This is seriously yesterday’s news (April 2007’s news to be exact). I just read in Ode Magazine (a magazine geared towards new age retirees that I happen to like) about a public installation in London last spring. I found it delightful and thought-provoking, and thought I’d share in case anyone else missed it, too. Channel 4, to kick of it’s “Human Footprint” program, laid out exactly 74,802 cups of tea on Trafalgar Square, the average lifetime tea consumption for a British citizen. [photo by from the hip]
Human Footprint is clearly about environmental impact, a favorite topic for me (and you and everyone we know). I don’t think the installation is highly effective at bringing home our personal environmental footprints, unless there’s some campaign against tea drinking that I don’t know about (hey, I did miss this installation entirely). They might have achieved a stronger environmental message if the cups were disposable, though then the installation itself would have been an environmental burden.
I don’t think it needs that message. To me, there is something so beautiful, even in the documentation, of seeing the sea of teacups that will make up a single person’s life. It’s striking, and bittersweet: that all the cups you will drink for your whole life fit in one public square; the shortness of life; and yet the multitude of moments.
Imagine the same installation for the number of cups of coffee an average American drinks in their lifetime… somehow, not the same effect. It conjures up stress and trying to stay awake through a day at the office (though maybe tea is like that for the Brits?). Something about tea is relaxing, ritualistic, nurturing, reflective and an opportunity to connect with yourself or another person.
There is something so simultaneously devastating and gorgeous in measuring a human life in these terms, and I think it’s why the one dead English poet’s work that ever stuck in my mind is TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
For I have know them all already, know them all:–
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
[pigeon photo by Phil Hawker]