Pencils In Space

As a child, when the first Star Wars film came out, I was hooked. I wanted one of those cars that floated above the desert. I wanted an underground house like the one Luke Skywalker’s family lived in.

princess leia with a gun

I wanted a lightsaber.

For Christmas I got the novel. The grownup version, not the abridged one for kids; the one with George Lucas listed as the author, not Alan Dean Foster.

Similarly, I had a Star Wars book of the future. It may still be on a bookshelf somewhere, a relic of another age.

By 2001, the book promised, we’d have floating space stations like something out of 2001:A Space Odyssey. The new Space Shuttle would bring about a new era of space exploration, an end to the Cold War, a future where everything was possible and a new life, off-world, could be ours.

We even had snacks shaped like space stations.

That imagination flushed through culture like the Egyptomania craze in the 1920s fuelled by Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Some of its influence still lingers, not least in the stories we tell ourselves.


This year, August has been a month of cautious visitors.

One, stealing a couple of days away from his caring responsibilities for the first time since before the pandemic, arrived exhausted from a long car journey, alone. We talked of gardening, and beer, and the joy of hearing orchestral music in a proper auditorium.

Others, two couples, came separately. In both cases we talked about recent bereavements, and the pandemic, and space exploration.

Building a station on the Moon, and a colony on Mars.

Disregarding the complexities of these aspirations, once the visitors were gone I got to wondering, as I pruned the summer raspberries:

Why don’t we build solutions for the planet we already have?

Like the old-time sailors prepared for a long Trade Winds voyage, I can see historical trends building up for the next stages of space exploration. In the Western world, we’ve spent the last half-millennium chasing the “empty” places on our maps.

Never mind there were people living there already, people who called the place home, tending fragile ecosystems so strange to us they seemed like wild Edens. The engines of the west, steam and diesel and now electric, demand fuel and roads to run on.

Feet – padded feet, bare feet, webbed feet – cross mountains and swamps with equal agility.

The big flat feet of kangaroos, and Dark Emus, paddle the shallow soil of Australia’s grasslands, the shallow roots of the native grasses vulnerable to upheaval.

Sheep, so vital to 16th-century Britain that the Woolsack sits under our Lord Chancellor in Parliament, have little picky feet to perch on rocky mountainsides and hills, feet that poke holes in shallow soil. When sheep eat, they rip the grasses up instead of cropping – no problem when the rain-thirsty grass is kept wet and your dirt is deep like in Wales or Patagonia, with roots adapted to the conditions.

In Australia? Hmm.

Onwards, the engines of the West thunder. Gobbling up landscapes, pushing aside nations, bringing new diseases to vulnerable peoples.

Expansion, at all – any – cost. The world has run on these rails for so long now, it’s hard for us to come up with suitable alternatives. Especially when the people we hear from are steeped in the current setup, so deeply their view of progress can’t see over the lip of the cup, except straight up to the stars.

We can’t all move to the Moon, or Mars. Many of us don’t want to. Why should we, when we have a perfect planet right here beneath our feet?


We all seem to love a big spaceship story.

Maybe it just attracts comment, because it’s so clearly Last Century’s Dream.

If we’re doomed to live on a wet Earth where the only habitable areas are at the polar extremes, and ⅞ths of the population has to die so the remainder can survive, in a hundred years more or less – where’s the solution? Where are the ideas?

That proportion of the human population who believe in relocation to another planet aren’t the ones with the solutions. They are, however, the ones with all the headlines.

Humanity has gained many technological advances from the space race, not least the understanding that money might bring you a pen that defies gravity but it’s easier to use a pencil.

So where are the pencils in the 21st century? Where’s the simple solutions that will enable the billion survivors to endure?


If we want to find new ways to deal with the future, do we look to the past, or to the side?

Hurtling along the road marked Progress, we’ve sidelined the societies and civilisations that live – lived – in closer harmony with nature.

You might picture hunter-gatherers in loincloths in the southern wilds of the Kalahari when the words “harmony with nature” appear. Are we programmed, by a society that depends on an appetite for technology, to be frightened by a life that appears to have none?

cave painting of human figures and animal figures by san bushmen
Rock art in the Kalahari

But closer harmony with nature can be managed. We do have the technology. We’ve had it before, for centuries.

The latest excavations of Angkor in Cambodia show that – at its apogee – the city was not some massive standalone temple complex surrounded by dense jungle like it is now. The city spread across hundreds of square miles of jungle, its houses and streets threading through forest gardens and irrigated ponds, living in close harmony with nature for centuries until climate change brought about its downfall.

Likewise the desert pueblo cities of the Anasazi (“Ancestral Pueblo”) people in what is now the USA. Thriving communities, dependent on a water source that disappeared from easy reach before the invention of the electric pump. Their descendants live in 19 sovereign nations within the borders of modern New Mexico. Why did they move into the pueblos from the canyon floor? Why did they abandon those pueblos, so easily defended, in less than a hundred years?

Some parts of the planet we can’t repair. We’ve damaged so much of the ecosystem, the life flows, that some of them can’t regenerate without thousands of years of evolution filling the gap we’ve created by overfishing, over-hunting, or just plain extermination.

Like with surviving coronavirus, we don’t have thousands of years. We’ve just got Now.

But because looking into the future on a planet as bruised as this one, so perfect for us and so damaged, seems terrifying.

Is terrifying. Killer heatwaves. Killer floods. Killer plagues. Coming to the West, on fading Trade Winds, to shake our grip on this world’s imagination.

So we look to the stars, to the Moon and to Mars, believing if only we tried hard enough we’d all live forever. In a galaxy far, far away.


This week’s links:

Archaeology of human evolution continues to surprise, as does theory of human language. The Dawn of Language: How We Came to Talk by Sverker Johansson (book review on The Guardian, with links) discusses the driving force behind the evolution of language (hint: it’s the wimminz)

Explore the city of Angkor Wat on Virtual Angkor, especially good on a VR headset apparently. To see how the place looks today, the official website is Visit Angkor.

You want music? More music? This time, Verdi’s awesome Dies Irae, here performed by Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. (Click on the link if the video doesn’t load for you). This piece is Verdi’s interpretation of the Day of Judgement in Christian mythology, when the dead rise to face the judgement of God at the end of the world. Makes my hair stand on end.

Published in: on September 5, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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A Walk In The Mesolithic

On my regular walk around the neighbourhood, I climb a gentle hill behind the house which affords me a view of the broad river plain below, stretching across fields and patches of woodland to distant hills, craggy above the mist of miles.

Often I pause at the crest of the hill and just stand there, looking at the hills.

A re-enactment of hunter-gatherers surveying the landscape in authentic costume at the end of the ice age (C) National Geographic
(BTW this is not me, nor are they my local hills – image from NatGeo)

Since lockdown I’ve wondered whether I’m hankering for the farm shops and roadside cafés I know are just waiting for me in those hills, laden with juicy produce and abundant cake. (It will go off if it isn’t eaten, you know.)

Other times, most days in fact, I like to imagine what the view would have been like for an ancestor in the Mesolithic. (No point in imagining the landscape further back in time – it was ice all the way north).

The Mesolithic period in Europe is in some ways even more fascinating than the Palaeolithic. For those new to the subject, the Palaeolithic is the Ice Age way of life, hunkered down in caves hiding from sabre-toothed tigers during winter and out on the tundra hunting reindeer and mammoths in the summer. The Mesolithic came after the ice began to melt, when the landscape began to warm up and change.

Freed from ice and permafrost, the land grew grasses and moss. Later on, shrubs such as hazel and willow appeared, interspersing sedge and reeds to build a dense layer of vegetation that decayed into layers of soil until it was deep enough to support larger trees.

Wildlife adapted too.

Mammoths moved further north and east into the continuing wastes of Siberia and the Arctic. Into the space left by those giants moved smaller creatures – deer, birds migrating and resident, small mammals, lizards, and many mini invertebrates.

Frogs. Newts. Hedgehogs.

Human adaptation also moved with the times.

We know from archaeological record that the stone tools used in hunting became smaller, more adept at bringing down small game birds than larger prey. Harpoons, for fishing in the myriad streams and waters that crept up onto the land when the sea levels rose and the rainfall began to be wet and not dry snow.

The Mesolithic is the time of Doggerland.

A mysterious landscape lost under the North Sea, whose denizens must have left centuries of artefacts behind them in the years between the ice retreating and the sea encroaching. Sometimes fishing boats dredge up remnants from the sea bed, tangled in trawl nets like the bones of some Leviathan.

And this is the world I imagine from the brow of the hill every morning, gazing over the town that hugs the curve of the ridge, spans the wide river, spreads out over the floodplains with one eye on the risk.

I look to the distant hills and imagine myself a Mesolithic traveller, camped on the side of this ridge. The mature woodland behind me shrinks to mere scrub, the flat river valley far below filled with marshes and causeways.

I know that the hills many miles away contain valuable stones – rare resources for shaping into the tips of my arrows, and pretty sparkling pebbles to trade as charms.

In the fresh morning air, above the 21st century, I know there’s no way I’d survive the Mesolithic life. The landscape can’t support many of us in that way – and didn’t, back then. The way of life most of us in the modern world have come to expect was totally unthought of. The resources we have harnessed in the intervening millennia have left us unable to support ourselves in the way people survived back then.

Before farming, before concrete, before oil.

But deep, so very deep, in climate change.

There is no going back to the Mesolithic. When I walk the hill in the clear morning’s silence, I take a path between woodland which didn’t exist even forty years ago and fields of pasture grazed by cattle and horses, bounded by wire and hawthorn hedges.

It feels like it’s been this way forever, like I’m treading an ancient ridgeway path that the Stone Age hunters would have recognised, but I’m wrong. The hills in the distance are clad with barley and wheat, oilseed rape and maize. In between are factories making everything from rubber tyres to supermarket ready meals. The fields are grazed by modern cattle much smaller than the aurochs which once browsed our ancient forests.

Our journey to Now is a story of successful adaptation, of looking at the world and seeing opportunities, and of exploiting what we find to make our lives easier, and now we see the damage done because there’s nowhere new to explore.

We’ve filled the world, edge to edge, enough to anticipate a need for rewilding.(link to Knepp on YouTube)

The journey from Here to the Future will use the same brilliance to overcome the challenges we face as our ancestors harnessed to turn themselves into us.

It will, because it will have to.


This week’s links, marginally connected to the post above:

Searching for the people of Doggerland: article on Current Archaeology. Bonus link: Doggerland Art Project.

A new free MOOC from the University of York: Explore Star Carr, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, and learn what life was like over 10,000 years ago.

Underwater archaeology at Bouldnor Cliff in the English Channel collects evidence of Mesolithic activity, via University of Warwick and a random lobster.

Ravenserodd and other lost settlements of the East Yorkshire coast from the blog of Dr Caitlin Green (@caitlinrgreen).

Also Ravensrodd – The Town Under The Sea from writeonthebeach here on WordPress.

Some of the above via Mesolithic Miscellany on Twitter, with lots of lovely links in their timeline.

Published in: on June 27, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Can’t Sleep – Earth Day 2021

What if we on Earth are truly unique and alone, amongst all those uncountable worlds out there?

Can’t sleep? Lying awake all night, brain racing, turning the same thing over and over?

Me too.

It was worse as I passed through the gates of menopause. So far, I’ve discovered, there’s no end to it.

There is no “going through”.

It’s “going into”.

A bit like climate change. One of the subjects that often keeps me awake at night.

The world won’t stop changing until we do. There is no “going through” climate change, only “going into”.

I imagine watching its progress will be similar to gangrene, or leprosy. You can see the disease eating away at you, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The opportunity to stop it was lost before you were born, before you were aware there was a problem, or before you had a choice which wasn’t worse.

We keep on living. Life is what this planet is good for.

What if there is NO OTHER PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE where life exists?

This era of mankind is yet just a blip.

There’s more time between T. Rex and Stegosaurus* than there is between T. rex and house sparrows.

Humans of any sort have only been around for a few million years.

Earth will correct our damage. In its own time.

None of us alive today will see more than the first horrifying wave of destruction.

At some point in the future, there will be no choice over whether we do anything to change our situation, and stop polluting further. It will just stop. Because the structures of our civilisation will cease to function, and some previous level of sophistication will take its place.

John Michael Greer calls this The Long Descent.


Like the move to home working made imperative by coronavirus, the change to our ways of travel and trade will come all at once, abrupt and sudden.

Everyone on the hamster wheel keeps running alongside each other, giving the side-eye to the heap of wood shavings off to one side, wondering how to get there without losing their space on the wheel.

When the hamster wheel is stopped by an unseen hand, everyone stops running.

Some step off, burrow deep into the wood shavings, and wonder why they didn’t make the jump sooner. Some peer over the edge, indecisive, unsure of their options. Some chafe at the wheel, trying to turn it again with fewer feet to power it up.

We’ll do this when climate change reaches out a hand and stops the wheel.

Until then, what can we do, one little voice amongst seven billion?

I don’t have an answer. I’m just as reliant on the hamster wheel as everyone else on the planet.

Even remote populations in Brazilian rainforests and on the Andaman Islands, whose lifestyle may be in harmony with nature as it developed since the start of the Holocene, are going to be mightily disrupted soon, and forever after. Those populations adapted to their current homelands over thousands of years when the climate had little wobbles, but nothing on the scale of what we’re doing to the world right now.

Will we adapt? Will they? Who has the better chance at a stable future, survivable, on a planet so poisoned?

Life has a remarkable energy within it, a power to survive and persist. It may only be microbial, or ratlike, or horseshoe crabs or magnolia.

Staring at the end of all this beauty and creativity must be like having your children die before you. And yet, people keep on having children. And those children will have children of their own, into the deserts and monster storms of climate change, at levels of existence we can only imagine.

Like every brush with death, breath comes a little faster, a shallow catch in the throat. Awake at night, unable to remove this from my mind, I try to concentrate on sleep.

The night is dark; the city silent. The owls have been and gone, over the house with a hoot and a swoop, and the foxes won’t pass through the garden until dawn.

I cannot change the climate by myself.

I must accept the fate the planet gives me. This is my planet; I was bred for this. And at night, by Nature, this means sleep.

Tomorrow, when I awake, I will plant trees.


This week’s links:

*follow the article author, Riley Black, on Twitter for cool/hilarious dinosaur stuff at @laelaps

Learn more about early human prehistory at The Cradle Of Human Culture, South Africa

Give up the fight with evolution. It wins.  The story about a human misstep in history, the imaginary point at which we could have taken a different route, is a pointless mental exercise. Our evolution is based on quintillions of earth motions, incremental biological adaptations, survival necessities, and human desires. We are right where we were headed all along.”

Catherine Ingram, Facing Extinction

Published in: on April 22, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Can’t Sleep – Earth Day 2021  
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Earth Day 2020

A spot of doom and gloom for Earth Day 2020. I wrote this poem in 1989, when the most pressing global emergency was the hole in the ozone layer…

 

Poem - The Oldest - copyright Lee McAulay 2020

Delighted to be able to post this, so many years in the future from when it was written. It’s like having my own personal time machine (only goes forward, thank the gods).

Published in: on April 22, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Earth Day 2020  
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Wild crazy drama, anyone?

With the announcement by Pope Francis that climate change is upon us, I wondered whether it might be time to dust off the post-Apocalyptic novel I wrote back in 1990.

Climate change isn’t the point of the novel. It’s an unusual mixture of WW1, religious upheaval and forbidden love.

OR (if you want the Hollywood version – you’ll have to imagine the accent however):

“One woman’s struggle against the forces of a world in crisis.”

It was hand-written, longhand, and I can’t remember if I even typed it up or just filed it away with my (two) previous unusual novels.

It was also the last novel I wrote without a structured plan. Chances are the storyline is all over the place.Judy Collins: wildflowers (1967) That usually means a lot of work – far more than I’m inclined to take on.

My heroine set off through the story with a map which came straight out of “Albatross” by Judy Collins, a haunting song brimming with imagery both rich and powerful.

Somewhere in the middle was a scene of intense barbarism.

Somewhere parallel to my heroine was an anti-hero she was destined to meet.

Somewhere in my world-building, climate change had ruined the global economy and turned Britain into a poisoned, depopulated, pseudo-feudal state.

And the ending, that I spent (IIRC) 60,000 words charging headlong towards across a blasted near-prehistoric landscape, owed more than a little to Leonard Cohen‘s “Joan of Arc”.

Wild crazy drama and big scenes of bloodshed not dissimilar to (what I’ve heard about) Game Of Thrones.

But I’m not sure where I’ve put the flippin’ thing.

Published in: on June 24, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Wild crazy drama, anyone?  
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