Bodies as bones as landscapes 

Life, death and landscapes

People, Jo Dacombe

Every now and again for whatever reason, we have those thoughts about where we fit into the scheme of things; the meaning of life; perhaps that we are in fact mortal beings; or even that there is little difference between us and the apes.

Jo Dacombe, an artist exploring sense of place, layers of history and the power of objects has had those thoughts and come up with some fascinating exhibitions using a variety of media.  One of them is bones.

“I often consider the continuum of time, and how the present is part of the past and the future, one influencing the other, both forwards and backwards,” writes Jo in: Bone Landscapes (Climate Cultures. 11th March 2019).

“Commissioned by Leicestershire Museums to create Myth Maps in 2011, in my proposal presentation for the project I drew a timeline on a sheet of transparent acetate. I held this up and explained that we experience time in a linear way, because of the way we think about it (by ‘we’ I refer to Western thinking; there are other ways of perceiving time, such as cyclical time; perhaps a subject for a future post). Then I folded up the timeline, so that you could still see the line but now it was concertinaed onto itself, and different parts of the timeline could be seen in the same place, one on top of each other. This, I explained, is how time is contained in a landscape.”

Digging deeper into what the future might look like she discovered that there is an: “the interrelationship between ourselves as material beings in a material landscape, and our modern world of mass production. It is to do with our mass production of food and how this affects what our bodies are made of.”

A fellow researcher is Dr Richard Thomas, a zooarchaeologist who has: “…  proposed the idea that one of the markers of the Anthropocene that future archaeologists will discover will be broiler chicken bones. The broiler chicken has a skeleton that is vastly accelerated in its growth, genetically engineered to reach huge proportions within a short life span in order to feed ever-increasing human populations across the world, cheaply. As he explains, there will be thousands of millions of broiler chicken bones deposited into the landscape over our time:

Over 65.8 billion meat-chicken carcasses were consumed globally in 2016 and this is set to continue rising… The contrast between the lifespan of the ancestral red jungle fowl (3 years to 11 years in captivity) and that of broilers means that the potential rate of carcass accumulation of chickens is unprecedented in the natural world.”

It all sounds bizarre.  Then again on reflection, so many things we are now engaging in our forebears would have said: ‘Don’t go there if you don’t want there to be these consequences.’

Says Dacombe: “I cannot imagine the piling of chicken bones of that scale, even for only one year of consumption. But humans have been eating animals and leaving their carcasses and bones for many centuries, and we do not find our landscapes overrun with bones because they decay and return to the earth. Won’t this happen with chicken bones too?

“Perhaps not, because our way of disposing of so much rubbish has changed; we put this in landfill, piling up all our waste in one place, which changes the way that they degrade. As Cullen Murphy and William Rajthe have written in Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage, “organic materials are often well preserved within landfill deposits, where anaerobic conditions mean that bones ‘do not so much degrade as mummify’”.

“In working with Richard, I came to realise that landscapes and bones, and therefore us, are inextricably linked. When we die, we become deposits in a landscape, and our bones become part of the layers in the earth. But before that, our bones are created from our environment; the minerals within the food and water we eat and drink and in the landscapes that we inhabit, actually create our bones. Archaeologists can work out the location of where an animal or human has been living by analysing the isotopes contained in the bones that they excavate.

We are, in fact, a part of our landscape in a material way, not just a spiritual way.

We are reshaping and reconstituting our landscape by the deposits that we make, including broiler chicken bones. But by doing this, perhaps we are reconstituting ourselves too. As our environment changes, how will we evolve as a part of this interconnected recycling of material that is the process of life, death and landscape?

Future landscapes will be made of bones, and our bones are made of our landscapes…

 As our landscapes become transformed by the plastic and metal remains of our technological objects, what will we become as animals living on and made from our landscapes?”

Food for thought.  A good reason to invite some family and friends over for dinner with a conversation reflecting on our ways of living, dying and leaving a legacy – of bones?

The full story: Bodies as bones as landscapes

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