Timescales

This weekend I finally had time to read Timescales: Thinking across Ecological Temporalities edited by Carolyn Fornoff, Patricia Eunji Kim, and Bethany Wiggin (2020). The book is exactly what I needed on a frigid weekend at the start of brutally cold week in the middle of winter. It also cut across any number of projects that have simmered in my brain for years often begging for more attention than my aging neurons can give them.

The book is a series of contributions that deal with the challenge of timescales in the context of ecological thinking about the Anthropocene. This summary, however, sells the book short. The contributions which range from conventional scholarly articles to more experimental pieces, summaries of theatrical performances, and artist statements, engage in meaningful meditations on the nature of time and time of nature, humanity, and existence. This emphasis on time explored the difficulties that we have juggling the multiple temporalities necessary to understand the seemingly catastrophic consequences of contemporary climate change. 

Jason Bell and Frank Pavia’s article encouraged us to explore pessimistic approaches to climate change studies. For the authors this involved bringing together scholars in the humanities and sciences without the expectation that they produce some kind of paradigm defining outcome. Bell and Pavia’s discussion of surf punk and oceanography did not result in a new way to understand the role of the sea in global climate studies. Instead, their article – suffused with “chitchat” – suggested that these kinds of inconclusive conversations initiated without even perfunctory optimism regarding outcomes offered a new way to engage with problems as intractable as articulating the myriad temporalities necessary to understand carbon life cycles, for example. How do we imagine a proleptic Anthropocene that will only be knowable long after the last human has departed? 

The connections between their call for pessimistic approach to transdisciplinary interaction has clear ties to my own interest in slow archaeology, but I had always insisted that slow archaeology was better way (or at least a more humane way) of achieving conventional results in archaeology. I wonder after reading Bell and Pavia whether an approach to slow archaeology that does not culminate in conventional archaeological knowledge, but instead values the process of collectively thinking through complex problems and the shared experience this engagement provides. Perhaps in its purest form slow archaeology is process for the sake of process and without the expectation of progress.

Other pieces that caught my attention were Mary Mattingly’s and Kate Farquhar’s articles on WetLand. Wetlands was a floating experimental garden, sustainable meeting place, and work of art docked on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. Designed by Mary Mattiingly, the boat itself featured solar power, composting toilets and showers, a range of sustainable plants for food, and common spaces that hosted events, conversations, and other forms of public engagement. The goal of the boat was to bring attention to the Schuylkill River and its banks and wetlands which largely house industrial sites. In fact, the river is most frequently seen from highways and surface roads that run along its course or cross it around Philadelphia. The WetLand served as a way to bring people to the river as a place and to engage with the challenges facing this polluted, constrained, and often unpleasant waterway. The sinking of the WetLand in 2017 presents a tragic, but somehow suitable end to its role as a teaching and research site and perhaps suggests the recursive arc of time the river which constantly ingests new things which come to constitute its course, life, and flow.

The concept of WetLand is far beyond anything that I could imagine for Grand Forks, but I’ve been thinking more and more about engaging the Red River and its surrounding landscape in a more constructive way. The Red River lacks the industrial character of the Schuylkill, but one could argue that like the Schuylkill (and perhaps even more saliently) it defines not only our landscape, but also our community. The Grand Forks Greenway, which lines the banks of the Red River, embodies some of the same characteristics a WetLand. The Red River flood walls serve to delineate the wilds of the river from the city, land from the river’s course, and public from private space. Of course, they are also permeable and imprecise. The Greenway itself, for example, is not wild in any conventional sense, but the product of the flood mitigation strategies. The flood walls which constrain the flow of the river do not hamper the flow of people, sewage and rain, traffic, or even animals. Like WetLand, the Greenway could serve as a laboratory to consider the different flows of time from the post-glacial course of the river to the various sedimentary records of its annual floods, the rise and eventual removal of the riverside neighborhood of Lincoln Park, and the ongoing, seasonal and perennial vegetation along the river’s banks.   

Ömür Harmanşah’s article on deep time percolating into the present brought back to mind his compelling archaeological vision of the passage of time. I’ve encountered Ömür’s thinking in the past and even engaged with it in some casual papers on my research in the Bakken oil patch (you can read them here if you want). The notion of deep time forcing its way into our contemporary world is compelling in part because it offers such a literal metaphor for the flow of oil—itself a product of millennia-long processes—  into the present and the interplay of the deep, geological time of the subterranean strata of the oil patch and the contemporary life of communities, watersheds, and economies forces us to engage with the complexities of temporal rhythms mingling in unexpected and incommensurate ways.

The massive timescales involved in our imagining of the Anthropocene likewise intersect with our daily lives, governmental policies, and, of course, objects ranging from plastics to the technologies of hydraulic fracturing, deep reinjection wells, and the residual radioactivity of the earth itself. 

The book contains far more than my casual comments here suggest and deserves a close reading by anyone interested in the temporal challenges the shape how we imagine our future.

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