The Millions

Tree Time and Mortality in the Eyes of Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Powers, and Ursula K. Le Guin

1.
Trees tell time when they cease to live. Concentric bands show up clean and countable, the index of so many wet and dry seasons past, but only when the end has been determined, when no more rings will be added. The tree is always recording, but it takes chopping it down to render the story legible, to make counting count for us. Dendrochronology—the science of studying time by way of trees—is a postmortem practice encircled by beginnings and endings.

We need an end to make sense of what came before. This, according to Frank Kermode’s classic study of literature The Sense of an Ending (1967) is what makes apocalyptic narratives so appealing: An ending provides the frame in which to plot out our concerns. Feeling ourselves on the way to something is infinitely preferable to being simply out here, somewhere. It is partly this “sense of an ending” that makes climate change so difficult to conceptualize and to confront in narrative terms. Climate change, after all, should not be thought of in terms of an end but rather on the order of many ends, ends with varying temporalities and which will unevenly affect life distributed around the globe along different axes of power and privilege. Disaster movies notwithstanding, climate change poses what literary critic Rob Nixon calls a “representational challenge” to narrative. We need new narrative modes, Nixon says, for registering the “slow violence” of environmental collapse, the many endings resistant to—or unavailable to—attention-grabbing denouement. At least one major critic and novelist, Amitav Ghosh, has argued that this task is anathema to literary fiction all together. Climate change, Ghosh argues in The Great Derangement, is beyond the conventional novel form.

Yet the Anthropocene, one of the most important terms to emerge from recent discussions regarding climate change, attempts to overcome this narrative impasse., about , and about —the notion of the Anthropocene tries to force in some of the narrative parameters that we so crave. As many have pointed out, the Anthropocene suggests not only a beginning to the human story but also—projecting forward—an end. The qualifications for a geological epoch indicate that a scientist should be able to discern the stratigraphic rock boundaries of the discrete period in question. Because every epoch previous to the current Holocene began and ended long before humans existed—and because the Anthropocene itself is still in formation—we are for the first time tasked with considering an open rather than closed chapter in the book of the earth. As historian of science , if the Anthropocene is to be accepted, it is only because, in the future, “retrospection will show the present as having been shaped geologically by man.” The many smaller ends of climate change slip past our narrative conventions, but the Anthropocene promises—however bleakly—that the end is foreseeable, at least from some future finality looking back. This despite the fact that, as philosopher points out, there may be no humans left to do the looking.

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