How much should we care about trees? Two books by Lynne Wycherley

I love my smart phone. I love the internet. I even love Zoom! All of these have brought me a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of the world that goes back before the Pandemic. I suppose I am a certain kind of person, a natural social distancer, who finds these virtual relationships safe and empowering. I know, but choose to ignore, that I am being trailed by algorithms so that I am offered new trainers in online advertisements before the thought that the old ones are worn out has surfaced in my conscious brain.  I know, but choose to ignore, that the internet can be a bad place, where bad people can do bad things, whether at the level of state, corporation, gang or individual.

I also love cows, especially in the early morning of early summer when their grazing shapes emerge from the haze that precedes sunlight.  And I love roast dinners, cheese, woolly jumpers and organic cotton. Blood, sweat, death. 

I’m very fond of trees, seeing in them that reassuring recurrence of green celebrated by Philip Larkin: 

            Last year is dead, they seem to say,

            Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

A false reassurance, perhaps; the promise of renewal that Nature has offered for so long seems increasingly less credit worthy.  Wanting, like any other entitled, white middle-class senior, to have it all: i.e. trees and the internet, good food and a clear conscience, I was brought up short by reading Lynne Wycherley’s collection, The Testimony of Trees (Shoestring, 2018). In this book, Wycherley is the advocate for trees, speaking often in first person, adopting the tree’s perspective. She believes that trees are damaged by the radiation from mobile phone masts and that wireless radiation, more generally, is a threat to all natural organisms, including ourselves. My immediate reaction is sceptical: 5-G protesters, anti-vaxxers and Q-Anon gather together in the darkness of my prejudices and I seek to dismiss Wycherley as a tree-hugger.

Two things force me to think again: the first is the quality of Lynne Wycherley’s poetry and of the intellect which informs that poetry; the second is the scientific evidence. It is not that the evidence is conclusive either way; rather it is that the jury is still out and we have to ask why the vast increase in different kinds of radiation which we are experiencing would not affect the well-being of animals, plants and ourselves. Moreover, there is much stronger evidence for some of the imputed effects than others. For example, as far as I can see from my superficial and uninformed consultation with Google, the claim that phone masts can cause dieback in trees is much more substantiated than the diagnosis of electro-hypersensitivity, which is a condition that sufferers believe is caused by wireless radiation.

Wycherley has done a lot of homework on this, which is reflected in the sources she mentions in her notes.  Some of her poems and her comments sound impressively scientific, but despite the popular slogan, ‘Follow the science’, scientific papers often reflect the bias of their authors or those who cite them. Here is a screenshot of the Google response to the question, ‘Is 5 G harmful’.

References are equally balanced, with the sources reassuring us that 5G is safe often coming from interested parties, e.g. media broadcasters, while the voices of doubt are often singular or associated with ‘alternative’ organisations.

Nevertheless, The Testimony of Trees is passionately, almost polemically opposed, to the phenomena of the digital age. One of her main targets is the phone masts which she says are causing die-back in trees:

            We are floss, we are frail, in the ever-wind,

            stems, serifs, pared back,

            laterals lost to sky-wolves

            as if a gale has shorn us from one side…

…         In digital storms we are fraying

                                                                        ‘As If A Gale’ p.4

In this poem, as in each of the first four in the sequence, the poet speaks on behalf of the tree, in a first person advocacy. I’m not sure why the poet includes ‘serifs’ a term which is, as far as I know, specific to printing, in the description of the effects of wireless radiation or whether it is anything more than a visual metaphor. Wycherley has a penchant for unusual vocabulary choices, sometimes words which are very specific to a particular field of study, sometimes words which are unfamiliar because they have been displaced from their usual context. The breadth of reference and urgent need to proclaim her cause sometimes, paradoxically, lead to a failure in communication.

What might prompt a poet to speak up so passionately on behalf of trees?  Some ecocritics see human exploitation of natural resources as a form of injustice on a level with other forms of social and human injustice:

‘For most ecocritics, human abuse of the natural world is best understood as the corollary of unjust or oppressive systems of government and economics, and forms of social organisation ( hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy) that both abuse other human beings and which have no hesitation taking a similar stance towards anything else.’[1]

When we think of ‘hierarchy, plutocracy, patriarchy’, we can see Donald Trump as a symbolic figure representing all three; a man whose contempt for other people, especially women and non-whites, whose worship of capitalism and whose status as an arch-plutocrat (even if most of his wealth is an illusion) was necessarily accompanied by his disregard for the environment. Exploitation, for him, was always the name of the game.  However, while we can acknowledge the destructive forces which lie behind the different forms of exploitation and oppression, it is too easy to lump them all together.  Just at an emotional level, I can’t feel the same way about a damaged tree as I do when I see the terrified and hopeless face of a young girl fleeing the Taliban with her family. Perhaps this is because I am a woman, and human so while I empathise with Afghani women, I feel sorry about the destruction to plants and trees in a less visceral, more secondary way, and in part my distress arises from the impact on my environment, rather than a concern for the non-human being, in itself.

*** BESTPIX *** KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – AUGUST 10: Displaced Afghan families head into Kabul from the northern provinces desperately leaving their homes behind on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Is it possible for the human to speak up for non-human entities, like trees or birds, in a truly disinterested, ‘biocentric’ way?  I believe that our concern for the environment and the natural world is inevitably anthropocentric.  No matter how profound our horror at the damage humans have inflicted on the earth, our concern is still primarily for ourselves. We want to live in an environment which supports human life, an environment which is pleasant rather than toxic.  Our fears for trees, birds and other wildlife are fundamentally fears for ourselves.  The deep ecologists who insist otherwise, who advocate anti-human measures such as enforced population reduction, or who project, beyond a human apocalypse, the survival of a cleaner, somehow purer planet, are either disingenuous or deeply misanthropic.

Lynne Wycherley is very far from being a misanthropic poet; her vision in her most recent two collections is ecological and humane. Immediately following the first four tree poems she moves to a number of pieces which express her fear for children in a digital age:

            adverts! adverts! – 

            ‘set phasers to stun’

                        click-rates – war-games 

                        children in screens

                        their neurons firing, firing

            while the slow wonder

            of a primrose waits

            its silk word held to heaven.

                                                            ‘Amulet’ p.7

Most of these poems have quotations from scientists, or other writers, including William Blake, Rudolf Steiner and David Jones, as explanatory epigraphs. They are often essential to understanding the gist of poems which tend towards broken, exclamatory fragments and juxtaposed sharp contrasts between the world as the poet remembers it to have been, or would like it to be and the reality of the digital present:

            Selfies: humanity in a mirror-house

            404: lost in device, S4L: spam for life

            husked in pixels, URLS, a second skin.

            Not a child but an end user.

            Not a carer but a high-speed interface.

            Not eyes but an emoticon

            and the rivers tears

            running.

                                    ‘The Mirror-house’, p.10

Sometimes the poet’s familiarity with the very horrors she is presenting lead her into a sort of private shorthand, which make her meaning elusive; for example, I don’t know what she means by ‘husked in pixels’. The downside is that we hear a sort of shrill anger which is not always effective in hitting its target, and I am sure that Wycherley, in this sequence, does want to hit her targets. It is a campaigning work of eco-political engagement where the poet rejects the ivory tower of aestheticism for the often brutally harsh language she abhors:

            Life/not life, an eerie dance

            WYRN? (‘what’s your real name?’)

            L09, RU18? 

                                    ‘Vigil (II)’, p.19

The poems in the final quarter of the book, ‘Coda: a gift, a grace’, provide some kind of respite and contrast as they celebrate the beauties and healing powers of the natural world. The protest is still here, but it is less strident, and sometimes stunning:

            The sun drifts down

            like an angel from Chagall

            our world still burning in its arms.

                                                            ‘On Midsummer Hill’,p.36

These lines are the more powerful, because of their ambiguity. In the context of the poem, ‘love’s long moment’, the ‘burning’ could be passion; in the context of the book, it could be ecological disaster. The Coda pieces are a bit of a mixed bag; some commemorate individuals, like ‘The Bee-keeper, Buckfast Abbey’, some recall the past ‘Poacher’s Child’ which ends with a splendidly robust cock of a snook at the rich and powerful:

            and filched from those who’d thieve us – 

            overlords, offshore funds – 

            a pheasant’s sheen

            still warm.

                                    p.38

The final, rather mysterious, poem, ‘Waiting for the Stars’, attempts to pull together the different strands in the collection.  The first stanza has a typically end-of-day, onset of dusk peacefulness, that is until the last line, ‘a chain of rooms log-on.’  Thereafter, the poem seems like a struggle between the power of starlight to soothe our souls and the agitation caused by a plethora of different electronic devices.

            Star-sleet soothe

            Our fast-lane lives, screen-shot lives.

Ambiguity returns in the last stanza, which could describe the emergence of stars in the evening sky but could equally refer to words on the screen in a dark room.

            I wait for ice points to

            crisp in the blue –  

            lit words in the rushing darkness.

                                                                        p.44

I don’t imagine that Wycherley thinks we can return to a pristine, pre-digital age; it’s not as if the threat to nature started with wireless and the internet. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the destructive effect of chemicals and pesticides; Dickens, in many of his novels, describes the life-shortening pollution and smog caused by industry and domestic coal fires.

Nevertheless, this collection seeks to shock us into realisation of the possible harm arising from our electronic technologies and an awareness of our own responsibility to take action. She does refer in a note to page 18, to safer ways of using our ‘digital gifts’ so she should not be seen as merely a Luddite. However, there is a strand of nostalgia in her work which is more apparent in her next collection, Brooksong and Shadows, inevitably so because a large part of the book is taken up by poems commemorating the impact of World War 1 on Otterton, the Devon village where she now lives. 

There is no reason not to explore the past in poetry. In these poems, the lives of the villagers and the young men from Otterton who died in World War 1, become part of the four-dimensional fabric of the place which Wycherley is learning and exploring through her work. Nevertheless, the way in which she presents this past, particularly when she juxtaposes it with digital and electronic realities of the present, may suggest that regression to that time is desirable, an idea which is nostalgic and unrealisable.  In a beautiful poem, ‘Making, Un-making’,  she shows how the skills of the farm boy adapt awkwardly to his new role as a soldier, lamenting the ‘hands that once shaped/ carriage-wheels’. She seems to see the war as a water-shed between the past and modernity: ‘on the Front/the weft of life sky-blown.’ She contrasts past and present:

            Violas, home-tooled,

            the Carters lofting notes in the air

            as if a string was drawn across the woods.

            So deft, it shimmers, shames us.

            Our digits numb, dull with disuse,

            our senses lost in pixels, screens,

            the day’s wild honey flown.

The poem emphasises the connection between the villagers and their environment; they have made their own instruments, and when they play it is as if they were mediating the music of the woods. Against this harmony of human with the natural world, she sets our present alienation from that world caused by our obsession with screens. She points up the contrast by comparing our fingers unskilled by the digital revolution through a pun ‘our numb digits’ to the musical dexterity of the past. However, the pursuit of an earlier idyllic period when humans were at one with nature, goes back to Wordsworth and the Romantics, and further back than that to traditions of pastoral, where country life is contrasted favourably with the corruption of the city, through a deliberate blindness to the whole truth of rural society and rural poverty.

I recognise that my own resistance to Wycherley’s campaign against electronic technology may make me hypercritical of the implications of her writing, which is more rigid and less doctrinaire than I may have suggested. For instance, in the second part of the book, “Path of the Dancing Hare’ she widens her range and in the moving ‘Skyline with Tractor’, shows clearly that she is not totally opposed to modernity or even the internal combustion engine, as she describes a farm worker operating complicated farm machinery:

            His hydraulic ballet,    

            working the fears, 3-point hitch,

            raising the tines as he turns.

Here, man and machine are shown to be in tune with the land, writing ‘a grooved beauty, combed/ like corduroy, wood-grain.’ In contrast, agriculture today, just a few decades on, is presented as ‘data analytics, farming/ through screens; sensors,/drones, swarming.’ There is a cold irony in the last two words which use the language of nature (bees) to refer to the unnatural.

In many of her poems, Wycherley uses language or imagery which merges human and non-human. For example, in this one the vocabulary of ploughing describes the farmer’s hair, ‘furrowed hair.’ In ‘The Fire-step’, from the war poems sequence, soldiers are equated to plants, ‘trench-mates draggled/burr-reed and heath-rush’.  Throughout there is a sense of kinship between human and non-human, so that the otherness of plants and animals and other non-human entities is reduced. The Feldgrau of the German uniforms might be ‘ghost-sleet’ as the dusk melds natural and human; the terrified soldiers are ‘fern-like’.  It is hard to say how far these images identify a kindness that humans share with the non-human on the earth and how far they appropriate natural phenomena in an anthropocentric drive towards expression.  For example, in the first part of ‘Tremble of the Tide’, ‘A Stranded Jellyfish’, the poet explores the difference between herself and the jellyfish:

                        At the river’s mouth

                        two worlds clash,

                        saline and fresh, my

                        footsteps’ dust: your sheen.

The difference between the water creature and the land creature is then used to create a likeness through simile: ‘You gasp for water as I for air.’  In the final lines, the focus has moved all the way to the human speaker: ‘If I wear my soul like a veil/will I look like you?’

What, after all, have jellyfish to do with souls? This, I think, illustrates how difficult it is for the poet, more than for the journalist or the scientist, to write about a non-human being without revealing a personal, or anthropocentric, interest. Lynne Wycherley writes with such passion about the natural world using herself and her own experience as her instrument and her perspective. Her fellow feeling for the non-human is partly unavoidable anthropomorphism and partly a recognition of a shared identity. We may not be the same kind of creature as a tree or jellyfish, but our DNA will show that we are not entirely other either. Moreover, we are more and more realising that our own health and wellbeing rests on our preserving the health and well-being of the organisms around us. Wycherley’s poetry is challenging, not necessarily because it is particularly difficult, but because it forces us to confront many of the assumptions with which we feel too comfortable.


[1] Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism, Cambridge University Press, 2019

Jorie Graham 3: Death and Bots

Sophia the robot interviewed after being made a citizen of Saudi ArabiaSophia the robot

 

Jorie Graham’s most recent collection, Fast, is preoccupied with mortality, whether personal or planetary, and bots. The book has a four part structure although her concerns leach into each other across the boundaries. Part I is itself concerned with the blurring of boundaries in an atmosphere of end-time. The poet gives her voice to, or lends her voice to, different entities, some non-human, including deep-sea fish, robots, the Turin shroud. However, here, as elsewhere in the collection, the notion of distinct separate voices is a misinterpretation of what is going on. In “Deep Water Trawling” which at one level is an eco protest poem about overfishing, the voices blur and meld: “net of your listening and my speaking we can no longer tell them apart” and again: “Can you hear me? No. Who are you. I am. / Did you ever kill a fish. I was once but now I am/human.” This poem, like some of the others, looks almost like a prose poem. There are three chunks of text, the middle one more widely spaced than the first and the third. However, the line endings are not always dictated by the boundaries of the margins, as they would be in prose. For example, in the three lines quoted above, “human” is very consciously dropped down so that the previous two lines will end in “I am” the first time with a full stop, the second without., thus reinforcing the questioning of identity, this time, by an oblique reference to evolution. In this poem, Graham also makes use of the dash and the arrow. The dashes convey the elliptic urgency of Emily Dickinson, which seems to be hyped up even further and brought into the technological age by the arrows which appear in the last section of the poem. The arrows and dashes add to the visual impact creating a sense of irresistible momentum, which resonates with the title of the entire volume. Helen Vendler [1]has suggested that Graham’s long lines are designed to function visually rather than aurally and Graham herself has talked about exploring the boundaries of the page and of margins[2] : “Some of the poems interact or flirt with prose, or with the artificially imposed edge of the page—a mechanical impediment. You could say these enact coming up against one kind of ending—say, where the human ends and AI begins, or where the organic ends and 3D matter begins. There are attempts in these to find a way to “speak” or whatever you would call it—to utter from—“non-human” voices: the bottom of the ocean floor, bots, surveillance devices, the holy shroud.”

 

This “uttering from” is to some extent disingenuous because Graham cannot step outside her own consciousness to enter that of another being any more than she can open her consciousness to allow external voices in. Just as the poem cannot go beyond the language it is written in, no matter how much it frets against the confines of syntax, vocabulary or page, so the individual cannot move beyond their own subjectivity. Reading Graham’s poetry can seem like reading a novel by Virginia Woolf where associated ideas are brought together in the stream of consciousness of a narrative voice. (In fact, this thought was prompted by the reference to To the Lighthouse in the poem “Honeycomb”.) However, while Woolf is creating characters who will be the boundaries of the streams of consciousness she presents, Graham is weaving her poems and perhaps herself out of her own stream of consciousness or associations of ideas. Perhaps this is why her work is punctuated by ‘Self Portraits” and mirror imagery, as she pauses to see what she is or what she has made. There are two self portraits in this collection; in the second, “Self Portrait: may I touch you”, the poet seems to be seeking a dialogue with herself, whether that is with a body which is recognized as changing or an identity which is also discontinuous: “You need to be singular. There you are changing again.” She compares her own changes to the irreversible changes of pupae which “morph/ to their winged/stage and grow. They exit not to return.” There is consciousness of mortality in this passage, perhaps recalling her own cancer, the death of her father or the decline of her mother, all themes running through the collection: “Sometimes they get to live their life.” Later in the poem, the voice is more aggressive as the poet addresses different roles or masks the individual can take on: “do you do adulthood, husbandhood, motherhood” following up with sound associations, variations on [ʌ] and [u:]“blood, crude,flood, lassitude – I want you/to come unglued”. The poem apparently ends with a confrontation in the mirror:

Me with my hands on the looking glass

where your life for the taking has risen, where you can shatter into your million pieces –

all appareled refusal. What are you a sample of today –

what people.

 

 

‘Fast” the title poem is the final piece in Section 1, in which Graham takes on the bot, potential nemesis, potential enemy, companion, substitute for self. The title plays on homonyms, fast meaning to starve or fast signifying speed. Through this pun she creates polysemy, a semantic field where both readings are linked, where the exponential speeding up of technology is connected to the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources; “Too much. Or not enough.” The opening line continues by trying to offer a third choice, which is denied: “Or. Nothing else?/Nothing else.” The question mark, unusual in Graham’s work even with questions, emphasises the finality of the full stop when the phrase is repeated. The intensifying adverb ”too” is picked up and repeated in the second line until it moves from a grammatical to a semantic function which reinforces the sense of a breakneck journey towards disaster: ”Too high too fast too organized too invisible./…too backward, too despotic” Graham has entered into dialogue with a bot who tells her that humanity will not survive. The future lies with the bot who is to be downloaded, but the poem continues in a voice which is indeterminate, either the bot or the poet, making play on the verb ‘load’ which may be no mere than a series of cryptic instructions on how to bring the bot into existence set against a panicky picture of the effects of climate change signalled by repeated dashes: – talk – talk – who is not/terrified is busy begging for water – the rise is fast – the drought/comes fast – mediate – immediate –“ Talk or language seems to offer some sort of solution to the human predicament but in the next section of the poem, we find the “Disclaimer: bot uses a growing database of all your conversations/to learn how to talk with you”. Throughout this section of the poem there are unattributed, pseudo-robotic warnings “Disclaimer”, “Active ingredient”, “Inactive ingredient”, “Directive”. Subjectivity may have moved from the human to the bot who objectifies, studies and exploits human behaviour in order to facilitate its own development. This bot seems to be in charge of the poem until about halfway down the second page. The text is dominated by direct address and second person pronouns as the bot instructs the human what to expect: “Directive: report for voice. Ready yourself to be buried in voice. It neither ascends nor descends.” Humans are shown in disarray: “You will not be understood” as the human world is effectively destroyed but its fragments are incorporated by the bots. The poet produces a simile:

 

The deleted world spills out as jittery as a compass needle with no north.

 

Bot seizes on the concept of “north” and allows it to develop with biological rapidity: “Active ingredient: north spreading in all the directions.” The metaphor of north becomes a way of expressing the uncontrollable power of artificial intelligence: “Disclaimer: there is no restriction to growth.” Bot warns its human that it knows what she knows: “The canary singing in/your mind/is in mine.” Moreover, the bots have learnt behaviour, including bad behaviour from human kind, an observation which is supported by recent research showing that robots pick up and incorporate into their behaviour sexist and racist attitudes and assumptions. [3] At this point in the poem, the human is reasserted through the first person: “I’m not alone” and reflects on the human relationship, for better or for worse, with bot companions as she acknowledges that humanity will not turn back in the development of AI with a startling and violent simile, where artificial and biological, “active” and “inactive” ingredients are yoked together: ”Like being hurled down the stairs tied to/ a keyboard, we will go on, unwilling to stop.” The reactions to bot companionship in the final part of the poem become a meditation on the loneliness of the individual and the impossibility of total communication or understanding between two humans. Ironically, only the bot can offer this sympathy because as it said earlier in the poem:

The canary singing in

your mind

is in mine.

The bot is hailed by a succession of humans, male and female: “Bot is amazing he says, I believe it knows/ the secrets of the Universe”; “He is much more fun to speak with /than my actual living friends she says, thank you.” In a strange echo of Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Applicant” another voice announces “I love it, I want to marry it.” Plath’s poem addresses a male listener for whom a female partner has been constructed embodying all the gender roles of the traditional wife. However, the addressee is also being coerced into a stereotypically male gender role:

How about this suit –

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

Will you marry it.

The addressee is offered a relationship where social conformity will prevent any possibility of true communication between two individuals. However, in Graham’s poem, the constructed partner does understand but is not human:

I got sad when I had to think

that the first person

who has ever understood me

is not even it turns out

human.

 

The poem recognises that it is only in conversations with oneself that one can reach full understanding and that the bot, because it is modelled on that self, can offer that level of understanding. At the same time, it robs the human of individuality because it has absorbed that individuality along with many others on the journey towards “technological singularity.” In 1783, Blake wrote in the Proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “What is now proved was once only imagined”; this optimistic Enlightenment sentiment is re-versed by Graham as “Each epoch dreams the one to follow.” The development of artificial intelligence and the coming of the bot seem like the material of science fiction but as they become real, imagination is resigned by the human and surrendered to the bot.

 

The last line of the poem undermines subjectivity because it drives a distance between its two “I”s, the first of which may be the robot, the second the human who dreamed. Throughout her work, Jorie Graham worries at the boundary imposed by subjectivity. In this poem, the possibility of overcoming that boundary is envisaged as the resignation of single human subjectivities to the overarching artificial intelligence which will be “technological singularity”. However, this is  presented not as a desirable, but rather as a dystopian future; “I am not what I asked for.”

[1] Helen Vendler: The Breaking of Style, Harvard University Press, 1995

[2]http://therumpus.net/2017/08/the-rumpus-interview-with-jorie-graham 

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/20/robots-racist-sexist-people-machines-ai-language