“…when the trees migrate…”
My greetings. I’m sorry I’m not here with you today but perhaps it’s just as well. In times such as these, it’s best not to reveal ourselves completely, not even to each other.
If you step over the line and into the circle, you may be able to hear better. Mind the chalk on your shoes.
I know many of you have traveled great distances to be here. Have you seen all there is to see? The pillbox batteries, the ovens, the ammunition depots with cavity-floors? Did you visit the workers’ mass grave? Have you studied the plans carefully? Would you say that it’s beautiful, this fort? They say it sits astride the mountains like a defiant lion. I confess I’ve never seen it. The guidebook says it wasn’t built for beauty. But beauty can arrive uninvited can it not? It can fall upon things unexpectedly, like sunlight stealing through a chink in the curtains. Ah, but then this is the Fort with no chinks in its curtains, the Fort that has never been attacked. Does this mean its forbidding walls have thwarted even Beauty and sent it on its way?
Beauty. We could go on about it all day and all night long. What is it? What is it not? Who has the right to decide? Who are the world’s real curators, or should we say the real world’s curators? What is the real world? Are things we cannot imagine, measure, analyze, represent and reproduce real? Do they exist? Do they live in the recesses of our minds in a Fort that has never been attacked? When our imaginations fail, will the world fail too? How will we ever know?
How big is it, this Fort that may or may not be beautiful? They say it is the biggest fort ever built in the high mountains. Gigantic, you say? Gigantic makes things a little difficult for us. Shall we begin by mapping its vulnerabilities? Even though it has never been attacked (or so they say) think of how its creators must have lived and re-lived the idea of being attacked. They must have waited to be attacked. They must have dreamt of being attacked. They must have placed themselves in the minds and hearts of their enemies until they could barely tell themselves apart from those they feared so deeply. Until they no longer knew the difference between terror and desire. And then, from that knothole of tormented love, they must have imagined attacks from every conceivable direction with such precision and cunning as to render them almost real. How else could they have built a fortification like this? Fear must have shaped it; dread must be embedded in its very grain. Is that what this fort really is? A fragile testament to trepidation, to apprehension, to an imagination under siege?
It was built – and I quote its chief chronicler – to store everything that ought to be defended at all costs. Unquote. That’s saying something. What did they store here comrades? What did they defend?
Weapons. Gold. Civilization itself. Or so the guide book says.
And now, in Europe’s time of peace and plenty, it is being used to showcase the transcendent purpose, or, if you wish, the sublime purposelessness, of civilization’s highest aspiration: Art. These days, I’m told, Art is Gold.
I hope you have bought the catalogue. You must. For appearances’ sake at least.
As you know, the chances are that there’s gold in this Fort. Real gold. Hidden gold. Most of it has been removed, some of it stolen, but a good amount is said to still remain. Everyone’s looking for it, knocking on walls, digging up graves. Their urgency must be palpable to you.
They know there’s gold in the Fort. They also know there’s no snow on the mountains. They want the gold to buy some snow.
Those of you who are from here – you must know about the Snow Wars. Those of you who aren’t, listen carefully. It is vital that you understand the texture and fabric of the place you have chosen for your mission.
Since the winters have grown warmer here, there are fewer ‘snowmaking’ days and as a result there’s not enough snow to cover the ski-slopes. Most ski-slopes can no longer be classified as ‘snow-reliable’. At a recent press conference – perhaps you’ve read the reports – Werner Voltron, President of the Association of Ski-instructors said, “The future, I think is black. Completely black,” [Scattered applause that sounds as though its coming from the back of the audience. Barely discernable murmurs of Bravo! Viva! Wah! Wah! Yeah Brother!] No no no…comrades, comrades …you misunderstand. Mr Voltron was not referring to the Rise of the Black Nation. By Black he meant ominous, ruinous, hopeless, catastrophic, and bleak. He said that every one degree Celsius increase in winter temperatures spells doom for almost one hundred ski-resorts. That, as you can imagine, is a lot of jobs and money.
Not everybody is as pessimistic as Mr Voltron. Take the example of Guenther Holzhausen CEO of MountainWhite, a new branded snow product, popularly known as Hot Snow (because it can be manufactured at two to three degrees Celsius above the normal temperature). Mr Holzhausen said – and I’ll read this out to you – “The changing climate is a great opportunity for the Alps. The extremely high temperatures and rising sea levels brought about by global warming will be bad for seaside tourism. Ten years from now people usually headed for the Mediterranean will be coming to the comparatively cooler Alps for skiing holidays. It is our responsibility; indeed our duty to guarantee snow of the highest quality. MountainWhite guarantees dense, evenly spread snow which skiers will find is far superior to natural snow.” Unquote.
MountainWhite snow, comrades, like most artificial snows, is made from a protein located in the membrane of a bacterium called Pseudomonas syringae. What sets it apart from other snows, is that in order to prevent the spread of disease and other pathogenic hazards, MountainWhite guarantees that the water it uses to generate snow for skiing is of the highest quality, sourced directly from drinking water networks. “You can bottle our ski-slopes and drink them!” Guenther Holzhausen is known to have once boasted. [Some restless angry murmuring on the sound track] I understand … But calm your anger. It will only blur your vision and blunt your purpose.
To generate artificial snow, nucleated, treated water is shot out of high-pressure power-intensive snow cannons at high speed. When the snow is ready it is stacked in mounds called whales. The snow whales are groomed, tilled and fluffed before the snow is evenly spread on slopes that have been shaved of imperfections and natural rock formations. The soil is covered with a thick layer of fertilizer to keep the soil cool and insulate it from the warmth generated by Hot Snow. Most ski resorts use artificial snow now. Almost every resort has a cannon. Every canon has a brand. Every brand is at war. Every war is an opportunity.
If you want to ski on – or at least see – natural snow, you’ll have to go further, up to the glaciers that are wrapped in giant sheets of plastic foil to protect them from the summer heat and prevent them from shrinking. I don’t know how natural that is though – a glacier wrapped in foil. You might feel as though you’re skiing on an old sandwich. Worth a try I suppose. I wouldn’t know, I don’t ski. The Foil Wars are a form of high altitude combat – not the kind that some of you are trained for [chuckles]. They are separate, though not entirely unconnected to the Snow Wars.
In the Snow Wars, MountainWhite’s only serious adversary is Scent n’ Sparkle, a new product introduced by Peter Holzhausen, who, if you will pardon me for gossiping, is Guenther Holzhausen’s brother. Real brother. Their wives are sisters. [A murmur]. What’s that? Yes… real brothers married to real sisters. The families are both from Salzburg.
In addition to the all the advantages of MountainWhite, Scent n’ Sparkle promises whiter, brighter snow with a fragrance. At a price of course. Scent n’ Sparkle comes in three aromas, Vanilla, Pine and Evergreen. It promises to satisfy tourists’ nostalgic yearning for old-fashioned holidays. Scent n’ Sparkle is a boutique product poised to storm the mass market, or so the pundits say, because it is a product with vision, and an eye to the future. Scented snow anticipates the effects that the global migration of trees and forests will have on the tourism industry. [Murmur] Yes. I did say tree migration.
Did any of you read Macbeth in school? Do you remember what the witches on the heath said to him? “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Burnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him?”
Do you remember what he said to them?
[A voice from the audience somewhere at the back, says, “That will never be. Who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earthbound root?”]
Ha! Excellent. But Macbeth was dead wrong. Trees have unfixed their earthbound roots and are on the move. They’re migrating from their devastated homes in the hope of a better life. Like people. Tropical palms are moving up into the lower Alps. Evergreens are climbing to higher altitudes in search of a colder climate. On the ski-slopes, under the damp carpets of Hot Snow, in the warm, fertilizer-coated soil, stowaway seeds of new hothouse plants are germinating. Perhaps soon there’ll be fruit trees and vineyards and olive groves in the high mountains.
When the trees migrate, birds and insects, wasps, bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators will have to move with them. Will they be able to adapt to their new surrounding? Robins have already arrived in Alaska. Alaskan caribou plagued by mosquitoes are moving to higher altitudes where they don’t have enough food to eat. Mosquitoes carrying malaria are sweeping through the Lower Alps.
I wonder how this Fort that was built to withstand heavy artillery fire will mount a defense against an army of mosquitoes.
The Snow Wars have spread to the plains. MountainWhite now dominates the snow market in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. It is lobbying in India and China, with some success, for dam construction projects dedicated entirely to snow cannons for all-season ski-resorts. It has entered the Dutch market for dyke reinforcement and for sea-homes built on floating raft foundations, so that when the sea levels rise and the dykes are finally breached and Holland drifts into the ocean, MountainWhite can harness the rising tide and turn it into gold. Never fear MountainWhite is here! works just as well in the flatlands. Scent n’ Sparkle has diversified too. It owns a popular TV channel and controlling shares in a company that makes – as well as defuses – landmines. Perhaps their new batch will be scented – strawberry, cranberry, jojoba – in order to attract animals and birds as well as children. Other than snow and landmines, Scent n’ Sparkle also retails mass market, battery operated, prosthetic limbs in standard sizes for Central Asia and Africa. It is at the forefront of the campaign for Corporate Social Responsibility and is funding a chain of excellently appointed corporate orphanages and NGOs in Afghanistan which some of you are familiar with. Recently it has put in a tender for the dredging and cleaning of lakes and rivers in Austria and Italy that have once again grown toxic from the residue of fertilizer and artificial snowmelt.
Even here, at the top of the world, residue is no longer the past. It is the future. At least some of us have learned over the years to live like rats in the ruins of other peoples’ greed. We have learned to fashion weapons from nothing at all. We know how to use them. These are our combat skills.
Comrades, the stone lion in the mountains has begun to weaken. The Fort that has never been attacked has laid siege to itself. It is time for us to make our move. Time to replace the noisy, undirected spray of machine-gun fire with the cold precision of an assassin’s bullet. Choose your targets carefully.
When the stone lion’s stone bones have been interred in this, our wounded, poisoned earth, when the Fort That Has Never Been Attacked has been reduced to rubble and when the dust from the rubble has settled, who knows, perhaps it will snow again.
That is all I have to say. You may disperse now. Commit your instructions to memory. Go well, comrades, leave no footprints. Until we meet again, godspeed, khuda hafiz and keep your powder dry.
[Shuffle of footsteps leaving. Fading away.]
Published in Manifesta 7,
a European Art Biennial, 2008
“The Briefing” is Arundhati Roy’s first work of fiction since The God of Small Things.