe Island: the plastic objects they recovered—as many as 276 pieces per bird—confirmed the catastrophic spread of plastic pollution through the oceans. Muir records that the belly of one young chick, which had to be euthanized, crunched in the scientists’ hands. And yet, as seabirds decline faster than any other bird group, largely unseen, Muir writes, plastic production is likely to triple over the next 30 years.
Given the disconnect between what Muir calls the “shadow places,” dead zones where we outsource pollution and disorder, and business as usual, it’s hard to feel a smug sense of distance from the pre-scientific past, when people paid dread attention to omens. As we pay our mortgages, shop for clothes online, or plan our next holiday, signs of unfolding catastrophe are everywhere.
In the few months that I have been thinking about this essay, there have been out-of-control fires in tropical north Queensland and Tasmania’s Ice Age world heritage forests, and an “inland tsunami” when rains finally came to Queensland’s drought-stricken Mt Isa. Unprecedented summer heat caused mass die-offs of flying fox colonies (up to a third of these native pollinators essentially “boiling,” in a single record January week), and a million native fish in the lower reaches of Australia’s largest river system, the Murray-Darling, an ecological disaster prepared for by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s years of mismanagement and precipitated by extreme temperature fluctuations. Meanwhile, in the freezer of my inner-city apartment, there is still a bucket of fist-sized, cauliflower-shaped hail, which I collected with my children as a “once-in-a-lifetime” hailstorm battered Sydney and its north coast just before Christmas.
These events have occurred, in turn, against almost daily announcements of global apocalypse (most recently, of a developing mass insect extinction or “insectageddon”; the accelerating melt rate of Antarctica’s 34-million-year-old ice; the inevitable “doom” of a third of the Himalayan ice cap upon which almost 2 billion people depend; and that we are already in a period of contraction, as extreme weather is shrinking the habitable spaces of Earth). At the same time there is a queasy uncertainty about cascades and tipping points. Scientists have criticized the 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report—which gives us a scant 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe by phasing out fossil fuels—for underestimating key dangers.
All of these signs feel allegorical and at the same time they don’t. They are so overwhelming, and so interlinked, that it is almost impossible to think outside them, to see beyond a pervasive dread.
Then there are the wonders, less obviously urgent, but pernicious in their atomized, quasi-magical effects. At the same time as global disarrangement is giving birth to signs of distress, it is throwing up phenomena of spectacular and haunting strangeness. Beautiful and uncanny phenomena are passing through our virtual atmosphere—through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—trailing the weird incandescence that must once have attached to Halley’s comet or the northern lights. I became so fascinated by the eerie phenomena appearing almost daily in my feeds over the last year that I started to record them.
Most miraculous, surely, are the images of long-extinct animals emerging after 10s of thousands of years from melting permafrost. Last year, in Canada’s Yukon, gold miners recently unearthed a prehistoric wolf cub, its fur, skin, and muscles perfectly preserved. Eight weeks old when it died 50,000 years ago, when this forest was empty tundra, the cub is the only one of its kind so far to appear; and yet, laid out on surgical gauze on a desktop in the official photograph, with its thick honey-colored fur, creased muzzle, and long, closed eyelids, it could be the Instagram photo of someone’s sleeping puppy. That same year, from the Batagai crater in Yakutia, in Siberia, a two-month-old Lenskaya, or Lena Horse, emerged from a sleep of 30–40,000 years, along with a month-old cave lion cub, found with its head resting on its paw, having died before its eyes had even opened. These creatures have a corollary in Russian deep-sea fisherman Roman Fedortsov’s popular Twitter account featuring photographs of bizarre bycatch, including living “relics” such as the eel-like frilled shark, which have been trawled up from the Mesopelagic or “twilight” zone of the Norwegian and Barents seas. (It goes unremarked in the numerous aggregator sites and retweets of these pictures that deep sea trawling, dating from the 1908s, is listed by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the three main threats to deep-sea biodiversity.1)
How do I answer my seven-year-old son when he asks, unprompted, “Is it true that the world’s going to end soon?”
Throughout 2018, the world’s fourth-hottest year on record, global warming caused other ancient things to make themselves known in the northern hemisphere summer. Severe drought in Europe, in which rainfall in some places was three percent of the usual quota, saw a German river disgorge unexploded bombs from the Second World War. Archaeologists in Denmark recovered thousands of objects dating as far back as 4000 BCE from the scree-covered edges of Oppland’s melting glaciers, while hikers, hunters, and children stumbled upon 1500-year-old Viking swords.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the footprints of vanished Roman mansions, airfields, Victorian mansions, and prehistoric settlements were manifesting in grassed fields and parks. Straw yellow, or lush emerald green on lighter green, these eerie patterns were “parch marks”: ghostly scars of human activity that reveal themselves as the land dries and grasses die off. In one haunting image, taken above farmland in Eynsham, Oxfordshire, a “harvest” of darkly outlined Neolithic barrow graves and paths and walls fills two vast fields with the inscrutable ceremonial structures of a lost society, dwarfing a modern farmhouse, tucked into its tiny patch of garden. The dark green circles, lines, and smooth-edged squares make the yellowing fields look disconcertingly like the pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, as if a giant hand had made busy calculations across the earth itself.
There was actual writing, too, in the form of the dozen “hunger stones” that emerged from the drought-stricken Elbe river, near Decin, in the Czech republic, recording low water levels caused by “megadroughts” dating back as far as 1417. The inscriptions, in German, are also warnings to future generations. “Wenn du mich siehst, dann wiene,” one from 1616 read: If you see me, weep.
“If you see me, weep” seems like pertinent advice for living in the Anthropocene, this new geological era in which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and environment, and species loss is occurring, 50 years into the “great acceleration,” at a thousand times the normal background rate. It is hard, in the middle of all this uncertainty, to shake the feeling, which the Eynsham parch marks produce so strongly, that these phenomena are also trying in some way to talk to us. In the Batagai crater, a “megaslump” in the Siberian wilderness a kilometer long and almost 800 meters wide, the sound of running water and chunks of frozen ice thumping down the cliffs from the unstable rim announce the rapid melting of ground frozen for thousands of years. “As you stand inside the slump on soft piles of earth,” one ecologist told the Siberian Times, “you hear it ‘talking to you,’ with the cracking sound of ice and a non-stop monotonous gurgling of little springs and rivers of water.”
The ecologist’s description is reminiscent of the “general burst of terrific grandeur” described in Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” and it is almost as incredible.2 The cheerful rescuers in Poe’s story dismiss the mariner’s story of surviving the maelstrom as the fancy of an overactive mind. Not so long ago, it would have been possible to also dismiss the ecologist’s observation as an instance of the “uncanny,” defined by Sigmund Freud in 1919 as a dread and creeping horror that occurs when the hidden or secret seems to become visible and something once very familiar acquires an eerie sensation of animation. Such instances, Freud wrote, “force upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable where otherwise we should have spoken of ‘chance’ only.’”3
Freud considered such instances as throwbacks to an old, animistic conception of the universe—but French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests the earth really is speaking. Going back to Michel Serres’s 1990 work, The Natural Contract, he repeats the assertion that the earth is no longer the distant, objective foundation of our lives but is now so entangled with us that it is unstable and “trembling.”4 Once we accept that the fragile earth is no longer a place of objective facts and, further, that our human activity is present everywhere, Latour argues, the world becomes “an active, local, limited, sensitive, fragile, quaking, and easily tickled envelope.”5
Reading Latour, I find myself thinking of humoral theory, that ancient belief, which survived into the 19th century, that we are made up of four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm). These corresponded, in turn, to the common elements (air, earth, fire, and water) and the movement of the planets: a theory that no longer seems quite so quaint or distant. And yet the expressive world that Latour envisages is also entirely different, because instead of encountering fixed laws, we are instead coming face to face, as our very existence hangs in the balance, with natural forces pushed past their tipping point by us to speak—like those oracles of old—with a terrible animation and agency.
I’m not sure that even Latour’s writing quite captures the weirdness of our moment, in which time itself seems out of joint. When I think of the Batagai crater giving birth to strangely uncorrupt young animals preserved for 10s of thousands of years, I’m reminded of John Carpenter’s horror film The Thing, set on a research center in the Antarctic, in which a parasitic entity that can perfectly imitate other creatures is inadvertently released by human scientists from a 100,000-year-old alien shipwreck. Every part of the “thing” is an individual life form with its own survival instinct and, until the scientists find a way to kill it, it threatens to assimilate all life on Earth. In the film’s most memorable scene, as the creature is in its death throws, it morphs in a rapid, terrifying sequence into every animal and human whose life and form it has absorbed. We’re experiencing as Gothic a haunting now, you could argue, by our fossil fuels. For years human life has run on extracting and burning hydrocarbons from the remains of decayed plants and animals—some more than 650 million years old—which are returning to ghastly life now in the form of global warming and its effects.
The implications of all these “wonders” are truly horrifying. A past that long precedes us—like Fedortsov’s huge-eyed ghost sharks and rat fish—is appearing at its most vivid and strange as the conditions of its existence fall away. Yet these phenomena appear, in the media, or in our feeds, as discrete objects of amusement and wonder. “Something about this reminds us of The Shape of Water,” jokes an anonymous writer on a CBS photo gallery in response to a “crazy-looking fish” in Fedortsov’s feed. “This looks like my sister,” remarks an Instagram user in response to another. Yet we have only explored less than 0.05 percent of the “twilight” zone, whose creatures scientists believe may “pump” carbon from the surface to the sea bed, even as fishing nations begin to exploit its immense masses of pelagic shrimp as feed for farm-raised fish. Or take a recent piece in the New Yorker on parch marks. After a paragraph paying lip service to the weird awfulness of the unusual hot weather, the writer quickly shifts his attention to the bonanza these marks represent for aerial archaeologists. “It’s a bit like kids in a candy shop,” one says, as the article goes on to speak to other excited beneficiaries of these “freak conditions.”
Our huge appetite for such images, isolated in their own strangeness, makes me suspicious of the call from some environmental writers, like George Monbiot, for an increased sense of “wonder” as a way of saving the world by countering the sanitizing numbness of scientific language. It seems to me that the web is already a virtual cabinet of curiosities, inviting us to marvel—and yet our wonder rarely translates into action. Is wonder itself a kind of self-administered anesthetic, a means of telling ourselves that what we are witnessing is exceptional, rather than the rule? At the same time, we’ve become so quickly habituated to such sights, separated from their terrifying contexts, that it’s hard to know if we’re even in the territory of the “uncanny” anymore. As Zadie Smith has written in an “elegy” for England’s seasons, the unfamiliar has become so pervasive that it is now “our new normal.”
These objects amuse and perhaps even mesmerize us. But where is the outrage, the terror, the justified despair?
The weirdest thing about our modern era, as Latour insists, is our adamant refusal to hear the earth speaking as it takes on more capricious agency. And yet it is also hard to know how to feel in the face of these overwhelming signs and wonders. We are “not equipped,” even Latour admits, “with the mental and emotional repertoire to deal with such a vast scale of events” or the new “emotions,” which the earth, disturbed by us, is expressing.
Even with so many signs within plain view, to even acknowledge the scale of this distress can feel unhinged, as if one is embracing the mutterings of a Nostradamus or the paranoia of a doomsday cult. “Have you gone through the terrible guilt yet about having children?” a colleague asks me in the corridor at work. Yes, I have, I answer. But she and I keep our voices to a low hush beneath the fluorescent lights.
As we pay our mortgages, shop for clothes online, or plan our next holiday, signs of unfolding catastrophe are everywhere.
I can’t help feeling that Freud, in spite of my great fondness for him, has a lot to answer for, in making us keep our voices low. It’s hard to articulate our sense of the world’s distress, when for so many of us our sense of modernity is founded on our distance from our animistic roots. Any person who had “fully banished animism from his soul,” Freud claimed, would not be susceptible to the uncanny.
For Freud, the feeling of uncanniness—when “something we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality”—was a hangover from “our primitive forefathers,” whose animism “civilized people” had surmounted. Beliefs in things like the return of the dead or the strange animation of the inanimate were also related, he claimed, to infantile impulses toward wish fulfillment that adults should normally overcome.
This means that while we may be prepared to address individual symptoms of global warming—to try so save a bird colony or old-growth forest—responding with urgency to the multiple signs of a world in distress can be easily dismissed as irrational or flaky. The IPCC’s shocking 2018 report on the potential impacts of global warming of 1.5° degrees or more, and its prediction of a frighteningly small window of time (12 years) left to limit global catastrophe, is one of the most galvanizing calls to action issued to humans so far. Yet even it has been hampered, according to some critics, by its hesitation to name the “known unknowns” of climate change: tipping points or feedback mechanisms, which are the cascading and unpredictable outcomes of an already-dire set of threats.
I had forgotten, until I reread Freud’s “The Uncanny,” that he makes a distinction toward its end between experiences of the uncanny in real life, which in his own experience were rare, and their appearance in fiction, which he generally found more affecting. Yet these days, this ratio seems reversed. As novelist Amitav Ghosh has argued in The Great Derangement (2016), we are more likely to confront signs of damaged nature we have been trying to ignore forcing itself into our everyday reality—like those uneasy discussions I’ve been having at bus stops and in the playground—than in fiction, which eschews them as sensational or contrived. Meanwhile, scientists such as Robert Larter, of the British Antarctic Survey, are using terms like “sleeping giants” to describe polar ice sheets, with their capacity for devastation.
Many novelists are nevertheless hard at work, also trying to bring our era’s buried “structures of feeling” to light: writers of “weird” fiction like Jeff Vandermeer and of the long-view novel, like James Bradley, but also chroniclers of the present like British novelist Ali Smith. Winter (2017)—the second book in her projected “seasonal” quartet—opens with a retired businesswoman going about her chores in London as she is haunted by a child’s floating head. “Bashful in its ceremoniousness,” the head bobs and nods merrily in the air next to her “like a little green buoy in untroubled water.” For my money Smith comes closest, as a novelist, to invoking the stupefying quality of wonder in our present. The beatific head, which grows then begins to age, is in some ways less strange than rituals and incantations of the neoliberal economy that oppress the heroine Sophia (the two, she suggests slyly, are symbiotic). Through Sophia, she also channels the bursts of impotent anger the pervasive uncanny sometimes provokes, only for us to direct our feelings at nearby objects rather than root causes. But even Smith’s book stops short of a galvanizing rage commensurate to a new reality in which thousand-year-old trees in Tasmania’s last untouched areas of the Gondwana forests (and the thousand-year-old soil below them) are being incinerated in fires caused by hitherto-unknown dry lightning storms or the melting northern hemisphere permafrost manifesting drunken forests and bubbling lakes.
Yet I have to confess that seeing the world as possessing agency has never seemed that strange to me. That’s partly my own nature, and partly because I came of age in Australia with some small sense of how Indigenous law, or lore, offers a powerful rebuff to Freud and our deafness to the earth. Recently, Indigenous Australian scholars like Dharawal elder Fran Bodkin and Bunurong author Bruce Pascoe have written about the long histories of Indigenous meteorology and agriculture, which involve a contingent reading of natural cycles and behavior, always bound by a duty of care toward country in which culture and nature are linked.6 Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu (2014), has teamed up with Indigenous Australians along the South Coast, in New South Wales, and in east Gippsland, in Victoria, to trial growing native plants such as kangaroo grass and murnong (yam daisy), which Aboriginal people nurtured with complex ancient farming techniques and milled into bread. In her last work on flying foxes living on the edge of extinction, which will be published posthumously this year, the late American-Australian environmental humanities scholar Deborah Bird Rose was working on building a bridge between extinction studies, with its emphasis on the complexity of relationships in landscape, and the Yolgnu concept of bir’yun, or “shimmer,” in which the world is composed of complex, multispecies “relations and pulses.” Compared to this way of understanding the world, which has survived the last ice melt, even Serres’s and Latour’s analyses start to look shallow.
Meanwhile, as science advances, so much of what it once viewed as imaginary only continues to become real. At this moment, when they are most under assault, we are beginning to understand, in scientific terms, the extraordinary interconnections of nature’s systems. Scientists have discovered, for example, that trees communicate and share food via mycorrhizal networks: the “secret” life of trees has captured the public imagination in the form of numerous articles on the “wood wide web.” Even our own bodies, it turns out, are only roughly half human, the other half made up of about 160 different bacterial genomes. Developmental biologists like Scott F. Gilbert are even suggesting that we consider ourselves as “holobionts”: combinations of host and microbial community.7 Next to this, economic models of “management” and sustainability look more and more like magic thinking. What use will our seed banks be, without companion species of plants or pollinators, whose relationships have developed over long periods of time?
The challenge ahead is not only to accept that it is rational to understand that we are in the grips of a maelstrom of our own making—but also to let ourselves feel fear, awe, and rage equivalent to the “terrific grandeur” of nature out of whack. Replacing fossil fuels is the first, urgent step. But allowing ourselves to be galvanized by genuine Edgar Allan Poe–level terror—those “unmodern” feelings we have shunned—at the signs of human activity reflected and distorted back at us, wherever we look, is what might save us all, human and nonhuman, in the long run.
Still, where do these thoughts leave me, on a bright blue day, as rainbow lorikeets and corellas call from the park below my study window, and I get ready to pick up my twins from school? How do I answer my seven-year-old son when he asks, unprompted, “Is it true that the world’s going to end soon?”
I’d like to think that it’s possible, in the staggeringly tiny window left to us, to act urgently: to see nature, as anthropologist and writer Michael Taussig puts it, “not as … the dead, soulless object of European modernity but as something roused into life through the wounds and war conducted against it.”8 But at the moment, I just can’t get past the grief—the sense that it’s too late. I think of Poe again and the raven’s call: Nevermore.
As I sit at my desk, an email comes through from my neighbor about the renovation works in the apartment block next to ours, which have involved digging down to its piping. Just by the way, she signs off, have I noticed the dearth of insects? At this time of year we would usually expect an invasion of spiders and moths through our unscreened windows. Is it because they’ve dug up the whole garden, or is this a sign of the insect apocalypse?
“I actually miss the huntsmen,” she writes, “and even the thrilling and terrifying spider wasp. Our little biosphere, gone.”
- World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report—2018: Aiming Higher, edited by M. Grooten and R. E. A. Almond (2018). This report estimated that world wildlife populations had declined by 60 percent between 1970 and 2014. This updated the last report, published in 2014, which estimated a loss of 50 percent. Rates of decline are worst in the tropics, with declines in Central and South America estimated at 83 percent. ↩
- Edgar Allan Poe, “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” in Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Doubleday, 1966). ↩
- Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” (1919), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 17 (1917–1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, edited by J. Strachey (Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, London, 1955). ↩
- Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, translated from the French by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (University of Michigan Press, 1995). ↩
- Bruno Latour, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History, vol. 45 (2014). ↩
- See Frances Bodkin, D’harawal: Seasons and Climactic Cycles (F. Bodkin & L. Robertson, 2008); Micaela Hambrett, “How Planting Trees and Grasses Can Help Stabilize Farmland in a Changing Climate,” ABC News, August 3, 2018 (includes an interview with Fran Bodkin). ↩
- Scott F. Gilbert, “Holobiont by Birth: Multilineage Individuals as the Concretion of Cooperative Processes,” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). ↩
- Michael Taussig, Palma Africana (University of Chicago Press, 2018), p. 104. ↩