Monster Code

From environmental literacy to environmental orality

The ability to read and storing knowledge in written form has become so fundamental to our cultural imagination that literacy - the ability to read - is used as a much more encompassing indication of understanding. For some years now I’ve been interested in environmental literacy and how it may arise in humans, other organisms and machines, in programs like Machine Wilderness and Random Forests.

Metaphorically speaking, the environmentally literate person or machine is deemed to be able to ‘read the book of nature’ and thus make sense of it. But for the majority of human existence, we didn’t have written denotation of language. This is where in academia the boundary is set between history and pre-history, a few thousand years ago. Prehistory being; anything pre-text.

But under closer inspection this boundary may be much less uniform. In many ways pre-history is still here; reading came to different cultures at different times and some groups of people still have no written language or illiteracy can be imposed by those exerting power or by circumstance. Archeologist Gavin Lucas presents prehistory as existing wherever the context or purpose of material-cultures or artefacts are irretrievably lost to us.

Seen in the much longer timeframe of a few million years of human existence, literacy is a very recent phenomenon and various areas of life remain fundamentally oral. So many things in life are still learned through people sharing things directly. The emerging study of animal cultures shows how fundamental direct exchange is to many forms of life. Where conservation efforts used to focus more on the physical organism, recognition is growing about the importance of conserving cultural transmission of knowledge among animal and perhaps even plant populations.

In a way this is mirrored in our understanding of the human organism. Through experimental archaeology the focus has gone beyond physical remnants, towards the cultural processes that shaped those artefacts and societies. Recent research is uncovering how oral cultures stored the vast volume of knowledge, including the environmental insight needed to thrive and indeed survive in complex and dynamic ecosystems. Therefore the storage of knowledge needed to be deeply resilient. Cultures that didn’t pass on their environmental knowledge simply didn’t survive.

In some instances this knowledge is said to trace back not just over hundreds of years, but over thousands of years, showing a robustness over time that textual means may struggle to match. Looking at the recent track record of just the last two centuries, literature seems tragically ineffective in addressing shifting baselines (our forgetting of historic ecological conditions and biodiversity, where each generation takes the situation they grew up in as normal: the baseline). This is evident among the general public but crucially also among academics and researchers. Therefore it seems interesting to investigate environmental orality in more depth.

There has been a lot of interest recently in the relation between language and environmental amnesia. How vocabularies associated with the natural world are shrinking and how we lack a diversity or subtlety of words to describe environmental complexity or words that reach beyond the nature/culture binaries of modernity. That is not what we’re addressing here. Our focus is on the praxis of orality, and what that fundamentally brings to the human organism.

People who start to experiment with ‘narrative environmental mnemonics’ (sorry.. really struggling with lack vocabulary) report fundamental shifts in the way they experience the world and the way they experience thought. When the process of thinking is distributed in your environment directly, that environment bursts into life. You are no longer just walking to the bakery or office, you are walking through the history of early human ancestors or a catalogue of poisonous plants (or whatever ‘data’ you happen to have ‘encoded’ locally).

The land acts like a mind-palace. But what sets it aside from the mind-palace practice as described by modern memory champions, is the way it externalises mental processes. Thinking reaches out externally in a vibrant space. It becomes enriched by physicality (geography, shape, color, sound, smell, texture) and character (properties, stories, activities, coincidence, serendipity). Your mental space becomes something you can walk through and is enlivened by the tumult of everyday life. So there are many levels of connection for the entire human being.

These practices seem remarkably universal and diverse in the archeological record (including Europe) and remnants remain in active and widespread use, like the signs of the zodiac, a prime example of narrative mnemonics applied to the environment, in this case the night sky. The pervasiveness of these practices leads some ask to what extent they may have been foundational to our species. Are we wired for this stuff?

Two immensely powerful forms of human memory are at play:

(1) our memory for geography: We may not be great at remembering our shopping-lists, but we are amazingly good at remembering places. Few people forget where their kitchen is located and the sequence of rooms you would pass through to get there, or even the way you may have walked to school as a child. There is emerging neurological research which indicates that geography is essential to human memory, with the discovery place-cells and grid-cells leading to a Nobel-prize. (2) our memory of character: we may forget someones name, but few of us would struggle to remember someones personality. It looks like there is little in terms of scientific study related to this. One thing comes to mind: Prehistoric Figurines, representation and corporeality edited by Douglass Bailey, goes into 'thinking through figurines', and has a remarkable section on miniaturisation creating narrative spaces and time. (The monster in the title refers to this power of imagination and character.)

Hands-on (brains-on) experimenting

At first applying imagination to environment in a way that is reproducible takes considerable effort, but once established it’s amazing how much ‘data’ you can attach to a ‘narrative hook’ and how robust they become. The activity of walking makes the practice conducive to serendipity and because the environment is so diverse and complex once established ‘hooks’ can carry a lot of narrative information. You are just walking through your ‘data’ and different strands start to resonate or correlate. New questions emerge. New patterns emerge. So these are not methods for passive storage, like the mind palace, these methods facilitate thought, query and insight.

In practical terms we start with experiments in public space, from very basic and limited ‘data-sets’ to ‘encode’. On an individual level each person works in local settings, from personal fascinations and talents. Collectively we can share and exchange our experiences.

Monster Code is a program by @theunkarelse and @strctrnrrtv in collaboration with @CreativeCodingUtrecht 2021/2022.

Hiking with Monsters, fieldwork program with Creative Coding Utrecht and student seminar with ArtEZ Design department Arhem.

Monsters as indicator species.