Neil Banas

Published: 29/05/2017

Tags: poetry essay isabelle stengers oceanography narrative

The deep North Pacific contains some of the oldest water in the world, age here referring to time in isolation, time since active mixing and exchange with the atmosphere at the sea surface. The microscopic forests of the sunlit surface layer rain down organic matter and nutrients into the deep, a tax excised from every transaction that happens among photosynthesizers, grazers, and predators. The deep water thus collects the wealth that on land we associate with thick topsoil. The surface waters also take the carbon that humans release—carbon we take from ancient forests, which has until recently been stockpiled in compressed form beneath the mountains and seafloor—they take it, hand it around, release some back to the air, send some of it down to the deep. The deep water accepts the handed-along carbon, and acidifies. The wind and surface currents haul the deep water back up in particular places, and in those places, like the Pacific Northwest coast of what is now the United States and Canada, a vast reservoir of corrosive water is lapping up against the coast with increasing frequency. To baby oysters on the rocks, to the guild of shellfish that build calcium carbonate shells, to the string of coastal human communities dependent on shellfish aquaculture, every tiny slosh of this reservoir is a flood. Compared with the full effects of human carbon emissions yet to come, this flood is, of course, just an early ripple.


In In Catastrophic Times (Open Humanities Press, 2015), philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers writes of the “intrusion of Gaia” behind the unfolding global catastrophe: “The intrusion of this type of transcendence, which I am calling Gaia, makes a major unknown, which is here to stay, exist at the heart of our lives…. no future can be foreseen in which she will give back to us the liberty of ignoring her. It is not a matter of a ‘bad moment that will pass,’ followed by any kind of happy ending – in the shoddy sense of a ‘problem solved.’ … We will have to go on answering for what we are undertaking in the face of an implacable being who is deaf to our justifications.” She is “a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects,” and the crux of our catastrophe is our belief in a “strange right… a right that would have frightened all the peoples who knew how to honor divinities such as Gaia, because it is a matter of the right not to pay attention.”


Deep intrusions on all sides. In another hemisphere, warm, deep currents push past Greenland and Svalbard, touching the mouths of the glaciers, tipping geological and organismal thermal balances from underneath. All over the globe, storm waves and floodwaters rise farther and farther past levees and doorways. But after the door is opened, who is it who enters? Stengers’ Gaia is a curiously hollow image, a black hole at the center of the parable. She is neither a beneficent mother nor a vengeful one. She is not Earth as opposed to Sky, either naturalistically or theologically. She is not the Lovelockian Gaia of solid, self-regulating homeostasis, nor a fragile beauty in need of protection, nor a fertile, passive prize. Her indifference is what defines her: Stengers sets her contemporary intrusion precisely against any association of Mother Earth with belonging. She is the one, says Stengers, who asks strictly nothing of us. But I’m not sure that’s true, because of another story.


In autumn of 1900, in the mission village of Skidegate, on the islands of Haida Gwaay, far offshore of Pacific North America, a master Haida mythteller named Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay slowly unfolded an epic story cycle for a young audience of two, linguist John Swanton and Haida translator Henry Moody. More recently, Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst used Swanton’s field notes to restore Skaay’s stories to something like the crystalline form he chose to tell them in (Being in Being, Nebraska University Press, 2001), as opposed to the more meager plot summary Swanton had published. Skaay begins his epic with the following scene:


In a village, a noble headman's daughter is fawned over by all. Suitors come to call and are turned away in waves. But then a different someone comes, in a strange harbor-seal canoe, in a broad hat, in which tiny surfbirds could be seen. He refuses to speak.


There was something white surrounding the crown

of his hat, they tell me.

It moved like breaking surf, they say.

It was foaming and churning, they say.


And when they refused him,

the earth became different, they say.

Seawater started to boil out of the ground.


An experienced local audience would have needed no more than the description of the hat to know just what unimaginable power, what threat of annihilation, had arrived. In his corpus of recorded stories Skaay shows us such a hat in one other instance, when, after a series of rough dealings, Raven sits offshore of his father Qinggi's house, uncharacteristically quiet, also in a harbor-seal canoe. (Qinggi is a mountain at the head of a steep-sided inlet in southern Haida Gwaay, and like all Haida mountains, also a myth-village, and that village’s headman, who is also a spirit killer whale.) By the end of the brief scene between Qinggi and the surf-hatted Raven, the water has risen to drown the land, and in a single stroke half the village is dead.


Achingly, Bringhurst observes that this was not a hyperbolic flourish on Skaay’s part but rather quiet understatement. Within Skaay’s lifetime, the Haida population of the islands had been reduced from 12,000 to 800 by waves of epidemics, the village of Qquuna reduced from 1000 souls to Skaay, Moody, and 66 other refugees, poured like the rest of the dying villages into Skidegate. And so I think it is entirely appropriate to read the body of stories Skaay chose to tell Moody and Swanton in 1900 as an intricate, tragically well-informed meditation on Catastrophic Times. Skaay spoke as an individual artist (an interpretation at the heart of Bringhurst’s translation and analysis) but also as the bearer of a mythopoetic tradition shaped by a far longer and broader history. “Here,” says Bringhurst, “the poem is a tree of meaning, flowering in the mouths and minds of human beings, yet rooted in a world in which we are only one of many species.” On a modern, urban bookshelf it is itself thus a kind of intrusion of Gaia, self-sufficient and devastating.


What strikes me, as a modern student of the non-human members of Skaay’s marine landscape, is the intricacy and thoroughness with which wealth and catastrophe are interwoven there. Every hard surface on Haida Gwaay is covered with exuberant, insistent living matter, and the deep water that fuels this exuberance with its upwelled nutrients is the same deep water that corrodes oyster shells. Salmon stocks in this part of the world, for their own climatic and ecological reasons, have always fluctuated by a factor of ten from year to year, as well as in grand cycles that take a millennium to complete. Thus it is likely that Skaay was deeply prepared to tell a story that, like a palimpsest, reflected both the catastrophe at hand—the visitors from outer space who threw down both endless wealth and genocidal levels of disease and manipulation—and also a state of ecological affairs so fundamental it might as well have been metaphysics. I feel a direct, humbling kinship between my own work in mathematical ecology and Skaay’s construction. The stories he told in 1900 seem to me a set of experiments and simulations built to probe catastrophe, map the fractal boundaries of its basin of attraction, mark down the initial conditions from which human and trans-human affairs roll down into that basin. Like an ecologist, and more than Stengers, he lingers over Gaia’s portrait, using spare, precise lines to mark her way of moving, where she places her feet. Like Stengers, and unlike most ecologists, he is equally concerned with the dynamical attractors of human thought and emotion.


“When they refused him,/The earth became different, they say./Seawater started to boil out of the ground.” And so, weeping, they send the headman's daughter down to the beach. The harbor-seal canoe comes by itself to collect her, and the visitor leaves his hat on the shore as a gift for her father, before vanishing with her into the sea far offshore. The story then moves in waves, advancing and retreating, as first the girl's mother and the family’s head servant, and then a throng of villagers in ten huge, packed canoes, work their way around to a rescue. Time warps; an expedition slips under the edge of the sky. The girl's brothers make fortuitous and strategic marriages, to Mouse Woman and an unnamed creature too astonishing to look at. With the help of these and other spirit beings they make their way to an impossibly grand house in which all the wealth of the sea and the shore seem to be contained. (Between the screen behind the fire and the back wall, where one would normally find the owner’s private living space, they find “a large bay ringed with sandy beaches/cranberries ripening on the outcrops.”) The human emissaries learn that the hat was not the visitor’s to give: it belonged to his father, the master of this house, the headman (“town mother”) of the sea-village. They can barely look at him, his eyes bulge out of his head, the earth shakes when he places his feet.


The story hinges on undoing the improper exchange of hat for abducted wife. What tips the amassed powers into a new configuration is another gift. What can mere humans give to the lord of the sea, who rules over everything lost in a shipwreck, everything that washes ashore, a coastal people’s entire stock of bioavailable nutrients? A clean pair of clam shells: shells that are proper soup spoons, not rich, rotten things from the seafloor.


The hat is snatched back, and the girl reunited with her human family. All sit down together in ceremony. The sea-father breaks himself in two, out rising feathers that restore the ten humans he had eaten. He calls for the fire to be built up and the families that are now in-laws eat together until midnight. In the morning, the girl's new father-in-law calls her to him: “Lady, you will give birth to me./Don't be afraid of me.” He gives instructions regarding the cumulus clouds to be painted on his cradle:


Let the clouds be flat on the bottom.

When the sky is like this,

even good-for-nothing humans may come out to me to feed.

Whenever they see me like this,

the common surface birds will come to me to feed.


In time she gives birth, to a crazy thing with bulging eyes, which she addresses as Grandfather. And the humans paddle out to sea, and put the baby over the side. The story is named “The One They Hand Along.”


It is a shock to find the story end here. One time, a hat appears, bearing in miniature all the destructive potential of the sea, and in an instant half the village is dead. Another time, the hat appears, and soon, a marriage has been made that entitles humans to go to the sea for their food. Both endings—the village empty, the village full of full bellies—somehow find room to coil themselves within the single image of the hat circled by churning waves. This indeterminacy runs through all the Haida stories Swanton was told in 1900, and not only those by Skaay. A chain of events is set off by a tiny wobble in the motion of the world. Half the time, the perturbation grows to rip the world apart, while half the time it is swung by degrees into a different plane of motion, such that the world is made more inhabitable rather than less.


Some of these story-shapes suggest pure chaotic dynamics: rapidly growing instabilities, the radical unpredictability of the butterfly effect. Others suggest the converse: stabilizing complex-network dynamics, mechanisms of resilience. The bestiary of mathematical nonlinear dynamics contains specimens of each of these, but rather few hybrids, although real earth systems and ecosystems are thick with hybrids. It is extremely difficult, on a technical level, to write a set of equations (describing, for example, population fluctuations in a salmon run under environmental change) in which a prevailing stability, simplicity, and intelligibility, and the possibility of radical, hair-trigger change, are both present in realistic doses, balanced on a knife edge as in Skaay’s social and natural landscapes. I suspect that this technical limitation has an effect on the parables that environmental scientists are able to tell about human impacts on nature, and is of a piece with our general inability to hold a public conversation about uncertainty that doesn’t immediately descend into the cartoonish. Still, I would like to think that at its best, contemporary practice in earth science and ecology captures, on the one hand, the knowledge that the fruits of our actions are nonlinear, emergent, and unknowable, and on the other, the knowledge that they are simple and obvious—that there are no excuses.


Stengers suggests that the ticklishness of Gaia, her capability for disproportionality (“a shrugging of the shoulder provoked when one is briefly touched by a midge”) is the heart of why she needs to be named. Perhaps, however, this ticklishness is a merely an epiphenomenon, only one of her faces, only one of the Gaian story shapes. Would it have mattered if the visitor in the harbor-seal canoe had threatened to drown a more modest portion of the village? Would it matter if we could precisely calculate the number of future hurricanes associated with each gigaton of carbon emissions?


A powerful neighbor who will not take no for an answer: perhaps this is the beginning and the end of the intrusion. And perhaps the place where semi-chaotic dynamics, the play of necessity and chance, are most crucial is not in our understanding of the intruder but our understanding of the hero, of the possibilities for human action. The alchemy by which the seawater boiling out of the ground in “The One They Hand Along” is replaced with an invitation to the local ocean’s rich material economy: this nonlinear process, half-hidden in the story, must be what Stengers names (as a placeholder) “composing with Gaia.” As Stengers guesses, here it is accomplished through the artful, uncertain application of a pharmakon, medicines that easily turn to poison and yet for which there is no alternative: a pharmakon of diplomacy and microeconomics, alliances and well-timed exchanges.


The pharmakon in Skaay’s metaphysics, in other words, appears to consist of “everything that attaches,” “everything that produces relations that aren’t interchangeable.” These are Stengers’ phrases not for her imagined pharmakon per se but for the living social bonds that we have ceased to think of when we think of the social. The word “social,” she says, has come to be hollowed out by both state ideologies and their critics. “Today the hero of the critical epic… resides in a sad hall of mirrors… breaking every reflection, always with the same refrain ‘it is constructed.’” This dead end is not so different from the end of the neoliberal epic, which arrives at the discovery that there is no such thing as society. There could not be a stronger contrast with Skaay's metaphysics, in which he looks beneath the veil and finds the world more thickly inhabited with unique beings, not less, more structured and connected, not less, than it appears on the surface.


This hollowness to the contemporary social, and the blankness of Stengers’ portrait of Gaia (a blankness which I do not blame Stengers for) are the same hollowness—and, crucially, Skaay fills both hollows with the same densely woven construction. It is tempting to extract The One They Hand Along himself, or his hat-borrowing son, as a portrait of Gaia, but this is only the narrowest option. Gaia is also the entire, unbounded network of undersea villages, undermountain villages, sky villages, eagle villages, beaver villages, powerful wandering vectors like Mouse Woman, and of course common-surface-bird villages that are the stuff of the world: “cosmopolitics” indeed. This sensitive network, in which a snapping of one link can set the whole structure ringing, or can be diffused and attenuated by tightening the right bonds in the right places, is the transcendent entity that intrudes on our self-regard. To translate it out of the realm of metaphor, it helps to recognize how absolutely material most of its links are. The “belonging” of humans to the landscape in Skaay’s story is a matter of marriage and politics, but also a matter of fish protein, and of course the currencies of our contemporary trade with the ocean—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous—are the hardest currencies of all. (It is capitalism, says Stengers, that “has nothing to do with the materialism that people of faith often associate with it. In contrast to Gaia, one ought to associate it instead with a power of a (maleficent) ‘spiritual’ type.”)


I find I can only reconcile this ongoing material trade, Skaay’s many-body dynamics, and Stengers’ parable by rejecting the notion of Gaia’s indifference. Surely the depth and intimacy of her intrusion consist of the fact that we have asked for so many favors, so many resources on long-term credit, and that—far from asking us for nothing—she has a long and exact list of demands. It is as if the intrusion of Gaia were not a matter of opening the door of our cozy, remote human cottage (or our hall of mirrors) to find the sea level implacably rising, but rather opening the door to find ourselves right on the sidewalk in the heart of a busy city. The neighbors know our names although we have forgotten theirs, and we have run up unpayable bills at every shop on the street. There is more than one calculus that predicts how this story ends.