Neo-Eocene (Malmö)

Installation shot

 

 

Installation shot with Ginkgo in foreground

 

Thanks to the untiring efforts of Marek Walczak, Amanda McDonald-Crowley, Robert Ek, Lars Qvint, Hvilan Utbildning and the rest of the amazing crew at Agrikultura 2017, the Neo-Eocene experiment is getting a new instantiation in Malmö Sweden. 

This time it takes the form of Gingko biloba trees–living fossils arranged in a counterclockwise spiral, the topology of the hurricanes in the northern hemisphere that will become much more prevalent and severe under the increasingly unstable conditions of anthropogenic global warming. Ginkgo was prehistorically native to northern Europe during distant geologic ages where the climate was much warmer than what we have come to think of as normal. But normal too is a thing of the past and Ginkgo may once again take its place in the Nordic forest as the more cold-adapted species wither and die from the unaccustomed heat or the ravages of strange new pests. 

The spiral also references the holding patterns of aircraft approaching the nearby Copenhagen airport, exuding their planet-warming exhausts into the puffy clouds overhead, while those onboard stow their tray tables and raise their seats into the upright position for landing or do the opposite as they settle into enduring the wearisome banality of their coming journey. The spiral of prehistoric plantings will be visible from the air and as the shadows of the plane crosses it, perhaps some on board will spare a thought for the part they are playing in nudging the Nordic climate towards its uncertain new future. With increasing thermal instability, droughts and other weather extremes naturally follow and with that will likely come upheavals in the social sphere, if not in Malmö, then elsewhere, and the spiral recalls the emergency landing procedure used in war zones–a rapidly descending corkscrew approach (the downward spiral) to make the aircraft less of a target for ground fire.

fossil Ginkgo leaves from the UK Jurassic formations

 

There is broad scientific consensus that we are well into a period of rapidly escalating, human-induced climate change. But how high will temperatures go? Some models predict that global temperatures could increase by as much as 5 degrees C. The last time this happened was during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago. This was long before our own species came along, so it is unclear how we will be able to adapt to the coming extremes. Back in those days, palms and alligators flourished as far north as what is now Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. Nordic Europe too basked under a seething quasi-tropicality, its flora reminiscent of what one might currently expect in the warmer parts of Asia or the American southeast with many strange conifers of genera now extinct or much reduced in diversity. Of those few tree species that have survived into the present day, rescued from their far-flung refugia as botanical curiosities or living fossils to grace our arboretums and botanical gardens, the Ginkgo is perhaps the most iconic, as it has been growing on earth since the age of the dinosaurs and contains within it the genetic wisdom to thrive in atmospheric conditions of elevated carbon dioxide. It is easy to forget this botanical oddity once comprised vast forests in what we know think of as frigid, Nordic zones and in those torpid prehistoric days, it was not an anomaliy but a native constituent of the area;s forests. If anthropogenic warming threatens to bring back Eocene temperatures should we bring back the Eocene's trees? That is the question posed by this work.

 

 

Hurricane Katrina

The spiral also appears in one of my favourite films 'Vertigo' by Hitchcock, which is of course about time travel, at least conceptually, and contains a lot of spirals (Kim Novak's hair Jimmy Stewarts vertiginous falling dreams) and also there is a lovely scene where the two of them point to dates on the cross section of a redwood Sequoia sempervirens – another living fossil once much more widespread in the northern hemisphere during the jungly, carbon-saturated time of the distant Eocene past.