Snow Story


Snow and frozen waterfall in the Colorado Rocky Mountains above Estes Park. Photo:©Susan Oliver

I have to share a video (see below for YouTube link): please watch billy barr’s deeply moving short story of snow. It’s a Gothic tale of a man living in a cabin in the woods, in winter – all those clichés, but for real and with a difference. I take my hat off to this man and self-styled snow guardian (who you’ll find has his own collection of headwear).

If you follow this blog you might know that one of my favourite ecopoems is Robinson Jeffers’ “All the Little Hoof-Prints” (in Such Counsels You Gave to Me, 1935-38). billy barr – lower case is his chosen orthography – in some ways, but only some, reminds me of the man living in the woods near Pigeon Gap. Like Jeffers’ fictional solitary, he cares quietly and with will. Rocky Mountain snow is the dust at his feet. Take two people, one living in a poem set in California and the other in Colorado, for whom land ethics are plain and simple common sense. If the parallels between them end there, so be it. I’m also reminded of the river keeper in Patagonia film’s DamNation, who at the time the film was made had spent 13 years quietly monitoring endangered steelhead trout in the Umpqua River.

These are stories for our time, on a small scale but with a big message. Thanks to billy barr for caring and sharing.

The film is by Day’s Edge Productions, a company that specializes in “telling stories about science, nature, conservation and adventure.” I also note that the University of Wyoming, who so generously made me Honorary Fellow in Literary Studies in their Department of English, was involved in the production. Thanks to the people at Day’s Edge, UW, and everyone else who made these 5 minutes of powerful viewing.


Posted in American West, Colorado, Ecology, Environment and walking, environmental aesthetics, Ice, land ethics, Poetry and Essays, Uncategorized, Wyoming | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ice Art

“Within a few weeks these murals will be forever gone, but for those who find them, I hope they ignite a sense of urgency.”

(Sean Yoro, A’o ‘Ana project website 18.01.17)

Reading Georgia McCafferty’s article on artist Sean Yoro’s A’o ‘Ana (The Warning) ice mural series, and finding out more about his work, I felt compelled to share: For further images from this stunning and moving series predicated upon the precariousness of ice, and for the artist’s comments on the project, see Jacopo Prisco’s photo essay “These haunting iceberg murals only survived for a week before they melted” and Sean Yoro’s website Hula. For copyright reasons, I’m not including any of the images here.

More on the temporality of ice:
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that professionally I’m a literary critic and university teacher working in British and North American nineteenth-century writing. Attention to the visual and aural agency of ice – including melting ice – has a long history and certainly isn’t new to the anthropocene. Many writers and artists, including several from the early nineteenth century, have explored that agency and its affective properties. I mentioned some period responses to sound in my previous post Ice Thoughts 2, along with the early 21st century space-sound interactive, collaborative music project by NASA, Terry Riley, and the Kronos Quartet. Here’s an update on the theme of ice music, in an article (and by reference, a book) by Stefan Helmreich. “Melt,” part of “Theorizing the Contemporary,” in the open-access refereed journal Cultural Anthropology (January 21, 2016), identifies the sound of thawing ice as a sound very much of the anthropocene, with the deep time materiality of the earth’s atmosphere at once made audible as it is lost. In turn, Stefan Helmreich takes us back to the importance of art, since at the heart of his essay is Wendy Jacob’s 2011 award-winning installation Ice Floe for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. A strongly recommended read with an added “listen.”

Greenland Sea, March 2016. My photo. ©Susan Oliver

Posted in Arctic, Art, Ecology, environmental aesthetics, Ice | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Ice Thoughts: After the Polls, What’s Next for the Poles?

Sharing this article, “Amid higher global temperatures, sea ice at record lows at poles,” by Brandon Miller, CNN meteorologist (19 November 2016)

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Ice Thoughts: 2

Study in Ice, Rock and Water. Southern Greenland seen from 36000 feet. Photo © Susan Oliver.

Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.

Aldo Leopold“A Marshland Elegy,” from A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays . . . (1949).

Travelling to Laramie for a September researching books and documents about Scottish rivers in The University of Wyoming’s Toppan Rare Books Library, I was privileged to see Greenland again from the air. A similar journey in mid March led to my earlier photo-essay, Ice Thoughts. The experience was again compelling, with clear skies giving breathtaking views of the Arctic ice sheet. I gazed at the spectacle. Ice, glaciers, rock and water. The polar ice caps and glaciers in particular capture our imaginations with an appeal that increases in power as its physical strength becomes more precarious. The great glaciers slide down to the Atlantic Ocean, calving icebergs into water that is a vivid azure blue only because it reflects the sky. The ocean is mysterious, not least because it returns images of something else. Its surface is like a book and the font of the Arctic is icebergs. The metaphor underpinning the glaciological term “calving” is increasingly unsettling, for what we’re seeing doesn’t suggest new life. Greenland’s glaciers are old and we know they aren’t regenerating. The process of calving has come to have little to do with new birth, and as the glaciers and sea ice thin (they used to thicken) the irony implicit in a word draws attention to a sickness: are these icebergs a monstrous progeny? Whatever, the sight speaks of grandeur and magnificence.

Glacier in southern Greenland, calving. Photo © Susan Oliver.

I was travelling on the gas-guzzling giant of an airliner that is a Boeing 747. If icebergs inscribe oceans to tell a tale of our warming planet, contrails are a script of the skies. Saying that the plane would fly regardless of whether I was on board isn’t adequate. But the aim here is to take up a topic that I wrote about earlier this year, with comparisons and new thoughts about ice. As I took the photos I’ve used here, a friend was somewhere below on an expedition ski-ing across Greenland. I look forward to reading her account of a range of cultural as well as environmental issues – I’ll post details when that work is available.

NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission, which has been investigating changes in the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets since 2009, has just made public its latest findings. IceBridge‘s deep science study of melt and ice thickness in Greenland’s glaciers and ice sheet includes a comparison of aerial photographs taken from March through to late August and early September this year. Those flights, which I didn’t know of when I began working on this piece, overlapped with my own journeys, adding a scientific and artistic depth to ice writing that my two posts can’t begin sufficiently to acknowledge – I’ve provided links that I hope readers will follow. A NASA news post from 19th August begins “This year’s melt season in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas started with a bang, with a record low maximum extent in March.” As I write, their Image of the Day (taken on 16th September) is titled “IceBridge Observes Effects of Summer Melt on Greenland Ice Sheet.” Another post includes a map of ice melt under Greenland’s glaciers. The mission extends matters of environmental justice beyond their implications for humans, addressing species loss in an article about the impact of diminishing ice floes on polar bears: Kristin Laidre from the University of Washington’s Polar Science Centre, points out that sea ice is polar bears’ “platform for life,” since they can’t out swim the seals on which they feed. The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are currently around 22000-31000 polar bears living in 19 distinct subcultures around the Arctic cryosphere. While the population increased after hunting was controlled in the late twentieth century, predictions are for a 30% reduction in numbers by 2050 because of ice melt. Some studies estimate the East Greenland population to be around 2000 bears. The AtlanticNational Geographic and the International Business Times, along with some other newspapers and magazines, have just published articles about the Antarctic mission of Project IceBridge with some stunning photographs by Getty Images photojournalist Mario Tama who flew on the DC-8 used for the survey. Ice is news.

What place might the arts beyond visual and written works have in mediating ice science? I wonder if something like NASA’s 2001 -2002 Sun Rings collaboration with the Kronos String Quartet and composer Terry Riley might be possible, further bringing together science and music? Sun Rings, which I remember hearing at the Barbican Centre in March 2003, worked with images and sounds from NASA space archives – similar sounds are still whistling, howling, humming and crackling though the frigid cold of space. As astrophysicist Marie Bullock wrote in her program notes, “Certain sounds from the original Voyager recordings surface throughout the performance” while “the visuals for the final movement of Sun Rings were inspired by The Golden Record, an information package carried into space by the Voyager spacecrafts, which includes photographs of everyday scenes from around the world—as it was in 1977.” Terry Riley and the quartet members responded musically to those sounds and images. In 1990 the Voyager 1 space probe passed icy Pluto, where the surface temperature ranges from around -240 to -218 Celsius. It is now well into interstellar space, more than 20,559,216,000 km from earth (distance at time of this post from NASA’s Voyager Mission website). We know that the earth’s atmosphere is warming and its ice melting, but how cold is space beyond the influence of the Sun? Astrophysicists point out why it’s difficult to measure the temperature of interstellar space, but say that the average is probably around 2.725 – 3 Kelvin, or approximately -270 Celsius, while dust and gas clouds might reach 10 to 20 Kelvin, or -253 to -263 Celsius. Roughly 2.725 Kelvin is the temperature of the cosmic microwave background radiation that permeates the whole Universe. So in answer to the question of how cold interstellar space is, I quote the space and astronomy news website Universe Today: “In space? It’s as cold as it can get.”

Returning to earth, how can we adequately think about ice? Are analogies helpful or obstructively anti-scientific? A friend recently pointed out that geologists warn against using anthropomorphic language to describe geophysical processes. Nevertheless, I mentioned in Ice Thoughts my University of Wyoming colleague, political scientist Teena Gabrielson’s and other scholars’ work (i.e. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter) on the agency of the non human world, and how deeply aesthetics serve as an affective stimulus to thought. So I’ll return to some of my images of Greenland from 36,000 feet. Most people care about health. Ice Thoughts contemplated the beauty of the body-like patterns of Greenland’s and North Eastern Canada’s ice-scapes seen from the air in March. On this more recent journey, visible networks of alluvial fans and braided melt streams along trunk valleys, tarns and moraine, as well as the texture of the rocks themselves, suggested more anxious bodily features such as synapses, neural pathways, grey matter and nerve ends:

Alluvial fans and braided melt streams in glacial trunk valley. Photo © Susan Oliver.
Greenland: glacier and mountains. Photo © Susan Oliver.
Above: three photographs of rock and ice. The bottom image shows what is regularly referred to as the wishbone-pattern of Helheim Glacier’s channels. Helheim is believed to be Greenland’s fastest melting glacier. All photos © Susan Oliver.

On arrival at Denver airport a poster advertising the Extreme Ice Survey spans the end of the walkway to arrivals. The EIS demonstrates the effectiveness of collaborative arts, humanities and STEM research, its creative use of photography giving a “visual voice” (EIS website) to ecosystems affected by climate change. It’s probably fair to say that most people know about the EIS  through the documentary film Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski and featuring James Balog. Balog and the EIS – which he founded are based at Boulder, Colorado, just a short drive into the Rocky Mountains from Denver. It seems appropriate that someone living in a state considerably shaped by glacial activity, but where the remaining 14 glaciers are approaching the end of their existence (see the “Glaciers of Colorado” at the Glaciers of the American West website of the Departments of Geology and Geography, Portland State University) would become fascinated by ice. I was teaching a seminar recently on John Muir’s Travels in Alaska, for my Literature and the Environmental Imagination module at the University of Essex, and thought of James Balog when we read Muir’s account of a Presbyterian missionary in Alaska who had fallen and dislocated both shoulders. The injured man was helpless and in agony in a very dangerous environment. His concentration had been so directed towards spiritually converting native Alaskans to Christianity that he’d put himself at physical risk. Understanding the environment around him had not seemed so important. Muir, who saved the man’s life, wrote:

I marched him slowly down in the starlight on the comparatively smooth, unassured surface of the little glacier to the terminal moraine, a distance of perhaps a mile, crossed the moraine, bathed his head at one of the outlet streams, and after many rests reached a dry place and made a brush fire. I then went ahead looking for an open way through the bushes to where larger wood could be had, made a good lasting fire of resiny silver-fir roots, and a leafy bed beside it. I now told him I would run down the mountain, hasten back with help from the boat, and carry him down in comfort. But he would not hear of my leaving him.

“No, no,” he said, “I can walk down. Don’t leave me.”

(John Muir, “The Stickeen River,” Travels in Alaska, 1915.)
The episode is from Muir’s 1879 first journey to Alaska, during which he hoped to prove his theory that the American West was shaped by glacial erosion as well as by seismic activity.

Anyone who’s watched the EIS film knows that while there’s no attention to shoulders, James Balog ruined his knees chasing ice. His passion, like that of Muir’s missionary, was persuading people to believe in something – in his case, that the planet’s glaciers are losing their ice much faster than previously expected and that we have to act now if we’re to stand any chance of saving them. Projects to understand what is happening not only above, but inside and under melting glaciers are now raising awareness of the complexity of different areas and types of melt and their effects. NASA’s Global Climate Change web page compares photos of Muir Glacier in Alaska – named after John Muir – in August 1941 and 63 years later in August 2004. I’m curious whether readers who clicked on the above link found themselves having to look twice at the second photo even to see the glacier, as I did. Looking down at Greenland on 31 August 2016 from 36000 feet, the amount of visible rock seemed unnerving in direct proportion to the beauty of the sight.

Greenland: glaciers and fjord. Photo © Susan Oliver.

John Muir’s first published essay, for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune newspaper on 5 December 1871was titled “Yosemite Glaciers.” It gave the public an explanation of the power of ice, in a vocabulary that veers between the aesthetics of the sublime, science and theology. Two glaciers remain in Yosemite National Park, which Muir was instrumental in founding. The palpable sense of wonder in his essay is typical of his manner of writing:

Glaciers work apart from men, exerting their tremendous energies in silence and darkness, outspread, spirit-like, brooding above predestined rocks unknown to light, unborn, working on unwearied through unmeasured times, unhalting as the stars, until at length, their creations complete, their mountains brought forth, homes made for the meadows and the lakes, and fields for waiting forests, earnest, calm as when they came as crystals from the sky, they depart [. . .] . The great valley itself, together with all its domes and walls, was brought forth and fashioned by a grand combination of glaciers, acting in certain directions against granite of peculiar physical structure. All of the rocks and mountains and lakes and meadows of the whole upper Merced basin received their specific forms and carvings almost entirely from this same agency of ice.

Section subtitled “Glacier History,” in “Yosemite Glaciers,” New York Tribune, December 5, 1871.

I’m interested that Muir talks here explicitly about an “agency of ice” that operates “apart from men” to exert its force on something much older that us – the rock that it erodes – while conveying as strong a sense of its affective agency on the human imagination. The conflict of forces that he describes, moreover, can be interpreted as evidence of an elemental ascendency: ice triumphs over fire, for granite is an igneous rock.

As botanist as well as geologist, Muir was at least as interested in moraine as in the ice that produces it. He thrilled to comparative studies of plants that grow on the sediment left by glaciers, always looking, as Alexander von Humboldt had in South America before him, for species that evidence connection more than for those that indicate separateness. Such a comparative framework for enquiry makes Muir and Humboldt global ecologists. Each developed Johann Gottfried Herder’s argument that humans exist within a “natural system” or “geographical aerology” in which all living things in a region respond to the quality and combination of the land, air, water and other local factors, which in turn contribute to a diverse universe of interrelated environments in which beauty equates with variety (Herder, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, 1791). John Muir’s Alaska is vibrant with ice and life, and so is beautiful.

Ice also haunts. The epigraph that begins this post is from “A Marshland Elegy,” an essay in which conservationist, ecologist and initiator of the term “land ethic,” Aldo Leopold imagines the ghost of a glacier rolling into a localised area of Wisconsin. Leopold was writing about the marsh near to his own small farm, close to Baraboo in Sauk County, one of the Sand Counties (for more on ecology in the Sand Counties see “Central Sand Plains Ecological Landscape,” Wisconsin Department of Natural resources). His shack and 264 acres of land are now a National Historic Landmark. The most obvious focus of “A Marshland Elegy” is the flocks of migrating sandhill cranes that move northward in summer to nest and feed (see my previous post Seeing beyond the Sandhill Cranes). However, the spectacle of the birds becomes a means of addressing long term geological and more rapid ecological change. Their calls, which Leopold likens musically to bells, horns and trumpets – each of which can also suggest an alarm system – become the voice of a biotic community that echoes across epochs. His comparison of the migratory canes with rooted pasque-flowers (prairie smoke, cut-leaved anemone, pulsatilla nuttalliana or anemone patens) anticipates an onwardly haunted future:

“The Cranes do not question the intent of glaciers, emperors of pioneers . . . they trumpeted a warning and sailed across the marsh to another farm.”

“I am reminded . . . every April when the pasque-flowers bloom on every gravelly ridge.  Pasques do not say much, but I infer that their preference harks back to the glacier that put the gravel there.”

Aldo Leopold“A Marshland Elegy,” from A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays . . . (1949).

Leopold’s deep historical account of the cranes’ habitat describes how “the glacier came down out of the north, crushing hills and gouging valleys.” Lobes of the same pan-North American Laurentide Ice Sheet created the basins for the Great Lakes. Glaciologists and geologists have concluded that the great glacier of the  Wisconsin Glaciation, the last great cycle of climate cooling and glacial expansion in North America that took place between 100,000 – 11,000 years ago, extended into Wisconsin around 31,500 years ago. Currently, paleoclimatologists are using computer modelling to increase understanding of atmospheric changes accompanying the “several massive surges of icebergs into the North Atlantic Ocean” in the Heinrich event that 11,ooo years ago – the same time as the final retreat of the glacier from Wisconsin – signified “the irreversible collapse of the Laurentide Ice Sheet” ( See Paleoclimate over the Laurentide Ice sheet at the Last Glacial Maximum, Polar Meteorology Goup, Byrd Polar Centre at Ohio State University and University of Maine Climate Change Institute).

Wisconsin’s post-glacial tundra gradually warmed to become swampland and a fertile, forested moraine. “A Marshland Elegy” contrasts the Eocene origins and persistence of cranes that have lived in that environment with the fast paced violence of humans over the most recent two hundred years. English pioneers arriving in covered wagons “chopped clearing in the timbered moraines that bordered the marsh, and in them planted corn and buckwheat.” By time of Leopold’s purchase of land in 1935 and the beginning of his experiment in restoration, today’s National Park Service, while stressing the current high level of biological diversity, writes

Wheat and corn, staple crops in Wisconsin, stripped vital nutrients from the soil, leading eventually to repeated crop failures. The combination of aggressive agricultural practices, overgrazing of livestock, and severe drought, left the landscape barren. Along with vanishing vegetation, area wildlife suffered great losses. Many indigenous animals either deserted the region to find refuge or perished owing to the depleted environment.

National Historic Landmark Registration Form 10-900, “Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm.” 

On the matter of parks, while on this research trip I took a few days to go camping and hiking in Grand Teton National Park, where a ranger, Josh, explained the basic principles underpinning the geology of the area. The Teton region is the product of glacial erosion but also of seismic activity and, as Professor Carol Frost from the University of Wyoming and her colleagues showed in a paper published earlier this year, it reveals the collision of continental tectonic plates similar in action to those that produced the Himalayas. The moraine left by glaciers from the last ice age is visible from the mountains, through its legacy of fertile sedimentary soil around the lakes and onto the plains. While it’s so obviously basic “rock science,” it still amazes me that sedimentary rocks are at the tops of the mountains. And that’s more or less where the remaining Teton glaciers continue grinding away at the rocky surface. Like other parks in the Rocky Mountain West, Teton has some thinning glaciers. I saw only one. It seemed Titanic, like a fallen giant in its mountain den:

Teton Glacier and moraine. Photo © Susan Oliver.
Teton Glacier from a distance. Photo © Susan Oliver.

An information board shows the acceleration of its retreat:

Tourist Information Board showing the Glacier’s retreat over almost a century. Photo © Susan Oliver.

As the tourist information board points out, Teton Glacier isn’t all that old: 200 to 600 years at most. Indeed, it dates from a period when Frost Fairs were held on the River Thames in London. The Thames last froze sufficiently for a Frost Fair to take place in 1814, a year before the end of the Napoleonic Wars, at a time when Jane Austen and Walter Scott were writing novels (Mansfield Park and Waverley were published in 1814), while Lord Byron (The Corsair) and Wordsworth (The Excursion) were writing poetry, and two years before Percy Shelley wrote probably his most famous ice poem, “Mont Blanc.” Shelley’s poem begins with its apostrophe to “The everlasting universe of things” that “Flows through the mind,” a sense of permanence that ought now to be read as a warning about complacency in a twenty-first century of ice melt. (My friend at Leeds University and colleague in environmental humanities, David Higgins, is currently writing about Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” Romanticism and ruin). Mary Shelley would soon begin Frankenstein, which begins in an Arctic wilderness. Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice, based on Edward Parry’s 1819-1820 expedition to find a North-West passage through the Arctic Ocean would be painted less than a decade later in 1823.

Returning to Greenland, the surfaces of glaciers reveal their movement and their melting condition. The texture of ice represents another readable script:

Surface melt on glacier in Greenland. Photo © Susan Oliver.

A comparison of my photo above with one titled “Ice drainage from the western Antarctic Peninsula onto the northern George VI Ice Shelf,” taken on 14th October by the Antarctic IceBridge team, demonstrates how the visible surface of ice reveals the overall polar nature of the problem of ice melt in ways that suggest both narrative and lyric. I’m trained as a specialist in Romantic literature and am thinking that these photos, with their visual language cutting across linguistic barriers, work like new lyrical ballads for a twenty-first century in which climate change is the biggest cause for global concern.

(Note: The original, experimental poems in  Lyrical Balladswritten and published in 1798 by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, incisively addressed threats to rural life as well as matters of universal human concern. Only two of the poems – Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” – refer to polar ice, but the force of the collection’s stories in combination with deeply philosophical thought about ethical behaviour and the land resonates into our own age of livelihoods endangered by global climate change.)

Henry David Thoreau, American  transcendentalist and environmentalist, also thought about ice. Walden (1854), Thoreau’s narrative of his experiment in living well, tells how a study of Walden pond in winter raises matters of philosophical, aesthetic and material concern. His disturbing account of harvesting Walden pond’s ice reads as much like the butchering of an animal as it does the reaping of a crop, with blocks being “raised by grappling irons and block and tackle, and worked by horses, on to a stack [ . . .] in a good day they could get out a thousand tons, which was the yield of about one acre” (Walden, Chapter 16 :”The Pond in Winter). While Thoreau points out that less than 25% of the ice would reach its final destination, he also knew that Boston’s Ice King, Frederic Tudor (1783-1864) made a fortune selling ice from Walden and other ponds locally, to the Caribbean and to Europe. Ice was big business.

Looking back on my last photograph above, the texture of ice interested Thoreau when he used comparative language to convey a sense of aesthetic beauty and spiritual transcendence in an organic natural world beyond the human: “Ice has its grain as well as wood, and when a cake begins to rot or ‘comb,’ [it assumes] the appearance of honeycomb. Thoreau goes on to point out that the frozen structure of ice appears to have developed in sympathetic dialogue with herbaceous plants, for “Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror” (Walden, Chapter 17, “Spring”).

Returning to melt and climate change, even Thoreau’s chapter title “House-Warming” has become prophetic in ways that Thoreau probably couldn’t have anticipated. Here is his account of the effects of thawing on the pond’s ice. The simile of silver coins draws attention to the commodified status of ice, while the references to the incendiary properties of magnifying glasses and to sounds resembling guns amplify a sense of violence:

As the last two days had been very warm, like an Indian summer, the ice was not now transparent, showing the dark green color of the water, and the bottom, but opaque and whitish or gray, and though twice as thick was hardly stronger than before, for the air bubbles had greatly expanded under this heat and run together, and lost their regularity; they were no longer one directly over another, but often like silvery coins poured from a bag, one overlapping another, or in thin flakes, as if occupying slight cleavages. The beauty of the ice was gone, and it was too late to study the bottom. Being curious to know what position my great bubbles occupied with regard to the new ice, I broke out a cake containing a middling sized one, and turned it bottom upward. The new ice had formed around and under the bubble, so that it was included between the two ices. It was wholly in the lower ice, but close against the upper, and was flattish, or perhaps slightly lenticular, with a rounded edge, a quarter of an inch deep by four inches in diameter; and I was surprised to find that directly under the bubble the ice was melted with great regularity in the form of a saucer reversed, to the height of five eighths of an inch in the middle, leaving a thin partition there between the water and the bubble, hardly an eighth of an inch thick; and in many places the small bubbles in this partition had burst out downward, and probably there was no ice at all under the largest bubbles, which were a foot in diameter. I inferred that the infinite number of minute bubbles which I had first seen against the under surface of the ice were now frozen in likewise, and that each, in its degree, had operated like a burning-glass on the ice beneath to melt and rot it. These are the little air-guns which contribute to make the ice crack and whoop.

From WaldenChapter 13, “House-Warming.” Taken here from The Thoreau Reader, a project in cooperation with The Thoreau Society.

On the matter of thinning ice, he describes an experiment at Harvard that again draws attention to the effect of thawing in magnifying solar rays:

I have been told that in the experiment at Cambridge to freeze water in a shallow wooden pond, though the cold air circulated underneath, and so had access to both sides, the reflection of the sun from the bottom more than counterbalanced this advantage. When a warm rain in the middle of the winter melts off the snow-ice from Walden, and leaves a hard dark or transparent ice on the middle, there will be a strip of rotten though thicker white ice, a rod or more wide, about the shores, created by this reflected heat. Also, as I have said, the bubbles themselves within the ice operate as burning-glasses to melt the ice beneath.

From Walden, Chapter 17, “Spring.

Meanwhile the percussive song of the ice draws attention to its vulnerability:

The cracking and booming of the ice indicate a change of temperature. One pleasant morning after a cold night, February 24th, 1850, having gone to Flint’s Pond to spend the day, I noticed with surprise, that when I struck the ice with the head of my axe, it resounded like a gong for many rods around, or as if I had struck on a tight drum-head. The pond began to boom about an hour after sunrise, when it felt the influence of the sun’s rays slanted upon it from over the hills; it stretched itself and yawned like a waking man with a gradually increasing tumult, which was kept up three or four hours. [. . .] The fishermen say that the “thundering of the pond” scares the fishes and prevents their biting. The pond does not thunder every evening, and I cannot tell surely when to expect its thundering; but though I may perceive no difference in the weather, it does. Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? 

From Walden, Chapter 17, “Spring.

Thoreau’s writing needs to be understood as being of its time, and its undeniably Romantic as well as including an informed lay understanding of science. But he surely has a lot to say to us now.

Returning to the twenty-first century, I’d like approach a conclusion by means of some final considerations and some more images from my journey over Greenland. This post began with those views. I’ve commented on reports of the struggle for life faced by polar bears having to adapt to shorter Arctic winters and smaller ice floes. The University of Delaware and some other institutions are working with NASA’s Project IceBridge on a study that is a predicting a restriction in the habitat and a likely decline in the population of Adélie penguins, due to shifting temperatures and ice melt. That study points out that Adélie Penguins have for millions of years responded to changes in glaciation: “the geologic record tells us that as glaciers expanded and covered Adélie breeding habitats with ice, penguins in the region abandoned their colonies. When the glaciers melted during warming periods, the Adélie penguins were able to return to their rocky breeding grounds” (see “Climate Change May Shrink Adélie Penguin Range By End of Century“). The investigation views the current situation as potentially different, however: “this warming may no longer be beneficial for Adélie penguins. In a paper published June 29 in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers project that approximately 30 percent of current Adélie colonies may be in decline by 2060, and approximately 60 percent of the present population might be dwindling by 2099.” Polar Bears and penguins are charismatic megafauna, as well as being sentinel or indicator species. They are large, powerful or appealing enough for their vulnerability to elicit an emotive public call for action. It’s probably fair to say that they’re inseparable from our idea of what the Arctic and Antarctic are. What of creatures that are less visible?

While at the University of Wyoming, I was privileged to see the Art Museum’s astonishing retrospective “Waste Land: A Survey of Works by Brandon Ballengée, 1996-2016.” The exhibition was extremely moving. Ballengée is a marine biologist and artist who works on mutation and deformity due to habitat change, with specific attention to changes brought about by pollution. Some of his works address experimentation. I’ll say more about that exhibition in my next blogpost, because it wasn’t really concerned with ice. But one exhibit, Ballengée’s film Requiem pour Flocons de neige Blessés (A Requiem for Injured Snowflakes), includes a delicate icy metaphor just as it explores the transience of melting things. Made in scientific collaboration with David M. Green of McGill University and Stanley K. Sessions, and with a haunting minimalist musical score by Ariel Benjamin and Andrew Diluvian, the film uses a series of 21 photographs of tiny, malformed toad tadpoles from southern Quebec. The toads could not develop to maturity because of deformities due to a range of possibly interrelated causes: the exhibition’s caption to the film says that “each toad was born into a hostile universe of predators, parasites and environmental degradation.” The exhibition notice to Requiem pour Flocons de neige Blessés ends with a dedication: “This finite / infinite artwork is a memorial to all these small creatures and in honor of the countless number of beings that have come into this world and passed without notice.”

That the complex ecologies of Greenland’s glacial environment and the surrounding Arctic Ocean consist of tiny and short-lived creatures as well as polar bears, walruses, whales and seals is obvious and well-known. But scientists still don’t know exactly how food chains and species will be affected as the glaciers and sea-ice melt. The photos used here capture beauty and uncertainty. I hope they link ice and thought. They’re less abstract in appearance than those in Ice Thoughts, where the aim was to let the images speak more for themselves. I’ve tried here to follow that earlier post by developing more extensive narrative enquiries as well as lyrical meditations about ice.

Approaching south-east Greenland. Photo © Susan Oliver.
Calving glacier with moraine. Photo © Susan Oliver.
Glacial flows. Photo © Susan Oliver.
Edge of the ice-sheet, south western Greenland. Photo © Susan Oliver.
Posted in American West, Arctic, Art, Birds and Animals, Ecology, environmental aesthetics, Ice, land ethics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plants and Antibiotics: some thoughts on reading the NY Times article “Could Ancient Remedies Hold the Answer to the Looming Antibiotics Crisis?”



Rabbitbrush. (My photograph)

The article below about the antiseptic and antibiotic properties of plants is from the New York Times Magazine. I decided to post it because, as you know from my writing, I’m deeply interested in the relationship between plants and people. The crisis of antibiotic resistant infection is one that stares us in the face. We share the world with these mostly quiet living beings. They contribute materially, but also aesthetically, culturally and spiritually to out busy lives.

I visited some good friends last week.  They took advice about wildflowers native to their area and sowed their front lawn with yellow coneflowers  – the purple coneflower,  Echinacea purpurea being the source of the echinacea supplement that we buy to protect against colds. The idea was initially to save water, given that coneflowers survive in the wild in their arid state. Someone complained that they were encouraging weeds and suggested they tidy their yard. People plant coneflowers in gardens all of the time, so I think the problem of perception in this case arose because they were seeded randomly in the lawn. In  other words, they had exceeded the boundaries imposed by “normal” gardening. Another friend remembers being asked why she had planted a line of tansy alongside her garden wall. Tansy, Tanecetum vulgar, was brought to North America in the 1620s by European  settlers because it has medical benefits and some culinary uses, although it is also toxic if not used carefully. Like the Silphium laciniatum, cut-leaf silphium or compass plant which features regularly in my posts, and about which Aldo Leopold so movingly wrote in A Sand County Almanac, it’s the commonplace plants that are easily dismissed.


Echinacea purpurea or purple coneflower. (Photograph from NetPS Plant Finder)



Tanecetum vulgar or tansy. (Photograph Montana Weed Control Association)

Like many other people, I love sagebrush and rabbit brush, plants of the prairie. The pungent scent of sagebrush after rain is thrilling. It’s a variety of artemisia, a plant used in the perfume industry – big sagebrush is also named Artemisia tridentata. Sagebrush has long been known by indigenous communities to have potent medicinal and spiritual healing qualities.  Nevada recognises big sagebrush as its State Flower.  Rabbitbrush, a species of Chrysothamus, likewise has medicinal qualities that are physical and spiritual. It’s sometimes classified as an invasive weed because of its vigorous growth in marginal soils. But the vitality and hardiness of rabbitbrush mean that it is one of the first plants to regrow in prairies areas ravaged by wildfires (I’m grateful to Utah State University’s pro-rabbitbrush Invasive Weeds Website for this information). The roots are help to prevent soil erosion.

So this introduction to the essay below is also a tribute to the coneflower, tansy, sagebrush, rabbitbrush and other delectable weeds


Big sagebrush and cottonwoods near Jackson, Wyoming. Cottonwoods are weed trees and the State Tree for Wyoming (plains cottonwood, Populous deltoids, sub species  monilefera), Kansas and Nebraska (eastern cottonwood, Populous deltoides).
(My photograph).

My next post will likely be about grasses.

Here’s the New York Times article:


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Seeing beyond the Sandhill Cranes: a trip from Eastern Wyoming into Nebraska.


Sandhill cranes on the Platte River, Nebraska. National Geographic wallpaper


Nebraska state line. My photograph.

A sense of time lies thick and heavy on such a place . . . . The cranes stand, as it were, upon the sodden pages of their own history.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949).

On a windy morning in April I embarked on a journey through eastern Wyoming towards Nebraska to see sandhill cranes. The great spring sandhill crane migration is one of the world’s sublime wildlife spectacles: for sheer scale, the Audubon society compares this northward flight of more than half a million birds with the movement of wildebeest across the plains of southern Africa. Another comparison might be with the herds of millions of bison that roamed the North American prairie, before their near extinction in the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1833 there were no bison east of the Mississippi, and by the end of the century only 23 plains bison remained living wild in a remote corner of Pelican Valley, Yellowstone National Park. I think also of the much smaller population of greater sage grouse, a threatened prairie bird species whose habitat of sage-brush and other native flora is being eroded, and which I was privileged to see on a visit to Wyoming two years ago (“Sage Grouse Lekking and Canyon Fiction” 2014). The cranes are nowhere near extinct, though. Upwards of half a million – estimated to be around 80% of the global species population – stop to feed each February until early April along an 80-mile stretch of the Platte River in western Nebraska on their way to breeding grounds further north in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon and Idaho up through Canada to Alaska and eastern Siberia. The waters of the Platte run in the opposite direction, flowing into the Mississippi and thereby eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. I think about the flow of water and birds, like great lifelines crossing and connecting bioregions and biomes. The cranes thrive in the summer tundra and wetlands of the boreal forests (taiga or snow forests), nesting in reeds and marsh vegetation. Their diet includes berries – I remember the intense flavour of wild raspberries during a visit to British Columbia.

A birder friend had provided directions, down to the very marsh and fields near Table Mountain in which he’d seen around a thousand cranes a week earlier. A favourite passage from Aldo Leopold’s “A Marshland Elegy,” in A Sand County Almanac, came to mind and increased the excitement:

A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bogmeadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon. . . .
A sense of time lies thick and heavy on such a place. Yearly since the ice age it has awakened each spring to the clangor of cranes. The peat layers that comprise the bog are laid down in the basin of an ancient lake. The cranes stand, as it were, upon the sodden pages of their own history.


Crane at the Iain Nicolson Rowe Sanctuary for the Platte River ecosystem, Nebraska.

A week earlier, an Audubon trip to Hutton Lakes near Laramie had included seeing a golden eagle, basking in the sunshine on a rock that would have intensified the thin warmth at an elevation of 7220ft. The distance between us and the bird was such that powerful binoculars or a scope were  needed to see any detail. With just the naked eye, the eagle looked like a small craggy, projecting rock. Magnification showed its powerful shoulders and hard, sharply hooked beak. Behind us, a huge bald eagle winged across the blue sky at a similar distance. Robinson Jeffers’ austere lines on the persistence of eagles come to mind:

And Lenin has lived and Jehovah died: while the mother-eagle
Hunts her same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry and is never tired; dreams the same dreams,
And hears at night the rock-slides rattle and thunder in the throats of these living mountains.
Robinson Jeffers, “The Beaks of Eagles.


Hutton Lakes, 9 April 2016. My photograph.

Warmth was the problem with my crane excursion. The chill wind of Hutton Lakes had given way to several balmy days with temperatures into the low 60s Fahrenheit. I’d been advised that I needed to make my journey because the migration would soon be over: the last birds leave in early April.  During the three-hour drive north-eastwards above Cheyenne, a tumbleweed (salsa triagus, salsola iberica, salsola kali) bowled across the road into a barbed wire fence. It arrested my attention. I stopped to take a photograph and saw how in their spiny tussle over territory, the barbs of the weed and wire echoed one another in a frenzied dance of strands, blades, and spikes.


Tumbleweed and barbed wire. My photograph.


Tumbleweed and barbed wire 2. My photograph.

Weed and wire are icons of invasion and agents of colonisation. Commonplace and a staple flora of western movies, tumbleweed is associated with the old western U.S.A. Its common name, Russian thistle (another is “wind-witch”)  betrays its origins.  Tumbleweed was introduced to north America in the 1870s in seed flax brought by Russian migrants who settled to farm in South Dakota. For more discussion, see The Culture of Wilderness: Agriculture as Colonization in the American West (1996), by a friend and colleague at the University of Wyoming, Frieda Knobloch. The process of association continues and I’m reminded of Edward Abbey’s rebarbative activist George Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, with his allergy to “that exotic vegetable from the steppes of Mongolia.” Barbed wire – described by Hayduke’s fellow monkey-wrencher Seldom Seen Smith as a “tetanous steel” that “catches coyotes too, and golden eagles” –  was patented by Joseph Gliddens in Ohio in 1874, as a means of protecting land rights by keeping animals in and people out.

As the land through which I pass becomes drier, there there’s an increase in the population of soapweed yucca (yucca glauca). Common and, like the tumbleweed, considered an invasive nuisance, this most widely distributed of North America’s yuccas is nevertheless listed as an imperilled species in Missouri. The crushed roots lather when mixed with water and can be used as a natural shampoo.

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Soapweed Yucca (yucca glauca). My photograph.

My three-hour journey northwards through Hawk Springs to the lower elevation of 4050ft near Table Mountain ends when I arrive at the Goshen Lower North Platte Wetlands complex. Frogs sang and midges whined. A Swainson’s hawk watched from a fence post. The sun’s rays beat down with intensity. There was not a crane to be seen. Either they’d already migrated northwards or were further east, perhaps beyond the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers.


Marsh without cranes, Goshen North Platte lower wetlands wildlife complex. My photographs.

Well, it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t disappointed. An evening engagement in Laramie meant there wasn’t time on this visit to travel much further. But you don’t have to try all that hard to look beyond the sandhill cranes to see the beauty and dignity of this grasslands and ranch border country with Nebraska. I drove for several miles through an area farmed with arable crops, grass for hay, and cattle.

It’s not only the cranes that stand upon the waterlogged pages of their own history. Rusting vehicles in yards – mechanical fossils in this land of dinosaur remains – testify to progress and what’s been left behind. Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), with its historical story of the tough lives of eastern European migrant farmers, conjures thoughts about sod houses that predate the homesteads and ranches. The sod houses are long gone, but the arable landscape with cattle and corn remains. Black Hawk, the fictional setting for My Ántonia, was based on Red Cloud where Cather spent her childhood. Her novel is a powerful tale of determination in the face of poverty and hardship, and it’s a favourite book of mine. But those place names bespeak a controversy where the displaced are no longer able to stand on the pages of their own history. Black Hawk and Red Cloud. Both were also the names of chiefs of American indigenous people, the Sauk and the Lakota. Both campaigned for their people’s human and land rights. The agricultural settlement of the north American prairie from the United States up through Canada was at the cost of first nations people, their homes and their ways of life, as well as at the expense of native flora and fauna. The scale of the environmental justice and ethical issues can’t properly be covered here, and indeed has never been adequately addressed down through modern history to the present day.
Thinking about books that I read with students, I range back from My Ántonia to transcendentalist Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes in 1843 (1844). Based on a summer that Fuller spent following trails across the mid-west, and described by by her as “such foot-steps as may be made on the pages of my life” Summer on the Lakes includes an account of Sauk chief Black Hawk and his people, the flowers of the prairie, and the enforcement of the Indian Removal Act. I return to thoughts about plant species and their invasive roles. In an earlier post for this blog (“Wildflower thoughts,” 2015) I’ve mentioned the emblematic qualities and botanical agency of native flora for Fuller, as a counterpoint to the coarse plantain (plantago media) commonly called “the white man’s footstep” because of its role in the botanical colonisation.
Back towards the state line, I come to the village of Lyman, Scotts Bluff County, population 341 at the 2010 census. Main street includes a library, a barber’s shop and a post office.


Main Street, Lyman, Nebraska. My photograph.


Border country. Highway into Lyman from Wyoming. My photograph.

Looking across the state line, signs remind travellers from Wyoming that seat belts and motorcycle helmets are required by Nebraska State Law. A 40mph speed limit slows traffic heading into Lyman. Trucks shimmer in the heat haze and purple flowers line the roadside. In the opposite direction, Wyoming’s bronco and mountains beckon along the only manicured stretch of grass that I’ll see for an hour or two. A row of Cottonwoods intersect with the highway to reveal a creek.


State line, Wyoming. My photograph.

The friend who’d given me the route for this wild crane chase also mentioned some ponds with waterfowl close to the highway. I saw several ring-necked ducks, cinnamon teal and  couple of pairs of shovelers along with mallard, coot and Canada geese.  Returning to Highway 85 and heading south took me back though more ranch country. On the way up, there’d been wild turkeys along the verge. Now barns gleamed white against the earthy pastel green and ochre of the Wyoming grasslands.


Ranch with barns along highway 85, Wyoming. My photograph.

Hawk Springs in Goshen County, population 45 at the 2010 census, is a  welcome refreshment stop for travellers . The Emporium, a clean country kitchen style cafe and bar, sells ice along with pop, beer and a delicious pork and green chilli soup. It also promises steak and cocktails, does a good line in rye and other whiskies, and was advertising a goose cook-off. I heartily recommend it and will definitely call there on another visit. The bar was decorated with snowshoes and stuffed animals, along with University of Wyoming sports memorabilia. Outside, wooden posts supporting what today was a rather hot tin roof over  a  small terrace serve as a guest book. The Emporium is a gem. The staff make you feel like locals. You’ll leave with a smile, feeling good about the world.


Refreshments at The Emporium, Hawk Springs. My photograph.



The Emporium, Hawk Springs. My photograph.


Hawk Springs trading post on Highway 85, Wyoming. My photograph.

My return to Laramie along Happy Jack Road from Cheyenne returns  a familiar landscape of ridges and boulders. It’s late afternoon. Pronghorn are feeding not far from the highway, near some horses. Like sandhill cranes, pronghorn migrate (see articles by members of the Haub Environmental School, University of Wyoming, in High Country News). Barbed wire is one of the hazards they encounter.


Pronghorn with horses, near Cheyenne. My photograph.


Geology and weather: ridge with storm clouds between Cheyenne and Laramie. My photograph.



Near Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming. My photograph.


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Near Vedauwoo National Park, Wyoming. My photograph.

Well, I’m told that seeing the sandhill crane migration is unforgettable. I’ll try again next year. As I close this post, I’m thinking of some lines from Wordsworth about the value of what happens when the anticipated experience doesn’t materialise. In The Prelude, Wordsworth remembers a boy (most likely himself) who “blew mimic hootings to the silent owls” (5:398. 1805 Prelude). Many of us have had that experience: in the boy’s case the owls then reply, bringing a rush of exhilaration and joy. But Wordsworth also recalls “a gentle shock of mild surprise” (5:407) in moments waiting, when there has been a long and unexpected silence. At first the boy feels mocked. It’s as if he has failed. He is crestfallen. The shock is brought about not by disappointment, however, but by something that both restores confidence and is invigoratingly new: for his mind has been made more receptive to the unexpected. He heard, or imagines that he heard, a sound that “carried far into his heart / The voice of  mountain torrents.” The poem continues with the activation of other senses: “the visual scene / Would enter unawares into his mind” (5: 406-10). This day excursion through a country I’d not been able to anticipate, because I was thinking with expectation about the sandhill cranes, has been one that I’ll remember, for so many reasons other than the absent birds. I’m left with the memories that I’ve tried to share here, along with the anticipation of cranes on another day.

Posted in American West, Birds and Animals, Environment and walking, environmental aesthetics, land ethics, Nature writing, Nebraska, Poetry and Essays, Uncategorized, Wyoming | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ice thoughts


This post is concerned with visual aesthetics, so I’m not adding many words. The photos were taken over Greenland and Northern Canada. The spectacle of ice is impressive, freeze-framing a weird beauty.


A language of ratios: the proportion of water in solid and liquid form = conditions for life? NASA’s own aerial images show that Pluto has ice flows .


Ice force: breaking apart or closing in? Ice-trapped ships have a historical narrative of their own. Charles Dickens was just one of the Victorian journalists who imagined horrors surrounding Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition to find a North West passage across Canada. In ‘Lost Arctic Travellers,’ published in his popular magazine Household Words in 1854, Dickens picked up on stories of cannibalism, but also conveyed a sense of the extreme environment of the ice sheet: ‘we think of the specks, once ardent men, “scattered about in different directions” on the waste of ice and snow.’ For a 21st-century essay on narratives of ships in ice, see Ker Than for National Geographic, “7 Ice-trapped Ships of the Past Give Solace to Rescued Antarctica Expedition Team


Ice revisits an old question: does art imitate nature or vice versa? William Hogarth argued ‘the waving line is the “line of beauty” and the serpentine line is the “line of grace.” These two lines are the lines most varied in form and they contribute most to producing beauty’ (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753).


Arteries and veins. Boreal body. Ice as life.


Confluences and intersection. Icelines scored by a line of least resistance.

I’m grateful to my friend and colleague from the University of Wyoming, Teena Gabrielson, for her shared interest in these photographs from our perspectives of aesthetics, agency, and land ethics. See The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory, Edited by Teena Gabrielson, Cheryl Hall, John M. Meyer, and David Schlosberg. image

Ice and lives.
None of these photos shows people, but all concern lives and livelihoods. A must-see film is the documentary People of a Feather by Joel Heath and the people of Sanikiluaq. Billed as ‘a film about survival in a changing Canadian Arctic,’ People of a Feather explores changing ice conditions from the perspective of a community living on an island in Hudson’s Bay.

*These photos were taken from a commercial airliner. Carbon damage to the ice sheets is a factor in their existence. The plane would have flown anyway. I know that’s no excuse. The images seem too striking to remain hidden in a photo library.*

Posted in Arctic, Ecology, environmental aesthetics, Ice, land ethics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Wild flower meadow at Abbotsford. More soon. . .

Walking Sir Walter Scott’s Abbotsford estate this afternoon with ranger Philip Munro. Wild flowers and grasses in profusion. Blogpost to follow soon. . . 

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Wildflower thoughts . . .

Wildflower meadow and nature corridor, Wivenhoe Park, University of Essex

OED definitions:

    Wildflower. Not listed. A search returns “wildering” as the nearest approximation, meaning “Leading or driving one astray.”

    Wildlife: “The native fauna and flora of a particular region.”

    Wildlife Park: “n. a park in which wild animals [and plants?*] are kept and displayed to the public in conditions as close as possible to their natural ones.” *My insertion.

    Wildlifer: “n. a person interested in the study and conservation of wild plants and animals.”

My university recently seeded the wildflower meadow shown above, where there used to be a patch of worn grass. The diversity of plants, insects, animals and birds are such that this contribution to the campus’s wildlife corridors hums with life, putting me in mind of some of the literature that I read with students. This post looks at various extracts from works studied on my Literature and the Environmental Imagination MA module and my undergraduate seminar, Transatlantic Romanticisms. I couldn’t resist sharing them.

Margaret Fuller begins Summer on the Lakes in 1843 (1844) at Niagara Falls, defining the genre in which she writes through a metaphor of literary rambling: “such foot-notes as may be made on the pages of my life during this summer’s wanderings.” Those wanderings take her to Goat Island, on the U.S. side of the falls. . .

The beautiful wood on Goat Island is full of flowers; many of the fairest love to do homage here. The Wake Robin and May Apple are in bloom now; the former, white, pink, green, purple, copying the rainbow of the fall, and fit to make a garland for its presiding deity when he walks the land, for they are of imperial size, and shaped like stones for a diadem. Of the May Apple, I did not raise one green tent without finding a flower beneath.

Margaret Fuller, “Niagara, June 10, 1843”, Summer on the Lakes in 1843.

Fuller’s observation on two wildflower species disorientates lovers of spectacle, confounding more conventional expectations about the visual dominance of the Falls. The flowers are exquisite in their smallness, simplicity and profusion; the roar of the water is where the cascade’s real sublimity is found. Websites now encourage visitors to “get in touch with nature on Goat Island” and to “take a hike,” while the park seems to hybridise that most nineteenth-century of optical spectacles, the phantasmagoria, with something like Rem Koolhaas’s giddy account in Delirious New York of Coney Island as an “incubator” for the architectural mutation of Central Park: “just beyond its waterfall vistas, Niagara is filled with . . . fantastic attractions” (Niagara State Park homepage).

Eighteen years after Fuller published Summer on the Lakes, the wake robin (Trillium grandiflorum) to which she refers provided the title for fly-fishing naturalist John Burroughs‘ collection of essays Wake-Robin (1871). Burroughs’s book, like Fuller’s, is full of sound and an exquisite awareness of flower power – a lyrical biogeography of the Hudson River valley that records a year in upstate New-York through the birds and the bees, and the plants among which they live. He explains that he chose the title Wake-Robin because of the coincidence of the plant’s flowering and the springtime return of “all the birds” (meaning the migratory species, including American Robins):

The dandelion tells me when to look for the swallow, the dogtooth violet when to expect the wood-thrush, and when I have found the wake-robin in bloom I know the season is fairly inaugurated.

“The Return of the Birds,” John Burroughs, Wake-Robin (1871)

Burroughs’s use in Wake-Robin of the bio-almanac genre resonates down a further seven-and-a-half decades to another appropriation of that form, this time explicitly acknowledged by Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s posthumously published A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (1949) foregrounds the natural history of Wisconsin – specifically the Sauk (Sand) County area near Baraboo – as a case study in support of the need for an extension of our understanding of community and ethics to a land ethic. In his essay for July, under a subheading “Prairie Birthday,” a phenological study of a commonplace wildflower, the cutleaf Silphium (Silphium laciniatum), reinforces his point as effectively as the better-known passage documenting the fate of the last passenger pigeons, in the February conceit of a sawyer reading history through the rings of a tree cut for firewood. The Silphium is a plant that it would be too easy to miss:

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July. When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.
Aldo Leopold, “July,” A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949).

The cutleaf Silphium or turpentine plant isn’t an endangered species, but Leopold’s point is our neglect of the commonplace. The Silphium lives tenuously, in its corner of an unremarkable cemetery. Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay (which begins with a literary reference to Homer’s Odyssey) comes later in the book, extending what might be understood by “community” and communal responsibility to an entire ecology. It is inclusive and politically resonant: “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Another leap of imagination takes me to William Blake’s Book of Thel, where the heroine is introduced to the beauty of communal sympathy through conversations with a lily, a cloud, a worm, and a clod of clay.

But let’s return to Summer on the Lakes. Carl Linnaeus catalogued the May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) in his Species Plantarum (1753). I love the way that wildflowers tease our compulsion to classify, impelling us by association into allusive, comparative meanders – the May Apple, used in naturopathic medicine and made into delicious jelly, is also called Indian Apple, Hog’s Apple, Devil’s Apple, American Mandrake, Racoonberry, Ground Lemon and Umbrella Plant. It isn’t an apple, a lemon or a mandrake. The umbrellas are the leaves that shade each, single flower. (I’m reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” where a “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge” satirises the arbitrariness of systems of taxonomy and proposes alternative categories: “Beauty belongs to the sixteenth category; it is a living brood fish, an oblong one.”) Most of the May Apple plant is toxic, but then the relationship between beauty, death, and life sits precariously in this book by a woman who would herself die in a shipwreck just five years later, aged 40. Employing forensic botany to read the future narrative of manifest destiny, she wrote:

Everywhere the rattlesnake-weed grows in profusion. The antidote survives the bane. Soon the coarser plantain, the “white man’s footstep,” shall take its place.

We saw also the compass plant, and the western tea plant. Of some of the brightest flowers an Indian girl afterwards told me the medicinal virtues. I doubt not those students of the soil knew a use to every fair emblem, on which we could only look to admire its hues and shape.

After noon we were ferried by a girl, (unfortunately not of the most picturesque appearance) across the Kishwaukie, the most graceful stream, and on whose bosom rested many full-blown water-lilies, twice as large as any of ours. I was told that, en revanche, they were scentless, but I still regret that I could not get at one of them to try.

Rattlesnake-weed could refer to any of several plant species. I think Margaret Fuller was referring to Hieracium venosum, the rattlesnake hawkweed or veiny hawkweed, another small, unshowy plant which has yellow flowers above a delicate basal rosette of blood-red veined leaves. The coarser plantain (“coarser” functions like a pejorative Homeric epithet), or “white man’s footstep,” was brought into North America from Britain and Europe with seed corn. Another plant with naturopathic properties, it was classified by Linnaeus as Plantago media. The plantain is now included in wildflower seed mix. There are some growing in my University’s wildflower meadows and corridors. The compass plant or western tea plant, also mentioned in the above passage, might be a fitting plant with which to end this discussion of literary texts, because its Latin name is Silphium laciniatum and it is also known as the cutleaf Silphium. Fuller, it seems, looks ahead to Aldo Leopold and the case for a land ethic.

So, how might a university campus that was once a landscaped, nineteenth-century park be managed according to Leopoldian ethics? The wildflower meadow with which I began connects to a network of more established wildlife corridors that extend beyond the University’s boundaries, encouraging a spread of life forms and a wider ecological community. Small in scale, it is a change in land use for the better. A threadbare, old mown grass monoculture that wasn’t doing well was removed, the soil rotavated, and the mix of flowers and grasses sown. There’s a high level of control involved in that process. What would have grown if the soil had just been left to its own devices can only be a matter of informed speculation. Travels in the U.S. western states and in Australia remind me how quickly a fire-razed forest springs from bare earth into new life.

An interesting exercise would be a species count of the wildflower meadow now compared with another next year – I’m sure that someone is working on just such a data set. I’ll bet that plants will appear that weren’t part of the planting plan and didn’t come from the mix. The richness of the mix will increase. In an earlier post, City of Trees: Boise, Idaho and an Urban Natural Experience, I wrote about two cork oaks on campus that date back to the Napoleonic wars, biogeographically connecting Essex with Iberian Europe.

John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park (1816), painted a couple of years after the cork oaks were planted, draws attention to a history seen through trees as well as to a sociology of the landscaped great house and its grounds (see EH. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: a Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation and Essex Alumnus John Barrell’s The Dark Side of the Landscape). In the distance of the wildflower meadow photograph, over the brow of a hill that dips down to the centre of campus, you can make out a silver building. The Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall, named after one of our former Vice Chancellors, faces the lake and grounds shown in Constable’s painting, as if it looks out from the top right of the canvas.

Two hundred years ago, Percy Shelley compared the metaphysical qualities of poetry with the material substance of a flower, through a mix of metaphor and simile that demonstrates the complementarity and mutual interdependence of the humanities and sciences:

Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge. . . . It is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendor of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption.
(A Defence of Poetry)

What Shelley writes only works when science and art combine to make one another – along with critique – comprehensible.

Note: A Short Report for the RSPB, written by Rachel Bragg, Carly Wood, Jo Barton and Jules Pretty and published by the University of Essex’s School of Biological Sciences and Sustainability Institute, looks at the value to children of connectedness to nature and green exercise. The authors explain that the scientific Connection to Nature Scale, or CNS (devised by Mayer and Frantz) “is based on the principle of the ‘Land Ethic’ by Leopold, and defines connection to nature as ‘an individual’s affective, experiential connection to nature.’ ” Green Exercise is an area of specialist research at Essex. It’s nicely affective that the wildflower meadow in the photo is next to the University’s Trim Trail outdoor exercise loop.

Posted in East Anglia, Ecology, Environment and walking, Nature writing, Trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sculptured Coast

Stone and wooden sea defences at East Lane

Holding back the tide: stone and wooden sea defences at East Lane, Suffolk.

A friend visiting from California had been reading W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, so we went for a day visiting places on the Suffolk coast. The sculpted nature of that stony, windswept, eroded land margin has never seemed clearer. Washed by the North Sea, the shape of the land is constantly changing. I’d visited Orfordness with some students last October to find that twelve feet of the shingle spit on which I was standing had been lost to the sea since I’d stood in not-quite-the-same-place a year before. A few miles to the north at Aldeburgh, sixteen streets have been lost to the sea since in 1805 George Crabbe published The Borough. Verse sociology of a fishing town, that long epistolary poem inspired Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. Crabbe Street today stands hard against the stony beach where Grimes’s fate is played out. Slaughden Quay, home to the poor of The Borough, is empty except for the shingle, a yacht club, and a Martello Tower – about which I’ll say more in due course.

We began our day at Bawdsey, a curious place where radar was developed on the local Manor Estate and where families take children for bucket-and-spade days out on one of the few sandy beaches in the area.


You can’t just wander here where your mood takes you. A small boy asks his parents whether the jetty is protected by barbed wire. It isn’t, but the question is telling. Outward bound shades into out of bounds, in the least disturbing of a series of signs that we’d see.


My colleague wonders if I know the origins in the U.S. of barbed wire as a means of keeping people as well as animals out of – or inside – designated areas: patented in Ohio in 1867, it was designed for livestock farmers. We thought of Sebald’s meditation on the Holocaust, with people corralled like cattle and bodies piled like hauls of fish. Beyond the imagery of wire, his digression in The Rings of Saturn on long-lost herring markets makes a once-familiar east coast sight strange in disturbing ways. I remember the fish market from my own childhood.

The next signs on the radar – quite literally – elide invitation and prohibition. Did the AA exercise irony when hanging their notice, or does the satire arise out of accidental circumstances?


Green lanes lead past buildings that officially grant time travel permits to a World War II England on the edge of many things. I took my son to one such open day when he was a child, along with my parents who were East Anglian war children. Nostalgia for food rationing and for counting bombers returning home across the North Sea casts a shadow on ideas about happiness in the age we’re now living. In Britten’s Peter Grimes, sometimes staged using a Second World War setting, the fisherman-protagonist sings in his precariously out-of-line voice, “Look, the whole sea’s boiling.” My parents have often recalled what has become a local commonplace – talk of an anti-invasion weapon developed along the coast from here, named “Sea-on-Fire,” and imagined as the hybrid of an oil spillage and a large-scale maritime flame-thrower. Sea-on-Fire brings together a deliberately-caused environmental disaster and flame to produce a nasty weapon. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn takes that rumor into printed, literary gothic, using documentation and echoing the hearsay: locals swear that charred bodies were washed ashore. East Anglia hosts thousands of World War II and Cold War tourists every year.

Is this landscape best understood through psychogeography, pastoral, gothic, sci-fi, or the photographic essay? Simply having to ask that question on such a journey points to the inherent slipperiness of genre. I stand where looking over one shoulder presents a view of a farm, fields, and hedgerows full of spring promise.

Suffolk Pastoral

Turning, it’s possible that I already stand too close to something else. A sign on a derelict building warns of microwave radiation above the level of three metres. Barbed wire, rusty and broken, establishes a running conceit that compounds the atmosphere of desolation.

Suffolk Gothic meets B-movie Sci-fi? “Naturally this gave rise to all manner of speculation about an invisible web of death rays.” (W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, Transl. Michael Hulse).


We journeyed on to East Lane, where sea defences and a shingle beach separate an almost impossibly green, late-May farmland from the North Sea. A few fishermen and women brave the wind. As a teenager I spent nights fishing here with my father, brother, hurricane lamps and flasks of soup. Today, a couple of hundred yards from a ruined WW II building graffitoed “Adios, Radios,” a pair of swans nest, their footprints impressed in mud alongside those of coots. My companion and I talk about the wonder of 850,000- to 950,000-year-old human footprints found in mud last year northward along the coast at Happisburgh. Those imprints of people passing were quickly erased by the sea that briefly made them visible. Happisburgh, like the rest of the East Anglian coastal margins, faces rapid erosion.



Orfordness has received so much attention that I’m not going to say much about it here. (I’ve written elsewhere about the Ozymandian hubris attaching to our inscription of military might on that shingle spit alongside a more organically accreting natural history.) But my friend is keen to see the buildings that Sebald likened to pagodas, where the triggers and mechanisms of atomic bombs were tested. I point out a building where a further kind of surveillance, under the horizon radar, was developed. We don’t visit the site because birds are nesting in the fragile environment, and we’re glad that the National Trust wardens and staff are caring for plant and animal life. From the other end of the ness (not a true spit, because of the shingle causeway) the exclusion notice seems more benign and welcome. But the Cobra Mist building, radar masts and pagodas are just about visible in the distance.


I’m hoping by now that the the title of this post doesn’t need explanation. However, more conventional forms of sculpture at Snape and Aldeburgh can’t pass without comment. Large-scale installations by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Maggi Hambling and Anthony Gormley all draw attention to the synchronic relationship of human and non-human sculpting. Music and soundscapes add to the textures of our involvement with this enigmatic, waterland environment. Since 1976, the components “Ancestor 1,’ “Ancestor II,” and “Parent I” of Barbara Hepworth’s The Family of Man have stood adjacent to the reedbeds behind Snape Maltings concert hall, where the Aldeburgh Music Festival founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears takes place each June. Other pieces from The Family of Man series are installed at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the U.K.’s nearest approximation to Storm King, the latter close to the Hudson River and not far from West Point Military Academy in upstate New York.


Barbara Hepworth’s The Family of Man: “Ancestors I” and “II,” and “Parent I” are more lastingly visible footprints in the East Anglian landscape than those of Happisburgh Man. How do we measure time against the unseen?

The strange proximities of military and artistic installations around Aldeburgh, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Storm King ask for thought. I remember, from decades ago, the strangely beautiful ariel balletics of a decomissioned Avro Vulcan bomber practicing for airshows and think of Henry David Thoreau’s description of a Merlin in Walden:

It sported with proud reliance in the fields of air; mounting again and again with its strange chuckle, it repeated its free and beautiful fall, turning over and over like a kite, and then recovering from its lofty tumbling, as if it had never set its foot on terra firma. It appeared to have no companion in the universe, — sporting there alone, — and to need none but the morning and the ether with which it played. It was not lonely, but made all the earth lonely beneath it.

I’m writing this blogpost two days after the RAF announced that the last Vulcan, a quick-response, long-range, nuclear-capable bomber not deployed until the 1982 Falklands War, will no longer fly after 2015. The museum at Orfordness has a bomb that was once loaded onto such a plane. I’m told that Vulcans could be airborne with just two minutes notice, well within the four-minute warning that we used to be told would advise us of a nuclear attack from the USSR.

The Hepworth bronze modernist sculptures at Snape are invitingly tactile, as is Suffolk-born sculptor Maggi Hambling‘s steel Scallop on Aldeburgh beach, just north of the town. Dedicated to Benjamin Britten, Scallop has cut through its steel an inscription from Peter Grimes: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”


The context of those words bears reflecting upon, coming at point in the opera where the marginalised fisherman realises that his dreams of a normal family life will never be realised:

I’ve seen in stars the life that we might share:
Fruit in the garden, children by the shore,
A fair white doorstep, and a woman’s care.
But dreaming builds what dreaming can disown.
Dead fingers stretch themselves to tear it down.
I hear those voices that will not be drowned.

To the south of Aldeburgh, on top of a Martello Tower built between 1802 and 1812 to repel invasion from Napoleonic forces, stands an Iron Man. Windswept and defiant above the beach, looking northward toward Hambling’s Scallop, his expression changes according to the play over his features of light and shadow from Suffolk’s coastal skies. This could be the Angel of the East, not just echoing its creator Anthony Gormley’s better-known Angel of the North, but responding to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, in which “Jeder Engel ist schrecklich,” – “Every angel is terrible” (see original German and an English Translation by A. S. Kline, with photographs).



Aldeburgh’s 2015 Anthony Gormley sculpture is one of five figures that comprise the installation Land. The other four figures are in Argyll and Bute, Devon, Warwickshire and Dorset. Each was commissioned to be a response to the landscape in which it is located. In his essay for the Landmark Trust, Gormley explains that he was motivated by places like this, “where the vertical nature of the sculpture can act against the relatively constant horizon of the sea.” My colleague and I decide that the sculpture’s rusted iron body establishes a nice visual rhyme with the barbed wire we saw earlier on our journey. Likewise, a look back at upturned fishing boats on Bawdsey beach adds a visual gloss to Maggi Hambling’s iron shell, in which one of the three parts resembles an overturned boat almost as much as it does a scallop. Peter Grimes lives in an upside-down fishing boat, on the edge of a crumbling cliff.


Boats on Bawdsey beach.


Scallop, seen from a different angle.

The last location on our day journey was Dunwich Heath, where erosion of the cliffs by wind and sea can be seen taking place around you and to the north, while the reactors of Sizewell Nuclear Power Station stand on the near horizon beyond the RSPB’s Minsmere Bird Reserve to the south. By this point clouds had filled the sky, casting a gloomy semi-mist on the beach as we looked into the distance. We thought about the fog that rolls in along this coast and that features in Peter Grimes. As with Orfordness, since Sebald gave his account a lot has been written about the medieval city-port of Dunwich that was lost to the waves. Local rumour has it that in stormy weather it’s still possible to hear the bells of churches ringing in their submerged steeples. Preceding Sebald, H. P. Lovecraft translated the place and its mood to Massachusetts in his 1929 short story The Dunwich Horror. Another genre is added to my earlier list. The semi-mist starts to thicken and it feels almost as if we’re standing in the landscape of a solar eclipse. Eclipses were once thought to be harbingers of apocalypse, and here we were on the beach of a coast where nature almost met armageddon.


I’d like to have continued to Covehithe, where the land has been abandoned to reclamation by the sea in the interest of protecting places with denser human populations or with power plants.


Minsmere from Dunwich, with gorse in flower and Sizewell in the distance.


Minsmere Reserve “scrape.”

This post might have been titled “Signs of the Times” or “Suffolk Pastoral,” each of which would have provided intertextual references to well-known literature (Thomas Carlyle’s essay and Philip Roth’s novel). I chose “Sculptured Coast” because of the synchronic relationship between the changes brought about by humans and by nature, linked together and made more accessible to thought through works of art. What does that tell us about the need for science and the humanities to move forward together? Returning home, the conversation turned from East Anglia to the American West and the kind of animal encounters while out walking that you’ll not experience in Suffolk. Should you follow instructions and face up to a seven-foot-long cougar by making yourself look large? My colleague recalled a friend who simply ran. Does bear spray work? Aren’t disaffected people more dangerous than either mountain lions or bears? We typically think of danger in terms of the non-human or the dehumanised. That is not to say that animate dangers don’t exist. But as a last thought in this piece, I’ll stay with the threat and allure of the sea. The 1953 East Anglian floods took lives and devastated farmland. The experiments at Orfordness could have destroyed the world as we know it. We were uneasy about the microwave radiation referred to on the dilapidated sign next to much more recent “Warning,” “Dangerous Site,” and “Keep Out” notices. All of the time, the sea was pounding piled rocks, washing against the wooden groynes, grinding the shingle. The beach fishers at East Lane sat on the stones, their synthetic lines connecting them to an element that predates and is likely long to survive us.


Posted in Art, East Anglia, Ecology, Environment and walking, Nature writing, Ruins, Suffolk | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments