The “Spectrality” of Phytoplankton in John Wedgewood Clarke’s Landfill

In Landfill, poet John Wedgewood Clarke takes the reader on walks along the trekking paths of some of England’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty. One such area is the Greensand Way connecting Surrey and Kent. Clarke, choice picks this location owing to a property of its geological composition: it is made of chalk.

Landscapes formed from chalk, are landscapes composed of coccolith biomicrite, a limestone formed of fossil debris from the cretaceous period. The “bio” refers to the microscopic fossilized phytoplankton called coccolithopores; the “micrite” is a calcium carbonate mud, gluing the fossilized phytoplankton into a material assemblage. When the phytoplankton died, the microscopic calcium carbonate plates that compose their shells sank to the ocean floor to amalgamate into a calcium cement-porridge.  They are the compositional materials. As a result of this our landscapes are an assemblage of dead bodies, or what Tim Morton calls specters. The coccolith we might think of as the spectral aspect of the phytoplankton.

In Humankind Morton explains that ““Specter” could mean “apparition,” but it could also mean “horrifying object,” or it could mean “illusion,” or it could mean “the shadow of a thing.”  (Morton: Humankind, 54-55). The shadowy apparition of our landscape is the shadowy process of the ocean ecosystem which emerged around 146 million years ago. Our landscapes are haunted by the unseen aggregations of massive amounts of death. But it is a productive death, as productive as the life.

The same spectral quality is not so productive in our own case. Or it is, but the spectrality is more disturbing: our rubbish is the material formed to produce a sort of landscape. These landscapes have an undetermined future: until we can be sure the methane doesn’t explode, the land will remain usable only for dumping rubbish. Moreover, rubbish demands ever increasing amounts of energy as a provisionary requirement in order for us to continue consuming. There is this constantly vicious, viscous circle: the ourobouros with its mouth glued to its tail.

This isn’t the only provision that phytoplankton provide, they also photosynthesize, and are therefore a key component in the apparatus that regulates a breathable earth. These may have been one of the most rudimentary forms of life that gave a jolt to the production of oxygen [see Lane, Nick. Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World. Oxford UP, 2002.] In addition, they remain the foundation of a food chain, without them ocean ecosystems would collapse. In short, phytoplankton give their entire being to the emergence of a livable world of exponential complexities, sustain it too, & all without considering it in any apperceptive mode. They have done so for an incredible span of time. All phytoplankton does is propagate itself. They are functional, meaningful components for the regulation of life, without a thought to anything otherwise.

In opposition, we fill landfills with effluvia of ourselves. But not our physical bodies, they fill sacred ground for the convenience of our remembrance. We fill landfills with extensions of ourselves, identifying factors we grew bored of; the leftovers from eating too much; our superfluous snacking habits, their identifying factors smeared into each other; the snipped corners of packaging. We fill the landfill with our n + 1: the extension of ourselves that propagates the capitalist system under which we groan, saturated in what Tristan Garcia calls “an epidemic of things.” (Garcia: Form and Object, 1).

Clarke in drawing the uncanny alignment of two different ways of forming landscapes, makes the anthropic reveal: we are the geological force. Well some of us. The we is applicable to a narrow bandwidth of humanity.

Phytoplankton are a geological force too, or rather a component utilized in a coexistence of things that perturb each other to produce stable conditions for life; but what is the difference? For all their perturbations & sacrifice, vast complexities, not dissimilar in degree, are able to flourish into breathtaking consequence because of phytoplankton’s existence.

Confronted with such a thing—a thing that is part of an ecosystem—how are we to interpret our behavior as the wasteful, polluting, bull-headed, guns blazing, piston-revving, all-consuming, boxed & packaged correlational-nightmare?

Take note of phytoplankton’s brute efficiency. It is staggering. There is no waste. Every aspect of its being is toward some benefit-to something else: oxygen, atmosphere, food source, landscape.

Whereas Human is: breather, polluter, user-&-abuser, self-obsessed, destroyer, potentiality-obsessed, myopic. We benefit ourselves mostly.

We can make the argument that some good eggs exist among us, selfless & futural. Of course. But as a species we have forgotten our ecological position: how to be a regulatory principle rather than an irregular expression of irony. How ironic we are: to lust for life so vehemently.  

Clarke’s insight then, urges us toward a consideration of the impact of phytoplankton & ourselves-as-species. The phytoplankton is a key vehicle in an ecosystem & even in their spectral state they provide landscapes on which we enjoy leisurely walks. We pollute & use & degrade. We too are part of an ecosystem, we infiltrate from the top all the way down. That is the rub.  

The term Anthropocene is embedding itself for what may be the long term discussions of climate forecasters, media opinion-spreaders, academics & public debaters. While the Anthropocene is a problematic term in that it attributes blame to all people when a small percentage have (& are) actually caused our peril. It does have the benefit of causing those of us among who is to blame, to infiltrate from within & explain: “look what we have done…yes! us.”

This is the dialogue that Clarke’s Landfill enters into. It shows us the goings on of immense, immanent processes that have the potential to perturb one another. In short, he shows how consumer affluence directly affects ecosystems. This is tacit in the choice of content in Landfill. We are not shown the landfill in isolation, but in contrast to other landscapes and aggregates of objects, which we find in the form of the life cycles of lugworms on the banks of the Humber river, & their precarious livelihood balanced on the tip of a pH level of 8:

Those white splats on the beach as if a flock                    
of herring-gulls had taken off—lugworm sperm!  

As the tide washes over the sand,
the sea’s higher pH activates the sperm  

which the female smells and pumps down
into her burrow, bathing her eggs.  

This happens on two days in winter each year.
There are four minutes to achieve fertilization.  

If the sea’s pH drops below eight the love songs
of worms over millions of years are silenced,  

the green-gold explosion of plover
at Reads Island an immeasurable blank—     (Clarke: Landfill, 59)       

In no uncertain terms Clarke is positioning us inside a fragility pushed to its limits. The volta jettisoning the reader with an em dash into a scenario of extinction. Consumption encroaches on these limits more and more. Our failure to react threatens to make a reality of the scenario: “This city would be all at sea without them.” (Ibid, 64)

The lugworm, like the phytoplankton, is efficient in its habit. Not only is its life cycle interdependent with the existence of “the city”, but also a much larger ecosystem of species. We must recognize that the most ostensibly ineffective creature or thing contains potentials that are in excess of our expectation.

Works Cited

Clarke, John Wedgewood. Landfill. Valley Press, 2017.

Morton, Tim. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman Peoples. Verso, 2017.

Garcia, Tristan. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things. Translated by Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn, Edingburgh UP, 2014.

Lane, Nick. Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World. Oxford UP, 2002.


I was browsing through the 30 or so poems I wrote—& agonized over the quality of—on my return to England & this one feels cogent to the circumstances we currently find ourselves groaning under. I have been writing about access to futures through the lens of queer theory and ecology. They share a common problem: both are concerned with closing a certain gap. This is the gap between the inside and the outside, or here and there. This manifests as alterity in queer theory. In ecology, as the erroneous perception that there is an ‘away’. Both these errors contribute to unstable futures. Because we fail to address difference we fail to be properly ecological, that is, properly understanding the symbiotic relationship we have with environments & the things that populate them sentient or not.

There is an ecological strata, a material turn in the matter of the poem. This was the nascent turn toward the object in my poems, which came at a time I was flooding (after a long absence) myself with theory. I think that comes through, in a necessarily aesthetic way…this is poetry after all. But I think it shows that theory functions in an aesthetic form. I appreciate that an appraisal of aestheticized theory is perhaps a heavily subjective niche. Nonetheless, as I find theory aesthetically pleasing, I may as well gaff about with it, as the ontological ruminations it produces are interesting if a little opaque. That’s poetry all over, right?


‘Save us! Save us! Betray us.’
The lithium in our batteries sucked through its carbon cap,
the light turned on us lanced.
Making transparency with bone; too unreal to butter us
up with soft entrailed work of the word-a-day-world.
We have glow-sticks instead of fireflies.
Cans of meat in gravy, breakfast in a can.
‘Save us! Save…Betrayal us.’
The bus moored, train, stranded. Little by little.
Damn our water. England too ancient to last out
the courage of an angry climate: one long whip of a gale;
one long yawn of the weather, once more than infrastructure can stomach.
Fold up & hope the tetrapods hold.
The church in armbands, submarines reach it.
The weather is no respecter of traditions.
The weather, no admirer of culture.
The climate emerges evil, scapegoat, pest
we can’t live with, nor live without;
like oxygen, radical, free, everywhere—poison.
Colossi beard cloudy horizons, speaking, loud speaking.
I don’t want to see them,—there flooding peripherals, beached & glum
ready to hold sad talks with allegories of themselves.
We will not get to have our say, there’ll be no anagogic fluid
in which we’ll set[tle] the score of sinew & cell.