Placeways in the Anthropocene: Phyllis Webb’s Canadian West Coast

By | 1 August 2017

I think, the full effect of Geophysical Capitalism (what some are now calling the Anthropocene) – its logical conclusion – is the earth’s refusal of the human species. A resounding No pronounced against our methods. Currents stall, rain patterns change, oceans rise and erase our habitations. So a message is delivered. The question now is: how do we respond to that No? Which presupposes another question: do we see ourselves as beings capable of receiving such an address? Poetry plays in this uncertain space – between address and addressee. It’s in poetry that we can at least imagine ourselves as addressed by the world we inhabit, the land we dwell upon. Poetry as keener listening to the whispering outside. Poetry as a calling back.

Ceremonial bowls, carved into the bedrock of the land, where elemental regimes collide, might also take up this listening to the call and calling back.

There is an emblematic video from the heart of Geophysical Capitalism. I sit with Phyllis in her living room, showing her the video on my computer. It is private security footage from inside a home in Fort McMurray when May wildfires tore through the town at the centre of bitumen mining. Tar sands = extreme fossil fuel extraction = climate change = hot and dry spring = unseasonal and intense wildfires (firefighters nicknamed the blaze ‘The Beast’ – a year after it began it was still burning).

It is a normal living room. There is a red wall with an abstract painting hung above a grey couch (‘I don’t mind that painting,’ Phyllis remarks). There are table lamps, which are on, a beer bottle open on a side table. There is a fish tank, and you can see fish swimming back and forth inside. Trees outside a window on the right move violently in sudden wind, while the view out a sliding glass door, to the left, fills with billowing smoke. Turn the volume up and you can hear the fire crackling outside, see sparks swirling in the smoke obscuring the sliding glass door. Loud crashes, flames becoming visibly thick outside. The fish keep swimming about in the tank, its blue light – the red wall. The glass door shatters and smoke starts to pour into the room, curling along the ceiling like upside down fog. Glass continues to shatter and the house alarm sounds. The room is filling with smoke, the view from the security camera becoming obscured. Cones of light under the table lamps, the blue fish tank, still just visible in the inner gloom. Then grey – all is grey. The occasional spark twirling past. Grey. The lights are out. The lamps and fish tank dark. Sparks. The crackling of the fire. The last minute of the video is like this – grey, crackling, sparks.

How can we not view this as emblematic? We are currently watching the entire planet burn from the inside. Alarms are sounding everywhere. And still we are waiting to act.

That’s too simple, I know. But still I imagine again and again the waters overwhelming the Fraser River delta, Tsawwassen on its peninsula, amidst the rising waters, an island again – for the first time in two thousand years – my eyes glued to a video on repeat

the red wall 

the blue tank I have to imagine

              beginning to boil

a small bedrock bowl on an island

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