Wednesday, 8 August 2018

On flying and its contrails

The trip was everything and nothing I'd imagined. You can read about what we got up to here.  This post is more about where I've been in the weeks since returning.

My return flight to Longyearbyen Svalbard from Manchester UK was, apparently, equal in its carbon emissions to one person’s yearly output in India (a per capita equation made by Atmosfair, the German government’s carbon ‘offsetting’ scheme). That’s one trip, within Europe - with a stopover - the taking off and landing are the most costly (environmentally speaking) elements of flight (when about 25% of flight emissions happen). I was there for just under three weeks, travelling on a boat which for most of the time motored since the winds were not strong enough to sail. It was a not-for-profit artist residency (although with the organisation’s registered offices on 5th Avenue NYC I wonder about the relationship between profit, status and tax deductibles). Out of the twenty nine artists I think five were vegetarian, two from non-Anglophone countries, four people of colour. I don’t know how many were funded to go and how many self-funded. It wasn’t cheap. We were a privileged crew, researching, making, sharing and discussing art, the arctic, and our distant lives.

Evidence of that privilege shone in how ill-equipped we were to be there. I don’t mean without thermals, Gortex, Muck boots, fleeces etc - we had plenty of those with their silly macho names (I remember a pair of wellies branded ‘Aggressor’) - but how blatant it was we were surface visitors in this wilderness, this inhospitable-to-humans place. We had armed guides who were never out of sight. We made few decisions for ourselves. We did not belong there. As such our presence is sorely felt. A polar bear was shot last week in an encounter with another tourist group. One of my fellow writers describes it here 

In its huge vast whiteness, Svalbard, and visiting it, could be a metaphor for the Global North. I am reminded of Wall-E : on the boat, as all tourists in Svalbard, I am one of those far away from the dump Wall E inhabits. We are not quite on our loungers unable to move, but you can only tour the place if you’ve got the money to pay for protection from the nonhuman land that is Svalbard. The majority of us are no longer able to inhabit the wilderness we have stripped from the world. This doesn’t make it less alluring, just a whole lot more expensive. A little like the cost of air on Mars. We were like an inverse zoo: staring out from our invisible bars at the land and its creatures.

One of the most poignant moments of our trip was our arrival at the northern most islands of Svalbard: Rossøya and Vesle Tavleøya. We only knew they were the most northern because of the chart (although we were actually in unchartered waters). They were as rugged and sparse as the slightly less northern islands. Smaller, and therefore less snow, therefore more birds and therefore more algae. It was the algae that prevented our landing, well, thick slimy algae combined with a long rolling swell. But I loved the fact that something so small and so essential to our lives (for every three breaths we inhale, one is produced by marine phytoplankton) was preventing our (albeit temporary) colonisation of this most northern of rocks.

We weren’t in desperate need to land. And however much I enjoyed being repelled by the algae, I am still can't quite grasp everything I think this foray means to me. More and more species are moving north in the warming seas. Many of the places we went to were not accessible at the same time of previous years. We, as tourists, are part of that migration, albeit on another level. We are hungry with curiosity rather than hungry with empty stomachs. As tourists what do we contribute? Not much to the actual place. We can’t. It, like the sea, is not for humans to occupy beyond how we do - through our extended selves of chemicals, plastics and other unwanted waste.

We come back with our stories (read this one) and make art. But how does that square to being complicit in the destruction of very thing we uphold? I know flying is a major contribution to carbon emissions. How can I expect our political leaders to make fundamental changes from the top down if I don’t? The first Lancashire fracking well was given governmental go ahead this summer, a second is due to follow, providing fuel for us to continue in our energy consuming ways, until … what? There aren’t enough glaciers (and associative ecology) in Svalbard to lure us; or the true economic cost of flying is finally passed down to the consumer making them prohibitive to all but the 1% megarich; or weather conditions disrupt our travel plans?

I don’t have answers: I’m a poet. I’m a white, Northern European, poet writing in English; in some ways part of the status quo that needs to be disrupted. What I’m writing at the moment in response to the trip is so disruptive it’s incomprehensible. I like it but am, metaphorically speaking, floored; grounded, detained for not offering a straightforward narrative. Maybe that's the point. I don't know. What happens next, after that and after that could be, in part, up to me.

(For a more tender version of these thoughts read Eloise Shepherd's piece in Zoomorphic)

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Listening to the Unseen

With thanks to the NWCDTP I'm off to Svalbard in June (via - appropriately - some Marine Transgression in Bristol). I'm not sure when I first heard the name Svalbard (only in existence since the 1920s when the archipelago came under Norwegian sovereignty), but in some sense it feels like my body has known it since before my brain attempted to articulate it: Svalbard calls me – with its hissed beginning, long vowels and plosive consonants - it synthesizes my auditory sense with my tactile: in voicing it, I enter an unknown space, uncertain, angular and expansive.

Svalbard is a place of sparse human population, contested 'ownership' and exploitation. There is no record of an indigenous human settlement, and anyone may live or work there regardless of nationality. It is a nonhuman more than human world: more polar bears than people populate the islands; and the mix of warm gulf stream with polar currents churns up plankton so the waters around the archipelago contain more than half the phytoplankton of the Arctic Ocean. This abundance of plankton brings more fish and birds to the area: these in turn bring more cetaceans and other mammals: all feeding vigorously over the three months of the summer season.

In traveling to the far north I hope to hear more clearly what it is that speaks to me, how I will receive its language of wind, light, surface, birds, fish, molluscs and mammals, and how I will respond to it. Almost twenty years ago I crewed from Iceland to the Faroes to Shetland, so have some sense of the North Atlantic. But this time I won't be sailing, crewing three hours on / six off. This time I have the luxury of unmonitored time, the freedom to watch and understand the navigational decisions of others from a distance, allowing to me to observe what is going on around us, under us, and above. I hope to understand enough to relate to that which is most obviously foreign: my intuition operating to transmit the experience, to find a language to remake this transmission in my poems, in my artistbooks.

This remote ocean offers the chance to traverse my sense of perception: from how I perceive, through the blur of my short-sightedness, to what I can’t see: the depths, the microscopic marine world, and the inherent interrelationship these have with our unseen futures. I cannot travel deep into the ocean. I cannot descend in a submersible and explore the unseeable sea that way. To travel across the sea, 3000km north, to experience the Arctic at the far edge of Europe is the nearest I can come to encounter that which is concealed from my European / island / white / female / middle-class view. Being both part of my geographical identity and apart from it, the Arctic represents the zone where familiarity bisects unknown, my physicality meets high sea.

This may sound romantic, idealistic, tending towards the heroic sublime of the isolated figure. And maybe in part that is a driver, but I am not expecting a pristine experience. I anticipate seasickness, there always in for the first day or two of being on board. I've recently begun to consider this as a shamanistic ritual: the purging of landlegs to open the mindbody of sealegs. I will be onboard with a bunch of strangers, all on their own quests, some of whom I'm sure I'll connect with, others, perhaps, not so. I also imagine there will be plastic, oil rigs, other boats, the ruins of ex-industry. There will be scummy water and dead things.

June. It will be twenty four hour daylight. What will remain hidden? How will the shadow of the archipelago fall on the sea? How will the continental land mass of Europe affect the ocean there? How will the current, the eddies, the down-welling and overfalls behave up there, where the water cools and, as the ice melts, becomes less salty? How will I perceive this turning of the currents at the polar north, the intermingling of planetary past – as held in our debris – with planetary future – as held in what that debris does next. This fieldwork is a phenomenological experiment with how to immerse myself in that which eludes me. An experiment, I keep reminding myself, that doesn't have a clear hypothesis and may have no clear outcome. An opportunity, as Haraway has it, "to cultivate the wild virtue of curiosity"