beneath the myth
of high ground
but there is no
it is toxic waste you mourn for
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.
by Murray Reiss
You say Global Warming’s such an obvious catastrophe
Portending planet-wide chaotic instability
A greater threat to national security
Than invasion occupation or tyranny
The world we co-evolved with simply blown away
So where’s our sense of over-riding urgency
Why haven’t we declared a nation-wide emergency
Why haven’t we declared World War III
Where’s our Manhattan Project for carbon sequestration
And alternative energy innovation
Where’s our mass conscription
Where’s our holy crusade to save civilization
To wage war we’d need an enemy
Of implacable hostility
And ruthless ingenuity
The mastermind behind the globalized conspiracy
To seize control of our whole fossil-fueled economy
And turn its engines of growth & prosperity
Into mass destruction weaponry
To raise the heat however many degrees
To trash our poor planet’s liveability
‘Cause without the spectre of this sinister foe
We got no one to fight
We got nowhere to go
We’ve had our War on Terror
Had our War on Drugs
Now we need his carbon-bombing
Troops of thugs
Out there raising the level of our seas
Spreading drought famine pestilence & tropical disease
Inciting heat waves wildfires
Hurricanes and floods
Or else … What??
We’re gonna turn on a dime
And wage war on us???
Line up our cars and trucks shoot ’em all in the head?
Stomp our air con units till they’re gasping for breath?
Put our tractors out to pasture with all the bags
Of fertilizers made from natural gas?
And send our kids out foraging for roots and berries?
Hope they trudge back home with all the grubs they can carry?
Whoa — the future just started looking pretty scary.
Evacuate the suburbs Stuff them like sardines
Into sky-high towers for increased efficiency?
Can’t do that without oceans of cement —
Oops — busted our carbon budget again.
Stop refining crude for all our life-enhancing plastics?
No SaranWrap? The future’s looking mighty drastic.
Stop drillling for oil? Blasting mountains for coal?
Kick our trillion-dollar pension fund investments down a hole?
Pull the plug on our power plants and factories —
And give up our jobs and a functioning economy?
So we can live in caves or up a tree?
Well, we wouldn’t do that to ourselves — would we?
No — We need to put a face to that enemy
So we can put an end to his villainy
Before we end up the innocent casualties
Of his plot to squeeze the last degree of heat
From the coal oil and gas right under our feet
‘Cause if we don’t conjure up some enemy
We’re gonna have to declare World War Me
See the author perform this Climate Action Performance Poem here.
Wander above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich
the poetry of animals all around us
Source: Sew a Few More Stitches of Life