By Paul Warde
In a collection of autobiographical interviews, Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney refers at one moment to ‘no longer being part of the ground, but part of the grid’. He was thinking about the changes in farming since his childhood, brought up as the eldest son of a cattle trader and smallholder in County Derry. It’s one of those comments that we can instinctively understand, and we know Heaney as perhaps the pre-eminent poet of the ground: of the bog bodies, the ‘narrow ground’ of Irish sectarianism, of his farming childhood.
And yet… what is the difference being evoked here: between ‘the grid’ and ‘the ground’? Heaney did not grow up on some kind of subsistence holding. His father may have largely plied the fairs and farms of Derry, but the cattle he traded were destined for British markets and he also sometimes took the ferry across the North Channel. Many of the objects and machines that Heaney writes about do not belong to some ur-world of ancient farming practice, but came with mechanization and are the output of late nineteenth and twentieth century factories. Having once worked at the Ulster Folk Museum I am familiar with this stuff myself, having a particular fondness for the planes made by Alexander Mathieson & Son at their Saracen Works in Glasgow until 1966 (my grandfather had a set of their tools for his cabinetmaking). It’s hard to imagine that my grandchildren will view anything I get from Screwfix today in the same light. The tools of two or three generations ago were factory-made, smelted and wrought in a coal-fired world that wrecked people’s lungs, dissolved our buildings, choked plantlife and acidified watercourses. And yet, retrospectively, they seem to belong to a somehow more human world, as things that still extended our capacities rather than supplanted us. And in that, them having a poetics is entirely justified. Is there a poetics of the mobile phone or the microwave? Or is this a blinkered view of past technology, and connections lost – the conceit of every generation confronted with the shock of the new?
So what’s the difference between the ground and the grid? In some ways, it seems to me that project The power and the water turns around this distinction: examining both the reasons why we recognise it, but also its complications. Our connections with the basic utilities for life – and by extension nature itself – have been repeatedly re-wrought since the Industrial Revolution. How, and with what consequences? When did this process begin, is it continuous or episodic, and how are certain ‘expected connections’ hard-wired into us during this process? The difference between a world of ground and grid can’t just lie in new connections with outside markets, or the use of technological aids or external power sources; steam power has been around for three centuries, for example. Commerce, on a greater or lesser scale, for much longer. For Heaney there was certainly, I think, an issue of the value of weightiness, living on the land but also where tools and machines were things that could be propelled by hand or that the hand can know. Even when fired by coal we feel their work partakes of our life. And indeed isn’t coal, which you have to shovel into an engine or a boiler, still open-handed ground in all its mineral certainty? All qualities that the grid, the tablet and mobile phone don’t have, even if somewhere down the wires is a power station immolating a million tons of coal dust. Heaney’s poetic objects are freighted: their mass can breach time, whether back to an ancient Danish bog, or the yard – the haggard – of an off-the-grid farm in the 1940s. In Heaney, even souls have body: an extraordinary lightness, and yet still belong to that material world that weighs into us. In contrast, the grid is somehow completely intangible. A nothing.
Of course, what sustains modern grids and infrastructure is far from intangible: it has a massive ecological footprint, it involves enormous quantities of concrete and minerals. And yet, in everyday life, in the life we take in hand, it’s not there. You can certainly feel the power when you stand next to an enormous transformer field, or the connector at Hinkley B nuclear plant that conveys the electricity from the power station’s dynamos out to the grid: the largest plug you will ever see. But how many people have ever seen these things? Of course, we can ask the same of a river. It is not hard, standing at a river’s mouth, to think of the soft stream in the hills which becomes the mighty Tyne. But how many people think of this when they turn on a tap or run the washing machine? Did industrialisation and deindustrialisation respectively bring people closer to, or distance them from their rivers – in the case of the Tyne a flow whose notions of greatness we attach to it are surely connected with the mining and heavy industry that stood along it? These questions can, perhaps, be answered as matters of fact and knowledge: what do you think are the sources of the water and power you use? But they are also part of our imaginative infrastructure, or put another way, a kind of structure of insight that everyday life drills into us.
These questions put me in mind of Melanie Challenger’s 2013 book On Extinction, in which she begins looking out her window over heathland in Cornwall, and pondering the death of the tin mining industry. A book you might expect to be about species – and that takes us from Cornwall to Antarctica to northern Canada and back to good old Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire – is as much an inner journey, understanding extinction as being about what we choose to remember. We all and everything will be extinct; in that sense, extinction is completely unremarkable; it’s just death. So to think about extinction is a choice of words, a way of talking about the past and relating to it in the present. This seems interesting to me as a way of thinking about the changes that encompass our industrial heritage: the soughs of Derbyshire and the lost shipyards of the Tyne – to the environmental impact of industrialisation, and what rewilding might mean in the future. Are there distinct or common ways of grappling with extinction that are, so to speak, connected to our habitual connections and associated expectations?
In 1979 the art historian Rosalind Krauss wrote an essay on grids in modernist painting, describing an aesthetic that was ‘flattened, geometricized, ordered… antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’. For Krauss, the modernist grid mimicked the logic of modernist society, producing a valueless, purely functional and exchangeable (or interchangeable) space. This argument puts me in mind of Robert Sacks’ book on Human territoriality, and J.C.Scott’s famous Seeing like a state. Scott essentially reverses Krauss’s thinking to argue that modernist infrastructure was in many ways an aesthetic choice imposed on the world, rather than the aesthetics being a response to mass production and industrial society. But all these treatises have something in common: they associate modernity, the grid, with the abolition of place. Modernity brings about a state of connections that are so complete and effortless their effects are to disconnect, leaving people with an unsavoury sense of dependence on forces that you cannot influence (you cannot even pray to them, or give libations and sacrifices). In fact, a state of being that may be enabling, yet disempowering.
Of course connections to grids – electrical, water and other – were often and still are seen as hugely welcome, markers of civilization – that word still certainly being used in interwar Britain – and opportunity: Here the grid has both ‘a vigorous free spirit and a propensity to control’ in the words of another art historian, Hannah Higgins. So it could be that rather than imposing some order on history, we will find ourselves writing the history of paradoxes.
Ground is what we feel beneath our feet: it steadies us, is as irreducible as nature (irreducibility being the very definition of nature according to Kant). Grid in contrast is at once rigid and boundless, entirely abstract. But such antimonies aren’t necessarily between hand and network, natural and artificial, or say, face-to-face relations and impersonality. At least, maybe the history that moves us from a world that seems more grounded to one that appears, Matrix-like, to emanate from the logic of the grid itself, is not so much a descriptive history of ‘material flows’ and their consequences, but a history of how we have imagined the (literally) unsettling experience of changes to our environments. Confronted with actual locations these oppositions – ground/grid, personal/impersonal, real/abstract – become ways to describe aspects of the experience, not a way we can absolutely categorise places. Indeed ‘The environment’ for me is a way of describing that very awkwardness; a word that describes everything outside yet connects it, in an act of solipsism, to ourselves; a way of talking about nature that makes it ‘of us’, and that connects it to abstraction. But it’s not something that we generally feel. Can you feel the environment in your bones, or wherever you do the feeling thing? As we currently think about the concept, I doubt it. The age of ‘environment’ is not age of connection, but more of a sensibility that we have got ahead of ourselves; something that demands policy, although for uncertain ends. It is, perhaps, the perfect idiom for what some of us now call the Anthropocene, time strung between the ground and the grid.