It was bound to happen sooner or later: all those late nights reading plays, typing and deleting introductory paragraphs, and writing a quick* article before sleep, have worn at my defenses; the microbes have invaded and converted my corpus into a battlefield. The site of the conflict: my middle ear.
It doesn’t seem so bad, does it? An ear infection: confined to a single location, not contagious via the air, and it doesn’t even come with much of a fever. The ear is a complex and delicate organ, however, and also very small: any swelling then (which invariably attends infection) is extraordinarily painful, making it, at times, difficult to concentrate on anything else.
Besides this, I’ve temporarily lost some of my hearing. I don’t think many of us realise how much we rely on our sense of hearing to orient ourself within our surroundings: without proper use of both ears, sounds nearby become muted, and blend with background noise (which becomes louder). Being in noisy areas, then, is disorienting. Add to this the difficulty of listening to music, turning my head, chewing, or talking, and the whole experience is rather irritating, and interferes with my regularly-scheduled activities. [i]
What has any of this to do with Bartholomew? Well, you may recall that when I introduced him, I commented that in anthropomorphising and regularly featuring him in my archive, I hoped I would pay more attention to him, and prevent him from suffering the dehydrated death of all my previous plants. The plan was actually quite successful: I remembered to water him, to trim any dead or decaying leaves, to turn him as he follows the sun, so that he grows straight. Paying such close attention allowed me to observe minute changes in his growth and appearance; these (rather unpredictable) changes were to be the subject of Bartholomew’s next article. [ii]
Then, tragedy struck. Bartholomew grew a bit too tall and collapsed under the weight of his own leafy vine. I was forced to trim a rather large section at his base where the stem had broken and turned black. He grew rather rapidly again after that, and, to prevent a like occurrence, I provided him with a little stake/flagpole to support his weight as he creeped up. It worked, for a few days, until he again curled away from the stake into the ground.
Since then, I’ve done some reading, and learned that though they attempt to grow upwards, young ivies should actually be encouraged to grow horizontally until their stems are thick enough to support their own weight. So then, the trick is not to tie him up, but to pin his stem to the soil in his pot.
The happy, and rather amazing fact, is that ivies are nearly impossible to kill [iii], and Bartholomew, though I’ve cut him down twice now, continues to grow rapidly. I even managed to save his last cutting which is currently floating in a water/fertiliser mixture. Soon he’ll grow roots and will be replanted in soil and, if I remember my biology correctly, will have the exact DNA as the other half of him; even though he will appear as two distinct plants, he is technically only one.
One plant in two distinct bodies; colonies of autonomous bacteria in me: this type of inter-relatedness of organisms is precisely the information that recent eco-critics like Niel Everndon or Don McKay use to complicate our notions of territoriality and individuality: the natural co-dependence of organisms within a single body suggests the theoretical approaches and methods we ought to take towards our social and political operations. [iv]
This is all fascinating to me, but poor Bartholomew still looks a little sad. To cheer him up, I thought I would read a bit to him from Peter Ackroyd’s “biography” of London. Ackroyd has painstakingly combed chronicles, annals and diaries, as well as plays, letters, and law-codes, and volumes (literally) of other sources[v] to uncover the sensory and visceral details of London at all its stages of life (from prehistory to contemporary day).
It’s a massive tome (822 pages, including the index), so no complete review will be in the works for some time yet. I did, however, (and perhaps ironically) just complete “London Contrasts,” two chapters on the sounds and silences of London during the early medieval period. It’s fascinating to learn that London, not even at a population of one million yet (a feat which it would not achieve until 1801), was actually louder then than it is now (at a population of over 7.5 million). While modern cities value quiet as sign of efficiency and progress, in those days
noise itself is associated with energy and the specifically with the making of money. Sound was intrinsic to the trades of the carpenters and the coopers, the blacksmiths and the armourers. Other occupations, such as dockers and porters, the loaders and unloaders by the wharves, actively employed noise as an agent of business; it was the only way of affirming or expressing their role within the commercial city. (72)
A noisy blacksmith’s means a productive blacksmith’s, while only traders with goods to sell have anything about which to shout. Similarily, in non-economic activities, church bell-ringing was a competition of sorts, and used to salute the “health” of the city (since they took a deal of youthful energy to ring).
London has its silences too, of course, and Ackroyd reveals that strict curfew was kept: in the previous chapter “You be all law-worthy,” we learn that working and drinking after curfew was forbidden and that any figure out after curfew had rung would be “arrested as a night-walker”. Too, citizens were encouraged to ‘raise hue and cry’ against any transgressor of the peace” (61). The hue and cry itself, then, indicates a kind of life flourishing in London: perhaps almost bacterially, interrupting (and defending) the natural rhythms of the city itself, but it emphasises the relationship between sound and the life systems of a large city (and perhaps questions both the modern emphasis on silence and the myths of individuality and anonymity of the city’s inhabitants).
Ackroyd, then, does take an eco-critical approach to his work: a fact indicated by his labeling of his book as a “biography”. Indeed, Ackroyd prefaces his work with an introduction titled “The city as a body,” one where the “byways of the city resemble thin veins and its parks are like lungs” (1). At times the city is “refreshed” (2), at other times diseased: the health of London depends, however, on the smaller collective and individual bodies that run within this enormous circulatory system.
[i] scheduled activities. Thesearch has slowed a little. I have, however, had ample time to read other works (hence the increased number of book reviews in the last week). I recently finished James’s The Turn of the Screw, but am going to wait awhile to review it, first, because I read the majority of it while waiting in the clinic, while clips from Star Wars and Hannah Montanna played on the television, making it not the most ideal environment and circumstances in which to concentrate, and second, because I’m not the most informed on Victorian novels, and would like to read a bit of the critical material first (but can’t justify reading non-thesis related articles when I’m behind in my work).
[ii] Bartholomew’s next article. I was planning to read this alongside Levinas’s theory of the other; the moment has been lost, alas!
[iii] impossible to kill. Kari informed of this when I was considering my options at the plant orphanage: it is, in fact, the main reason I chose to adopt Bartholomew.
[iv] political operations. I discussed McKay’s theories on the environmental implications of anthropomorphoses in my article on Planet Earth. In his essay, “Beyond Ecology,” Everndon asks
Where do you draw the line between one creature and another? Where does one organism stop and another begin? Is there even a boundary between you and the non-living world, or will the atoms in this page be a part of your body tomorrow? How, in short, can you make any sense out of the concept of man as a discrete entity? How can the proper study of man be man if it is impossible for man to exist out of context? For the ecologist, then,the desire of some in the humanities to deal only with the fragment of reality they term “human” is nonsense. (95)
For McKay, metaphor (a “literary” tactic) becomes useful in (re)forging relations with the environment. For Everndon, we are already in a relationship with the environment, and must therefore take care to direct our studies to account for the inter-dependency of organisms. Ackroyd takes this approach in many ways: by examining the different social and political groups that interact within the city, and the city’s relationships with the landscape without the city walls, and by examining human relationships with the stones and water (especially the Thames, and the English rains), and other meteorological events that shape the city and thus the survival strategies of its inhabitants. This approach explains why the book, though arranged roughly in chronological order, tends to jump forward and backwards in time, so that different aspects, causes, and resolutions of different relationships can be illuminated in different ways.
[iv] other sources. I do wish Ackroyd had cited his quote sources within the chapters or an endnotes section, but I think this would interfere with the reading narrative he has established. He does include an essay on source and further reading material at the end of the work.
Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. London: Vintage, 2001.
Everndon, Niel. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens and London: U of Georgia P, 1996. 92-104.
25 May 2008
Glossary of Terms:
Quick. adj. A word that is actually inapplicable to nearly anything I’ve ever written.