Friday, December 13, 2019

Alice Major: A Poet Thinks about the Anthropocene

Alice Major's latest book of poems, Welcome to the Anthropocene, begins with a poem of the same title--a rich, substantive poem about human hubris and its effect on the natural world.  Hers may be one of the gentler and more thoughtful voices that calls our present predicament a "climate crisis" or "climate emergency."  As a writer who has long combined her knowledge of science with her skill as a poet, she's well situated to write the witty, elegiac, and humane poem about where our knowledge has brought us in the twenty-first century:  we have a lot of knowledge but do not pay careful attention to what we should do with it, and even less attention to unintended consequences.

The Anthropocene is the name of the geological age we are now living through, one in which humans have had an enormous impact on our environment.  The previous period, the Holocene, lasted for about 12,000 years, since the last ice age, and marks the relatively stable period of time during which human culture developed and thrived.  Geologists  date the Anthropocene from about 1950, noting that radioactivity from nuclear testing, soot from coal-fired power plants, and the proliferation of plastics are some of its markers.  We know about the weather of the Anthropocene--floods and forest fires.  But we're less attuned to the changes that aren't happening in our back yards.  In his brilliant and moving book, Underland, Robert Macfarlane writes of the Anthropocene that "Biodiversity levels are crashing world-wide as we hasten into the sixth great extinction event....We have become titanic world-makers, our legacy legible for epochs to come."  These extinctions aren't good for the planet's finely-tuned ecosystems.  They're not good for us, either.  Our willingness to wipe out whole swathes of rain forest shows we take the human frame of reference--coffee replacing a rich array of creatures--way too seriously.

 Bruce Mau's "Massive Change" project for the Vancouver Art Gallery and Stephen Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, both observe that this same period of time has seen enormous improvements in  human lives, two of which are the steady growth of human rights to groups that aren't white, able-bodied, straight, and male; and our ability to feed and provide medical care for more people, extending life spans and inducing population growth.  Now starvation only occurs because of political decisions.  In a sense, the growth of the scientific way of thinking that began in The Enlightenment has fostered solutions to many of mankind's problems; most of these solutions also flourished during the Anthropocene.

This is probably the most analytical blog post I've ever published, largely because the breadth of Major's conception and its roots in history and science necessitate that.  Suffice it to say that each section of this poem contains its own way of thinking through one facet of the mess we find ourselves in, the climate crisis we are finally admitting to, although we've known the science for forty years.  It's a poem that lives on the page in its use of meter, rhyme, diction.  But it's also a poem with several air-tight arguments about how we got into trouble and what we must do to mitigate the damage we've done.  Throughout, I will call the warm, charming woman I've only met twice but like immensely "Major."  Not Alice.  Seriously, you don't call Hemingway "Ernest" or Solzhenitsyn "Alex."  (Too many scholars call Woolf "Virginia," though.)  My appellation is a matter of respect. 

Major's long poem begins, seemingly counter-intuitively, with a quotation from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: "In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies; /  All quit their spheres and rush into the skies."  In his lengthy poem, Pope sought to "vindicate the ways of God to man," a purpose that is most forcefully and appositely articulated in his assertion that God's power ensures that "Whatever is, is right."  The poem was published in installments between 1733 and 1734, and so might be seen to be part of the Enlightenment, and certainly his effort to articulate an eighteenth-century ethics and world view are part of that project.  But the Enlightenment more broadly questioned the authority of monarchies and the church, which Pope does not.

Yet, Major's adoption of quotations from the Essay on Man to begin each of her poem's ten sections accomplishes two things.  Pope, who wrote in his introduction that his purpose was better served by poetry than prose, felt that the rhymed heroic couplet allowed him to fashion his pronouncements in a memorable way.  Major similarly uses rhymed heroic couplets--often in subtle, skillful, and surprising ways--to give her words an added force.  As well, Major illustrates both how our period of time is not very different from the early eighteenth century--we're still overly proud of our accomplishments--while imaginatively updating some of those concepts.  The Mediaeval concept of the Great Chain of Being, which articulated the world's hierarchical, purposeful structure that began with God and the angels and ended with humans, animals, plants, and minerals, is brilliantly transformed into a metaphor for our bad habits.  We're always yanking the chain, questioning it, subjecting it to science.  But the truth is that, as with Pope's Chain, everything is connected--something we ignore at our peril.  Major's critique of our scientific discoveries also questions whether the hierarchy implicit in The Great Chain of Being should place humans above plants and animals and earth.  In a way that serves both as a warning and an inspiration, Major 's poem focuses in on the ways the hubris of science have landed us in hot water;  it is a study of the many attitudes and practices we need to shift if we are to keep the planet livable.  Where Pope wrote a call to religious ethics, Major writes a call to reject human hubris and to envision--in a time when democracy worldwide is under pressure--a democracy of the planet, for us to imagine that every ecosystem and every creature is as important as we are.

In the first section of her poem--the one about pride--Major welcomes all the creatures humans have brought into existence, from the Black 6 Mouse, bred for use in labs because they can consistently be reproduced and resemble humans.  They possess  "a tendency / to age-related hearing loss; efficiency / in breeding but erratic parenting; / willingness to drink booze; inheriting / a sensitivity to pain and prone / to biting."  Even in this brief excerpt, the reader can grasp Major's m.o.:  skillful use of rhyme (tendency/efficiency and parenting/inheriting) combined with a witty and even cheeky diction.  Here she takes a side-swipe at the human ability to breed but not to parent particularly well, and our thirst for "booze"--a word delightfully out of place with the elegant rhyme.  Well-informed, Majors notes the colours we've dreamed up for zebrafish, like starburst red or cosmic purple, or how we've evolved fruitflies that have lost their genetic ability to learn.  We breed dogs that can't breathe.  All of this is described by Majors as our "rattling The Great Chain," as our failure to admit there are limits or to take the time to consider the unintended consequences of what our clever science is up to.  Forgive me this bald paraphrase:  all readers of poetry know in the center of their being that paraphrase is insufficient, that the real work occurs on the page, in the diction, the pacing, the allusions, and Major rewards us for paying attention to all of that in a way my sad paragraph cannot.

Section 2 continues this concern with the great chain, but asserts that it's not a ladder but "a horizontal loop that rearranges / life repeatedly.  It's still ongoing -- "  Prefaced by Pope's observation that "All are but parts of one stupendous whole," Major's argument here echoes Pope's by bringing the reader to consider the ethics of our science.  What allows us to do all this genetic research on everything from fruit flies to dogs is a god-like sense that we are above them in the hierarchical chain, whereas modern science continually discovers (but does not always consider) that "We're family."

From Pope's perspective, reasoning man was needed to fill in a niche in The Great Chain of Being.  In section 3, Major articulates her misgivings about Pope's model.  First, she notes that landscape and ecology create--or "give rise" is perhaps a more neutral verb--to the creatures it needs.  We're just part of that tendency of the earth, and shouldn't be too cocky about our vaunted superiority. Other creatures have language and use tools--supposedly a uniquely human characteristic.  Corvids might have beaten us, as might a "smarter cephalopod," whose tentacles might have skillfully created underground worlds and who might have used colour as speech.  Here, Major's hypothesis is expressed in such a plangent, inventive way:  "Imagine a vivid, silent language / sweeping over skin, instinct's dictation / translated into willed communication."  It makes you long for another world, or prompts you to suspect it might come to be, in time.  Man has done nothing special:  we didn't know we were planning for a future full of libraries and universities and newspapers and the internet.  We were just trying to survive--like everything else.

Section 3 ends with this misgiving about whether we've earned our sense of privilege; section 4 examines what we've created, and is particularly critical of our cities and our "gadgetry."   Cities have forced "all you creatures who can live with us" to adapt.  Otherwise, our cities are "homogenized" islands--one city being rather like another with respect to the way we've treated the species who find adapting to concrete and feeding off our garbage dumps more difficult.  As I've often confessed in this blog, I worry, especially on those days when I leave my study for the real world, how we're going to tempt a generation whose lives are mediated by their cell phones to save a rich natural world they aren't paying attention to.  Major is even more categorical and certainly more articulate than I am when she argues that "we forget we live / on a planet that is more inventive / than ourselves."  When I voice my complaint, I'm thinking of trees and snow and birds and the occasional rabbit--plenty of beauty to warrant our attention.  Major is thinking about oceans, soils, the unseen world Robert Macfarlane writes about so movingly in Underland.  As Greta Thunberg and her generation have shown, however, the planet is far more interesting to the younger generation than most of capitalism's blandishments.

Section 5 addresses our extinction of species and our benighted sense that we're smart enough to fix anything.  Majors cleverly uses computer imagery to describe the effect we've had on the planet:  "we're running trials / like half-assed systems analysts whose files / have never been backed up, reckless geeks / who don't know when we've pressed 'delete' / once too often."  The familiarity of the metaphor reaches out to grab each of us who has lost a precious file, bringing what has been called the great extinction closer to home.  Major's strategies make it less theoretical.

Section 6 juxtaposes "our vaulting crania, our vaunted brains" with slime mold and its ability to adapt to almost any circumstance--and its ability to work together.  Too often scientists see themselves as gods, whereas Nature "solves / her vast equations without fuss."  Gravity.  The paths of planets.  These unthinking forces don't need human intelligence to keep on keeping on.  Major suspects that these "unthinking" forces are "a god's true form."  This critique of the human brain continues almost seamlessly in section 7, which may be the angriest in her poem.  Please read it.  Here Major's language and rhyme all serve the central argument:  that we allow ideologies and religious beliefs and structures to hijack our minds, causing us to misapprehend the world and its peoples.  Her argument is straight out of the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman:  our thinking is full of biases, and many of these are cleverly used to distinguish our in-group from undeserving and threatening out-group:  "All this with a brain / that doesn't realize its gaps and patches-- / the leaps, elided details, makeshift matches / inherent in the maps it sketches."  "Our craving to be in," Major concludes, does constant damage not only to us but to the planet.  Wars are not without their environmental consequences, and communities that can't work together are much less capable of organizing to address the climate emergency.  This conclusion allows her to explore, in Section 8, the myriad ways we're not the centre of the universe.  If we blew ourselves up, flooded the planet, or reduced it to ashes, the rest of the universe would change little.

This long poem begins with the strategy of welcoming creatures on the planet to the Anthropocene and draws to a close by welcoming the earth itself and by admitting our major weaknesses in thinking.  In Section 9, Major reveals again how well she knows her science:  our human tendency is to focus on what's close and on the present moment.  Part of my self-discipline as an eco-terrorist, when I'm faced with a line-up of cars idling while they wait to grab a cup of coffee is to remind myself that the drivers are not thinking about their grandchildren, but about the kid in the back seat who's whining about being late for hockey.  They're not thinking about how their actions are affecting the planet but about their desperate need for coffee.   We only note what's close:  the death of the dog is more important to us than the death of the rain forest. Major encourages us to think about "how everything does touch," and uses the beautiful, musical metaphor of a murmuration of starlings (if you haven't seen one, you can find a YouTube video) as a way of envisioning the complex and beautiful way everything on the planet is connected in her attempt to challenge our "Here.  Now." thinking.

In Section 10, she gestures towards two great chains of being.  One is the laws of physics that we merely understand more or less perfectly.  The other is our DNA which is "a motherlode / of story."  She asks us to responsibly recognize our place in that great chain which both is and is not Pope's.  Membership, however, depends on our admitting that we are part of a "palimpsest / that's written over time and time again."  Membership also depends on our shifting a bit from Pope's perhaps too certain conclusion about a universe organized by God:  that "whatever is, is right."  Rather, we should admit that "whatever is, matters, in a wholeness where / everything is common and everything is rare."  These closing lines explode our tribal selfishness and our historical blindness.  We share DNA with almost 150 different plants and animals.  Yet each tree, each tree toad, is related to us.  We all have much in common--beginning with our sharing a planet.  But everything is rare as well, Major asserts, in an effort to prompt in us a respect for our fellow creatures.

Alice Major was recently awarded an honourary doctorate from the University of Alberta, and the conclusion of her convocation speech as she addresses a generation newly encouraged to address our climate emergency serves as a useful parallel to and summary of what she has written in Welcome to the Anthropocene:

"We can’t plan or predict what will happen in our lives. However, that uncertainty is the greatest privilege the universe gives us. We live right at the boundary where the constraints of the past meet the openness of future. We live in the zone where we must discover new things—and we have to interpret and share those discoveries. What do they mean for how we live our lives, for how we should act?....This is a phase space with complex dimensions, but that complexity is a good thing. Solutions will bubble up from many sources—from each of you. In effect, this means we all have to live as both scientists and artists." 

I've given you only a slice of this wonderful book.  While its various sections have epigraphs borrowed from "Welcome to the Anthropocene," their exploration of subjects like the environment or work or ways of thinking about poetry are often whimsical and embody perspectives very different from our own, perspectives that ease us into the difficult corners of our humanity. 

I've posed Alice's book against a log cabin quilt made of Japanese fabrics that I'm just beginning to quilt.

1 comment:

  1. The physical world is fine - we all
    must live here ... yet, what of the
    Wedding Feast Upstairs? Our death?
    Seventh-Heaven? Exactly what I talk
    bout throughout our blogOramma. I
    hope you'll join me where wecan RITE
    zillions upon zillions of novels
    Upstairs. God bless you. Cya soon...