Nature of the Anthropocene: A World of Dreams – New Landscape Paintings by Barry Chernoff

We are living in the age of humans, the Anthropocene. The beginning of our age may extend back as far as 160,000 years. And since then we have left an indelible mark on the planet not only because of our physical, biological and chemical impacts but also because of our creations of art and culture and great cities and attainment of knowledge. The power of humans to sculpt our planet has been long recognized. Plato (ca. 360 BCE) in the Critias bemoans the transformation of landscapes, loss of water, loss of verdency and irrevocable loss of soil. Some 2000 years later in the Epoque of Nature, Buffon (1778)[1] listed as the 7th epoch “When the power of man achieved the same level of that of nature.”[2]

We now live in a world of sculptural landscapes; the sculpting is either intentional or unwitting. Conservation and preservation must now be viewed as a matter of curation. The Anthropocene teaches us that we have the power to choose the nature of the world. As so eloquently stated by Serres (1995:86)[3]:

 For, as of today, the Earth is quaking anew: not because it shifts and moves in its restless, wise orbit, not because it is changing, from its deep plates to its envelope of air, but because it is being transformed by our doing. Nature acted as a reference point for ancient law and for modern science because it had no subject: objectivity in the legal sense, as in the scientific sense, emanated from a space without man, which did not depend on us and on which we depended de jure and de facto. Yet henceforth it depends so much on us that it is shaking and that we too are worried by this deviation from expected equilibria. We are disturbing the Earth and making it quake!

And while we have the power to transform, perhaps it is only of the physical and biological, and not of Nature. As noted by Serres (1995:86), the actions of Nature emanate from a reference point that is a space without man. The nature of Nature is truly unknown to us. For as we are part of Nature, our minds, interpretations and even actions are apart from Nature. And from this apartness springs hope, beauty, desire, longing and even destruction because each of us filter our interactions with Nature and the planet through our histories, cultures, physiologies, etc.

It is here that in A World of Dreams Telfair teaches us that from our apartness with Nature we can conjure and feel the power of beauty in landscapes. The paintings bring me to spaces in which I feel insignificant and awestruck. The isolation and magnitude of what could not be constructed by humans has been shown before but not as effectively, in my limited view, because Telfair is unabashed in her use of her personal filters and curiosity. It is a worldview that shows us how tenuous we are in understanding our impact on the planet. The spectacular views from Antarctica are subject to our climatic scalpel. Is the iceberg sea serpent beckoning us or rearing its head only to be extinguished in warmed seawater?

A World of Dreams leads us on a journey of powerful thought and emotion. It lays out a statement about our responsibility in the Anthropocene. Nature has been a far more skillful sculptor than humankind. But humans are nothing if not transformers. How should we curate the future? The answer to this is neither simple nor certain. It will be through the creativity in the Age of Humans that we will address the question most profoundly. A World of Dreams makes a powerful argument on how we should proceed.[4]

This essay was by Barry Chernoff, Chair of the College of the Environment


[1] Smellie, W. (translator). 1785. Natural History, General and Particular by the Count De Buffon. With above 300 plates and occasional notes and observations. W. Strahan and T. Cadell, Strand, London.

[2] Translation by Andrew Curran

[3] Serres, M. 1995. The Natural Contract. Elizabeth Macarthur and William Paulson (translators). Univ. of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

[4] I am indebted to Andy Curran for bringing the work of Buffon to my attention and for a translation and to Andy Szegedy-Maszak for providing feedback on the essay and for the date of Plato’s work.