Category Archives: Poets and Poems

Jeff VanderMeer on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology and Storytelling in the Anthropocene

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.

Image Sources:
1: Umea universitet.
2 & 3: #astroekologi medias.



Filed under Art, Humanities and Ecology, Jeff VanderMeer, poetry, Poets and Poems

Interview with The Handsome Family

Randall Honold


Rennie and Brett Sparks

I’ve been a big fan of the band The Handsome Family for over 15 years. This summer I had the chance to finally hear them play live. They were touring to support their new album, Wilderness. It was a show that stirred the imagination: bottomless holes, phantasmagoric encounters, and incalculable fates were sung about with warmth, humor, and intimacy. I wanted more! So I emailed them asking if they would be willing to be interviewed for Environmental Critique.

Who are The Handsome Family? They’re the married songwriting duo, Rennie and Brett Sparks. Rennie writes the lyrics, adds backing vocals, and plays a variety of stringed instruments. Brett writes the music, sings, and plays guitars. A visit to their website is highly recommended to find out more and to hear some of their songs:

Rennie spoke on behalf of both in what follows. (I’m RH; she’s RS.)



RH: Your music is filled with images and tales of animals and other natural beings. Why is it obvious to you that nonhumans are such an important part of our world? Why do you suppose this isn’t obvious to most musicians and writers?

RS: Maybe a better question is: how did humans manage to forget they were living things on a planet of living things? We have a real blindness for our own connection to the rest of this world. That being said, I believe if you asked the ants who was running things on this planet they wouldn’t hesitate to say, “The ants!” Maybe all species are born blind to the needs and fears of the rest and our task is to perceive the connections?

RH: What’s the difference between living in Chicago vs. Albuquerque in terms of inspiration from, or awareness of, the nonhuman world? Do you think big urban areas are places of hope or despair in this regard?

RS: Chicago taught me to look carefully for wildlife. There is great wonder in observing the pigeons cooing under the overpass or the rats scuttling along the edge of buildings at dusk. For many years in Chicago I noticed the big downtown buildings were growing kale in their little squares of garden at building entrances. Strange that for so long no one thought of kale as food. It was an ornamental that grew in cold weather!  Chicago was all about noticing the little things for me, but Albuquerque is all about expansive views. It is just as bewildering to learn to see the great expanse of the desert sky and understand a little of how big our universe is. The ability to see for many miles in all directions is a great gift and reminds you of the presence of the infinite in all finite things. Big urban areas are neither hopeful nor despairing, I think. They await an eye to look at them and a heart to decide.

RH: Your music seems to help you stay in a productive relationship with the troubling aspects of existence – mystery, loss, decay, mortality. When did you realize it had this power as therapy?

RS: Writing songs, or making any art for that matter, is always about finding a beautiful balance between opposing forces. It teaches you that light needs dark, soaring notes need deep tones. Life wouldn’t feel precious if it never ended. Beauty would not feel miraculous if we didn’t see chaos and decay.

RH: Would you like to be immortal, like nature is? (Okay, in about 4 billion years the earth will be swallowed by the sun. Nearly immortal, then…)

RS: When the earth explodes the matter that makes it up will merely change form, but will not disappear. That means we’re all going to be outer space travelers eventually! I don’t think we can have any concept of immortality. We are creatures trapped in time and space, always pushed from past to present to future. There seems to be nothing in our universe that is not subject to this change except, maybe the singularity at the center of a black hole. Maybe that’s the only true immortal in our universe and nothing in our universe can even approach it without being utterly destroyed.

RH: If you could become a different animal, what would you become and why?

RS: Golden retriever! They always seem to be living in utter joy over the smallest pleasures!

RH: Can we expect a song featuring a golden retriever on the next record?

RS: I’ve been trying to write that song for a long, long time. There are so many ‘good doggie’ songs out there like Old Shep, it’s deep waters to tread. 



RH: I’d like to focus a bit on your new album, Wilderness.  As a concept, “wilderness” has become problematic. Some say we need to retain an idea of the wild in order to keep ourselves humble, others say this idea reinforces the harmful separation between humans and the natural world. What say you?

RS: I say we need to remind ourselves that we are part of a huge web of life on this planet so, yeah, the idea of wilderness is really a sad one. I always remember William Bradford as he sailed into Plymouth Harbor for the first time and was so dismayed to see the ‘hideous’ wilderness before him. They got their axes swinging pronto. That being said I think there is something really soothing in contemplating vast multitudes. The vastness of herds and hives and forests, the group soul of the termite. We can learn a lot from the termite. We may not be all that different.

RH: The album cover art is mesmerizing. Why did you decide to depict the animals who share the song titles in the form of a mandala? Does the mandala symbol have special meaning to you?  The glow worm surrounds a black hole at the center of the mandala. For me, the parallel musical image is in the song “Glow Worm,” when Brett sings,

Tightly in my fist I held that glowing worm
Deep down in the hollows I held the center of the world.

Do you see this couplet as the spiritual/emotional center of the album, to mirror what the cover art suggests?

RS: Bingo. How nice that you were thinking as I was thinking. Yes, mandalas are very important to me. I love the idea of artwork designed to pull you inward to infinite space. The best kind of wilderness, I think. I used to have recurring dreams about visiting the center of the earth. It would probably not be good to spot the little light there and grab it in your fist. What not to do at the center of the earth! Yet how many of us could resist at least touching with our little finger and inadvertently turning out the light of the world.

RH: In the songs “Caterpillars,” “Woodpecker,” and “Gulls” you describe humans transmuting into other animals. Is this a way of imagining what it would be like to be other-than-human?

RS: Maybe it’s just a reminder that our bodies are always changing shape. Also who doesn’t wonder how wonderfully strange it would be to cocoon yourself and then emerge into a totally new life. Rebirth is a grand fantasy.

RH: Have you spent time in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Mary Sweeney’s hometown in “Woodpecker?” I went to college there and I think Mary might have been my anthropology professor.

RS: I stopped at Taco Bell there once in a snow storm. That was the extent of my ground research. Mostly that song was inspired by reading, “Wisconsin Death Trip” and also by a series of windshield smashing I witnessed one morning in Chicago on the way to work. These two boys were just running down the street smashing all the windshields with bricks. The street was crowded with people, but we all just stood there in shock. The noise was beautiful, but the sight was very disturbing.

RH: Any final thoughts about how academics and artists might be able to work together more (or better)?

RS: Maybe we can plan a sailing trip to the center of the world. I know a spot we can start from.

Thanks Randall!

xo Rennie

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Filed under Art, Music, Nature, Poets and Poems, Uncategorized, Urban Ecology

Robinson Jeffers’ Inhumanism: The Ecological Thought or The Misanthropic Rebuke?

by Liam Heneghan

I have been rereading poems by Pittsburgh born Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962) with my seminar class recently.  Jeffers has had a perennial appeal for environmentally-inclined readers, with his wilderness inflected meditations on his adopted home on the California coast.  The poems that I know (I am a Jeffers amateur) are sturdy rather than pretty, and charged with solid thought rather than airy abstractions.  Though there has been some discussion among the critics about his influences (was Schopenhauer as important to him as Nietzsche?) what strikes me are the thematic resonances with on the one hand American environmental writers both before and after him and, on the other, with themes from the Upanishads (which I am reading with another class).
The influence of the Upanishads, philosophical texts in the Hindu tradition, on Emerson and Thoreau is pretty well known.  The Upanishads were also famously a source for Schopenhauer (and Schopenhauer, of course, exerted a substantial influence on Nietzsche). Finally, these texts also influenced W B Yeats, whom Jeffers admired (see this post).  The Upanishads rest at the intersection therefore of many of Jeffers’ more important inspirations.  From this influence Jeffers can create striking things.  In The Answer (1935), for example, he writes:
“A severed hand/ is an ugly thing, and a man dissevered from the earth and the stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact… /Often appears atrociously ugly.  Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is/ Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.
For more see on 10TWWET (here)


Filed under Poets and Poems