Barely Imagined Beginnings: A Nuvvuagittuq Eidouranion

An essay for Dark Mountain 3 by Caspar Henderson
“We want to focus on the world beyond the human. We want to publish writing which strives to see the world not simply as the territory of our species, but as a canvas for all life.” – Dark Mountain
“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” wrote Wordsworth. He is still right. But it is also true that nature can be yucky. The yellow face of the Egyptian vulture, for instance, derives from carotenoid pigments in the shit it likes to eat. In males, a particularly bright yellow face shows it can eat enormous quantities of excrement without getting ill and so is an indicator of fitness and virility. Then there’s the pearlfish, which likes nothing better than to shelter during the day inside the rectum of a sea cucumber.

Neither of these remarkable creatures made it into The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: a 21st Century Bestiary  But they could have. I needed some anchors in irony to prevent me from being carried away on a cloud of transcendental bliss. You see, my starting point is that we need to spend a lot more time and psychic energy imagining not just life as we know in all its astonishing and disconcerting particularity, but also the stupendous beginnings of life on Earth during the Hadean, Archaean and Proterozoic eons. We will benefit from extended meditation on the forces that formed life, from the period when, for thousands of years, molten rock rained out of the sky onto an ocean of magma to the time, billions of years later, when the tides of the newly made seas – buffeted by a Moon much closer than it is today and an Earth rotating in just 18 hours – ebbed and flowed with stupendous force. We will benefit from envisioning the shallow warm pools where, perhaps, proto-life pieced itself together from the precursors of RNA. We will be enriched by reimagining the Ediacarian biota, those multi-cellular enigmas of the pre- Cambrian silt which resembled quilted sacks, pizzas topped with triskelions or loofahs warped by a symmetry of gliding reflection.

I probably sound like a junkie evangelising the wonders of the stoner-verse. But I make no apology because there is a serious point here struggling to get out. Namely, a good starting point for a life well-lived is continual effort to enlarge the boundaries of our imaginations and our knowledge to all the dimensions and details of the real world. Henry Thoreau may have written that “in wildness is the salvation of the world,” but the environmental visionary and political radical was no lunched-out life casualty. It was Thoreau – not the supposedly practical folk around him – who refused to believe that Walden pond was bottomless and actually took the trouble to measure its depth with a plumb line. As Richard Feynman later said, “our imagination is stretched to the utmost not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

In The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Luis Borges maps a good part of the terrain of myth and story that humans have ever dreamed up. There’s Humbaba the guardian of the cedar forest in Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest known poem, who is described as having the paws of a lion, a body covered with horny scales, the claws of a vulture, the horns of a wild bull and a tail and penis both ending in snakeheads. There’s an animal imagined by Franz Kafka which has a body like that of a kangaroo but a flat, almost human face; only its teeth have the power of expression and Kafka has the feeling it is trying to tame him. There is the Strong Toad of Chilean folklore, which has a shell like a turtle, glows in the dark like a firefly and is so tough that the only way to kill it is to reduce it to ashes; the great power of its stare attracts or repels whatever is in its range.

Among the inspirations for Borges was the medieval European bestiary, or books of beasts – a genre that reached its full flowering in beautifully illuminated manuscripts, in the decades before the Black Death. Bestiaries are full of allegory and symbol because, for the medieval mind, every natural creature was believed to embody a religious or moral lesson. Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume and Darwin discredited this way of looking at nature . Our new reality, however, is that as we humans increasingly shape the world through science, technology and our sheer numbers, such other living things as do thrive and evolve are increasingly become corollaries of what we love, value or neglect. The world is becoming allegorical again.

In some respects our times are not unlike the Middle Ages. We still routinely mix rational thinking, mythology and spirituality, which can be good for us, with delusion and lies, which never are. We may have a vastly greater store of knowledge, and have made enormous strides in human health and political liberty, but it is far from clear that we are capable of using all our knowledge wisely.

We know that the oceans, for example, contain creatures stranger than anything you will find in a medieval bestiary: beings as tall as men that have no internal organs and thrive in waters that would scald us to death in moments; others which are highly intelligent but able nevertheless to squeeze their bodies through spaces the width of their own eyeballs. We know that there is a vast world of cold darkness in which almost every creature glows with its own light.

At the same time, however, it is also clear that for all the pious words about “sustainable development”, our civilization continues to disrupt Earth systems at a rate unseen in hundreds of millions of years, and yet act as if things will somehow come out OK. A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving thirty billion tonnes of earth – twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year. Humboldt squid have spread all the way from South America to Alaska because 90% of the fish that used to swim in those waters have been eliminated. The examples pile up more quickly than a multiple car crash on a busy motorway.

Focusing on the world beyond the human, as Dark Mountain aims to do, is well and good. But we cannot ignore the fact that human influence is pervasive in what we used to call natural systems. And this means that we need to understand ourselves better if we are to imagine “nature” better ,and a better future for “nature”.

Techno-optimists such as Stewart Brand suggest that “we are as gods so we might as well get good at it.” Agreed, industrial civilisation has given us awesome powers, but a better characterisation of how we handle those powers is made by Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz in their reflection on what they call the techno-human condition: “We are as gods? No, for we have created the power but not the mind. We have got used to, even blasé about, the possibility of nuclear winter, in the way a two year old gets used to a loaded .357 magnum lying on the floor within easy reach.”

Can our societies become more mindful? Even to suggest such a thing in some circles would lead to accusations of facile optimism. Despite my mistrust of Brand and his ilk, however, I do think Montaigne was right when he said that “the most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our own being.” After all, the catastrophic failure of imagination that characterises so much of what humans actually do, where evil is as real as money, would not be tragic if it were not also the case that we are clearly capable of doing so much better. Sub specie aeternitatis, we, and whatever comes after us, are part of a cycle of almost endless creativity and becoming and it is not, in my view, delusional to believe that we are capable of degrees and kinds of consciousness that are truly remarkable in the universe.

“People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love,” writes Wendell Berry. And, he continues, “to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.” As Wallace Stevens put it, “imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail.”

I agree but, as will be clear from what I wrote earlier, I don’t think this application to detail is incompatible with an expansion and deepening of what we know. Only a hugely ambitious project for knowledge and imagination will save us.

In an essay published a couple of years ago, Robert Macfarlane celebrates the work of Finlay MacLeod and others who have preserved and tried to bring to wider attention the details of old ways of speaking in the Hebrides where, historically, “precision and poetry” have co-existed. There is, for example, a phase in Gaelic – Rionnach maoim – which means “the shadows cast on moorland by cumulous clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day.”

Macfarlane wonders about extending such a project, however “hopelessly unwriteable” it may be, until it becomes a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook comprehending the whole world. This “unfeasible” project, he writes, would stand “not as competitor to scientific knowledge and ecological analysis but as their supplement and ally.”

My own scratchings-around for the Phrasebook may be absurd. I am tempted to call them a Nuvvuagittuq Eidouranion – an incomprehensible phrase that takes the name of a place made of  what is probably the oldest extant rock on the Earth's surface and envisages  a fantastical projection of images onto it with an early proto-cinematic device. But I like to think that out there in the world precisely such a project – worldwide, multi-generational – is already well begun.

Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary is an exploration of the Anthropocene extinction, human imagination and what comes next. It will be published in the UK by Granta in October 2012 and in the US by Chicago University Press in March 2013. 

References and further reading

Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz, The Techno-Human Condition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

Wendell Berry, “It All Turns On Affection”, 2012 Jefferson Lecture (U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, 2012).

Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings (translated from the Spanish (1957/1969) by Norman Thomas di Giovanni; London: Vintage Classics, 2002).

Bärbel Hönisch et alia, “The Geological Record of Ocean Acidification”, Science 2 March 2012: 335 (6072), 1058-1063.

Robert Macfarlane, “A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook” in Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings (ed. Di Robson and Gareth Evans; London: Artevents, 2010).

George Mobus, What is a Smart Species Like Us Doing in a Predicament Like This? Cassandralegacy.blogspot (4 February 2012).

Oliver Morton, “Welcome to the Anthropocene”, The Economist (26 May 2011).

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