Featured Nonfiction/Hybrid Writer: Roger Peet
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
Spring brings migration, flowers, and the newest issue of Lammergeier. We are so excited and honored to present our featured Nonfiction/Hybrid writer, Roger Peet. Join us as we discuss the legacy of resource expolatation and our collective responsibilities. If you haven't yet, check out "The History of the Mine"!
Ashely Adams: As someone who lived in a region shaped by mining and mining culture, I was immediately drawn to this piece. Was there some specific event or place that inspired this piece?
Roger Peet: My parents are both from the coal-mining areas of northern England; my father’s father was a coal miner his whole life and died of pulmonary disease, and my mother’s father was a foreman at a village colliery; that’s two reasons why I have a fixation on mining. There’s a moment in Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization where he talks about the process of decontextualization that takes place underground in a mine, how mining taught us to convert the natural world into units of value, and that paragraph has provided a foundation for a huge amount of my thinking about why the world is the way it is.
AA: One thing I really loved about this piece was the use of “we” as the speaker of this piece. Can you discuss your choice to take the “collective” as a point of view?
RP: It seemed the appropriate thing to do, in talking about this process that is so fundamental to most human societies. I think it’s useful to frame a phenomenon like mining as a collective experience which touches every life, an element of material culture that has become almost like climate in the degree to which it defines human activity. It implies a shared history and a shared responsibility, both of understanding and of action, and regardless of intent. We are all together in the world that mining has made.
AA: “History of the Mine” starts off so grounded, but ends in a frantic, fantastical place as we move through the nuclear age. Can you explain what made you decide to take us that kind of place in the end?
RP: Some of the inspiration for this piece came from thinking about the motivations behind scientific inquiry, and science’s relationship to the entities that fund it. Science likes to believe that it is impartial, but the structure of science under capitalism (or even just under industry) means that there is always a direction being given to the investigation that is separate from the pure examination of phenomena. Science is also bound to a great degree to the cultural traditions within which it is pursued, and I personally find a lot of similarities between the pursuit of fundamental particles and angels dancing on the heads of pins. When we found nothing at the heart of the atom but the power to destroy the world, we immediately realized that doing so would rationalize the concluding chapters of many of our sacred texts- a tantalizing prospect! The elaboration of technological processes has been unfolding in a totalized frenzy for decades now, shows no sign of letting up, and has become a kind of madness for madness’ sake. The pursuit of ability without material reason is pretty overwhelming to watch, and the psychotic fractures of contemporary computer science, artificial intelligence, and military and communications technology are just really deeply unpleasant to be around. That’s not much of an explanation but it is what I was thinking about when I was trying to figure out where this piece was going to go.
AA: I can’t stop thinking about “skeletons of ichthyosaurs” and the rumination of the deep past meeting the present oppressions. I think it’s very easy for the privileged to dismiss the far (and near) cataclysms of the past and its effects on the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts on bringing together these wide gulfs of time.
RP: I love to think about lost worlds, because there are so many of them to imagine yourself in, just an impossible profusion of other times so much more thrilling and strange and complicated than our sadly diminished present. For so much of the history of this planet the structure of daily life was completely alien to ours, and the way that structure is frozen into the earth is something I find unimaginably beautiful. Encountering the deep past written in stone is like hearing some sort of trans-dimensional echo, a weird ripple effect of time circling in on itself and unraveling. It’s like we have folded our present moment over to touch that moment of deep history and suddenly the two times are one, a source of endless wonder and joy to me. Thinking about the inevitability of cataclysm makes it a bit easier to deal with the grueling reality of modern life and human history, but it is also easy, if you are not careful, to use that cataclysm as a means for laying blame on an imagined population whose descendants you don’t like, or to say that there is a fundamental flaw in humanity that makes us unredeemable. As much as it would be nice to believe otherwise, we live in the world we live in now and no other, and we are not the people we imagine our ancestors to be. Trying to become an imagined ancestor stands in the way of trying to become different people or make a different world right now.
AA: Not only do you write awesome reflections on natural resource extraction; you create some gorgeous art and do amazing collaborations with activists. I know our readers would love to hear about any other projects you might have done or are currently working on.
RP: Thanks! Well, I just completed an artist book which is a compilation of 19 pages of linoleum blockprints printed on a letterpress. It’s framed as a field guide to 7 elemental forces that accumulation has unleashed on the world: Fire, Smoke, Wind, Wave, Flood, Drought, Disease. Each force is a 4-color reduction blockprint and is accompanied by a quote from a scientist or official describing the novel forms these things have begun to take in the landscape. It was a fun thing to work on and I still have a ton of them to put together! Apart from that I am currently working on a bunch of paper-cut illustrations of rare insects for a commission, a few poster designs and some illustrations for graphics for local political groups, and a big writing project that is currently sprawling out before me in general confusion. It’s about the Shinkolobwe mine and the history of the US involvement in Congo, and my weird family connection to that - my father flew helicopters for the CIA there in the 60’s. About one third of it is a very rambling experimental examination of the process of decontextualization that I mentioned in the answer to the first question- how going down the mine has driven humanity mad.
AA: Final question—what is your favorite bone?
RP: Hmmmmmm that is a very hard question, so many to choose from! I will go with the vertebrae of Scutisorex, the “hero shrew” of the DR Congo, which are extremely complex interlocking structures unlike those of any other mammal and that serve no clear purpose.