The wipe board

In April 2014 I arrived at the threshold of a practice-led PhD. My proposed project borrowed an idea from the eco-philosopher David Abram: cultural recuperation. I had a vague plan in mind to make pictures and poems which spoke to the widespread contemporary re-imagining of the spiritual, as people gravitate to appropriate processes of repair in the face anthropogenic mass-extinction.

By late summer my resolve to address ecological collapse through an ‘art-led research project’ had foundered, despite the green light I’d been given by the Graduate School. I’ve been left with the puzzle, since, of what it was that so abruptly sucked the wind out my sails, leaving me suddenly and quite physically unable to continue, just when all seemed to going well.

There’d been signs, maybe, if I’d wanted to listen – little tells that linger in memory the way a dream can continue to offer up new layers of meaning, decades afterwards. Here’s one: the night I posted the first PhD fees-instalment, my left hand – the hand I’d used to drop the envelope into the post-box at the end of our road in Falmouth – began to swell up. By morning it was bright red, covered in hives, and the skin had begun to weep. The hives dispersed after a month or so, but since that night the hand has remained a barometer of internal weather, swelling hot and leaky when the internal contradictions began to build.

Here’s another memory invested with dream-like resonance. The day I first saw that I wasn’t going to follow this project through. A fidgety, brisk academic was demonstrating to a roomful of us aspiring PhDs how this business of contributing to academic knowledge works. He took a red marker and drew a large, loose circle on a white plastic wipe-board. Then he wiped and redrew a tiny portion of its rim, nudging the line outwards just here, to create one tiny little bump. There we each were, then, edging back the perimeter of ignorance as we hammered out our own little contributions to knowledge. Tap tap.

My mind was wandering, maybe, because what began to absorb me was the white void inside that expanding circle. I imagined its continuing outward spread, swelling ever larger as modernity’s knowledge hoard continued to grow. And the pattern intrinsic to this mode of culture’s inevitable, omnicidal escalation – now more than ever:

Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels.

However we choose to respond to it, Derrick Jensen’s blunt maxim summarises the irrefutable natural history of our culture. What’s proceeded in close-step with its global proliferation is a deepening silence, as civilised moderns have progressively wiped Earth clean of her once abundant communities of non-human life. Over 98% of American old growth forest gone since the arrival of European settlers; since I was five, 68% of Earth’s already depleted wild mammalian life, gone; over the same period 75% of the insects gone – and that’s before we get to the dying oceans. Taken in the round, there’s surely no ‘recuperation’ at hand in the face of this relentless devastation other than grief. Than grieving.

As my mind loitered around some such morose track, now fully dissociated from what we’d come there to learn about, I caught myself entertaining a particularly ridiculous hope: if climate-driven societal collapse came about as soon as I kept reading that it might, then at least I wouldn’t have to go through with this godforsaken PhD. Sitting in that airless Bristol room a second thought arrived, hard on the heels of the first. Might it not be better, then, to take responsibility for this decision myself, and leave the great dying to its own obscure schedule?

Eight years later, here I am. Not exactly back, having never really left the room. Overwhelmed by this stuff now, just as I was then. But also trying to work out what’s changed, because it seems that something has changed. Even my left hand’s doing fine.

So I think I’ve worked out where to start these Sea Crow letters. Finding yourself paralysed or dissociated in the face of mass extinction isn’t the obstacle I perhaps took it for as I sat there staring at that wipe board. If you’re not overwhelmed by this stuff, as they say, you’re probably not paying attention. But here we are, a mass extinction gathering pace around us, with borrowed time on our hands. One way or another, each of us giving our best answer to the same unavoidable question.

How to use that time well?

One response to “The wipe board”

  1. […] walking away from the idea nine years ago these Sea Crow letters track a cautious return to the prospect of a practice-based PhD. The first […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: