illustration by Daniel Locke

Review: Through the Bush Backwards

by Melina Campos

Recently ONCA hosted an exhibition accompanied by a day workshop. The topic was landscape history and landscape restoring possibilities.‘Through The Bush Backwards’ is a multifaceted project by artist Daniel Locke and scientist Chris Sandom that takes you on a journey through time to explore how Britain’s nature has changed and how it could be restored. This is an important project, as landscapes very often appear without history, and with the completeness and coherence of a theatre backdrop, as Anna Tsing – one of my favourite anthropologists – suggests in her paper The Buck, the Bull, and the Dream of the Stag: some unexpected weeds of the Anthropocene.

The artist and scientist took us on journey where we could learn about what there was in the backdrop. We time travelled through a graphic novel, where we visited the Last Interglacial (125,000 years ago) when elephants and hippos were living in Southern England. We stopped off in the Last Glacial (40,000 years ago) when humans were just arriving in Britain encountering woolly mammoth and rhino. We visited the Early Holocene (7,000 years ago) after the extinction of Britain’s big mammals, when human hunter gatherers were hunting aurochs and red deer. We dropped into the Late Holocene (3000 years ago) after agriculture had arrived and farming communities had established.

The display was very successful in raising awareness about the existence of megafauna – those large mammals of our childhood imagination – in the same place where we are now. Who would have imagined that hippos ever lived in Britain and that our human ancestors co-existed with those big animals?

Although I have been in love with megafauna since I can remember, this project makes me think about humans, not big mammals. This project triggered my interest in landscape history. I asked myself what happened at that very moment when farming communities were established. What has been our role in shaping the landscape to get where we are? How did we create the so called Anthropocene?

In her paper, Anna Tsing comes up with an explanation:

“Some archaeologists have suggested that the Anthropocene should begin with the very first plant and animal domestications, a date that could make Anthropocene and Holocene coterminous (Smith and Zeder 2013). Some geographers argue for 1610, a global CO2 drop that can be explained by the genocide of Native Americans by European-introduced diseases (Lewis and Maslin 2015). Genocide encouraged forest regrowth in the New World, lowering global CO2 and perhaps explaining the latter half of the Little Ice Age in Europe. Climate scientists first promoted 1784 as the start date for the Anthropocene because of the invention of the steam engine, a marker for the industrial revolution (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000). Now many have turned their attention to 1945, the first atom bomb, with its clear radioactive signature in sediments around the world, and the ‘great acceleration’ of human population and industrial disturbance (Steffen et. al. 2015).”

I find that this information has not only opened my mind, but has also broken my heart somewhat. It made me think that the mess we find ourselves in nowadays did not start with the invention of the steam engine, it is not due to the use of fossil fuels, rather it formed with the idea that the human being can colonise anything, from landscapes to people, from ideas to minds.

The part of the passage that discusses genocide in ‘the New World’ deeply resonates with me. I find myself reading this passage again and again. This claim is probably not true, just an academic postulation. Even so, that would not prevent me from remembering that the genocide did occur and that even the Earth suffered from it. These findings make me think about our interconnectedness; how our actions have consequences and how we all depend on each other.  What to do with this information?

As T.J. Demos writes in his book Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology,  “I’m convinced that art, given its long histories of experimentation, imaginative invention, and radical thinking, can play a central transformative role here. In its most ambitious and far-ranging sense, art holds the promise of initiating … creative perceptual and philosophical shifts, offering new ways of comprehending ourselves and our relation to the world differently than the destructive traditions of colonizing nature”.

In their project, the artist and the scientist invite us to talk about what our countryside looks like now and explore our visions for the future. We played card games to introduce us to Britain’s past, present, and (maybe) future. I don’t know if the future I want for Britain is the introduction of big mammals, as some people suggested. But I am sure that something this project achieved was to invite us to explore the landscape history and imagine the landscape we want.

As Anna Tsing points out in her paper, “landscapes are gatherings of ways of being in the making, they are both imaginative and material; they encompass physical geographies, phenomenologies, and cultural and political commitments”. Why not make something different where there is space for all of us, human and non-human?