Now. What I want you to imagine first is a large circular structure with no roof. Maybe the image that comes to mind is something like a corral or a bullring, but that’s too big. Maybe you think of a circus ring instead, which is better, but this thing is much deeper than that. It has much higher walls. Like a Wall of Death, you wonder? Think Wall of Death if that helps. But filled with water, almost to the brim, and emitting a dull industrial hum. Hear it, as best you can. See it from above. Like you’re hovering above it, looking down, the way they say you hover above your own body in a hospital bed when you’re just about to die. Like in the movies, you think? That’s good. That’s exactly what I mean. We’re on the same wavelength now. From that height, you can see the water inside this thing swirling, not unlike water going down a plughole. Slightly dipped in the centre and swollen at the circumference. But looking closer you see that this swirling is not the only movement in the giant tub. Wedded to it is something deeper or darker, as though an invisible hand were twirling a giant length of seaweed round and round, entraining the rotation of the water itself. In fact, looking closer again, you notice not one but dozens of dark ribbons wheeling, from the hollow bullseye right out to the rim. More, you see that each circle is not a continuous thick thread but many segments – it’s all coming into focus now, as in a particularly vivid dream – it’s a huge tank filled with water, and full of huge fish, all the same colour, shape and size. The same does not mean similar. It does not mean merely of common species. These fish are all replicas, down to the last detail. Do you understand? In colour, they are a dull tin underneath and up the sides, and on top a dull brown, like trout. No green or blue. None of the glitz or glamour of tropical fish. Round and round they go, all at precisely the same pace, making it impossible to tell if it’s the current carrying them along, like flotsam, or if it’s their own effort that produces the unending clockwise wash. Maybe the image reminds you of those old cowboy movies you watched on Saturday mornings as a kid, with the Indians (as you called them then) circling the wagons endlessly, getting picked off one by one, and still they kept circling, circling, which never made any sense to you, did it? I’ve put that image in your mind and now I want you to forget it, if you can. That’s hard, I know. But I want you to focus on my words as you hear them, in strict sequence, and one after the other to enjoy the concrete images they create in your mind. Now, for instance, I want you to look up and see dozens and dozens of identical tubs laid out in perfectly spaced rows in every direction, almost as far as the eye can see. It’s some kind of laboratory fish farm on a scale beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Looking into the distance, you see that what you’d taken for fairly shallow tubs resemble, in fact, roofless silos, of the kind used in the food and feed and petrochemical industries. The sides are corrugated-metal sheets, giving them a vintage look, and several storeys high, meaning each must contain tens of thousands of circling fish. Looking directly down again, you see no bottom to the well, if you can think of it as a kind of well, the light can’t penetrate so much living flesh, it’s so tightly packed, think crowd surge, think pilgrim crush, wheeling about the Kaaba, moving as every human crush moves, with what seems a commanding biological drive. Each individual is man-sized, with certain features – the pointed tail fins, the pointed head – not altogether unlike those of a shark. It also has a ridge running the length of its back that would not be out of place on a dinosaur. They are sturgeon.
‘I want you to close your eyes. I want you to relax, let go. I want you to let your mind see as vividly as possible the images my words conjure up. And above all, no matter what I say, I want you to trust me.’
The Stinky Ocean
‘It was a peculiar, alopecic landscape of hummocks and gullies, with patches of grass growing on what looked like white earth, and rarely a soul to be seen.’
Ian Jack on the legacy of the Scottish textile bleaching industry.
I’ve Been Away for a While
‘When the world releases him from its oily grip will there still be a world?’
Fiction by Dan Shurley, featuring the 2019 explosion of an oil refinery in Philadelphia.
Death Takes the Lagoon
‘Black waves bring animals to the town’s shore. Sticky corpses float on the oil.’
Ariel Saramandi on the sinking of the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius.
House of Flies
‘None of us hung out with them or knew them really, except two boys in our class, who stopped going to school after crude oil became such a big deal.’
A story by Claudia Durastanti, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris.
‘His best photographs are expressionistic, almost calligraphic, as though he’s displaying the hidden signatures our collective appetites have etched across the Earth.’
Anthony Doerr introduces the photography of Edward Burtynsky.