The Falconer Cannot Hear the Falcon: Unseeing Nature in the Anthropocene
Perhaps one of the most bewitching subplots in Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is when Ged goes off to winter in the Isolate Tower and study with the Master Namer, Kurremkarmerruk. Ged (the wizard who was ‘the wizard’ before Harry Potter) spends his days in the desolate tower writing out the original names of every place, every animal, every thing on Earth, transcribing a magical vocabulary that disappears at the stroke of midnight. “He who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea,” Kurremkarmerruk tells Ged. (We’ll just call Kurremkarmerruk the ‘Master Namer’ from now on.) The life that lies ahead for Ged begins to dawn on him, "For magic consists in this, the true naming of things." Thus, we learn of the Old or True Speech. The Master Namer tells us,
In the world under the sun, and in the other world that has no sun, there is much that has nothing to do with men and men’s speech, and there are powers beyond our power. But magic, true magic is worked only by those who speak the Hardic tongue of Earthsea, or the Old Speech from which it grew.
The Old Speech, or true naming of things, is the ultimate power in Earthsea. If ultimate evil in Harry Potter is a kind of self-compartmentalization—Tom Riddle splitting himself up into pieces—then instead of finding all the pieces as Harry must do, Earthsea wizards simply name what is going on. This seemingly progressive approach to evil did not extend to all things. Ursula LeGuin went to great lengths to describe females as wholly inadequate to the task of wizardry, a sexist subtext that diminishes the entire Earthsea trilogy.
As someone who teaches natural sciences, I think a good deal on the Old Speech these days, many of which I spend coaxing students to learn words. Words are power, I tell them—“In science words means something.” Stomata, blueschist, eukaryote. You can always say what is and isn’t an aquifer. There’s an autonomy that words have in science, I insist, envisioning their next class period, in which a professor strides in and emphatically scratches out a word like "JUSTICE" on the chalk board. There it stands for the entire class, dissected, debated, disemboweled.
I tell stories when I can. Italian gives us the word ‘breccia’ (broken stone) because there are many volcanoes in Italy that rain down these broken stones. A French scientist chose the Greek words ‘breast-tooth’ to name the mastodon. Mastodon teeth look like boobs. While I could never be a Mage in Earthsea, I am Woman here on Earth and can make such remarks. There’s a good one: Earth. Like ‘tierra,’ it more or less means soil, because people in the old days couldn’t really see the whole thing. They just knew the ground on which they stood. Science, I tell my young scholars, is the naming of things.
Do you remember that REM song, “It’s The End of the World as We Know It,” or its conceptual predecessor, Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”? There was even a country music take by Hank Snow (eventually covered by Johnny Cash), “I’ve Been Everywhere,” which seems to name every place in North America from Winnemucca to Dodge City. The titles of these songs speak of longing for Earth while their lyrics rattle off a kind of commodification of the experience. The march of progress is now a metal tempered roar bellowing from a custom muffler to the beat of a Jake brake.
As with many things, the welter of words has a history. Songs of speeding up were preceded by the poetry and painting of overwhelm. Dylan’s friend, Alan Ginsburg admired America’s original Namer, Walt Whitman, even searching him out in verse (“dreaming of your enumerations!”) by visiting his local cornucopia in the poem, “A Supermarket in California.” In Orlando, Virginia Woolf made long lists that attempted to clock the 19th and 20th centuries. The Orlando of 1840 first notes a vast and chilling proliferation in London. Something (we know not what exactly) like a giant pyramid of junk appears: a “garish erection” associated with a statue of a departed monarch (Queen Victoria, not the butterfly). Enumerating objects in the pile, Orlando realizes that times have changed, that the only thing she can hold onto is her singular poem, “The Oak Tree.” Having transitioned into her final motorcycle riding female form, the 1928 Orlando closes out the book by visiting a department store and riding in an elevator.
The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the 18th century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying—but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.
Georgia O’Keeffe had a different notion in 1924 when she beheld Henri Fantin-Lotours’ still-lifes of flowers. A word that comes to mind with ‘Georgia O’Keeffe’ and ‘flowers’ is, of course, ‘vagina’. It was Alfred Steiglitz who originally cast this spell (one he got from his Freud books), turning the flowers to vaginas in the eyes of many who beheld them. O’Keeffe eschewed this interpretation and even as recently as 2016, a Tate Modern exhibit of her work tried to debunk it. What really happened in 1924 was that O’Keeffe was suffering the relativistic vertigo of modernity. She saw skyscrapers thrust up overnight juxtaposed with the tiny ancient beauty of the angiosperms. Here’s what she says about the flowers:
That was in the 20’s, and everything was going so fast. Nobody had time to reflect.... Well the flower was perfectly beautiful. It was exquisite, but it was so small, you really could not appreciate it for itself…. If I could paint that flower in a huge scale, then you could not ignore its beauty.
The paintings asked the world to see something that was becoming invisible. If the Old Speech of Nature was amplified, then you could not ignore it. But this little spell was no match for Freud, or modernity, and the flowers were promptly reframed as a high brow form of penis envy. For what case can a petunia have in the marketplace of ideas that includes giant clitorides? White Trumpet, Jack in the Pulpit, Bleeding Heart.
In the 1950s and 60s, Rachel Carson gave the Old Speech a go. Most students who read Rachel Carson today do so to pass their AP Environmental Science exam. The inclusion of Carson’s Silent Spring as part of the AP curriculum has created a bustling online industry in Silent Spring essays, practice questions, and Cliff’s notes. It may be that once teenagers have crammed on Carson, they have no more appetite for the writing that made people read Silent Spring in the first place, namely Carson’s earlier work, The Sea Around Us.
Elizabeth Kolbert (who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on things disappearing, The Sixth Extinction) once wrote that Rachel Carson “changed the world by describing it.” Part science, part poetry, Carson’s writing itself is hard to describe. Characters are sometimes human, sometimes not. The wind, the eel, and the meteorologist all play their parts in a surreal narrative that is actually a description of how Nature works. Carson was influenced by earlier writers, like Henry Williamson, who authored Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon, and Richard Jefferies. Williamson’s books unflinchingly narrate the lives of animals in a rich naturalist language that describes their pursuit and eventual elimination by humans.
Taking a cue from Nature herself, Carson mimicked both Jefferies’ and Williamson’s style in her initial works, Under the Sea Wind and The Sea Around Us. The mimicry worked. Thanks to The Sea Around Us, the ocean became a Thing (to use the parlance of our time). The book introduced millions of Americans to the coastal environment and brought into consciousness the mystery and vitality of the ocean depths. Having banished the shadow that had enshrouded the ocean, Carson earned the Master Namer reputation that would draw readers to her final work, Silent Spring.
Carson’s writing process was one of fits and starts. Letters to her lover Dorothy Freeman describe procrastination, missed deadlines, and all-nighters. Choosing a title for Silent Spring proceeded accordingly, as she and her editor agonized for years over what exactly to call this book, so unlike any other that had ever been written. Carson proposed “Man Against Earth” while her publisher suggested “The Control of Nature.” Carson’s literary agent convinced everyone that a chapter title which referenced a John Keats poem about a silent marsh where “no birds sing” was the way to go, marshes usually hosting throngs of birds and resounding with their cacophony. They chose wisely, as Silent Spring helped conjure into existence an entire body of environmental law, ushered through congress by a Republican president. Both the EPA and NOAA were formed at least indirectly as a result of Carson’s naming of things.
Since its founding, the NOAA has launched over 50 satellites and countless other airborne and nautical missions to observe the Earth. The NOAA and other agencies like it gather images of the air, water, and biological world that capture its variation in space and time at scales both greater and lesser than unaided human senses could ever perceive. These new vistas are showing us things never before seen on Earth. Unseen not just because we did not have the tools with which to see them, but also because things are happening on Earth that have never happened before, in all of Earth’s history.
Changes are occurring far outside the cloud of observations that we call natural variability. Increasingly, observations are surpassing even unusual natural perturbations that the Earth system has previously withstood. Rigorously vetted evidence of global changes in the Earth system caused by human activity had emerged by 1988, but there was no consensus on what to call this phenomenon.
The term ‘Anthropocene’ was born as an interruption, and was then quickly adopted as a very good word for it. In a scientific meeting, during a back and forth about the current epoch in which we live, the Holocene, an atmospheric chemist named John Crutzen asserted, “We are no longer living in the Holocene; we are in the Anthropocene.” Jan Zalasiewicz, one of the scientists responsible for naming geologic epochs, describes Crutzen as having “launched a small hand grenade into the world of geological time.”
Zalasiewicz and Crutzen are now part of the body that recently voted to officially inaugurate the ‘Anthropocene’ as an official scientific name and epoch. The Anthropocene Working Group had to choose one of two candidate dates from the previous millennium that best represented the inception of the Age of Man. Most things are named before, during, or just after they are born. Historical labels, on the other hand, are mostly retroactive. Accordingly, the Anthropocene was to have begun either in 1610 or 1964 AD.
The year 1610 was the last time on Earth when atmospheric CO2 concentrations showed detectable signs of decrease. Interestingly, the peer-reviewed interpretation for the decrease is that Age of Discovery rampages by Europeans had killed off and enslaved so many indigenous people by 1610 that forests grew up and took over large swaths of the Earth previously farmed by native civilizations. The trees breathed in carbon, in other words, as the atmosphere and ice cores took note of the expiration of over 50 million Africans and Native Americans.
Earth materials also remark a subsequent phase of global destruction in the irradiated air and particles created by the nuclear age. The year 1964 bookends two decades of nuclear explosions. The year thus appears as a geochemically distinct signature in sediment, air, tree rings, corals, and even human bone. Both candidate horizons refer to Man’s ability to make things disappear. In August, the Anthropocene Working Group voted to adopt the Anthropocene with the latter date as its inception. They may have to revisit the adoption. With the U.S.’s election of Donald Trump in 2016, we can no longer be certain that the 1960’s nuclear spike will be a unique historical marker.
The proposal under consideration by the Anthropocene Working Group also sought to formalize the term ‘technosphere,’ naming that part of the Earth system that drives alteration in the Anthropocene. Science requires mechanisms, and the technosphere neatly circumscribes all those mechanisms by which humans change the Earth: dams, feed lots, rice paddies, cities, and so on. But where is the technosphere? Where is it not?
California’s Central Valley is one of the most transformed landscapes in the world. In satellite imagery, the Valley appears as a broad swath of green outlined by dun colored foothills that grade into the Sierras and Coast Ranges. As pointed out in Mark Reisner’s Cadillac Dessert, the Valley is drier than the planes of North Africa but yet produces 25% of the nation’s food, thanks to the world’s largest irrigation system. The complexity, history, and cost of this system are almost impossible to describe, but like the freeway system, the more it was built out, the more demands were placed upon it. Gov. Jerry Brown is currently trying to implement an $18 billion upgrade in the form of two giant underground tunnels that will pump the state’s largest river, the Sacramento River, 300 miles south to Bakersfield, CA.
Because water is a cycle and not a thing, it is impossible to say when the irrigation system outstripped Nature’s ability to contribute. A range of views exists on the current and future availability of water in California, from farmers and Governors who consider the water to be magically inexhaustible, to scientists warning that the system will give out in just a few decades. The state must arbitrate amid a citizenry that has neither the time nor the attention-span to understand the problem as a whole.
Strategies for dividing up a precious resource and winning arguments over that resource depend on how the resource is named. Accordingly, there exist two types of pie chart that seek to define water and water usage in California. One asserts that agriculture uses 80% of the water while ‘urban’ uses the other 20%.
This doesn’t look good for Ag, which, in a state that gave the world Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, the aerospace industry and Hollywood, only makes up 2% of the state economy. Ag has struck back, however, by swamping out the 80/20 pie chart with its preferred version, which shows that farms use 40% of the water, urban uses 10%, and the other 50% is dedicated to something called ‘Environmental Uses.’
The average Californian perusing official state pamphlets (which exhibit the 40/10/50 pie chart), Wikipedia, or speeding by one of the many billboards that proffer this notion of ‘Environmental Uses’ are apt to internalize the intended message: the environment is a user and a Hog. The increasing prevalence of the idea of ‘Environmental Uses’ is enabled by how different interests name the water. What water is placed in the denominator; in other words, what is the whole pie?
Environmental groups and those attuned to the fact that Nature has limitations make their pie (the 80/20 pie) based on the total volume of water that can be accessed by the human-made irrigation system—the dams, canals, intakes, pumps, etc. This water is sometimes called ‘applied water,’ water put to ‘beneficial use,’ or basically the water that we can get at. Then there’s the water in Lake Tahoe, the Russian River, and the brackish parts of the San Francisco Estuary. Those who feel that water should be allowed to flow in rivers or rest unmolested in a pristine mountain lake don’t count this water. The State and agricultural sector, however, feel that a fish swimming upstream is no different than agribusiness watering their almonds. Salar the Salmon uses the water the same way that a golf course or a feedlot uses water.
Counting all the water in California as the pie serves two main purposes: it makes the environment look like the big waste and primes the public to pony up for more irrigation projects. The river used to be a just a river, the duck just a duck. Now the duck, the river, and Lake Tahoe are all ‘users.’ Thus denominated, water can be more easily bought and sold.
Welcome to the technosphere. It’s not so much a place as a frame of mind. Let us continue to explore, but not without some council offered by another Wizard Master from Earthsea. The Master Hand taught Ged the so called lesser arts of Changing. Changing is basically a class of spells that can temporarily change the appearance of things. Impatient, Ged approaches the Master Hand, picks up a rock, metamorphoses it into a diamond, and then asks the obvious question: “What must I do to make that diamond remain diamond?” The Master Hand calls the rock by its true name—thereby restoring it—and responds:
This is a rock; tolk in the True Speech…. It is itself. It is part of the world. By the Illusion-Change you can make it look like diamond—or a flower or a fly or an eye or a flame. But that is mere seeming. Illusion fools the beholder’s senses; it makes him see and hear and feel that the thing is changed. But it does not change the thing.
On any given day, most people living developed lives spend more hours gazing at a representation of Nature than actually noticing or perceiving its real biotic or geologic form. I am speaking, of course, about those gorgeous Windows 10 lock screen images that appear once your computer sits idle for long enough. The one with the beach, the cabin, or the Amazon River. I find these images so striking because they really do seem like portals into an alternate reality. They pop up on bigger and more life-like ‘retinal’ computer displays at exactly the moment when you feel most trapped in a soulless, thankless Office Space kind of hell... glistening summits, effulgent horizons, verdant meadows, beckoning from the cubical across the way. Nature porn, really good nature porn, to make the office seem more spacious, magical, enduring.
Then there’s the drive home. It is generally believed that people, especially the little people known as children, should be (for a time at least) in a forest. Playing in the woods, frolicking in meadows, that sort of thing. Many bedtime stories allude to the central role of forested areas in children’s lives, vis. Where the Wild Things Are, Hansel and Gretel, and The Jungle Book. Rachel Carson agreed with this supposition, as her last book, The Sense of Wonder, unfinished at the time of her death, was all about taking children into Nature.
Nowadays, a typical commute home may descry the ‘Discover the Forest’ campaign (www.discovertheforest.org). These billboards, TV ads, and social outreach messages urge parents and children to unplug, experience the wonder, explore the grandeur, etc. by visiting their local forest. The message is fairly straightforward, but the messengers are somewhat confusing, as the ad campaign features Shrek, the Lorax (the new 3D version), those birds from the animated film Rio and, of course, the Smurfs, all beckoning us thither. Instead of turning off the program in favor of the real world, now, the program comes with us, claiming the forest as a destination and the natural habitat of Smurfs, Shrek, and all the contrivances that have heretofore alienated children from Nature.
Misplacing these contrivances in the real world confuses children and, increasingly, adults as well. Immersed in ever more elaborate and enchanted worlds that now accompany us wherever we go, children miss the opportunity to learn exactly what real Nature is. These misunderstandings may never be rectified, as demonstrated by a recent article in The Los Angeles Times that described exotic animal dealers enjoying a rush on the rare and endangered fennec fox (native to arid regions of Africa) following the release of the movie Zootopia (“Inspired by Zootopia, kids in China are begging for rare, protected foxes as pet,” Los Angeles Times, 3/30/16). The movie featured a fennec fox cleverly named Finnick. Real populations of clownfish, snowy owls, and yellow crested cuckatoos have each been similarly decimated by films and television shows that took these species out of their natural context. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Enchanted alienation from Nature also seems to be steadily redefining our adult world as well. We gaze upon screen savers, tend to our birdsong ring-tones, and drive vehicles like the Toyota Tundra, named after the fragile ecosystem that it is helping to destroy. We also increasingly live in a constructed reality of dwelling places.
Home again, home again, jiggity jig. Places of the world used to be named according to the lived experience of the place, the sights, sounds, or significance of its natural features. Potomac means ‘river of swans,’ Nebraska is Siouan for the ‘flat water’ of the Platte River (‘platte’ itself French for flat), Malibu means ‘sound of the waves.’ Here we have the Old Speech. Then came what might be called the middle speech, in which we named things after our old places (New York) or our favorite white men (Washington, Leesburg, Washington and Lee University). Interestingly, some places named in the old and middle speech have disappeared before their names have faded. Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of land every hour to sea level rise. Places like Shipjack Bay and Raccoon Island are now simply the Gulf of Mexico. Upon recently removing the names of 31 such places from nautical charts, the NOAA created a historical register for them, where they may persist a little longer, perhaps until midnight.
A word from the Master Namer is à propos here.
A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly. And this is well. If it were not so, the wickedness of the powerful or the folly of the wise would long ago have sought to change what cannot be changed, and Equilibrium would fail. The unbalanced sea would overwhelm the islands where we perilously dwell, and in the old silence, all voices and all names would be lost.
In what the Master Namer refers to as the old silence and what we might call the new speech, we name places as fantasies of escape from the overwhelm of reality. In Las Vegas (which means ‘those meadows’ surrounded by desert), one may live in a subdivision named Pacific Greens, as well as any number of Highlands, Forests, or Creeks. Other Vegas neighborhood names refer to lakes, rivers, coves, shores, even coral reefs.
A recent article in The Atlantic explored the naming of ever-proliferating subdivisions around the Washington and Denver metropolitan areas, noting that developers now do focus groups in order to quantify the specific markup associated with terms like ‘vistas,’ ’canyons,’ ‘glens,’ and ‘ridges’ (“The names that developers and marketers give to new places,” The Atlantic, 9/7/11).
Market now names our places. We can’t call things what they really are, of course—Vegas is no more a meadow than a human kid is a goat. And not being goats, kids must be taught this new speech, which constructs its own new reality and does away with that old worn out reality, formerly known as Nature.
A recent feature in The New York Times (“The Minecraft Generation,” 4/14/16) rhapsodized about the wonders of the video game Minecraft, which the author takes great pains to assert is different from all those other video games. Clive Thompson’s encomium, “The Minecraft Generation” ran over 6,000 words and enlisted as advocates the likes of Walter Benjamin, a Nobel laureate, the Director of the American Museum of Natural History, and a number of ‘influencers’ with millions of social media followers. All this to argue that Minecraft will create a generation of young Einsteins who are both empowered to code and unrestrained in building, crafting, and mining, as it were. In short, Minecraft will answer all our STEM prayers and allay all our productivity fears.
Oh, yes, and through their dedication to Minecraft, kids also learn ethics, economics, governance, and how to fix things. The panacea still has a few bugs that some might consider to be a problem. Two paragraphs are given to the topic of harassment and sexist bullying in Minecraft, describing it as on par with that of the rest of the video game world (i.e., so common that some parents won’t let daughters play). Thompson describes the experience of one young woman whose gender is discovered in a public game space. Upon learning her true name (that of Woman), players in the virtual world promptly and publicly labeled her with that term which the Old Speech assigns to a female dog.
Reading on past these episodes of name calling (trifling matters, in Thompson’s view), one comes to wonder what the ‘mine’ in Minecraft stands for. In the game, players indeed mine the Earth to get resources with which to build their fantasy world. The game teaches kids to chop down trees, dig for gold, and industrialize by using capital to extract and build on larger and larger scales. Players kill off animals and then keep their precious bits: “Kill a spider, and you get spider silk, handy for making bows and arrows,” Thompson tells us. Of course, because arachnids can be turned into bows and arrows just like Smurfs can be turned into gold (at least in Gargamel’s formulation). A local library even set up a multiplayer version of the game that includes natural resource allocation where players get a homestead in the game space: children “transform a hostile environment into something they can live in.”
Regardless of whether these children live in a hostile environment, one can’t say they aren’t learning how the technosphere works. Dig, chop, dredge. Spray. Get yours. Mine. Reading Thompson’s panegyric is a little like what I imagine "Man Against Earth" or "The Control of Nature" might have been about, had Carson lived to write such sequels to Silent Spring. It also reminded me of one of the central themes in Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything.
Summarizing scholarly work, Klein describes how the English philosopher Francis Bacon first popularized the idea of the control of Nature. His writing empowered European societies with a language and rhetoric that justified disruption of Nature as our psychosocial and spiritual destiny. Note that Bacon wrote in the 1600’s, publishing just a few decades after the 1610 date when geochemists see the Earth breathing in the extermination of over 50 million indigenous people. With the subsequent invention of combustion engines, technology and fossil energy reduced Bacon’s ideas to practice.
The coupling of the practice with the theory helped justify deploying the technology on scales so massive that they now imperil our own existence. It was not just the capital and carbon, Klein argues, but also the language of control that Bacon developed to frame Man’s destruction of Nature as a worthy and proper thing to do. Carbon was brought to life by the philosopher’s spell. In the beginning there was the word, and the word was Control.
But are we really in control? Is that the right word for it? When I teach climate change, my students often tell me that they don’t think it should be called ‘climate change.’ This might be because the terms global warming, the greenhouse effect, and anthropogenic disruption all mean the same thing (and confuse search results). But the real problem is that these words dramatically miss the mark. What they actually mean is deluge, incineration, drought, property damage, economic upheaval, migration, war, and mass extinction. The vague and unaccusing word ‘change’ must hold all these things, which are really the important facts of the matter, more so than a simple change in the weather.
My students are not the first to have had this realization. Among the beehive of activity that calls itself climate art, the Bureau of Linguistical Reality (BLR) seeks to address this exact problem. The BLR is a public participatory project that searches out new words for the changes occurring in our world. This is not the Old Speech, but rather a form of new speech that seeks to discuss the disappearance of the things named by the Old Speech. “Our words need to reflect our current realities,” states their website, “to help us codify things we are experiencing.” Playfully invoking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity principle, which holds that language makes the world, the BLR conducts workshops to invent new words about climate change. Their online lexicon includes an oldie but goodie, the indelible ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ for life out of balance, as well as a number of other polyglotic neologisms such as ‘blissonance,’ ‘woula bhoubha,’ and ‘shinrin-yoku.’ This latter term is Japanese for ‘forest bathing,’ or the healing power of the forest.
And what is an essay about modern versus old speech without some token statement that celebrates the positive? For being positive helps erase things too, as can be seen from the likes of The Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that helps break through any narrative asserting that things aren’t going so well here on Earth. The Breakthrough Institute has given name to such phenomena as ‘ecomodernism,’ the ‘good Anthropocene,’ and ‘Earth makers,’ publishing a quarterly journal that represents an eyebrow-raising experiment in creative re-branding of events that most people would call disasters.
But I set out to be positive, and positive I will be. Here is the silver lining. Here friend, I speak the Old Speech and I tell you my true name. Yes, as Yeats told, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, innocence drowned, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. But like Ged in The Wizard of Earthsea, a few shall remain who, awake in this bad dream, can hear the falcon’s cry. A few will still read Carson—her love letters, not her AP essays. We will know the real mountain, the real river, the real birdsong. For us, animals will never be a diversion. They will instead continue to be our symbols, our messengers, our promises. No machine will ever outsmart water. With so few left to listen, things will tell us their true names. A bird draws near, alighting besides you. Walking in the forest, the fox will see you and let you pass. We do not know the Earth. It is the Earth who knows us.