‘Off in All Directions:’ Going With the Flow in the Anthropocene

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, we got a message from Glen Maddison in our inbox, who proposed to share some thoughts springing from his postgraduate work on ecocriticism. Located in the UK, he came across this site when researching Juliana Spahr, and we are very grateful to be able to foster this transaquatic connection. What is even more remarkable, however, is the relevance of his piece about the revelatory force of rivers and their capability of unearthing connections hidden under muddy surfaces. This arised from the de-culverting of a river in his Northern English hometown. This immediately brought to mind the recent project of re-opening the Singel canal in Utrecht (English report here). As Maddison writes, streams and their ‘branching fluidity’ offer ways to think about the human and the geological, but even more so uncover the connectivity and depth of the systems which we are just a small part of, whether we are in Utrecht, Chester-le-Street, or anywhere else on this watery planet.

Over the past few months, I feel I’ve developed a fresh appreciation of ‘home’ and the locale that constitutes it. This was likely due to myself, as well as many others the world over, being barred from travelling home as a result of certain global events that I need not even specify. I believe the unprecedented way in which many were (and still are) prohibited from returning to the place of their roots can prompt a whole new outlook on our links to that which is ‘local’, and how they shape our understanding of the world.

After about half a year of being locked down in Scotland, I was finally able to return to my home town of Chester-le-Street in North East England. You can imagine my surprise when I was met with the sight of a river cutting through what was my local marketplace. This all-new river had, in fact, been covered during the 1930s and had been flowing beneath the town centre for nearly ninety years. The Chester Burn, as it once was referred to during its heyday as the town’s central watercourse, was only now re-emerging as part of a de-culverting project intended to mitigate flooding and provide the town with a new communal ‘heart.’

Chester-le-Street Marketplace before and after the de-culverting project.
Photo on the left taken by © John Sutton (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Having just concluded studies relating to the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch defined by humanity’s lasting environmental impact on the planet, I couldn’t help but ponder the potential significance of all this. After spending an academic year ruminating on how our connections to earth systems can be uncovered and made perceptible, here I was faced with a literal uncovering of a river system that was responsible for shaping the very valley my town centre sits in. As my major academic focus was directed towards the position of literary art within the Anthropocene, I paid particular attention to the works of Juliana Spahr, whose poetry teems with connections and systems that join with explorations of community, ecology, and interconnectedness. Whilst pondering the potential significance of rivers in the Anthropocene, Spahr’s poem ‘Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache’[1] came to my mind. Spahr states ‘we came into the world at the edge of a stream’, a stream that provides a sort of enlightenment:

This is where we learned love and where we learned depth and
where we learned layers and where we learned connections
between layers.

This sense of revelation through an act of digging into depth is certainly fitting with the Anthropocene’s geological context. Indeed, Spahr exhibits a river’s power to cut through the landscape and reveal that which lies beneath the surface. Pertinently, in her work ‘The Incinerator’, Spahr refers to streams that flow ‘off in all directions’, carrying their sedimentary loads far away from ‘dissected plateaus’, depositing their cargo across continental networks. The Rivers of the Anthropocene Research Network see this branching fluidity as exemplifying the ‘the complicated and complex dynamics of human-nature entanglements’[2]. I can only imagine what this group would have to say about Chester-le-Street’s de-culverting project. If we view rivers as revelatory forces with the power to unearth compressed strata that embody the incommensurable scales of deep-time, what are we to make of a situation where town-planners are those who unearth a river? I daren’t dig even further and attempt to deduce meaning from the fact the same river was covered years earlier by a previous generation of town-planners. Perhaps an Eliot-like desire to perfectly ‘digest and transmute’[3] these matters isn’t appropriate within the Anthropocene, with many preferring to embrace sites that are ‘open to contradiction’[4] and allow for divergent streams of thought to flow from them. Who’s to say that any one of these streams may or may not offer revelations of their own?

‘Downstream’ from the de-culverted area. What was once a major river crossing is now a car park.

True to their consideration of complex ‘entanglements’, The Rivers of the Anthropocene Research Network champion a transdisciplinary approach that builds ‘research frameworks and methods that transcend disciplinary barriers’, enabling historians, scientists, artists, economists, and anthropologists to develop their own perspectives and ‘merge them into more influential messages’ through collaboration. One can’t help but picture a set of distributaries and tributaries, flowing both out of and into the main stem of a river. Juliana Spahr would probably be more than happy to voice support for such a transdisciplinary approach, having advocated herself for poetry to ‘transcend’ its formal limits and cross ‘disciplinary divides’, defying what she views as ‘constantly limiting’ institutional boundaries.

Another poet who embraces such a transdisciplinary approach is Adam Dickinson, who is known for his intersections of poetry and science. In his collection Anatomic, Dickinson takes ‘a deep dive’ into his own metabolism to reveal intimate connections with the world around him. Whilst referencing how hormones act as messengers within a metabolic system, he queries as to whether writing can ‘function as a productive hormone disruptor within larger cultural narrative sequences’, the implication being that there are certain dominant (and possibly insidious) systems at play in society that the literary arts could serve to ‘disrupt’ and reshape. Dickinson places his contemplation on potentially ‘productive’ hormone disruptors alongside a microscope image of his urine. Given that the image resembles something akin to a distributary river, with branches originating from the main flow, one’s mind gravitates back to the ‘streams going off in all directions’ seen in Spahr. With this comes a signal toward the potential utility of unfettered social connections, connections that bolster the interdisciplinary ‘influential messages’ that many hope will lead to real and positive change, even though many may struggle to visualise in what form that may come.

Urine under a microscope. Adam Dickinson, Anatomic

Not too dissimilar to how Dickinson engages with his metabolic ‘local’ in order to garner a greater understanding of wider systemic forces, my encounter with an uncovered river in my home town has prompted thoughts on matters that far exceed the rejuvenation projects of my local county council. What is potentially key to all this is a rejuvenated sense of intimacy with the ecological systems we all form a part of, an intimacy fostered through the act of digging deep down into these matters. Moreover, true to an unimpeded transdisciplinary approach, I feel I can offer my view on how I perceive rivers to prompt these thoughts, even if I lack any solid academic qualifications relating to potamology (a term I, admittedly, discovered through googling ‘scientific word for river studies’). Maybe, through my own act of digging, I’ve turned the soil somewhat and have prompted a few interesting thoughts in you.

Although my rambling on this may resemble the form of a cascading torrent, lacking a cohesive flow, perhaps that’s in the spirit of things. True to this ethos, I won’t venture to provide a precise, commanding conclusion. Instead, I will leave you with the final two lines of Alice Oswald’s ‘Hymn to Iris’:

And may I often wake on the broken bridge of a word,
Like in the wind the trace of a web. Tethered to nothing

[1] ‘Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache’ and ‘The Incinerator’ can both be found in Juliana Spahr’s Well Then There Now (2011)

[2] Quotes pertaining to The Rivers of the Anthropocene Research Network are taken from the volume Rivers of the Anthropocene (2017)

[3] T. S. Eliot. “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. (1950)

[4] Jonathan Skinner. “Editor’s Statement”. ecopoetics, no.1 (2001)

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