vrijdag 6 december 2013

Cryptoforestry: Psychogeography in the Anthropocene

“It has been suggested that nature is hostile, violent and unpredictable, and that the Indians try to bring order into this confusion by categorising it. This may be so in some cases and some societies, but from what we have learned from the Indians, it is man and his basic impulses: food, sex, power, security, which are chaotic and must be controlled, while nature, far from being disordered offers many practical models for human behaviour and adaptation.” - Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff[1]

Setting the Stage: A Walk

“Ladies and Gentleman, I welcome you all to today’s cryptoforestry walk. We have assembled here at a place on the edge of the city of Amsterdam. In the vicinity are three large tower blocks, all offices, a hotel, there are mass-parking facilities, tram and metro stations. There are also plenty of motorway junctions. A place like this is the utility area of a city, it provides the infrastructure that transport oxygen to the heart, i.e. the centre, of the city. It is an the uncelebrated landscape but for cryptoforestry this place is not just the essence of the city, its true grit, its face behind the mask, but it is also the place where the dirt is swept under the magic carpet.

‘Crypto’ from Greek meaning hidden or secret, related to ‘cryptic’, of unsure or obscure meaning. A cryptoforest incorporates both: they may be forests that are hidden or it may refer to forests of unsure pedigree, because no other words suffices. Cryptoforests are a feeble category within the psychogeographic classification of landscapes. You do find cryptoforests in the centre but the chance of finding one increases as you move outward and cracks will appear in the urban armour as you move further and further in the perimeter. I invite you to think of the cryptoforest not as a disturbance of urban hegemony, but as the place where the division between city and nature becomes meaningless.

After a detour along the parapets of the motorway we will appear in front of fence. We climb this and enter a terrain that formerly belonged to a petrol distribution point but which has now been reclaimed by the spontaneous vegetation of opportunistic weeds. Perhaps you are familiar with Richard Jefferies late-romantic novel ‘After London, or Wild England’ first published in 1885. In the opening chapters Jefferies paints a picture of the great metropolis conquered by wild plants after a sudden and unexplained removal of man[2]. But the catastrophe imaged by Jefferies only writes in Bold and Italics what is happening all the time. Once the weeding stops the pavement will soon wobble. Plants from all over the world have found a place in our city, what they share is hardiness and a gung-ho ability to make-do. The city is vulnerable to this constant floral attack. What killed the Martians in HG Wells’ War of the World? The Bacteria. What is forever eating the city? Its phythosphere. The cryptoforest is the forest-outsider from where floral takeover is commencing. Now let’s walk and I will explain more as we continue.”[3]   

The Vinland Sagas

The anthropocene is the proposed name for the geological age that began, according to provisional consensus, in 1776 when James Watt’s first steam engine went into production. It is not at present a scientifically recognized name but it is under consideration by the body that governs the naming table of geological history, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London. That the anthropocene has been taken in consideration at all indicates that many serious people find merit in the idea as the SCGSL is by necessity a conservative organization whose line of work does not demand speedy decisions. The history of the dinosaur, the history of the donkey, the history of the mosquito, no matter how fascinating by themselves, never entered the story of geology. But man has become a geologic force: by levelling mountains, digging holes, sucking stuff from the ground and putting stuff in the air and the sheer number of us has intertwined human history with the history of the earth. That much seems self-evident but to make it scientific it needs to be shown that also uninhabited places like the Sahara are amassing enough anthropogenic change that it will show up in sediment a million years from now.

The Vinland Sagas tell the tale of the Norse discovery of Greenland, Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador) and Vinland (Gulf of St. Lawrence/New Foundland) around 1000AD. They are a record of a people at drift trying to make a living in distant and isolated lands[4]. Limited population and absence of reliable communication with the motherland allowed for seasonal presence in the Americas but not expansion. The Greenland colony petered out after approximately 450 years. Many reasons are given for the unsustainability of the Norse presence in Greenland, from demographic factors to soil degradation, but with the benefit of hindsight we can see that Norse presence could only ever sustain itself within the conditions of the Medieval Warm Period. The end of which brought a colder climate and closed the window of opportunity for Norse patterns of subsistence. The Norse presence left little physical impact. It took a long time before actual archaeological evidence confirmed the reliability of the Vinland sagas as a historic account. The first hard archaeological evidence was the remains of a Norse long house discovered in New Foundland (L'Anse aux Meadows, 1960). The migration of the Inuit across the breath of the American-Arctic, from the Being Strait to Eastern Canada, is attributed to the pull of goods taken to the continent by the Norse. In their expansion East they invaded the lands of their erstwhile trading partners, the Tuniit. These are a still largely obscure people who also kept longstanding trade relations with the Norse. The Tuniit (also knows as the Dorset Culture) couldn’t withstand the pressure of the more aggressive newcomers and were either assimilated or eradicated[5].

Eirik the Red was driven onto the sea by events: ‘some killings’. We too are driven into a new age: by extinctions at rates exceeding background rates by 100 to 1000 times. For Eirik the Red the overbearing sentiment that brought him to Vinland was one of loss. This is no different for our journey into the anthropocene. Landscapes are forever altered, plant and animal species are at drift causing problems at unforeseen places (Nile perch in lake Victoria, Cane toads in Australia, pythons in the Everglades, etc), new diseases create global havoc when airborne. Forests are cleared, seas are acidified, soils salinized, drink water reserves are shrinking and average temperatures are up. A jeremiad of change that influences agricultural cycles and creates freak weather patterns. It is a world at drift. But it is also a NEW world. The chance to bear witness to a new geological age is extremely rare, they usually last a while, but we are in that unique position. The anthropocene is our Vinland. And yes: the melting of the polar ice again makes the Inuit the ghosts at the background of the story too.
The Vinland Sagas offer parallels to our own condition. There are differences too. Eirik the Red travelled with a small group of family and clan from Norway to Iceland and reached new shore in Greenland. We are not travelling in isolation, we are legion. We have no solitude but crowds. The anthropocene has no places of departure or arrival, it does not travel from A to B, it’s global, it’s illogical, messy and is coming at us from all directions. In that it is entirely suitable for an age that takes not the clock or the grid but the network as its dominant model.

The Vinland Saga is a tale. The Anthropocene is a grand narrative.

The City in the Anthropocene

One of four authors of ‘The New World of the Anthropocene’ (2010) is Paul Crutzen, the Nobel awarded atmospheric chemist who first suggested the term. In this paper the authors reveal themselves as intuitive followers of Richard Jefferies’ vision of the future. After noticing that the world’s great cities are indeed capable of magnitudal increases in erosion and sedimentation they notice that:

 “If construction stops or slows, for whatever reason, then natural geomorphologic processes will rapidly re-establish themselves, as shown by the fate of ‘lost’ cities such as Angkor in Cambodia.”

The passage is illustrated by a photographic image of a gigantic Kapok tree growing straight through the Kmer temple of Ta Prohm. Published alongside it is a picture of Shanghai skyscrapers: it is a coolly made observation that the inevitable cryptoforest lurks behind the facades of empire like match-fixing in football.

The forest, not the metropolis, is the climax state. Nothing shows this better than the excavated garden cities of the Xingu in central Amazon and the many geoglyphs found across southwest Amazon. All reveal the former presence of large scale urban populations organized in complex societies. Even while evidence for the lost cities of the Amazon was available, the overall picture was fragmented at best and deemed unreliable by most. Gaspar de Carvahal’s account of Fransciso de Orellena’s Amazonian journey from the Andes to the Atlantic in 1542 mentions encounters with several busy, conflicting urban polities. Local myths like the Kuikuru story of Viti-Viti as collected by the Boaz Brothers in the Xingu explain the origin of large scale earthworks of unknown pedigree[6]. Colonel Fawcett’s search for the City of Z was informed by evidence gathered during many years of dealing with local inhabitants[7]. Fawcett already gauged what Levi-Strauss and Clastres would later deduce from fieldwork: the small, ‘primitive’ semi-sedentary structures we associate with human presence in the Amazon today are the methods developed after the crash by traumatized survivors. So successful was the forest’s reclamation that numerous ditches and fences were kept hidden underneath the canopy until deforestation and aerial reconnaissance made them impossible to deny. Academic persistence that environmental conditions made swidden agriculture the only viable practise within the constraints of tropical environmental conditions, the counterfeit paradise as Betty Meggers had it, did not help either[8]. But you should not second-guess the natives. The discovery of the extant of Terra Preta (dark earth), anthropogenic soils enriched with charcoal, bone and manure added was the first hard evidence that the forest had once been busier and much more humanized. Estimates vary but it is reckoned that 10% of soil in the Amazon is anthropogenic, an area the size of France[9]. Ample evidence that the city is transient but that the ground retains the memory, exactly as the paper of Crutzen et al suggests.

Globalization creates Forest

Pioneer vegetation, secondary forest, climax-adverting processes. Feral vegetations find a place where the urban centres unravels and the centrifugal powers fail to put asphalt. This is as true locally and it is true globally. With young people leaving their native villages for the city and with agro-industry and supermarket standards undercutting prices and desirability of vernacular, small farm produce, the forest is allowed to overrun uneconomic agricultural lands. Political ecologist Susanna Hecht writes about El Salvadorian farmers receiving enough money from siblings working in the US to minimize their farming. Land with at least 30% forest coverage went up with 22% between 1990-2000.[10] Afforestation is also happening in East and Central Europe with remarkable consequences. The returning forest has allowed the wolf population to boom. In Germany the wolf re-established itself in 2000 after an absence of a century. The forest is returning, even in some of world’s most populous areas but it is not ‘native’, it will never become ‘pristine’ and it certainly isn’t a ‘wilderness’ in any meaningful sense of that often too loosely applied word. They are gardens left to themselves.

The potentially available species that may take root on fallowed lands are coming from across the world. Disturbance of soil often suits migrant plants and there is a pleasant irony to it. In answering the question why the Europeans settled in America, Australia, New Zealand and not in the Amazon and Tropical Africa, Alfred W. Crosby pointed to climatic and biotic similarities. Disturbances to the land created the opportunities for European fodder plants (grasses and plants like dandelion, sorrel and plantain) to prosper in unfamiliar lands[11]. Their presence in turn created grazing fields with exactly the plants European animals like pigs, sheep and horses needed for food. This spread was possible also because North-America offers roughly the same environmental conditions as found in Atlantic Europe, and the list of plants partaking in a reverse colonization is impressive. For instance plants like Yellow Primrose, Canadian horseweed and Virginia pepperweed have become stable presences across the old world.

The Norse presence in America and Greenland shows the same pattern. Field weeds like sorrel, plantains and flax were introduced. As Stephen J. Pyne writes: “Half of the beetles on Iceland and Greenland are introduced species, probably from early Norse times”.[12]     

Ecological orthodoxy usually has little patience for what Crosby called ‘port-manteau biotas’. Also in this respect the cryptoforest hides its beauty behind a poker-face. But a coalition of ecologists, biologists and geographers are working to reassess the “trash-ecosystems” orthodoxy associated with the anthropogenic landscapes. They instead point to the viability, species richness, ecosystems services and sheer resilience of these ‘novel ecosystems’. There are precedents but the publication ‘Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order’ (2006) is the closest thing available to a manifesto creating a starting point for a concentrated effort to rewrite ecological understanding[13]. It cites human impact on biogeographical distribution, abiotic environments, decrease of species pools and the existence of predominantly urban, cultivated or degraded landscapes creating dispersal barriers for many species as the prominent reasons for the existence of novel or emergent ecosystems. It states that:

“These types of ecosystem can be thought of as occupying a zone somewhere in the middle of the gradient between ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ ecosystems, on one hand, and intensively managed systems on the other hand”.

The paper gained much credence by in-depth coverage in Nature[14]. Emma Harris, writer for Nature and author of the first book on the novel ecosystem debate for a general audience calls the world of the anthropocene a ‘rambunctious garden’[15]. To make explicit what was implicit: nature is no longer the nature we knew. All nature is now directly (logged rainforests) or indirectly (shrinking icecaps) manmade. It is still natural, we are part of nature too after all, it can still be wild but it will never again be wilderness. If the new world of the Anthropocene is a good or bad thing overall is, under debate, to put it mildly. However nobody can really argue with the statement geographer Erle Ellis made in his New York Timed Op-Ed (2013):

“The planet will never be the same. It is time for all of us to wake up to the limits we really face: the social and technological systems that sustain us need improvement”.[16]

Researchers arguing for fair, fact-base appraisal of novel ecosystems instead of outright condemnation are opening themselves to the risk of being accidentally or intentionally misunderstood. It’s a position that can easily be read as fatalist: ‘science says that nothing can be done against loss of biodiversity, so why bother?’. It is also a position easily misused: ‘if biodiversity of a second growth forest is not quantitatively different from an old growth forest it is no problem to log the last remaining forests of Indonesia for the paper industry’. This is not what the novel ecosystems says. It does call for the need to take care of intact ecosystems with the meticulousness that is also used to conserve art and irreplaceable artefacts. In those places that are changed, globalized, invaded, anthropogenic and near impossible to restore to original conditions it wants to look at it as a new permanent reality.
The Cryptoforest is the City

Nature conservation reflects the civilization doing the conserving. The stand-of between city and forest, the balance between urbanization and forestry is a judo-match where strength, strategy and patience are all equally important while the referee (agriculture) is biased but even in that untrustworthy. The city may think that it can control the forest, that its management is fully explicit in codes and rules. But the forest is laying low, it knows that in the long haul of attrition the city can’t win. The forest is the fate of all cities. The distinction everybody (one shouldn’t generalize, but here it is warranted) instinctively makes between nature and city is based on false, outdated categorising. All forests are now part of the city, it is from the city that orders for its management are coming. Even when it orders say to leave it alone or when no orders are coming at all. But the other side of the continuum is equally valid but in a separate timeframe: all cities are temporary covers for a forest in disguise. The cryptoforest, the contemporary half-baked self-willed forest of the city is what reveals it.

[1] Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. The forest within: The world-view of the tukano amazonian indians. Council Oaks Distribution, 1996.
[2] Online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/13944
[3] Transcript from the introduction to a walk given by the author in October 2013.
[4] M. Magnusson, H Palsson, The Vinland Sagas, The Norse Discovery of America, 1971, Penguin Books, London.
[5] R. McGhee, The Last Imaginary Place, A Human History of the Arctic World, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
[6] Bôas, Orlando Villas, and Claudio Villas Boas. Xingu: the Indians, their myths. Souvenir Press, 1974.
[7] Fawcett, Percy. Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z. Penguin. com, 2010.
[8] Meggers, Betty Jane. Amazonia: man and culture in a counterfeit paradise. Aldine, Atherton, 1971.
[9] Mann, Charles C. 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Random House Digital, Inc., 2005.
[10] http://e360.yale.edu/feature/a_scientist_extols_the_value_of_forests_shaped_by_humans/2379/
[11] A.W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge University Press, 1986
[12] Pyne, Stephen J. Vestal fire: an environmental history, told through fire, of Europe and Europe's encounter with the world. University of Washington Press, 2012.
[13] Hobbs, Richard J., et al. "Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order." Global ecology and biogeography 15.1 (2006): 1-7.
[14] http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090722/full/460450a.html
[15] Marris, Emma. Rambunctious garden: saving nature in a post-wild world. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2011.
[16] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/overpopulation-is-not-the-problem.html?_r=0

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