Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Drowned Worlds

Only a few feet from the surface, they drew closer, emerging from the depths like an immense intact Atlantis. First a dozen, then a score of buildings appeared to view, their cornices and fire-escapes clearly visible through the thinning refracting glass of the water. Most of them were only four or five storeys high, part of a district of small shops and offices enclosed by the taller buildings that had formed the perimeter of the lagoon.

J G Ballard, Drowned World, 962 (quote via)

There is a beautiful and brilliant post at That Sticks and Stones Should Fall about the fascination of drowned villages as a metaphor for the presence of past lives in the present. In particular the post refers to the villages of Ashopton and Derwent that were flooded to make way for Ladybower reservoir in the Penines, a subject I have posted about before and which the author generously links to.


(Image of Ladybower Reservoir via. The church Spier of Derwent is visible in the distance)

A number of disturbing but compelling ideas are touched on in the Sticks and Stones post including the murky fascination of dark bodies of water generally (and for anyone who shares such things you should read Joyce Carol Oates' Black Water about the mysterious incident of Teddy Kennedy driving his car into Lake Chappaquiddick in the US) and submerged wrecks and ruins.

The stories of Derwent and Ashopton - and other lost villages like Graun Curon in Italy - are ghost stores, pieces of folklore that have lodged themselves firmly in the popular imagination. Google Drowned Villages and hundreds of sites and related stories come up including this film of the flooded church yard of the Welsh village Lanwddyn. Although they lend themselves to supernatural speculation these are also stories of the awesome power of technology. And in that sense the submerged spires of Derwent and Gouron have an apocalyptic quality that speaks of the capacity of technology to destroy us.


The submerged steeple Graun-Curon.

The extraordinary spectacle of Derwent's neighbour Ashopton lying below the reservoir viaduct while it is constructed - the future water level clearly some way above the rooftops of the houses - is described vividly by Sticks and Stones and illustrated in the contemporary photo below. The image summoned up here is literally apocalyptic, technology dwarfing the houses below as it strides across the valley before ultimately destroying them.


(Image of Ashopton viaduct under construction via)

Ladybower, and other reservoirs like it, were huge infrastructure projects built to feed the ever growing water consumption of city inhabitants. The expansion of homes currently projected for the south east of England together with the effects of climate change will mean more reservoirs will need to be built as well as extreme measures taken to protect us from rising sea levels. Plans for the largest new reservoir to be built in the UK were announced last year for instance, although the physical consequences are not quite as drastic as Ladybower. Meanwhile the Environment Office charts the possibility of villages disappearing into the sea.

These pragmatic reactions to climate change go hand in hand with more apocalyptic visions such as J G Ballard's eerily prescient 1962 novel Drowned Worlds or Squint Opera's recent speculative Flooded London project. Both of these imagine London destroyed by rising sea levels. Drowned worlds could either be deliberate acts of erasement in the case of Derwent or the result of unplanned devastation. Either way they are seen as the result of our unchecked desire and a paranoid sense that our faith in technology will ultimately destroy us.


(Image by Squint Opera)

This fear is most clearly articulated through science fiction and its endless speculations on how we will ultimately be the architects of our own demise. Perhaps the most pertinent image in science fiction, and one that echoes both the cover of Ballard's book illustrated above and the vanished villages of Derwent and Graun Curon is the half buried, half submerged Statue of Liberty leering out of the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes.



Postscript

Strangely, I can also recall an experience of the inverse of this scenario on holiday in Mexico some years ago. On the trip I visited a small village resort with some friends that sat on the edge of Lake Chapala. Like a beach resort everything about the town orientated itself to the lake. The main drag ran down straight onto a stone pier, cafes fringed the lakeside and photographs of people swimming and playing volley ball hung in the reception of the hotel we stayed in. When we walked down to the lakeside though we discovered that the water had completely dried up, its exposed bed was filled with grazing cows and the stone pier stretched out into a grassy field. A combination of industrial pollution and water consumption had drained what had been one of the largest natural lakes in Mexico.



UPDATE: I'm grateful to anonymous (see comments below) for the following link to an article on the Three Gorges dam in China which has involved the moving of 1.3 million people and the destruction of a 2000 year old town, just in case this all seemed a little parochial.

29 comments:

Blaize said...

I think of The Drowned World with every news report of rising sea levels. The parts I am waiting for are the wild social interactions, salvage pirates, and psychological regression Ballard narrates. Oh, wait. Maybe we already have those.

Anonymous said...

apologies if this is blindingly obvious but it seems appropriate to bring up the three gorges dam in china.

there are some fairly amazing images of the last few days of the final city to be 'drowned' in its construction here - http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92939270

Your mention of 'drowned villages as a metaphor for the presence of past lives in the present' takes on an interesting dimension when you consider the 'relocation' of entire cities in huge projects such as these...

Charles Holland said...

Thank you both for your comments and thanks for the link. When I wrote about drowned villages before I likened it to emparking, the 18th century process of removing 'unsightly' villages and houses from the views of wealthy landowners. In that way whole villages where often relocated at the whim of one individual rather than for the needs of a larger community but the sense of destruction is similar.

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Oh, wait. Maybe we already have those.
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Thank you both for your comments and thanks for the link.

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Your mention of 'drowned villages as a metaphor for the presence of past lives in the present' takes on an interesting dimension
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when you consider the 'relocation' of entire cities in huge projects such as these

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