As part of my work on this project, I devoted some time these past six weeks to helping organise a people’s climate march in Edinburgh. Given our research focus on how Christians and faith communities mobilise for action around climate change and other related ecological issues, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. What did surprise many people, myself included, was the extent of the march (pictures here) that occurred last Sunday (21 Sep 2014). We had hoped for 200-300 and by most estimates, we had nearly 3000 people marching through the streets of Edinburgh committing themselves to action and calling on our nation’s leaders here in Scotland to address climate change in substantial ways. I gave a short speech to those gathered before we set off to march, and I offer the text of my speech here.
Writing about ancestral time now, as spring unfolds, motivates thinking about time as embodied in the web of relationships between myself and other parts of nature across time. I observe the gradual unfolding of leaves in the Crabapple tree outside the dining room window. On my walk to and from the train in the mornings and evenings I notice increased bird activity, with new nests appearing in the trees around the neighborhood. The evenings seem filled with birdsong in ways I can hardly remember from years before. I seem to feel lightness in my step and wonder how my own mood is being affected by these changes around me. How am I part of these changes?
These reflections resonate with our aesthetic interactions with the places we live in and move through. But these interactions seem to make constant reference not only to space but also to the temporal character of things around us. The deep pink enveloped in the perfect form of a Camellia blossom in the garden is something I appreciate as a single ‘item’ before me, but it is nested in a history of the plant coming out of winter, gradually forming buds, and just this past week, flowering. That is to say, there is the moment of being struck by the beauty of the flower, and while that moment has a singular aesthetic effect on me, it is referenced to a history, a temporal aesthetic relationship between a flowering plant and my own human perspective.
How is time placed within these aesthetic meetings? Now, of course time is part of our framework for understanding the world: cause and effect, things coming in and out of existence, relations with the past, present, and looking forward into the future. There are aesthetic ‘moments’ to be sure, and they stay with us (I don’t mean to devalue them), but time is not often explicit in aesthetic experiences or in the theoretical discussions that surround them. The temporal character of things is very much part of their existence, and this is something we can experience through our own bodies (for example, as we age), and through the aesthetic surface of things outside ourselves. Biological, environmental, ecological, seasonal, geological, atmospheric (and so on) change brings to life the role of distant past, recent past, present, and future. Aesthetic engagement holds great potential for acquainting us more intimately with things. It provides a route into simply noticing things more, to hear more carefully, to see more attentively, to smell, taste or touch something we might otherwise pass by. Being aware of dynamic change in aesthetic qualities provides a sort of knowledge by acquaintance and can develop our sensitivity in relationship to changes around us.
I’m not much of a gardener, though I enjoy being in gardens. I suspect that many gardeners have this kind of aesthetic sensitivity, equipped with a strong sense of temporal aspects (life cycles, decay, the effects of seasons and weather) and able to experience, first-hand, change in these semi-natural places where plants, insects, birds, earth and humans, meet. Thinking temporally across nature-people relationships suggests to me the more specific notion of ‘intergenerational aesthetics’, where issues about temporal change come to the fore through the ephemeral nature of (many) aesthetic qualities and through the evolution of different aesthetic relationships. In our research project, I will be thinking about ancestral time through this notion, hoping to establish an agenda for intergenerational questions raised within and by aesthetic experiences.
We were on a bus, travelling to a meeting about European sacred natural sites being held by the IUCN in Sami territory in Finland. Seated beside me was Thymio Papayannis, the co-founder of WWF Greece who is also closely involved with nature conservation with the Orthodox monastic communities on Mount Athos. The two of us were discussing the physicists’ notion of “deep time” and its root in the work of the 18th century Edinburgh thinker, James Hutton. In discussing the age of the Earth this Father of Modern Geology had written: “We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” In addition, as somebody who had defended his PhD at Leiden on the circulation of the blood, he sowed the seed of what Lovelock would much later call the Gaia theory. Our planet, the geologist concluded, is “not just a machine but also an organised body as it has a regenerative power.”
Thymio rested his hand on my arm to emphasise his point in seeking to bridge the physical with the metaphysical. “You see,” he said, in a tone that expressed a memorable sense of urgency. “The Holy Spirit is diachronic.”
Climate change expands our temporal horizons. Burning fossil fuels, land use change, and modern agriculture have raised certain communities of humans to agents of planetary history. And while a significant portion of industrial carbon dioxide emissions will be hanging around in the atmosphere for the next 400,000 years, other traces of these communities will be readable millions of years into the future. Amidst this expanding temporality, I see ancestral time as a secular concept that pulls our horizons of care in three directions. Each works to ‘dissolve’ the idea of a self-certain, autonomous human agent as the centre of ethical concern.
I am in the process of moving and recently spent the weekend stripping wallpaper. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the layers of colour and decoration that I found. Who was the person who decided that deep pink was the colour of choice for the woodchip wallpaper they’d put in the front room? Aside from the obvious question of ‘what were they thinking?’, I found myself wondering more. When had they lived here? What were they like? As another layer gradually came off, there was a more decorative layer – flowers and leaf detail. Who put that there and when? What was their story? I finally got through to the bottom layer and discovered that the walls themselves had been painted at some point in a mustardy-yellow colour, complete with red & green spots, clearly added one by one, across the walls. What about those people? Why that colour combination? Were they the first ones to live there? Did they ever wonder about who would live in that tiny flat in the future? As a PhD student, my mind turned, as it often does, to my research. To the concept of ancestral time. As I peeled back through the layers of interior decoration and found myself wondering about the lives of the previous residents, I reflected on the many ways that we are impacted by and connected to previous generations in our everyday lives. Read more