Category Archives: Reviews

Imagining the Late Anthropocene

In a previous post, A New Realism about the Anthropocene, I reflected on recent scientific and academic speculation on the inception date of the Anthropocene – the period of our planet’s history which is visibly dominated and effected by human social practices such as
• burning,
• selective breeding and species elimination,
• terraforming,
• trans-oceanic migration,
• mining
• the release of synthetic compounds and man-made (transuranic) elements.

Some might view this characterisation of what might conventionally be called agriculture, manufacturing, travel – civilisation, progress – as unduly critical and damning. We have burgeoned haven’t we? We thrive. We have created complex social structures within which most of us live longer and less stressful lives that our remote ancestors. For the majority of us more of our children live and live longer, reproduce in turn. This is what life does after all. It reproduces itself. It persists.

It could be argued that we have transcended the ‘natural’ barriers to growth – the limitations of terrain, of topographic obstacles, of seasonal patterns. Our ingenuity has enabled us to cover the earth, colonise every advantageous niche, eliminate competitors and biological threats. Why, in the debate around the Anthropocene, should there be a tone of dread and pessimism?

Perhaps it is that the limitations that we now conceive and have the scientific tools to interpret and imagine not biological but physical. Climate. Toxicity. And that the breakdown of temporal and spatial barriers our ingenuity has realised may result in a rate of change in these factors which is likely to be unprecedented in human history.

I have exchanged with sceptics who insist, of course, it’s all a con – it’s all about the sun and nothing we can do…a comforting fatalism diluted with a dash of Micawberism (something will turn up). This wilful irresponsibility, often revealing a fundamental lack of understanding of the difference between energy and heat, ignores the fact that, even if it’s not our fault, we are the only species in any position to address the issue…and if we don’t, in either case, it is we who will suffer.

Of course, the biosphere will respond – some species by dying out, others by multiplying. Productive land will become arid. Dry land will be submerged. Storms will intensify. Plants will not be pollinated. Harvests fail. Patterns will be disrupted.

I believe the human species will survive – among others.

The question which I believe is unique to us is – how? In what social form? And in what numbers? We count. It’s is one of our foibles.

Megadeaths?

Dystopias in art are comforting. More comfortable, perhaps, than Utopias to which we don’t feel quite adequate. Better a final reckoning then – apocalyptic and definitive – or the thrill of sordid and heroic ‘post-apocalyptic’ struggle – a new Dark Age of zombies, brigands, tyrants. We came through the Dark Ages didn’t we? So Dark Ages are survivable. That’s known.

Well yes….and a lot of people died.

Survivalism is romantic escapism. Individualistic. Mock-heroic. It ignores kith and kin, that which is precious to us in our social fabric. It ignores our humanity.

In contrast to the comforting wallow of fatalism and machismo, others attempt to imagine a ‘sustainable’ world beyond ‘our’ civilisation. A world in which we have come to terms with the pathological aspects of our behaviour – the uncontained appetite for meat, speed, distance, things – a world which recognises limits – boundaries – and the vital productivity of edges where cultures and ecosystems abut, overlap, intermingle.

Some, like Paul Kingsnorth in his recent book ‘Beast’ and Em Strang in her stunning poem ‘Stone’ seem to exhort us to reconnect with the animal in us – the panther, the horse – creatures which flow with and through ‘the natural world’ channelled by its barriers and limitations – hedgerows, rills, its seasons. These texts portray solitary human protagonists who have, to some extent, stepped free of kith, are finding a new way to be in straightened circumstances and closer to an animal simplicity.

I suspect most of us will find ourselves in ‘straightened circumstances’ in the decades to come and there may be a need for greater self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-discipline. But we are human. Our humanity is as natural as any pantherness or equine nature (horses themselves an artefact of human interventions). Our humanity is social. Communitarian. Linguistic.

What persists over the longue duree is not technology or social organisation but stories, music, dancing, systems of belief, cooking, painting, carvings, trade routes, pathways – things we share. In imagining the Late Anthropocene, I believe we must imagine a social world, perhaps a world defined by the re-instatement of boundaries, a mosaic of social and ecological experiments but a world in which the protagonists are human and animal – not zombies, not orcs – social not solitary – and where the challenges are to eat, to love, to reproduce, to trade, to sing, to celebrate. Life as normal in an abnormal world – for us – the world beyond the bump. I offer up that challenge.

A New Realism about the Anthropocene

Tha ceilidh agam

Ceilidh. In Gaelic, A’ cèilidh is a verb. Though it is a noun. Its meaning settles upon ‘visit’ in the Gaelic-English and English-Gaelic dictionaries – distinguished, therefore, from ‘meeting’ – cruinnich, coinnich.

Then again – there is ‘the session’ – seisean (which seems like an interloper).

Ceilidh slips back and forth across the boundaries eadar gaidhlig agus beurla like a smuggler, a drover, a reiver.

The Dee and Don Ceilidh Collective launched its programme of 6 weekend workshops, ceilidhs and sessions on Saturday 14th May with a spectacularly successful and enjoyable series of events in Ballater on Aberdeenshire’s Deeside. Thanks to the effort and leadership of the Collective’s volunteers and the sponsorship of Crerar Hotels, participants enjoyed a range of workshops in fiddle, small pipes, whistle, guitar, singing and song writing in the course of a long hot Saturday in Ballater’s Victoria and Albert Halls and the Deeside Inn. The professional tutors at the event included Fraser Fifield (pipes and whistles), Jenny Sturgeon (songwriting), Paul Anderson and Averill Blackhall (fiddle), Shona Donaldson (singing) and Pete McCallum (guitar).

The workshops were followed by a spontaneous session of music and singing and rounded off with an evening of dance, music and more song in a ceilidh which blended the dance music of The New Distillery Band with contributions from workshop tutors and participants.

I am a Scots-speaking Scot – which might be almost (though not quite) indistinguishable from Anglophone bit isnae really. Despite a vocabulary of Doric and a few stumbled phrases of Gaelic, I lack the easy fluency and interchangeability of language I have so often admired in others I have met on my travels – South Americans, Africans, Asians, Europeans.

Despite having danced at ceilidhs since I was a child – An Comunn Ghaidhealach ceilidhs in Whiting Bay on Arran where the Highland Schottische was an endurance test and Strip the Willow was (then as now) a blood-sport – I’ve never sung nor played. Until this week and then briefly, meekly (I hope). And I hope to again.

A fiddle is an awesome thing. The small pipes – wondrous. The human voice…

People come together. People play and sing and people dance. Ordinary people who practice and play and feel abashed in the presence of more experienced musicians…but who play in any case to be a part of it.

It is not a ‘professional’ activity…though excellence deserves its due and tariff.

It is a session, a meeting…a visitation.

There is a sense that a ceilidh might be an entertainment – like a Burns Supper or a discotheque (yes…I know…who goes to discotheques these days?). The word which is omitted though – for it might be seen as a profanation – is comanachadh. Is that too blasphemous?

Ceilidh agus comanachadh.

Dipping, ineptly, into the flow of music in the session on Saturday, in the company of like-minded strangers – yes, I was visiting but equally I felt community, communion. Comann. Collective.

Tha ceilidh agam
.

Saltfish Forty, Glenbuchat Hall, Glenbuchat, 19th Feb. 2016

Saltfish Forty. They’re a bit Orcadian,” my daughter said when I told her I was going.

Well….yes.

But what does that mean in the modern world of traditional music. True, Brian Cromarty (guitar, mandola, vocals) has broad flat vowels when he speaks to this ‘Sooth’ audience and Douglas Montgomery has an ‘island’ sense of humour – but the music, like all that is best about ‘traditional’ music, is eclectic, cosmopolitan, skillfully-inflected, modern, affectionate.

There are Orcadian rhythms and motifs worked into the craft of the playing but the ‘tunes’ include Shetlandic, Mainland (Scottish) and Canadian pieces, Western Swing and 12-bar blues. For this is North Atlantic music. (if Texas can be co-opted for now as a North Atlantic Province – delete Florida and Louisiana – it’s all about the Gulf Stream after all!).

I note in myself, as a musician of ‘limited accomplishments’, an interest in mid-20th century jazz and (Celtic) traditional music when I play. No pop nostalgia or rock anthems. I go back – and come forward. These genre share – I think – a quality of syncopation, appropriation, openness – and an established aural tradition. Learn by ear – then improvise. The orchestral score and the cover band ‘nail’ the tune – ‘the karaoke blues’ as Brian Cromarty sings in one of his pieces – but trad and jazz flow. As transatlantic music should.

The Orcadians were on the mainland here – Glenbuchat on Donside – Strathspey territory I suppose – with its own local ceilidh traditions, a strong fiddle heritage (Scott Skinner et al) and the Old Blind Dogs as the local headline group with a network of excellent ceilidh bands and associated groups such as Clachan Yell, Danse Mccabre, Clype and The New Distillery Band. This is, I feel, my home territory – odd for someone who has never felt quite at home anywhere. Here, in the West of Aberdeenshire, where the land lifts onto the Grampians, the sense of community is strong and the community I know is a community that dances.

It was a sell-out event, about a hundred people of all ages – teens to octogenarians – seated at trestle tables, whisky, wine and beer, crisps and cashew nuts. Tie-dye and printed fabrics on the walls – fairy lights. A stage. Two men. Fiddle, guitar, mandola. (and a rough box of a stomper Douglas Montgomery swears he made himself). And the sound comes. The music comes.

Netherbow and The Glassel Jig. The Red Diesel Reels. Reiländer. Some Canadian jigs. A tune from Shetland.

Provenance is tentative…Cromarty speaks of where the tune was found…as if it were a piece of driftwood. This song, he says, ‘I found…I’ve changed the tempo, the key, the tune…and some of the words.’ So he teaches us all the chorus to sing along to…La-la-la – La- la- la. Oooo-ooo-ooo-aaa-aaa-aaa. And we sing along to a tale of lost love, drowned sailors, mermaids and such. It is traditional. Now it is part of our tradition.

Strong throbbing stomping rhythms. It took until half way through the first half before the women (and a few men) began to dance. The rhythms could not be resisted. In the beginning people clap, then tap time with their feet, their fingers, glasses, beer cans. And then the women dance. For it cannot be denied. We are dancing to Orkney, to the North Atlantic drift, to Western Swing and Blues, to jigs and reels, strathspeys. It is all traditional and re-invented in the moment, at this moment, now. It is alive. We are alive. Musicians bring this gift of life. Outside the night is dark and full of stars. Driving back, I saw an owl on a post. It turned its head to watch me pass.