Narrative, Memory and Time

I think Narrative, Memory and Time are central to the environmental humanities’ efforts to confront the era of ‘ecocide’.

I put some random things in this part of the blog that might be of interest. Most recent first.

On deep time, the Anthropocene, and ecological time (18 01 2016, revised 24 01 2016)

There is a bit of a trend in thinking about deep time – trying to put the current ecological crisis in the contexts of the deep pasts and deep futures of the earth. Some aspects of which are, and can be, known – others not. This is a welcome exercise in perception. It certainly deepens thinking about nature-society relations to think about – in the very long term – where we came from – and where we are going. It is certain that all human life, all life, on the planet, the planet itself, will end in some extreme deep time future (due to the sun’s lifecycle). Surely, this is a challenging thought. The likelihood is some other event(s) will intervene way before this ‘solar extinction’ of the planet to end human, complex, maybe all earth life much sooner. Will the human species evolve, live and die on this planet? Or will it seed through space? I have suggested, let’s hope not, given the destructive nature of modern humanity.

Ideas of deep time are linked to the ongoing academic (and beyond) ‘buzz’ over the notion of the Anthropocene. (Deep) geological time is measured in supereon, eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages, and if we have now entered the Anthropocene that is quite a  ‘moment’ in planetary and human history for sure. (Although a number of people are quizzical about this term.)


There is a Facebook Group dedicated to Anthropocene discussions. Link here.

I was thinking (in a kind of deep time way) – oh well – so this is the sixth great extension phase. We humans, our close cousins the mammals, all the amazing biodiversity around us, are here as a particular flourishing – only possible, and ushered in – by the previous great extinction. This was caused, possibly it seems, by the large asteroid impact on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Famously, this is what ended the great flourishing of the Cretaceous Tertiary period – the dinosaur age. (Although the science is uncertain and contested.)

Extinctions bring new flourishings. There have been six great flourishings – the first advent of life itself, then the recovery of life after the five previous great extinctions. Each time, the biodiversity that flourished was markedly different to that which came before – as life (Gaia we could say) first adapted to, manipulated and flourished in the new conditions of the planet. Maybe this is some kind of process of “earth re-fresh” and this time the human species is the catalyst for the “re-fresh” through means of extreme interventions in the earth’s physical and biotic systems.

But – think of the time and the ecology here – that last (fifth) great extinction was 65 million years ago. To be ushering in the sixth extinction is to be unpicking the ecology and biodiversity of this version of the biosphere #6 that is our home and our family (literally in terms of shared genetics).

sixth extintions


I think, thinking of deep time in terms of very distant pasts and futures runs the risk of political and ethical distraction to ecological thinking, by removing certain ethical and philosophical grounds on which we need to work on deep times scales. In deep time, life will come and go and Gaia transform. Thus human transformation of the biosphere is just of that process. We should be turning our attention to ecological time – the temporalities of our time and era on earth, and thinking of the histories and consequences of modern humans’ impact on our biosphere in that time frame. It is still a time frame way beyond modern human notions of time, but it is also very different to deep time.

(Added 24 01 2016)

Time is also deep in another way – that is the complexity and richness of the becoming moment. The on-going practice life is enabled by an amazingly complex set of processes and relational materialities which means the present is built of the ongoing trajectories of becoming. Like identity and thought and perception are mostly created from memory. The present is almost endlessly deep. And any action in the now has ramifications for the future. That is how time is deeply ecological.


Here is a very rough go at a diagram.




Edgetimes (29 11 2015)

I had to go to a hospital in Bristol for a routine check-up, but had no idea how long it would take or how long I would have to wait. I had another appointment much later in the day. As it happened the hospital process was pretty quick, and I found myself with over half a day with no meeting or work – or any other – objectives in mind. I decided to head out to some edgeland – Severn Beach – finding my way there pretty randomly by turning and turning again in suburban and then fringe rural lanes.

Severn Beach is a small settlement on the edge of the Severn Estuary. It is a home and place of work for its local population (so not edgeland in that sense), but it can and is seen by others as edgeland for a few reasons. It is on the shore of the austere, but lovely landscape of Severn Estuary, which is all mud and tides and shifting light; with Avonmouth docks just down the coast and the huge, and constantly sounding, Second Severn Crossing (carrying the M4 motorway) dominating the eastern view from the seawall – which keeps the high tides from flooding the low-lying levels.

Storm Barney was coming in from the west – seemingly down the Bristol Channel – the wind was increasing to gale force, and the flexing light through fast moving heavy cloud cover was showing before certain rain came. As I wandered around – finding finds, taking photos – I began to think – this is edgetime – for me – between packets of the normal, planned time of work and domestic/social routines and agendas.

Of course edgelands have received much attention in recent years, for example the 2012 book of that name by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. They are oddly rich, ‘other’ spaces of unusual, hybrid ecologies of nature-culture.


Here are some pictures – there was a lovely road-sign for the Aust Ferry, that shut in 1964 (ish). Someone had made a picture of the bridge out of pebbles and seaweed. And i met Mable – who it turned out used to lived where i now live and knew people that used to work on our farm!


On Memory (Sept 2015)

I have written various things about memory. I am very keen to continue thinking about this fundamental – to being human – yet little understood, process.

I reflect quite a lot about my ongoing practices of remembering and forgetting.

Recently I have had a few episodes of not being able to remember names – this might be age, stress, but it is a common issue for sure. Generally, for ‘general knowledge type things’ I have a very good stock of knowledge and pretty good capacity to recall stuff on demand. I am quite good at pub quizzes. Recently I have forgotten two names while idly wandering along some rambling and inconsequential chain of thought. Mark Rylance (actor) and Tim Bresnan (England cricketer). (Not that the names are that significant in themselves. This could apply to any names – and perhaps other things – but names seem to have a special function in memory.) On both occasions my chain of thought narrative – when it came to the point when the name was needed – from memory – was completely  derailed, and the chain of thought diverted to – what was his name? I knew for certain that I knew these names – I could picture the person – and a set of facts about them in each case. I was also certain I did really know, and thus really did remember these names – they were temporally not available. So what was going on here? Were there just some brain cells that – for some reason – were shut out of the system for a while? I felt the process of ‘trying to remember’ was leading me to where the information should be but failing to find it. Other recalled ‘wrong’ names were ‘tried for size’ and dismissed, some more easily than others. (So, I could remember what they were not called – but not the name itself). The idea of some cells being temporarily off system is likely to be a way too mechanical and linear analogy for what was going on. I think memory is a highly complex set of orchestrated functions (probably electrical and chemical) which can conjure a detailed picture into sharp focus. On occasions there is some disharmony, misfiring, in this which leaves bits that are blurred or even blank. Of course in these episodes I soon had to stop thinking about trying to remember the names and get on with other things. Throughout the next hours I think my brain was subconsciously still trying to resolve the issues, and the desire, and attempts, to remember the names would re-emerge. And what I felt, or somehow sensed, was the names as kind of abstract shapes trying to form and nearly popping to conscious form, but then slipping away again from the threshold between the subconscious and the conscious. And then suddenly ‘pop’  – there they were – without any effort. A relief.

I am also very intrigued by what we remember but might never remember unless something prompts it back into life.  For example:

I am steeped in the history of popular music and on occasion I hear an obscure old song that, with a jolt, I realise I have heard before and know. Thinking that – without the prompt of hearing it again – I most likely never would have recalled it, even though it was in my memory.

I always save spiders; on occasions (for the sake of my partner) re-locating big ones to the garden. Once I caught a very big lovely female house spider and carried her outside. To my dismay she wiggled out of my grasp and fell onto the stone path. She was of such weight that her impact made a little ‘tick’ type noise. To my further dismay I saw that the body of her skin had split as she scurried away. I just hoped she would somehow survive and recover. I don’t think I would have remembered this incident to be able to tell it now, had it not been for the fact that a few years later I was dropping some small bits of stiff plastic wrapping into the bin and one hit the floor. The sound was almost exactly the same as the sound of the spider hitting the floor – and the whole incident surged back into my mind. Again, without the aural prompt,  I doubt whether this memory – which certainly existed in terms of being stored in my mind – would ever have been aired in conscious thought again.

The Shape of Stories  (April 2015)

I think a lot of difficulties facing effective political environmental action are created by the temporalities of the narratives we tell. I am interested in what Kurt Vonnegut called the shape of stories – here visualised by the designer  Maya Eilam.

Kurt Vonnegut - The Shapes of Stories Infographic

Source of above

What is missing from these great pictograms is any sense of the very differing time frames embedded in these narratives. Some of the narrative time frames (X Axis) might last a year or more – The Metamorphosis, Kafka; some a decade or so – Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë; while others span millennia – the creation/rise and fall of ‘man’. Our current cultures and politics really struggle to deal with narratives which are of deep time – stretching back to pre-human times and forwards into unknown futures.



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