Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue James K. Baxter, Uncollected Poems Rod Mengham, Last Exit for the Revolution Stav Poleg, The Citadel of the Mind Jena Schmitt, Resting Places: The Writing-Life F Friederike Mayrocker Wayne Hill, Poems
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 275
PN Review Substack

This article is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

Baby Earth Environmentalism Isabel Galleymore
By purchasing a pair of socks recommended for the purpose, I saved this Earth on Tuesday. Today, stopping by at my former school for their Earth Day fête, I’m at it again. Helping to fund an insect hotel in the school’s playground, I hand over £1.50 for a planet Earth cupcake. Squidgily rendered in vanilla buttercream, its continents and oceans threaten to melt on this unusually warm spring day. For the first time this year, I’ve left the house without my coat. A few seagulls circle above. Strolling between the stalls set out in the car park and feeling mildly confused as to why every day isn’t an Earth Day, I messily eat the planet.

This annual celebration of Earth that raises awareness of the need to protect the environment began on 22 April 1970, just a few years after the planet was first photographed from space. In the recorded conversation between members of the Apollo 8 crew, there’s clear excitement at the prospect of capturing the world through the camera lens. Taking part in this unscheduled activity, the astronaut William Anders pressed the shutter lens and produced ‘Earthrise’: our planet half hidden by the shadow of the moon. Some said that the Earth was playing peek-a-boo. Later, a more formal portrait was taken by astronauts on Apollo 17, a picture that became widely known as ‘The Blue Marble’.

Through these images, the unthinkable largeness of the planet had been reduced to something seemingly diminutive, dinky. As the comparison of Earth to a glass marble suggests, astronauts felt compelled to give language to this sudden shift in scale. ‘It suddenly struck me’, Neil Armstrong explained, ‘that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth.’ Trying to make sense of this new perspective, similar metaphors emerged: our planet was a ‘tiny apple’, a ‘lonely speck’, a Christmas ‘bauble’. An entirely new perspective of ourselves and our home was gained. People were awe-struck; or should that be aww-struck?

*


A baby’s face might seem to have exclusive rights to cuteness. Large eyes compete against chubby cheeks in taking up real estate on the face of my friend’s two-month-old son. But cute is also the ‘p’ of puddle and pumpkin. It’s the simplicity of a button. Wide-ranging and often weird, the voltage of cuteness is unpredictable and can be uncomfortable: it’s my kitten’s porn-pink toe beans, a mosquito stuffed toy, a lost mitten, the idea of a dejected mushroom. Cuteness likes vulnerability and so it often adheres to the teeny-tiny. Even that which weighs over six billion trillion tons – if seen from the right angle or baked until light and fluffy – might be thought enchanting or precious.

‘I think the tenderness that lies in seeing the Earth as small… is probably one of the most valuable things we have now’, claimed the anthropologist Margaret Mead in the presence of a crowd celebrating Earth Day for the first time in New York City; a crowd that would have been familiar with ‘Earthrise’ and ‘The Blue Marble’ images. As a baby’s cute features are said to trigger an instinct to love and care in us, so observing the Earth as little and frail brought about a new desire to protect it. Prompted by seeing the Earth photographed in this new way, Earth Day was only one part of a larger international environmental movement that prioritised ecological and spiritual unity. On Sesame Street, girls and boys were filmed throwing and catching a blow-up globe as if this were the epitome of the coordinated teamwork we would need going forward. A couple of decades later, promoting his pop hit ‘Heal the World’, Michael Jackson held a little Earth to his chest.

*


Thinking I recognise one of my former teachers, I fold the grease-sogged cupcake paper into my pocket and busily involve myself in the table of raffle items. One of these is an Earth plushie. Possessing stunted arms and legs, this cuddly cosmic companion has a quizzical expression as if the Earth is surprised to have found itself inhabiting this form. Another item on the raffle table, which is garnering much excitement, is a dollhouse.

In The Pillow Book, completed in early 1002, the Japanese author Sei Shōnagon wrote a list which included ‘dollhouse furniture and tableware, a tiny floating lotus leaf plucked from a pond. Little hollyhock flowers’. Where other translations have used the word beautiful, Joshua Paul Dale’s recent interpretation reads: ‘Indeed all small things, no matter what they are, all things are exceedingly cute’. The claim is worth testing. Bring to mind a few neutral or uncute things, then imagine each downsized: a mini bottle of paracetamol; a microscopic Yellow Pages; a tiny tombstone. The latter doesn’t need to be imagined, it exists. Made by London Zoo, the tombstone – or should I say tombpebble – commemorates Turgi, a Polynesian tree snail and the last of the species Partula turgida. It was inscribed ‘1.5 million years BC to January 1996’.

The miniature, according to Susan Stewart, invites us ‘into the infinite time of reverie’; a statement that goes some way in assuaging the guilt I feel at whimsically enjoying the Lilliputian tombstone in the midst of this sixth mass extinction. All things that are little appear to wriggle out of context and perhaps reality altogether. As Stewart says, ‘once we attend to the miniature, the outside world stops, is lost to us’. What does this mean for the miniature earths that proliferate in current environmental rhetoric? Googling ‘Save the Earth’ prompts countless images of the planet cradled by pairs of hands: hands of suited business men; hands disembodied and anonymous; a woman’s immaculately manicured hands, elderly hands bestowing the Earth into the patiently-cupped hands of the young. One could be presenting a gift to a sweetheart or lifting an injured duckling from harm. Instead, each and every example presents the vast planet we are living on.

Although seeing our planetary home from space is understood to have prompted a new and vital wave of environmentalism, our current fetish for little earths may well suggest the opposite. If the act of miniaturization gives way to playful daydream, there’s a suggestion that we are escaping the terrifying truth of our frail existence on Earth with these well-meaning handfuls of planet and smiley-faced worlds.

*


Changing our perspective of Earth has changed our relationship to it. As the planet has moved in our imagination from being impossibly large to curiously and cutely ‘smol’; as the planet has been harmed and irreversibly damaged by us, she no longer seems to fill the role of Mother Earth. The Earth of today is needy, demanding. The Earth of today wants to be mothered.

A ballpoint pen I bought last summer reads ‘Save the World’ along its side. Nested in the ‘o’ of ‘world’ is a baby-looking Earth with sleep-closed eyes and coy smile. In among the many Earth Day posters that pupils have made and pressed to the windows of the dining hall, one crayoned world sprouts a speech bubble from its downturned mouth: ‘Save me’. Diddums, I think, scanning the posters again, half expecting to see a drawing of Earth in a nappy, a dummy plugged somewhere into the global north.

This shift in power seems baked into the phrases we use. Previous environmentalist eras talked of ‘Managing’ the planet or ‘Battling’ for Earth. ‘Saving’ may seem somewhat softer. After all, to save is to safeguard and to set free. Yet, the positioning of ourselves as saviours – and saviours of Earth at that – brings with it extraordinary hubris. Varaha who appears in the form of a boar, being the third avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, lifts the planet between his tusks and restores it to the universe. Referencing the Christian God in my eclectic school choirs each week, we’d sing the African-American spiritual ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’. Thirty or so years later and feeling a little rusty with the lyrics, I look them up on my phone. The search results surprise me by almost exclusively replacing ‘he’ with ‘we’. I feel sorry for the pupils who sing this version today. While the revision suggests greater inclusivity, it gestures towards fantasy and impossible responsibility.

*


In geography classrooms across the country, there’s a high probability of finding a little globe, a modern and accessible version of those set on wrought-iron axes, encased in brass rings – a gentleman’s plaything and a common prop in movie scenes in which kings and parliamentarians discuss empire building and geopolitical strategy. Whispers of our current god complex encircle such items and grow increasingly louder with the events that led to ‘Earthrise’ and ‘The Blue Marble’ photographs. If leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and rocketing into the heavens isn’t evidence enough of our divine ambitions, then the circumstances in which such missions were made must be. Apollo 8 and 17, from which the photographs were taken, were both significant assets in the space race that was driven, in no small part, by anxieties concerning Russian surveillance and the Cold War. Each in their own way implied not only a new human omniscience over Earth, but also the potential for humanity to wipe itself out along with all other biological life.

‘A scientist has a test tube full of sheep’, writes Russell Edson in one of his classically absurdist poems. At first, the scientist wonders benignly if ‘he should try to shrink a pasture’ for the tiny sheep. Then, ‘if it is possible to shrink something out of existence’. A few lines later,
He wonders if they could be used as a substitute
for rice, a sort of woolly rice...
He wonders if he shouldn’t rub them into a red paste
between his fingers.

Over the last few weeks, Instagram has saturated my feed with miniature livestock animals. A tiny ‘teacup’ pig one day, a micro-mini cow the next. The cow is called Mouse, wears a dog harness and sleeps indoors on a futon outfitted in polka dots. How we seesaw from violence to care and back in the teeniest, tiniest company.

In space, Armstrong recalled ‘I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth’. But, unlike Edson’s scientist who takes on a god-like role in creating and destroying life, Armstrong didn’t think about the possibilities of pressing and obliterating the world. ‘I didn’t feel like a giant’, he admitted, ‘I felt very, very small.’

*


Nearing midnight and resisting the urge to sleep, I often find myself doom-scrolling on my phone. Inevitably I read a news item on our exceeding of climate change tipping points. When I finally turn off the light, I discover that the world is once again a pea. But not the pea that Armstrong described from the window of his spacecraft. This time, the Earth is the pea from the fairy tale. All night I am a princess sleeping fitfully because the world presses through all the many comforts I inhabit.

It’s not just tipping points that provoke this unease. It’s the ballpoint pen with baby face tucked into the o in ‘world’, which gave me two weeks of use before its ink gave up. The desirability of cute commodities is so powerful because it taps into a mothering instinct. I bought the pen because, to some extent, I wanted to take care of that baby world. Now, I’m left with the prospect of polluting the environment with this piece of plastic for the next thousand years. The aesthetic of cuteness demands care and love whilst simultaneously – and paradoxically – suggesting triviality and disposability. Made from polyester, the cuddly Earth plushie on the raffle table is no different. For one lucky winner, this is an Earth that is resilient; once tired of it you can throw it away, but it’s going nowhere fast.

*


Motion sickness is caused by sensory confusion. I’ve experienced it in a friend’s car, several ferries, train seats facing backwards and, in Disneyland Paris, a jerky mouse-shaped buggy. Apparently, I’m experiencing it again standing still and watching this current spectacle: the head teacher of this school is dressed in an inflatable Earth costume while handing out packets of wildflower seeds. I am observing the world fitted over his slim-hipped, six-foot figure and, at the same time, I’m inhabiting this world with its surface area of 510.1 million kilometres squared. My body, eye and inner ear send conflicting signals to my brain.

The scholar Timothy Clark would likely diagnose me with a chronic ‘derangement of scale’. In his writing on the Anthropocene, Clark pauses on Bill Anders’s description of Earth as a Christmas bauble, the way he saw it on his Apollo 8 mission. If we extend the metaphor, then something very peculiar happens: ‘A family living room at Christmas, with its tree and decorations, becomes in a sense immediately “bigger” than the planet in the window of a space capsule, even as, simultaneously, that room and its Christmas tree ball have never been smaller.’

The image of the woman’s immaculately manicured hands cupping the planet brings about a similar derangement, especially if you catch sight of her wedding ring. Which laws and conventions are being followed in this scenario – planetary or domestic? Is she married to… the world? And where exactly is she? If she holds the Earth, then presumably she must live somewhere beyond it.

*


Humming and hissing, the Earth produces sounds we cannot hear. Magnetic fields push through particles creating a ‘chorus wave’, so called because when converted to audio the waves sound like the dawn chorus. Having listened to a clip, I can’t help but think the whistling sound is more suited to an otherworldly milkman. And then there are the other sounds that Earth can make. ‘She walks around with the Earth in her mouth all day long’, a dog-owner writes on behalf of her dog, who has recently been treated to an ‘Earth Dog Toy’. Another reviewer notes helpfully ‘they squeak (not obnoxiously)’.

In his study of ‘auditory cuteness’, musicologist David Huron assesses little bells, certain bird chirps and smaller animal calls. Ultimately, he identifies squeeze toys as delivering the cutest of cute sounds. These playthings have, in most cases, 20ml of volume, which approximately matches a human infant’s vocal tract. The park near this former school of mine is prolific with man’s best friend. Next time I’m passing, I tell myself, I’ll keep my eyes and ears peeled for a baby’s cry passing itself off as the Earth and gripped between the sharp teeth of a dog.

*


In our current environmental moment, the words ‘Save the Earth’ flock together like those kitschy ceramic ducks on a living room wall. And like the ducks, more often than not the phrase is issued mechanically; its original vitality many times removed. In an optimistic mood we might feel that when we talk about saving the Earth we are talking about saving rhinos and the climate, oceans from plastic and overfishing, saving dandelions, microbes, mosquitoes, soil. In other words, saving the world means saving all of it. Doesn’t the baby Earth of our making deserve our unconditional love? With less hope and more cynicism, we might ask whether the idea of saving the Earth is for Earth’s sake or merely our own. The cute anthropomorphized world that cries ‘save me’ is not the world at all. The voice is a human one; it is us asking us to save us.

How would the ash tree in my garden go about saving the Earth? And the blackbird nesting on its branch? The worm in its torch-bright beak? How to organize a multi-species consultation to learn from all these different perspectives when even a small change in our own perspective can throw us off? After Earth was ‘saved’ onto colour film by an astronaut on Apollo 17, but crucially before it was released to the public and became a catalyst for environmentalism, the image was manipulated to ensure the South Pole was at the ‘south’ and Africa the ‘right’ way up. It’s possible to love the Earth when seen from 29,000 kilometres, but out of the question if the Earth were ‘upside down’.

Calling out to her friend, a little girl rushes past me with hands cupping a blue marble. It turns out to be an item another child lost earlier in the playground. A small war kicks off as to who should keep it. Jostled, the little girl drops the marble, but doesn’t immediately realise. Her hands still cupped but empty, she appears for an instant to be begging.

A mouse from my cat; the hummus snack pot from the landfill; a little bit of money, myself from the rain when I remember my umbrella. These are the things I know I can save.

Shadows have begun to appear at new angles. Tired and hungry, it’s not just the children that begin to squabble, but the parents too. On this enormous carousel we call home, we’re being gently turned away from the sun. Earth Day is coming to an end. Every last planet has been eaten. On the melamine table, a blue sticky smear of ocean.

This article is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
Further Reading: - Isabel Galleymore Poem by... (1) Review by... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image