SCALES/PATTERNS by Tom White
ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.
In July of last year I travelled to Reykjavík to attend the New Chaucer Society Congress, held at the University of Iceland. After the congress, I spent a few days walking around the city, swimming in its outdoor pools and, one particularly sunny evening, watching Víkingur Reykjavík score a dramatic late winner in their Icelandic Premier League game against local rivals Fjölnir. The following morning, my last full day in Iceland, I rose early to catch a bus out to the nearby town of Akranes, at the foot of Mt. Akrafjall. As I arrived, there was some rain in the air and dark clouds overhead. I drank a cup of coffee in a small bakery in the centre of the town, waiting to see if the weather would clear. The rain was still falling lightly though as I set out from the town to the water treatment plant at the foot of the mountain; the river Berjadalsá that runs through the valley at the centre of the mountain is the town’s water supply. The heavy cloud that shrouded the peaks of the mountain as I began climbing lifted as the morning wore on, so that by the time I reached the southern peak (Háihnúkur) the sky was clear.
The visitor’s book at the southern peak contained a number of entries for each of the previous days. Reading them, I realised I had completed my climb relatively early in the day – with the near twenty-four hour sunlight during the summer months in Iceland, many had climbed the mountain late at night, reaching its summit at two or three AM. Part of me wished I’d done likewise, to see the sun scrape the horizon in the middle of the night and then begin to rise again. Looking west from Háihnúkur, it is possible to see far out across Faxaflói Bay. Looking north towards Borgarnes and Snæfellsjökull, as well as inland, patches of snow were still visible in a few shaded corners of the surrounding summits. Closer to the mountain is the entrance to the Hvalfjörður tunnel, which dives 165 metres beneath the fjord.
While climbing I stopped to take some photos and to make the recordings that would become a sound work titled Scales/Patterns (and that also formed an important part of a Mt. Judge EP titled Lights). As I climbed, I also thought about some of the books and articles that had lead to and featured in this thread, as well as the conversations I’d had over the preceding few days at the University of Iceland (as well as in some nearby bars, cafés, and rented apartments). Ecology, materialism (in many forms), and the broad temporalities invoked by both had been an important part of many contributors’ work, not least in the panels on ice organised by Jeffrey J. Cohen (editor of Prismatic Ecology, a review of which can be found here). In his response to the papers of the second of the two sessions, Oddur Sigurðsson of the Icelandic Meteorological Office had regaled us with a number of startling facts about Iceland’s glaciers. Intimations of the vast size, weight and lifespans of these glaciers were tempered by his regretful words about their immediate fate. In effect, he told us, whatever we do to slow or even halt the warming of the planet over the next few decades, it’s already too late for Iceland’s glaciers. In two hundred years they will be gone.
Mt. Akrafjall was hollowed out by a glacier over thousands of years; it is a slow-recording device for the impress of geologic forces and timeframes. Having reached the southern peak, I decided to walk/scrabble/occasionally climb down the inside of the vast valley created by the glacier. I reached the river at its centre and followed it eastwards back out of the valley, via the waterfall where the river finally falls from the mountain on its way out to the sea. Later that afternoon, I sat in a café waiting for the bus back to Reykjavík, talking to the person working there about what it was like to grow up and live in the shadow of a mountain. Having spent the first eighteen years of my life in the relatively flat expanses of East Yorkshire, I was happy to hear her stories about gazing up at the dark outlines of the mountain late at night. In return, I described the vantage point near to where my parents still live, one of the few hills in the area, from which it is possible to see out across Hull to the oil refinery at Immingham. At night, the fiery glow of the oil flare seems to hover above the city. She said that she hoped I didn’t mind, but that she preferred the sound of her view.
I departed Akranes feeling weary, as well as sad that my time in Iceland was coming to a close. The clouds slowly returned as the number fifty-seven bus climbed back out of the Hvalfjörður tunnel and made its way back to Reykjavík.
Scales/Patterns was originally broadcast on the 13th of April as part of Radiophrenia, a week-long arts radio station broadcasting from the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. The synopsis I submitted with the piece is reproduced below. A shortened version was broadcast on the 23rd of June on Resonance 104.4fm as part of Critical Waves, a collaborative project between Birkbeck, the Institute for Contemporary Arts and Resonance FM. Thanks to all those involved in both projects, as well as those whose company I enjoyed during my stay in Iceland.
Synopsis: Scales/Patterns is a sound work compiled from field recordings made around Reykjavík and the nearby Mt. Akrafjall in July 2014. Living in an age of ecological catastrophe requires that we live with (and within) multiple inhuman timeframes. Mt. Akrafjall – a mountain hollowed out by a glacier over thousands of years – provides a ground from which to consider such temporalities. A sifting and recombination of a number of recordings processed with delay effects, Scales/Patterns is an attempt to present a partial and fragmented sense of this type of temporal depth.