Category Archives: Humanities and Ecology
by Jeff VanderMeer
In the middle of the slow apocalypse of global warming, I find great value in experiments like Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology. We live in a time when approaches to interacting with the environment, including in storytelling terms, are rapidly changing. Some methods of telling stories and some kinds of stories are going extinct, too escapist or not granular enough to survive. Others have become less useful as delivery systems for meditation or mediation on this subject because too compromised or commodified by familiar tropes. Thinking seriously about our environment and how we live within it requires that we reassess the storytelling ecosystem—it’s a habitat in which experiments and mutations will flourish during the interregnum, cross-pollinate, and then perhaps themselves go extinct or be supplanted when global warming truly overtakes us.
One useful strategy for writing about the Anthropocene that I see reflected in Heldén’s project falls under the general category of “de-familiarization.” While this strategy has been used for some time to make readers see anew what has come to seem commonplace—Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Bend Sinister using the syntax of the travel brochure to describe a prison camp comes to mind—it seems much more urgent today, when there is so much we render invisible, even in our mundane daily existence.
In the context I find most interesting, de-familiarization manifests in part as a search for greater granularity and complexity in fictions (and nonfictions), and thus becomes part of that quixotic quest for a more detailed and useful “truth.” It can apply to just a portion of a narrative work, too. Is Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, for example, climate or ecological fiction? No, not in its entirety, but when the narrator fixates on the scenes of oil in the backdrop of news reports as he walks through the transitional space of the terminal, the oil not only leaks out over fellow travelers but in its descriptions attains a kind of agency or power—and an intentional fetishizing—that is, indeed, almost uncanny, and makes it impossible to view as inert or something in the backdrop, and conjures up Heldén’s words, “We thought we could control the night.”
In Astroecology, Heldén takes the familiar space of an ordinary forest with ordinary signs of human habitation and by a process of interiority through a nameless narrator (perhaps some version of the author/creator, but not necessarily) and juxtapositions of different natural, human, and exterior-to-human interfaces (pop culture and other, which become unhinged or detached from their linkage) . . . makes both a personal and universal statement. The personal comes from Heldén’s inspiration, as he told me, in a family home, a place of loss with a “garden being reclaimed by weeds and other plants” and eventually by the forest itself. In a way similar to how scientists delivered their theses via poetry in the 1800s, before the rise of specialization, but with the added personal element of the passing of Heldén’s father as subtext and hidden from view . . . and yet still felt, even without that knowledge.[i]
There’s a modern context for considering trees, and plants in general, that, like many facts about the world, is not sufficiently conveyed by or acknowledged by fictional narratives and that also creeps through the backdrop of Astroecology. The New York Times recently discussed Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, based on experiences in German forests:
[As most biologists know] trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
This is the mulch Heldén brings with his impressionistic text and his associations. He writes, “Ask: Gravity, radiation, making it visible.” That which exists behind the scenes, found in the basic expanding knowledge of the world, changes and contaminates texts like the Astroecology, makes it evolve each new month we engage with it.[ii] The cosmic streams through the space between the words because our words are never enough, even in an honest striving.
There is another kind of defamiliarization that speaks to ecology, which is to view war not just as a human conflict with terrible consequences, but as a history of the inexplicable enacted upon natural ecologies. To cite just one possible hypothetical example, which could occur across either experimental or traditional narratives, I was struck by the juxtaposition between descriptions of the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes and other readings of the naturalist Alexander Humboldt exploring European forests more than a century earlier, in Andrea Wulf’s Humboldt biography The Invention of Nature.
Forest warfare during World War II included targeting the tops of trees with mortar and missile fire to make them explode and kill soldiers below. While machine-gun nests would riddle trees with bullets as a side effect of pitched battles between infantry units. In short, these battles were also violence perpetrated against trees, with profoundly traumatic effects.
What Heldén dramatizes through image could be thought of as peace-time war ecology. It is peaceful enough to us, but it is a violence against the flora. There can be no reconciling the meaning of that, and no one can, once noticing this fact, see just the peace in the author’s words. Damage lives there, too, and wounding. As he puts it, “A familiar scene slowly changing.”
At the far end of the scale and depth of Heldén’s ruminations lie other artifacts, outside of the confines of his project. Aase Berg’s poetry with its vigorously bleak yet oddly hopeful vision of a contaminated Earth on which, despite everything, life still exists and takes on strange new forms seems to exist at an end-point beyond the end of Astroecology, and yet contained within it with lines such as “Soot from burnt out stars falling slowly to the ground.”
There has never been a better time to be brave and pushing outward in our storytelling. Not because we wish for ecological collapse to create new stories for us, but because we hope for reconciliation. We hope that the limits of our imaginations are not what we fear they are, and that we can reach beyond those limits to find a kind of balance. We hope for ways in which the human experience can merge with the “natural,” so that nature and culture become one with the least harm to either, and so that we understand and share the ghosts of both.
An endeavor like Astroecology is more aligned with what I’ve been reading in eco-philosophy than straight-forward fiction, perhaps more attuned to the subtlety required to meet the challenge of reflecting, refracting, and projecting–internalizing—the necessary sedimentary layers and help us put aside the fallacy that what we cannot see does not exist. Heldén’s interdisciplinary approach allows us to join him in that quest.
[i] Editor’s note: Though the notion of science poetry seems absurd today, Erasmus Darwin’s poetry was exceedingly popular in its day, and set the table for science poetry in the 19th century. See here, some remarkable technology poems from various eras.
[ii] Editor’s note: See the Astroecology project and digital work here.
Here is the position “paper” I delivered earlier this month at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) conference, After Biopolitics. The paper tile is “Vegans Mock Humans Who Don’t Eat Gods.” Thank you so much to Tim Morton, Randy Honold, all the organizers, and all the participants for a great conference. (See below the call for next year).
The human species is a set that defines itself through multiple and diverse acts of self-reflection. Among these acts is regarding ourselves in other species, though we also see through, or don’t see through, our misconceptions of ourselves and others. One technology we tend to elide, of late, is the comparison of humans and gods. We’re embarrassed by the association. If self-definition is multiple and diverse, however, why would we dismiss a category of non-human beings by which many human beings define themselves?
And maybe we protest too much. I wonder if we don’t secretly carry a torch for gods. Whether or not humans are particularly creative or destructive, many of us still feel inspired, at times, and at other times, possessed. Gods, archetypes, ghosts, emotions, and unconscious drives—I don’t meant to collapse these species into one another, but I do see common threads—alien invasion, alien intimacy, alien birth. (Thank you Dirk Felleman at synthetic zero for suggesting gods as emotions.) Few of us would deny that we have unconscious drives, but if so, then, could it be that we are still attached to gods?
Is belief in the reversibility of global warming and an infinitely sustainable society like belief in a coherent god? (This is Stoekl in Pettman’s Human Error). I think it is. Some of us are credulous in this sense. But sustainability, like balance, need not be universal. We don’t have to be Modern, monotheistic, or dogmatic in our attachments. Self-defining “right action,” including cultivating good habits and “gracious relationships” (thank you Bill Jordan at Environmental Prospect), may have some intrinsic value and broader influence.
P.S. I really like the trope of gods as tools or machines. I find it genuinely persuasive and productive. Gods, demi-gods, and idols are surely products of metallurgy and alchemy. I do believe we fashion gods. But this doesn’t preclude the possibility that we are tool-making tools, also fashioned, by industrious monkey gods (for example).
Call for Papers: Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts. Atalanta, November 3 – 6, 2016. Creativity.
Having done some time in the history of rhetoric, I have a double vision of the term “species.” In common parlance it means something like an essential difference; at other moments it meant something like the opposite—appearance, or form—to look at. This is similar to the paradox of substance, as intrinsic (the old matter) and peripheral (a pedestal). I don’t mean to juxtapose these two meanings of “species” as an OED-fetishist, but to take my inspiration for reflecting on species from the idea of “looking at,” and to consider if we might consider how we might appear to other species.
The human is a set that defines itself, plays itself, through collective and diverse acts of self-definition. Part of that play is a theory of human mind, inextricably bound up with language; our mind (they say) is categorically different. But this awareness of difference comes about through observing other species. How we look at other species is a central act. We are a species that regards other species and tends to conclude that it is exceptional.
This reminds me of Levi Bryant’s remarkable diagrams in The Democracy of Objects (20 – 22). Here we are objects regarding ourselves as subjects regarding objects. To me the names of the categories aren’t as significant as our acts of seeing ourselves as categorically different, though, given “subjectivity,” being seeing objects seems a much needed corrective.
If other species have a “theory of mind” based on their experience of themselves, as they look at others, and if those theories of mind overlap with our theory of mind, could we keep drawing Venn diagrams until we arrived at a huge ring species of consciousness? Might we then come round to a new notion of species as appearance or apparent difference? And could we imagine inquiring how other species regard us?
Image source: The KING, the MICE and the CHEESE
“Theory of mind” credit to Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics: the Evolution of a Social Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
See another oblique Environmental Critique references to their thesis here.
And more about Object Oriented Ontology here.
[ . . . ] Invasive species are, generally speaking, those species that humans transport to a new region, where they reproduce, spread, and do ecological harm. That many species have become globetrotters is not in doubt. The issue is this: Could it be that, contrary to prevailing assumptions, invasive species are helping rather than hindering nature? Might it be the case that “invasive species will be nature’s salvation,” as Fred Pearce opines in The New Wild (2015)?
The eradication of invasives is often preparatory to restoring ecological systems to “health,” defined in various ways. Ecological restoration typically involves the reintroduction of native species — you can’t have a tallgrass prairie, a geographically restricted habitat, without native prairie plants. But if, as Pearce claims, the notion of restoration is predicated on an outmoded model of how ecosystems work, then is restoration doomed to fail? Might the act of returning an ecological system to some former state be an assault rather than a boon?
Pearce raises these difficult and timely questions. Invasion ecology is, relatively speaking, in its disciplinary infancy, although it has already provided scaffolding for conservation-oriented land management strategies. An ecological restorationist in your neighborhood is right now chopping down an invasive shrub, poisoning an invasive herb, or perhaps setting a trap for a non-native mammal. And by chop, poison, and trap, I mean kill; this endeavor is not for the faint of heart. Besides, it is an expensive business. The subsequent restoration of the ecological community is likewise costly and fraught with practical difficulties. Problematic invasives regenerate as often as not, or scurry back to a trapped-out system, especially those with underlying problems resulting from historically poor human management.
These challenges might encourage scientists to be cautious in dispensing advice, and encourage practitioners to wait for more complete information. But the Holocene extinction, or Sixth Mass Extinction as some call it, creates a sense of urgency. Supposedly, the rate of species loss under the influence of human disruption rivals past cataclysmic extinction events, like the one that eliminated dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. This time, we humans are the comet, we are the inundating sea. Many ecologists claim that losses due to ecological damage from invasive species are among the top five factors driving contemporary extinctions. Putting this all together: the emerging science of invasion ecology is being wed to an unperfected practice of ecological restoration under the blood-red sky of a global catastrophe.
Pearce takes aim at the edifice that has coalesced around conservation efforts in the face of invasion. He does not simply remove the dodgy bricks, nor does he merely replace the edifice with a new edifice. Rather, he inverts the edifice, standing the whole darned thing on its head. Setting out to upend the conservation worldview, he writes that “when invaded by foreign species, ecosystems do not collapse. Often they prosper better than before. The success of aliens becomes a sign of nature’s dynamism, not its enfeeblement.” Elsewhere, using a medical metaphor of his own, he writes: “Alien species […] are often exactly the shot in the arm that real nature needs.” Thus, the burly nature of the New Wild — the worldview that embraces invasive species as our new saviors — is “usually richer than what went before.” This is bold and exciting. Is it correct? For the most part, I think not.
Read the whole article at the Los Angles Review of Books here.
Image Source (and another review at) The Nature of Cities here.
Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge c/o DMF at synthetic zero
I want to tell you what’s difficult to admit,
that I left home.
Change of mother tongue between us activates an
immunity, margin where dwelling and travel are
Artifacts throw themselves toward light without
Telling you is not an edge of the light.
There’s no margin of a shadow to imply interior.
In my childhood house was a deep porch covered
Look past our silhouette to silhouettes (like shadows)
of guests arriving in a bright yard.
Light in the next room falls on her, as she bends to
Skylight pours down, then covers the mud wall,
I observe a lighted field seem to hang in space in
front of me.
Speaking, not filling in, surface intent, is a cabinet
of artifacts, comparisons, incongruity.