Listening keeps me attached to my surroundings. It helps me to put things in perspective, or better, in perspective of other beings. After all, listening is potentially the start of a great conversation with humans and non-humans alike.
The past few years I listened a lot to landscapes where raised bogs no longer thrive or where they still exist, either in degraded or pristine form. I listened to their sounds, both above and below ground level. Especially the latter revealed to me a whole new world of many rhythms and an occasional melody. I listened to stories rooted in those landscapes that disproportionately often speak of mysterious lights, sounds or appearances as omens for disaster and death. I further listened to scientific insights that told me that every raised bog is in fact an ancient body that consists of many little moss plants of the Sphagnum species. Each Sphagnum moss plant grows at the top end and dies away at the bottom due to a lack of light. They vegetate on top of their ancestors and are capable to survive well above ground water level, being exclusively fed by precipitation and air-borne mineral salts. Due to these harsh conditions, their growth speed is slow but steady, a few mm per year on average, so a bog layer of only one meter thick corresponds to a period of roughly 1000 years. Many of these Sphagnum moss plants together, both alive and dead, behave like one big organism that regulates its own water circulation, which makes a healthy bog resilient to extreme weather conditions such as draughts or heavy rains.
What I also heard is that from medieval times onwards many once flourishing raised bogs have been cultivated to yield agricultural land and that until today they have been industrially excavated to produce peat and potting soil. Despite efforts to protect and restore them, the remnants of raised bogs that have survived these human interventions are still being threatened by excessive nitrogen deposition and by dehydration as a consequence of low ground water levels in neighbouring agricultural lands.
Bog landscapes have been in crisis for centuries. How could listening to these landscapes be helpful in times in which we humans acknowledge we are confronted with multiple crises ourselves? What could we learn from these ancient bodies of Sphagnum mosses in order to cope with the challenges we are currently facing? And what more could they tell us than Haraway’s tentacular chtonic beings, Gilbert’s lichens or Chen-MacLeod-Neimanis’s water?[i]
[i] D. Haraway, ‘Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene’. In: e-flux journal, nr 75, September 2016; http://sites.psu.edu/iahboundaries/wp-content/uploads/sites/34810/2015/10/Scott-Gilbert-Presentation.pdf (accessed March 2021); C. Chen, J. MacLeod, A. Neimanis (eds.), Thinking with Water, Mc Gill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2013.
Presentation for a lost conference
One year ago I worked on a lecture-performance for the SAR Crisis Collective! conference. My goal was to address the aforementioned questions by a rendition of a video piece entitled Meerstalblok, named after one of the last raised bog remnants in the Netherlands. This video, consisting of subsurface bog sounds, still images and written fragments from site-specific stories, was regarded as the score of my contribution, to be enacted during the conference. The cancellation of the event has yielded drafts, sketches, lecture fragments, a moment of apathy and finally, some new questions: how can a void be fertile, how to shift from thinking about crisis to thinking with crisis?
One of the starting points of the video Meerstalblok has been to engage myself with a remnant of a degraded raised bog through listening to its subsurface voice. That particular bog remnant is not only a body in crisis – and for that reason part of a UNESCO Global Geopark – it also is a body that has been living from primordial times onwards. The subsurface layers of this relic consist of material dating back to the start of the last interglacial we presently live in. These layers potentially contain valuable insights in how the world developed on a time scale far beyond that of human beings. Today many scientists are analyzing these organic time capsules to gain more knowledge about, for instance, climate behaviour. Raised bogs are in crisis, many indeed vanished or are being damaged, but that has also lead to acknowledgement, recognition and worldwide conservation and restoration programs to secure these ancient archives. Their crisis could as such be considered as fertile, one that potentially offers solutions for a shared future. So, also in the context of contemplating the ruins of a conference, there is all the more reason to listen to the subsurface song of a still surviving bog remnant.
The past year has been not even a ripple on the time scale of a Sphagnum body. Indeed, the substrate of previous art works, themes as well as ideas of various thinkers and practitioners has remained intact as before. My practice of entangled listening, thinking and making, roots in that substrate and new works and thoughts have been sprouting and branching off from several preceding ones, converting the latter into fresh substrate material in the process. The blanket of corona measures might have hampered its development to some extent, just as a blanket of snow presses down the freshly grown moss of many raised bogs in winter. The net growth rate of a bog is nevertheless positive, exemplifying the undulating aspect of most progress. So likewise, as soon as the corona snow is melting away, all our practices will bounce back and develop to their full potential again. After all, many of these practices together operate in an interacting network and, despite its inconsistencies and disagreements, that community behaves like one big multifaceted organism, that is capable of regulating its own means, motives and methods and able to cope with opposition and setback.
I listen, and listen again. If only I could understand.
Learning a foreign language on the spot generally goes along with mimicking gestures and repetitive utterances in order to reach some level of understanding. A mutually shared message is often joyfully confirmed by sonic or bodily imitations. If I ever want to arrive to some shared insight while listening to the song of Sphagnum mosses, I am condemned to look for analogies first. One I think to recognize and like to confirm here is that of resilience. As long as any self-regulating body remains sufficiently intact, it is able to cope with extremities and to adapt to shifting circumstances. As long as flows and breezes are circulating, remnants and ruins are safe from further degradation and able to live and sing for many more years – even on the Sphagnum scale.