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A small figure, perhaps a child, photographed at an aquarium, standing facing the tank, hands pressed against it. Inside is a watery turquoise dreamscape of kelp and divers.
(Photo: Bruce Foster)

BooksOctober 7, 2021

Flood detected: Watching my climate nightmare come true

A small figure, perhaps a child, photographed at an aquarium, standing facing the tank, hands pressed against it. Inside is a watery turquoise dreamscape of kelp and divers.
(Photo: Bruce Foster)

The Lobster’s Tale, a collaboration between writer Chris Price and photographer Bruce Foster, is published today. It’s an eerie, beautiful picture book for grown-ups, the third in the kōrero series edited by Lloyd Jones. Here, Price introduces the book, and watches the climate crisis lurch from nightmare to reality.

Photographs throughout are by Bruce Foster, and excerpted from The Lobster’s Tale, where they appear without captions. The photographer explains: “I wanted them to be untethered from reality and available to the reader for readings that I hope will be many and various.”

That Saturday morning I woke to an error message. I’d set the dishwasher going the night before, but now its tiny screen was showing ERR 01. “Flood detected,” the manual told me, but the rain was coming down outside the kitchen, not inside it, and the floor wasn’t wet. Troubleshooting tips didn’t help; the manual said I’d need to call a serviceman.

All day the rain kept falling. We fed the woodburner as radio reports of devastating floods in Germany and Belgium turned into pictures: rivers had come for the houses and forced some of them into the unnatural act of swimming. Streets had simply vanished, leaving stormwater pipes on display like rigid and bewildered intestines between the houses that remained. If you’d stepped out their front doors, you’d have fallen into the muddy belly of the earth. 

In the small hours of Sunday morning I dreamed I was about to die. I had turned to drive across the City to Sea bridge that crosses the quay from Civic Square in Wellington to the waterfront – never mind that it’s a pedestrian bridge. But the car stalled, and behind it a great mud-coloured wave of liquid concrete curled up like a gigantic Hokusai. As it was about to break over my stationary vehicle, displacing the little bubble of air it contained and filling it to the roof along with my lungs, there was no time to do anything but register my last breaths before the car and I were buried entirely.

Photograph of a creek or a deep puddle: still, dark water with leaves floating on it, and reflections of long tall tree trunks.
(Photo: Bruce Foster)

That day Westport was up to its waist in muddy water, and our stormwater drain (which we’d recently discovered was broken) was sending a river down the drive. In the afternoon we finally checked the basement, which had flooded once before. We found a couple of inches of muddy water to bail out, nothing on what the Coasters were facing. After the rain finally stopped, our household water supply was cut off – and yet water kept gushing from underneath the broken pipe. We’d become a minor exhibit in Wellington’s ongoing geyser festival. After 24 hours without water the council workmen made a temporary fix while they figured out where the problem was. We’re still on that temporary fix. 

All of this was small beer compared to the terrifying images coming out of Europe, and the depressing and expensive damage and clean-up faced by Westport. It was by no means the worst flooding my region had experienced, either. I recalled the Plimmerton floods from December 2020, because my antennae were tuned to pick up any news of lobsters, and in Plimmerton the kōura, our normally publicity-shy indigenous freshwater crayfish, had become newsworthy. A local good bloke was rescuing them from the muddy floodwaters that covered the streets and returning them to the stream they’d been washed out of. They’re grumpy little buggers, he said, or words to that effect. They like to be left alone. They can give you a good nip if you pick them up. 

Photographs of solemn-looking middle aged man and a middle aged woman, flanking the cover of the book they worked on together.
Chris Price, left and Bruce Foster (Photos: Supplied)

When Lloyd Jones asked who might be a good artistic collaborator for a book based around my essay The Lobster’s Tale, my hesitant suggestion was that perhaps the art should have something to do with water. Five seconds later, Lloyd had signed up Bruce Foster, whose work has long been in dialogue with water, and who had co-curated the group exhibition WAI that I’d seen and admired in 2020. Sometimes a quick decision is a good decision.

At the time of the Plimmerton floods, Bruce (who lives up that way) and I were in the early stages of figuring out how his images and my text might talk with one another. Bruce was asking his photos the question Lewis Carroll poses in his Lobster’s Quadrille: “Will you won’t you, will you won’t you, won’t you join the dance?” The Lobster’s Tale contains violin-playing lobsters, lobsters that travel in wagon trains, lobsters older than I am, lobsters cheap as chips and lobsters for high-end diners, a young lobster nestling in a diver’s ear. None of them are Lewis Carroll fantasies: all of them exist in our current version of reality, where they have also learned to fly, crammed into polystyrene boxes air-freighted across the world to satisfy remote appetites. The essay itself is an unlikely spinoff from a completely different writing project about the 19th century poet, anatomist and suicide, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, who instigated it with his question, “What is the lobster’s tune when he is boiled?”

The text is full of lobster lore, but really it’s an essay about perilous voyages of exploration, the relationship between ambition and self-sabotage, and the mixed results of the human quest to create masterpieces or conquer nature. When Lloyd asked me to add something new to the existing essay, something that would bring the words into a more active dance of collaboration with the art, I decided to build a water feature: a stream of words that would trickle below the waterline of the main text and images, whispering back to them with a different point of view, perhaps even arguing or remonstrating, sotto voce, with the text above. Kōura didn’t appear in the essay, but now the Plimmerton floods washed them into my stream of words. 

Photograph of dark water with yellow pollen or tiny leaves swirling on top.
(Photo: Bruce Foster)

Climate scientists have been having research-based versions of my nightmare on the City to Sea Bridge for decades, and re-telling them like a chorus of ignored Cassandras. Degraded rivers. Fish hoovered up indiscriminately. Warm oceans, melting ice, changing currents, changing weather: no one can say we weren’t told. The science has mostly been done, the problem now is that we’re so slow to wake up to the new reality, so science has enlisted the creative arts to help ring the alarm bells. 

Humans as a species pride ourselves on our imagination, and none more so than writers and artists. Why, then, is mine so sluggish? Yes, I bought an EV before the subsidy kicked in, but I still have the woodburner and, other than marching in support of a 2019 school climate strike, my activism has largely been confined to shouting at the television whenever another ad for a ute or SUV appears. Other people’s nightmares, it appears, have little emotional force until you’re trapped inside them.  

Odd photo of a woman holding a fish at shoulder height, pointing away from her body. She's walking on a gravel road, she has a coat on, we're watching her from behind.
(Photo: Bruce Foster)

Around the same time as the deluges in Europe and Westport, a Cape Cod lobster fisherman, Michael Packard, became famous for 15 minutes when he was swallowed by a humpback whale. Packard dives for lobster rather than using pots, so he had his oxygen tank on, and his flippers, but he knew he was only going to get out of the whale’s mouth if it chose to let him go. Luckily the humpback found this uncomfortable morsel of humanity hard to swallow, and thrashed about in order to dislodge it before spitting it out flippers first, like a reverse champagne cork. “He wasn’t tasty,” joked Michael’s mother, an artist who has made her living painting the Cape Cod coast. 

Michael has a lifelong passion for the ocean, and before he could even walk properly he was back in the water. This time he had a TV crew aboard to film him returning to the surface with the huge, blue and fearsome-clawed Homarus americanus that he so loves to catch for the local restaurants, and brandishing them proudly for the camera. “It’s written deeply on his soul that he has to do this,” said his fisherman friend Josiah. With all I have learned about lobsters, I will never eat them, but I share Michael’s love of being in the sea, and I understand the joy and the tradition of catching your own food: these things too are written on the soul.

Circular photograph that looks like abstract art – a white sandy surface with tendrils of brown and dark turquoise tangling over it.
(Photo: Bruce Foster)

Unfortunately the soul can be a reluctant shapeshifter in the face of brute and complex new realities, and the imagination, if mine is anything to go by, can be extraordinarily slow to respond to threats it can’t see. Bruce Foster’s aerial photographs of Te Wai Pounamu let me see the gorgeous and toxic colours of degraded rivers, and the terrible beauty of man-made deserts created in out of the way places where the land itself was deemed expendable. Coming to these images with an innocent or ignorant eye, from the viewpoint of a life lived only at ground level, the wastelands look to me like the remains of ancient civilisations reproduced as abstract art, and their almost lithographic black-and-white textures and patterns have a magnetic attraction. The heartbreak only hits when you realise that this is land that will never again be habitable by creatures or humans, a forever desert most of us have no idea exists in the green and pleasant land it’s far more comfortable to suppose we still live in.  

The consequences of runaway climate change are not an example of the Romantic sublime: we either deal with them, or they swallow us alive. According to Arianne Shahvisi, “There is now more concrete in the world than any other man-made material. After fossil fuels, it is the largest source of carbon dioxide, contributing 8 percent of emissions, which puts it ahead of aviation and agriculture. Each of its ingredients has a calamitous footprint. Around 2 per cent of all water withdrawn from circulation is locked into concrete, contributing to aquifer stress and drought.” Concrete is a medium created for human comfort that now threatens it: earth covered with concrete warms the atmosphere and brings the rain which runs off the concrete and marries the earth to make more mud and flood. The wave that is poised to swallow me will not spit me back out with the verve of a champagne cork and a good story like Michael’s, with its echo of the biblical Jonah being vomited back onto the earth at the command of his god. 

Black and white photograph: a child floats in a swimming pool, face-up, blissed out; a person lies face-down on the side of the pool, one hand dangling in the water.
(Photo: Bruce Foster)

While I don’t believe any deus, ex machina or otherwise, is coming to rescue me, Jonah’s story is still instructive, for it turns out he too was a slow learner. Asked by God to warn the people of Nineveh of the error of their ways, he runs away to sea to avoid the task, only to be caught up in a mighty storm. Knowing he has brought the storm upon them, he suggests the sailors toss him overboard in the hope of saving the ship, whereupon he finds his three days of fame in the whale’s belly. (Fame back then was less instantaneous and more enduring.) Back on dry land, Jonah completes the task he was set, only to get peevish and resentful when his god is merciful to the Ninevans after they act on his warning and put on sackcloth and ashes. He stomps off to the desert in a huff, where God is obliged to teach him a personal lesson in compassion by growing a plant whose leaves shade Jonah from the harsh desert sun.

Human comfort is not the bottom line of the planet’s natural economy. Sometimes things written deeply on the soul have to be revised, and as all writers know, revision can be painful – but this is the boiling lobster’s tune we’re singing. I’m adding this one drop to the bucket of cold water that might yet rouse me from the frozen terror of my dream.

The Lobster’s Tale by Chris Price and Bruce Foster (Massey University Press, $45) can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington

For more of Bruce Foster’s work, see here.  

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