:: Article

Anticipatory history

By Bridget Penney.

Anticipatory History, ed. Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor & Colin Sackett, Uniformbooks 2011

According to Chambers (1995) a lexicon is ‘a word-book or dictionary; a vocabulary of terms used in connection with a particular subject’. The particular subject of Anticipatory History is the way in which issues around conservation are addressed and the crucial importance of extending this dialogue, in a meaningful fashion, beyond the academic and professional fields where policy tends to be made. A first step towards this is to establish a vocabulary of ‘key terms’ which are the subjects of the 50 short essays, varying in length from a paragraph to a couple of pages, that make up the bulk of this book.

The introduction describes how the book grew out of a research network which held a series of discussions between September 2010 and April 2011 ‘to explore the roles that history and story-telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes’. The meetings took place in southwest England and local sites feature prominently as points of reference. However the issues under discussion range much more widely and could be relevant to very different environments. ‘Key terms’ were identified and refined during the course of debate, then ‘participants were asked to adopt particular key terms and to produce entries.’ Though the same themes and case studies pop up in several essays by the nineteen contributors, the way they are approached and the inferences drawn in different instances can vary considerably. ‘This book is then the work of many hands and can in no way claim to be the product of a single vision….Perhaps the most important outcome of this editorial policy is the outcome of a unifying perspective on the term in question.’

Many of the ‘key terms’ appear familiar. Some are part of an everyday spoken vocabulary. Others might have been encountered, by the non-specialised reader, in specialised scientific contexts or in the wider media where usage may be unhelpfully fuzzy. A couple of the ‘key terms’ have been recently coined in an attempt to offer a fresh perspective on a matter which is felt to be of pressing concern. A certain amount of productive tension – as the editors point out, even contradiction and disagreement – between the entries contributes to a sense of healthy, on-going debate. Rather than trying to pin down the terms for once and for all, these meditative and often surprisingly playful short essays encourage the reader to reflect on the topics further, particularly where they run counter to expectations.

Unpacking the cultural baggage ‘key terms’ such as ‘Commons’, ‘Woods’, ‘Moor’ and ‘Enclosure’ have accrued during their long history of being used to denote particular types of place and human activities is a thoughtful process which could cover hundreds of pages. In the limited space available for the entries, the focus is on what is pertinent about these concepts to people’s understanding of place. The concept of ‘Commons’ is addressed through the philosophical ideas the existence of such spaces is imagined to embody. ‘Moor’ is presented as an emblem of people’s emotional attachment to ideas of wilderness. The consideration of ‘Enclosure’ turns on the unpredictable consequences of intervention and the shift in perception of the hedgerow from a symbol of oppression and division to a much-loved wildlife habitat whose disappearance is seen as destroying a traditional landscape.

Maintaining the carefully non-prescriptive tone of the project, the editors suggest alternative ways of reading, including plotting a paper journey round the UK with the aid of the map helpfully indexed with page references for sites mentioned. At the end of each essay is a list of cross-references, offering glimpses of reading paths and sometimes bewildering choices. Entropy, Palliative Curation or Story-radar, anyone? Epiphany, Liminal zone or Natural history? Fortunately, unlike an old-style game book where the choice at the end of each paragraph would usually move you a step closer to ignominious defeat, Anticipatory History offers the reader the chance to backtrack, side-step or just open on a random page.

What on earth is anticipatory history anyway? The introduction mentions two things which it isn’t – quite – though it has drawn enough from both to make their consideration relevant. The first is a concept of ‘progressive history’ put forward by Hayden White, which encourages the study of history ‘to find out what it takes to face a future we should like to inherit rather than one that we have been forced to endure’. The second is the conservation strategy of ‘anticipatory adaptation’, where plans accommodate expected change on a (wonderful phrase) ‘no regrets basis’ – so that even if things don’t happen as predicted some kind of benefit will still be felt. The mixture of philosophy and pragmatism that characterises both gives a good flavour of the Anticipatory History project.

The understanding demonstrated of the complexity and power of the rhetoric of all sorts of different narratives, historical, fictional and invisible, is impressive. Story-radar, one of the recent coinages, is defined as the ‘active identification of narrative threads within representations of “fact”’. The author writes, ‘We need story-radar to help us pay attention to narratives,’ and, in the course of a brief but wide-ranging discussion, draws attention to the ‘unspoken, over-arching story-lines’ which may influence patterns of thinking and behaviour without people being aware of them. The narrative of ‘the undeserving poor’, which seems to have set hard enough over the past two years, is cited as a particularly insidious example. It’s probably true that an individual’s story-radar works better at detecting narratives he or she is not in sympathy with. Much harder to spot are those which align so comfortably with one’s own prejudices that it seems quite natural to accept them as facts. With admirable even-handedness the author showcases ‘a narrative of renunciation – a formula latent in debates on both sides of the political spectrum – where cars, supermarkets, large houses and air travel (all things we enjoy) should be surrendered in order to defeat climate change’.

Anticipatory historians can draw on a long history of telling stories about the future and the imaginative paradigms of science fiction are perhaps especially valuable for the way they can project wishes and fears, untrammelled by facts. ‘Zone of exclusion’ invokes Richard Jefferies’ novel After London, or Wild England (1885) in the context of Chernobyl. ‘The popular fascination with Chernobyl’s zone of exclusion suggests a wider cultural significance. The zone realises one persistent kind of anticipatory narrative – a world where humanity, and industrial modernity in particular, has destroyed itself. It is in many ways an attractive version of the apocalypse, with the idea of wildlife apparently flourishing in the zone.’ Going on to debunk this myth by citing a scientific report of 2010 which found that radiation had significantly reduced biodiversity in the zone, the essay shows how the image of the exclusion zone as an after-the-fact nature reserve was comforting, strangely romantic, and allowed ‘us’ off the hook by tacitly suggesting the worst nuclear disaster in history wasn’t quite such a bad thing after all.

The essay on ‘Catastrophe’ draws on a sub-genre of post-apocalyptic novels (sole survivor meets girl) to discuss the undoubted appeal, especially at difficult times, of narratives of impending doom and self-selected redemption. Musing on the topic of ‘Extinction’ post-Jurassic Park, at a point where, thanks to advances in cloning technology, another enticing anticipatory narrative – of the get-out-of-jail-free card tempered with fear of Faustian overreach type – might just be about to come true, the writer remarks with a touch of weariness, ‘The more credible the claims of imminent success, the looser seems the scientific logic.’

Though it is not primarily a literary artefact, quite a lot of the writing in Anticipatory History appears literary. As one of the strands which runs through the book is about the engagement of the imagination, the writers may feel able to express themselves in a more personal way than might be deemed acceptable in a more conventional academic publication. There simply isn’t space for reams of data and its inclusion would be against the grain of the project. Referring to books which are so strongly associated with a type of place that readers will know what they’re about even if they’ve never opened them is a great form of shorthand. Mention of Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles in the same sentence effectively conveys a whole range of human experience and emotions the mind has come to associate with ‘Moor’ and even manages to be geographically diverse.

The writer of ‘Entropy’ moves swiftly from the Second Law of Thermodynamics into a quote from Byron’s ‘Darkness’ followed by an image from Stoppard’s Arcadia, deftly establishing what people may have thought entropy was about before unpicking its conservation implications in unexpected ways. Though hierarchies have no place in the book, I can’t help feeling that the entries on ‘Entropy’ and ‘Equilibrium’ are two of the most crucial. They are also, instructively, cross-unreferenced, with instructions at the end of each not to see the other. Since they are separated by half a page on ‘Epiphany’ this is hard to avoid. If this is the editors’ tacit acknowledgment that they can be seen as two sides of the same coin then it is surely an invitation to consider them both more carefully. ‘It is an interesting question as to whether when people view landscapes it is the order or the disorder that they see and value; judging the Goldilocks level of entropy that satisfactorily aligns landscape “health” with human feelings of wellbeing is something of an impossible goal.’ I find echoes of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s placing of inscribed stones on the hillside at Little Sparta. ‘The/present/order/is/the/disorder/of/the future/Saint-Just’ which also exists in a printed version above the enticing invitation ‘Cut around outlines. Arrange words in order’.

Inviting fresh contributions to the history of a place with a view to allowing them to shape its future development is bound to provoke the thorny question of whose history counts for most. ‘Anticipatory history…does not attempt to construct a singular, authoritative historical narrative. As an approach, it leaves room for expressing the “small stories” and “lay knowledges” that are layered in place, and then linking these to a hoped-for future.’ The modest, almost humble nature of the enterprise is repeatedly stressed. This unintimidating approach may be designed to encourage diffident potential contributors to share their stories. It also acknowledges the discomfort some of the participants in the discussion felt ‘with the idea of making historical narrative do certain kinds of social and cultural “work”’.

One gets the impression this was a particularly lively area of debate and I can’t help feeling that the topic of ‘revisionist history’ deserved its own entry in this lexicon. Searching the term on Wikipedia yields, ‘Revisionist history carries both positive and negative connotations’, with a page for each. The positive connotations include a willingness to look at accepted evidence in a new light and a strong tendency to greater inclusivity, paying attention to the histories of groups who were previously underrepresented or ignored. This would appear to have some relevance for the ‘anticipatory history’ project. But the editors seem to address only the negative connotations of the term in the introduction, associating it with ‘the deliberate distortion of historical data’ and ‘the exercise of power’. This may reflect a trend in current popular usage. If it does, perhaps it’s something the story-radar should be attuned to.

Rather than engage with the positive connotations of ‘revisionist’, the editors attempt to detourne the problematic word by suggesting the anticipatory history project aims to ‘re-vision’ history. Though I’m not very convinced by this piece of wordplay it does foreground the importance that is placed on seeing – both in the sense of having a point of view and also the act of observing closely – in the book. Several contributors refer to ‘ephiphanal’ moments when they first engaged with the natural world by really looking at something. The entry on ‘Managed realignment’ muses on the effect optical magnification has had on our perception of the world and suggests Ted Hughes must have looked at thrushes through binoculars to write about them in the way he did.

At the other end of the scale, the importance of the big picture and the long view has to be emphasised. So those involved in a local project have to consider the implications of their actions on at least a regional, possibly national or even global scale. Establishing what appears to be an equilibrium in one place may lead to a loss of equilibrium nearby. In the discipline of biogeography which informs much of the background to these discussions, the feeling of being overwhelmed by geological time or the vastness of an area across which change is being monitored must be daunting. Dealing with a landscape that’s been a man-made artefact over a longer period of time than I find easy to imagine but is also a natural environment within the context of which that time period is fairly insignificant, requires seeing with a double perspective that can be quite disorientating.

At what point in its history can a landscape, which is continually changing, be considered ‘authentic’? An adverse local reaction to the Natural England/National Trust’s grazing initiative on part of Penwith Moors in Cornwall raises many interesting points. First of all it’s worth pointing out that this is exactly the sort of situation which the ‘anticipatory history’ project is hoping to avoid in future, and the book’s use as a handbook within organisations involved in conservation aims to assist in this. The clash between the conservation organisation’s perspective that it would be ‘reconnecting with the historic uses of the landscape’ (and ultimately increasing its biodiversity) by introducing grazing on areas of moorland overgrown with scrub, and that of the ‘Save Penwith Moors’ group, who cherished the ‘wild’ character of ‘this ancient landscape’ partly as the setting for ‘the numerous prehistoric sacred sites’ offers much food for thought. Attempts to engage with the implications of the dispute colour quite a few of the essays in the book.

Each ‘side’ favours an image of what the same patch of ground was like at widely differing points in its past. The issue of ‘Enclosure’ is foregrounded once again with many people who use the moors on a regular basis being unhappy with the construction of fencing and cattlegrids to manage the stock. The introduction suggests ‘one tool to draw people in might be the practice of rephotography, which can make environmental change visible and help people understand that a landscape that seems timeless (and wild, in this case) is actually a very recent artefact.’ I think it would probably be accepted that most of the UK landscape has been heavily affected by human use and could thus to some extent be considered an artefact. But the use of ‘recent artefact’ here suggests human neglect counts as a shaping principle in a sort of negative capacity and looking at the photographs of West Penwith in 1951 and 2011 my immediate impression is rather of nature taking its course – whatever that means exactly. Thus I worry that ‘artefact’ is placed in direct opposition to ‘wild’ (whether consciously or not) in order to undermine it, and have some reservations about the narrative behind helping people to understand – because in this case it might seem that what they’re being encouraged to understand is that their memories are too recent, in the grand scheme of things, to count for very much. Even in the hands of people who are trying to be sensitive and inclusive, these issues remain extremely tricky.

The entry on ‘Rewilding’ describes more of the complex issues associated with the balance between neglect and different types of management and its possible consequences for memory. It presents an image of Hut 6 at Bletchley Park a few years ago where ‘the vegetation acted as a living clock for measuring the time elapsed since intensive regimes of wartime maintenance gave way to an interval of invisibility, and then a more recent episode of under-funded heritage reclamation.’ It’s a neat example of how ‘history’ is made and illustrates some of the processes Patrick Wright drew attention to in his 1985 book On Living in an Old Country. The prefab hut which had simply outlived its original purpose and been left to ‘re-wild’ suddenly appears precious when the narrative catches up with it at a point when its continued existence is in doubt. It’s also interesting to see how that narrative has developed in the interim. Its focus seems to be shifting from the past ‘historic site of secret British codebreaking activities during World War II’ into the future ‘…and birthplace of the modern computer’. Is this a form of anticipatory history-making? As time goes by, increasing numbers of visitors to Bletchley Park will probably feel that the computing achievements of Alan Turing and his colleagues which underpin the way we manage large parts of daily life are a good deal more relevant to their immediate and projected future experience than the wartime story.

Another aspect ‘Rewilding’ manages to draw attention to is the tangled moral implications of ‘military to wildlife conversion’. Sites which have become redundant since the end of the Cold War have become prime candidates for rewilding. ‘Here, ecological processes can become a cultural agent of attempted historical erasure, and naturalisation risks negation.’ When I first read that I assumed it referred to a simple occlusion of the military presence, achieved by ‘restoring’ the land to what it might have looked like before. But the point grasped at here is actually much more complex. Neither of the web pages I’ve visited for the American sites mentioned in the essay ignore their recent history. Their former use as military sites (in effect, zones of exclusion) is highlighted as the reason they have remained largely ‘unspoilt’ but the future of the military installations seems uncertain.

For now, their evident redundancy is utilised to illustrate a spectacular narrative which seems to have been chopped off from the present – exemplified in this magnificent passage from one of the Hanford Reach National Monument pages on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website.

‘So, as you look down the [Columbia] river at the various generations of [nine disused nuclear] reactors, you can see world events unfolding — the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO, the end of the American policy of “isolationism,” the Marshall Plan, the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, the rise of Mao Tse-tung and Nikita Khrushchev, the space race and the launching of Sputnik, the period of “McCarthyism,” the spy trials of Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the eras of “massive retaliation” and “mutually assured destruction”, and many other world-changing events. All of these are etched into the banks of the Hanford Reach.’

Such a grand, overarching narrative seems the antithesis of ‘small stories’ and it might seem difficult to imagine any kind of connection between them. Yet some of the skills picked up from the anticipatory history project might help with negotiating a way through such stifling tropes. The book’s entry on ‘Presentism’ quotes Bergson:

‘He [Bergson] wrote about the human body as “a moving boundary between the future and the past,” and was interested in the perceived simultaneity of memory traces, present experience, and the anticipation of future events. A form of history influenced by these ideas may be oddly appropriate in this moment, especially if it could set the temporal complexity of landscape perception (where the past is always present) against a background context of environmental change.’

Closer to home and on a much more intimate scale, the Orford Ness National Nature Reserve, a small island spit of shingle on the Suffolk coast, has a long history of being used for development of various types of military technology, from its use as a bombing range in the 1930s to the abortive Cobra Mist radar station of the early 70s. Its pages on the National Trust website are upfront about the site’s military history. In fact, its formerly secret and potentially dangerous aspects are foregrounded as an attraction for those who might not consider the prospect of visiting the site of 15% of the world’s vegetated shingle exciting enough. ‘Get a look at a genuine atomic bomb’ and ‘Be safe but maybe not comfortable’ are two of the headings on the web pages. It is an intriguing paradox that the ‘unexploded ordnance’ whose presence titillates the visitor also protects the fragile shingle by ensuring people don’t wander off the paths.

That the veil of secrecy which once surrounded buildings such as ‘The Pagodas’ (laboratories 4 & 5 of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment) and ‘Black Beacon’ (a secret homing beacon for military aircraft) can now be lifted by anyone with the patience and foresight to book themselves onto a guided tour raises yet more questions. It seems to me that by gazing upon these previously forbidden artefacts visitors are participating in a form of history-making and I wonder how it might shape or revise thoughts and memories of that period they already have. Would they find the spectacle of Cold War military technology, now redundant, comforting or appalling? And does being allowed to look freely at what is now only of historical interest remind the visitor that a contemporary equivalent site such as RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire where unmanned Reaper drones are to be operated from, is (apart from its own museum) strictly off limits?

Bridget Penney is the author of Index.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 29th, 2012.