Of Happy Fish and Wellermen: Notes on the Marine Politics of a “Social Media Hype”

Part II: Wellerman: Singing of Whales and Hope?

When the Wellerman-craze started in January 2021, it reminded me of the backend of a party. That point at which you have exchanged all pleasantries, news and gossip and silly things can happen. Silly things such as breaking out into song. To my mind this isn’t necessarily a consequence of drinking (too much) alcohol, but of company; rather than a sign of uninhibitedness it is one of comfort. Only, Wellerman happened for exactly the opposite reason: no one really was together. Comfort, now, requires an intense amount of energy because there is so much terrible news to ignore. During the COVID-19-pandemic, singing together has become a dangerous, life threatening activity; to be avoided at all cost. So the shanty-singing becomes at once more elusive and more significant, it becomes an existential act and – this is what this post will be about – it is no accident that this particular song is at the center of it all.

The video platform TikTok allows users to combine videos and it was this feature that made postman Nathan Evan’s video so successful. Within a couple of days more and more versions appeared with skillfully added baselines and instrumentation. I admit, it moved me how well it worked (and I am still at risk of falling down the #shantytok rabbit hole). Combining separately recorded voices and instruments is by no means a new technique. What is different in this case, however, is the spontaneous and apparently effortless quality of it. Instead of a “record”, the TikTok (re)mix produced the effect of someone spontaneously starting to sing and others joining in.

I assume, I am not the only one tired of the constant reminders that “this” (a video conference meeting, a digitally mediated collaboration, a TikTok sing-along) is not the “real” thing. Maybe this is a different kind of real – the only one we get under the present circumstances. And what happened is astonishing. Something that was almost ruined by the slow-clap-ish pathos of Hollywood movies gained an urgent quality. Singing together during a pandemic, especially singing a shanty – a type of song whose goal is synchronization, as in aligning many people to a shared rhythm (of work) – has the potential to both mock and take seriously the particular loneliness of the lockdown. In other words, the ways in which ‘the social’ plays out during the pandemic (or, rather, doesn’t) is at once too serious and too pathetic to ignore. Wellerman took that up and became – I argue – an instrument of scaling, connecting and negotiating through song and narrative. It becomes a device of ecological communication/story-telling both in terms of its function as a medium and, forgive the pun, a message. Singing of whales and hope (“soon may…”) connects strangers beyond the realm of human sociability, it negotiates human-nonhuman-relationships in crisis.

Rediscovering (Whaling) Comradery

Whether the New Zealand-song from the 1860s is a ‘real’ shanty or not, the simple rhythm and melody produced a feeling of familiarity that made it easy for many to (literally) sing along. But it is more than that. Many have noted that what the song is about – being isolated (on a ship), waiting for supplies (sugar and tea and rum), feeling carried away by a non-human force (whale) – eerily connects to a feeling of being lost, if not at sea. It’s all too easy to mock, but the kind of isolation of song and singers does bear resemblance. Particularly after the holidays, when many could not visit loved ones and when the new year seemed (and still seems) to be falling short of offering the relief that many were hoping for, the song offered a call for perseverance and comradery.

There was a ship that put to sea,
The name of the ship was the Billy o’ Tea
The winds blew up, her bow dipped down,
O blow, my bully boys, blow.

Soon may the Wellerman come
And bring us sugar and tea and rum.
One day, when the tonguin’ is done,
We’ll take our leave and go.

Soon May the Wellerman Come, ca. 1860

I love it, when I come across an apparent collective desire to metaphorize. Social media is a great place and tool for that because it builds heavily on insider knowledge and an ability or willingness to find hidden meanings in things. The dark side, if you will, of this double entendre-quality is a susceptibility for conspiracy, the light side is a playful creativity (with, of course, many shades between those extremes). The reason why I love such phenomena is not only that I like to play along, but also that it gives me the opportunity to turn the tables and finally assume the role of taking things very literal. What does that mean?

It can means noticing, for example, that the apparent simplicity of a crew waiting for a supply ship (the Wellerman) is indeed entangled in a historically vast web of colonial trading. For theconversation.com Adrian York asks: “is the sugar and rum line in Wellerman a reference to slavery?” Keeping in mind that the author probably didn’t get to choose the title, I am still irritated by it. How could it not? A “reference” not in the sense of an explicit mention, but there is no “sugar and tea and rum” without slavery in the 1860s. York speaks of an embedded “darkness” of the song (which is an at least ‘interesting’ choice of words in this context) that he immediately contrasts with the ‘innocent’ desire for relief that connects the present singers with their counterparts in the song:

“Evans’ performance has an authentic sense of stoic forbearance about it that certainly seems to have struck a chord with generation COVID, who, like the whalers, are similarly marking time. […] There is an innocence and integrity about Nathan Evans’ performance and most of the responses to it. But there is darkness embedded in the song.“

Adrian York

The author himself embeds the „darkness embedded in the song“ in the admiration for the innocence and authenticity of the singers, which could either be a euphemism for ignorance or genuine marvel at the seriousness with which Wellerman is re-activated on TikTok. Acknowledging that sugar, tea and rum are indeed products relying on slavery, York still downplays the role this knowledge plays in the singing of the song as a sort of pandemic relief.

 “There has been some debate on social media about the ‘problematic’ nature of these references. But it is apparent from an analysis of the lyrics that the song is neither a post-colonial type of critique nor an embrace of the exploitation of indigenous peoples or the slave trade. It can be seen as a genuine cultural expression by exploited workers for whom ‘sugar and tea and rum’ provided a much-needed respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily lives.”

Adrian York

In fact,“relief” and “much-needed respite” become a means by which – again, by way of two levels of interpretation – the “problematic” darkness of the song is watered down, i.e. it is not denied but excused by way of focusing on the validity of the initial desire. The ends justify the means, so to say. York characterizes the critic’s task as follows: “Understanding the context behind these songs enables us to move beyond the visceral pleasures of communal performance and towards a more nuanced view of the world, encouraging us to consider what has changed since the days of the Wellerman” (Adrian York). Comradery of the isolated first, we’re off the hook.

Hooks

But is that all we can do? Either “cancel” singing the song, or defer the uncomfortable parts, those that might implicate ‘us’, and be content with a “more nuanced view of the world”? And how nuanced would that world-view be if it accepts one comparison but rejects another, equally valid one? Why is it more important to zero in on the similarities between the crew and the contemporary singers in lockdown than, say, on the similarities between the ways in which “much-needed respite” often comes at a cost for those providing the means, not those enjoying the outcome. Why, if we’re already comparing, would we look past the fact that many of the things we’re doing at this very moment to find relief hurt others – workers bringing us “sugar and tea and rum” (prepared foods, convenient boxes of stuff and all kinds of things that need to be produced, often under dismal labor conditions)? Why look past the fact, that all the masks, our streaming habits and the gadgets we assemble to distract us from our predicament come at a cost to others?

No, I’m not saying that we cannot look for relief. I would be a hypocrite doing so. But I am saying we should not be content with letting a song be “just” a song. The “darkness” embedded in it is part of the “dark ecology” (Timothy Morton) we are living in and it’s not one to pick and choose from. “Sugar and tea and rum” are not ‘innocent’ metaphors but deeply entrenched in global routes of providing respite for some and rejecting responsibility for others.

In another essay for theconversation.com, Kate Stevens looks behind the lyrics of the popular song. Far from administering blame, she points to the “cross-cultural whaling history of Aotearoa New Zealand”. A more nuanced view, here, means carefully distinguishing between different economies of whaling. The historian makes clear that the Wellerman shanty talks of a type of whaling in New Zealand that differs significantly from the canonized Atlantic ways:

“Unlike deep-sea whaling in the Atlantic and northern Pacific, these newcomers practised shore-based whaling which required land to process the whales caught. The ‘tonguing’ in the Wellerman lyrics refers to cutting strips of blubber to render into oil in large ‘try pots’ — a challenging process aboard ship. The crew also required land on which to live and cultivate food.”

Kate Stevens

Catching whales is only the first step in a process that continues with on-board “tounging”. This is where the lock-down-metaphor begins to get shaky, to say the least. Work might feel hard at home, but I do prefer never ending video conferences to stripping blubber from whales. [I’m pausing here, thinking of running away to find another line of work…still wouldn’t be whaling, though]. This is an image which, without rhythm and melody is difficult to romanticize from a contemporary point of view. And with Steven’s research on “kin-based economies”, romanticizing the comradery of hard working whalers aboard would miss the thing that makes this ‘route’ interesting: “Because the industry was based on settlement rather than short refuelling stops, shore whaling fostered more intensive cross-cultural interactions in southern New Zealand than elsewhere in New Zealand or abroad.”

So, if one wanted to metaphorize, building on Steven’s research, it would be a more complex undertaking than deciding between accepting comradery as valid and rejecting references to slavery as invalid comparisons. Rather, the more entangled relationships between sea and land, whalers and farmers, traders and laborers – albeit not as “catchy” – offer a picture that resembles our situation much more than the isolated hard-at-work-comradery on its own.

The “Whale”

Yet, I still wonder why all the attention goes to the supplies and hardly any to the protagonist of this particular shanty, and whaling songs in general: the whale. Possibly, the tendency to read the lyrics exclusively through the pandemic-TikTok lense succeeds in making the actual whale invisible. Probably, “the whale” is such an elusive (yet canonized) figure that it is hard to bring together the animal and its narrative renditions. Still, here it goes:

She had not been two weeks from shore
When down on her a right whale bore.
The captain called all hands and swore
He’d take that whale in tow. 
Before the boat had hit the water
The whale’s tail came up and caught her.
All hands to the side, harpooned and fought her
When she dived down below.

Soon May the Wellerman Come, ca. 1860

I wish I’d talk about this in class or at a conference, because I have so many questions and I would be curious how you (addressing you, yes, since I’m not in class) would read this. Who, for example is “she”?  In the first (see above) and second stanza “she” seems to refer to the ship. “Her bow dips down” and “down on her a right whale bore”, but I am not so sure about who “dived down below”. When the captain enters the story, deciding that he will take the whale in tow, an opposition between the captain’s “he” and the whale’s “she” arises and culminates in the verse “She took the ship in tow”.

No line was cut, no whale was freed;
The Captain’s mind was not of greed,
But he belonged to the whaleman’s creed;
She took the ship in tow. 
For forty days, or even more,
The line went slack, then tight once more.
All boats were lost (there were only four)

But still the whale did go. 
As far as I’ve heard, the fight’s still on;
The line’s not cut and the whale’s not gone.
The Wellerman makes his regular call
To encourage the Captain, crew, and all.

Soon May the Wellerman Come, ca. 1860

Tables are turned, the whale refused to be caught and instead took the ship in tow. Interestingly, whale and captain are of the same kind. That is, both act according to their ‘nature’: “The captain’s mind was not of greed,/ but he belonged to the whaleman’s creed; She took the ship in tow.”

I’m not the only one thinking of Moby-Dick when I hear/read this, am I? Herman Melville’s infamous 1851 novel established the narrative of the heroic whalers in a (Western) cultural consciousness, modelling the relationship between captain (Ahab) and whale (Moby Dick) as a mythical rivalry which both cannot escape. The Wellerman-shanty doesn’t quite go that far, but it alludes to a similar hunter-prey-relationship. One that acknowledges that it is not fixed who is who in that relationship. For the crew aboard the Billy o’ Tea the Wellerman’s supplies provide a respite that tones done the drama somewhat, yet keeps them literally in tow of the whale. It’s hard to resist equating whale and pandemic. Yet, there’s a catch, a hook, if you want: The captain could cut the line. He could free whale and ship. He does not, because he is a whaler and that’s what whalers do.

What has changed really?

The Moby-Dick detour points to much more unsettling similarities than the situational, kind of ironic TikTok trend suggests. It might have started out as a fun project, but the “embedded darkness” not only includes the many violent histories of human-human and human-nonhuman-relationships entangled in global trade now and then. But it also includes a figure who could make a decision but doesn’t. It’s debatable how you might fit the “captain” into the set of pandemic-metaphors and I am undecided (although I want to point out that if you read the whale as a symbol for the virus it is pretty clear that she/it is not a hoax). However, I am more convinced than ever that, however terrible the various lockdowns feel, we should be very careful identifying only with the crew and not with the captain. Denying our implication in this mess is dangerous, and that is true for the pandemic as well as for other global “challenges” ahead.

Copy of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in my “homeoffice”

Preparing for this post, I finally started reading Moby-Dick (started, not finished). I struggle to read anything without making it into a story about the pandemic, at the moment, but this troubled me. Not only the unsettling description of the sleeping quarters, but Ishmael’s motivation. The first sentence of the novel is famous: “Call me Ishmael.” The way it continues however, struck me. It comes down to the narrator being bored – “having…nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world” (3). That sounds breezy enough but it doesn’t stay that way: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a string moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I count it high time to get to sea as soon as I can” (3).

I might be reading this in a darker mood than necessary, but fleeing land and it’s restrictions does sound appealing. Even, or maybe especially, when there’s a whale taking you in tow. But I run danger of stepping into my own trap, glorifying and romanticizing a rejection of responsibility. It’s all fair and well, if you’re Ishmael who apparently can go wherever he wants, but the crew on the Billy o’ Tea is decidedly not isolated or independent. It is not ‘away’. With reference to Kate Steven’s, we can assume that the crew have families to which they would return once they “take their leave and go” and the lyrics themselves revolve around the supplies that keep them close to shore in another sense, too.

Maybe that does make it a great reference for us, living through a pandemic. It’s not a heroic tale, it’s not even particularly dramatic (if you are lucky!), but boring and tedious, gnawing at one’s psyche. Even more reason to take it literal and ask for the connections and relationships that become visible only at second glance; to not be content with believing in one’s “nuanced” world-view. Endulging the sadness, the “darkness” embedded in the song, might get us closer to the kind of loneliness that is not just due to the pandemic but an effect of our willingness to isolate ourselves against others, human and nonhuman, while we’re singing along. Not trusting our own “innocent” interpretations and desire for respite, however “much-needed” it might be, turns out to reveal how little has changed after all. We might not work under the same conditions, but we’re singing the same songs (yes, ending on a methaphor).

Of Happy Fish and Wellermen: Notes on the Marine Politics of Brexit and Writing during a Pandemic

Part I: Happy Fish

Bear with me, as you will have to wait for the happy fish for a bit. Fish brought me back from a lockdown-induced writer’s block. Fish reminded me that the ways in which the pandemic changes our environments in very immediate ways need to be understood not only in terms of the greater or smaller outsides – how we “rediscover” nature thanks to the lockdown for example – but in the very particularity of our homes and our ways of talking about nonhuman others, the music we listen to and the jokes we laugh about. That is, even when we are chained to our desks while trying to juggle video conferences and childcare, certain things should not slip our attention. And yet, they are bound to. This is my attempt to not let this one go. I’ll begin at my desk and proceed to the British House of Commons. Next time I’ll board a Weller-ship and see where that gets me.

Not Writing in the Pandemic

The last couple of months have not been a good time for academic thinking (let alone writing). I assume they haven’t been particularly helpful for any kind of thinking and writing or work in general. I can only really talk about my work as an academic with a teaching load and a small kid at home, but I am sure many things are true beyond my own desk. The pandemic might be in its most intense phase – we are in another lockdown in Germany and around the world; daycare has been closed for weeks (since Nov 20, 2020 for my kid). There is just too much to do: make sure students (and myself) get through the semester (mostly) unharmed. I cannot make sure that they have a safe home or working internet connection, but I can design a course that makes sense in a digital format.[1] That takes energy, flexibility, time and all that on top of an already tight schedule. And then…and then…I have to discuss with my partner who gets to work and when (spoiler: the energy for night shifts was mostly spent in the first lockdown), we have to come up with activities that challenge and occupy a very lonely 5-year-old and we don’t dare to imagine when all this will change. 

I am grateful that my family is in a safe place. We’re healthy and well fed, but anxieties rise up nonetheless, we’re all stressed and bored at the same time. Staying at home – still the the sensible thing to do – sounds much easier than it is. The dulling drone of being in the same place all the time (and that is counting in the radius of our walks, which thanks to the growth spurs of our kid increases steadily), the tedium of household chores and the stress of constant multitasking take their toll. I’m often too tired to think, thus, not prepared to write and, quite honestly, I don’t feel like it most times. As satisfying as my work can be, it’s exhausting under the best circumstances.[2] But usually, it feels worth it and at best, writing and thinking re-energizes me in ways I don’t know from any other activity or substance. I don’t want to romanticize scholarship (too much), but I get to write about trees as non-human actors of stories and (possibly) narrators of human history, I get to think about ferns and their deep-time history and I get to sketch talks about monsters. What’s not to love!? But what sounds fun, requires a vast amount of resources, most of which I provide myself (given that I secured a job or research funding to pay for rent and books). The pandemic forced me to think about the way in which I extract these resources, namely: concentration, time, mental energy. And I realized that it’s a fallacy to assume, the resources you provide or even produce yourself are endlessly available. Just like all other resources, they are limited and exhausting them causes the system to collapse. This is so easy to write, yet so difficult (for me) to comprehend. But how we deal with ‘our’ resources is exactly what we should talk about at this “historical”[3] moment. 

Business as usual should not be an option; the exhaustion we usually delegate hits us right at this moment. And it does so at home, in our own bodies; it connects us in uncanny ways to other humans around the globe. Yet, we often fail to realize that this is the same kind of behavior that has been going on for decades and we’re doing it not just to ourselves and our human others, we’re subjecting every living thing to it that is condemned to share this planet with us.

What Fish have to Say

But why am I writing about this and what does it have to do with ecologies? Well, at a high point of my frustration with the state of things I remembered that this is a blog, not an academic journal and that it is meant to connect with, rather than abstract from my work and the way I work. So I can write when and what I want, here. Here, I am part of the work and I can write (relatively) fast, when something makes me angry. No, not angry: absolutely stunned by the ignorance and violence of a statement that seems like a joke to most. The text on sitting in/like trees will have to wait, because there are marine ecologies and politics to talk about first. Thankfully, trees – in contrast to myself – are patient and might not care at all whether I write about them or not. 

You might have guessed by now what the high point of frustration was that put fish before viruses and trees on my agenda. In mid-January, the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg declared, gloatingly, that 

“we’ve got our fish back. They’re now British fish
and they’re better and happier fish for it.” 

Jacob Rees-Mogg

That is such an absurd statement that it lends itself to mocking. And I, too, am convinced that the fish would rather not be caught at all than being caught by British rather than EU fishermen. Why else would the fish care about the lines humans draw and the changes in their agreements? Does Rees-Mogg foster green sentiments and assume the fish to be like him – to the point where they have nationalist desires?  Are the fish being issued passports? Is the UK planning on including non-human citizens? Don’t get me wrong, a British parliament of things would be exciting and might well be the only thing to convince me that something good has come out of “Brexit*. But, alas, this is not what Rees-Mogg means. Instead, he reaffirms anthropocentric and imperialist view that puts (British) humans at the center of a world in which the caught and exploited are assumed to identify with those who exploit them in the first place. It doesn’t get much more cynical. 

On the bright side – and I cannot believe, I see one in this – when fish get to be happy and British, if only in the brief moment of a political speech, their existence is acknowledged in ways that catching them by the ton usually doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that’s not what the MP meant, but that’s the beauty of language: it make things imaginable, possibly even ‘real’, if you want them to or not. 

And Rees-Mogg is not the only one. Fish have claimed an important role within the last days of Brexit-negotiations and, as Ariane de Waal has so aptly noted, if you’ve read your Donna Haraway, the irony of negotiations about fishing quotas turning up fish as subjects in sentences will not escape you. Even more so, they turn up as actors who could, in the words of EU Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen, “sink [the] Brexit deal”. Like Rees-Mog, von der Leyen probably doesn’t really expect the fish to care about Brexit, stilly her sentence gives them agency that is reflected in their importance, their relationship to humans and vice versa, rather than their desire to speak or sink any deals.

Power to the critters!

The way in which fish gain agency in and through language in the context of Brexit is significant. It highlights how we relate to nonhumans and environments. Language is capable to give agency to the ‘things’ that act in a sentence (it might even be reliant to do so to “make” sense). How a given language does that depends both on its grammar and lexicon and on the cultural conditions of its evolution. Many of those who deal with language – poets, novelists, nature and science writers, academics of almost all creeds – are looking for languages that are able to give nonhumans (plants, animals, slime molds) room enough to act. Or, rather, to show that they do already.[4]

Again, neither Jacob Rees-Mogg nor Ursula von der Leyen are too suspicious of smuggling environmentalist language into political discourse. Yet, they do open up room for questions. They practically force us – through the absurdity of the statements – to pause and think of the (possible) disruption. On top of that, the current historical moment might propel us to ask the absurd questions in earnest: What would make the fish happy and what would that have to do with “us”? The MP’s move however is to assign satisfaction, happiness even, to a group (of fish in this case) without bothering to ask them or even to think about what they might answer would they have been asked.[5]

The rhetorical function of Rees-Mogg’s exemplary speech is to put a full stop to the discussion: “we’ve got our fish back. They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.” Not: “they will be”, “they might be”, nor “they can be”. The story is over. This is the end of the speech and the end of the discussion. The PM produces the impression of merely stating facts. Yet, he hardly succeeds with his attempt. After all, the fish nearly sunk the deal. And, if they’re not as happy as Rees-Mogg claims, they might do something about it. We are uncannily, intimately in touch with non-humans who do not care about national borders or what we’d rather want to do. That goes for viruses but also for fish. British or not.

What Fish can do

In my angrier moments, I root for the creatures in Frank Schätzing’s eco-thriller: The Swarm (2004) in which unsettlingly Harawayian (or Lovecraftian) critters turn the tables and fight back. They escape the sea and kill humans in satisfyingly disgusting ways.[6] It’s not my favorite book but, its scenarios surpass those of many monster and disaster movies…

Frank Schätzing: The Swarm (US Cover)

As this is published on the internet and I don’t feel like having discussions about my occasional misanthropy, let me state the following explicitly: I write “kill humans in satisfyingly disgusting ways” not because I want humans to be killed by animals (far from it), but because my frustration about the violent silencing and exploitation of nonhuman (and, for that matter) human life, finds momentary relief in such stories. You might call it catharsis. However, as necessary if that kind of outlet is (for me at least), that does not get us very far, does it? So what might we take from this? 

Looping back to the beginning

In many ways, we are like the fish. Declared happy or “protected” by decisions that hardly involve us in the first place and, thus, disconnected from each other and our surroundings. This is more acute for many humans than for the privileged fraction of our species that (like me) can still take the time to ponder the question. Still, you would think the difference between the rhetorical function of large groups of people and fish in political speeches would be bigger.[7] In contrast to the fish, humans affected by the Covid-pandemic, Brexit and the horrendous (non-)decisions regarding wildlife-protection would have been able to answer questions quite easily – had they been asked, that is. In fact, many humans speak up (loudly!). Of course, some of those believe that everything is made up and I do hope fish would be smarter, but even those of us who understand and appreciate science, feel ignored by the statements of politicians who consider quotas but not actual fish in actual environments (well yes, “fish” means humans, too, here). Reduced to “primal screams”, the living conditions of human beings are sidelined in order to make the numbers work. This rings true not only under pandemic conditions but also with regard to Global Warming, biodiversity loss, pollution and the other looming disasters neatly grouped together as “environmental problems”. 

I am aware that this is a quick analogy and that it holds problems. However, I am convinced that the way in which ‘feelings’ and interests (such as a nationality) are assigned to groups of beings in order to legitimate political decisions is problematic enough that it is time to side with the fish. That is, turn “species thinking” around not to think for (all) humans but to think with fish (and trees, mushrooms and slime molds): Like the ex-EU-fish, we could (and “we” do) sink plans. It’s time to form alliances beyond the human! Acknowledging the agency of non-humans and their right to environments could be a first step to coexistence. On the plus side: it might also help with allowing for human desires beyond the economic. 

This is a rather more call-to-arms-type of ending that I planned for. All because I don’t have time and space to write? Yes. Because as I claimed in my first post – I don’t believe in neatly differentiated problems. The moment you feel justified to call fish “British and happier for it” and people only laugh at you because they know that’s code for: we got (almost) what we wanted, which is the freedom to exploit others for profit, is the moment at which we should listen very carefully, because it means us, that is, beings with desires who are dependent on environments and the decisions made by ‘our’ representatives. Don’t trust the myth of happy fish.

Part II of my marine excursion will ask for the hopeful potentials and entanglements of the Wellerman-Craze and how that (dis)connects to the happy fish. 


[1] That includes: making sure neither students nor instructor give up in the middle of the semester because it is too much, because the credit work doesn’t make sense or is tedious and a topic (if that is possible to choose) and red thread that pulls everyone through. The latter might have been a little too close to home at the moment – I currently teach a course on dystopias and the possibly prognostic capacities of fiction.

[2] Which are…well…often not great. You can look up #aCertainDegreeOfFlexibility on Twitter if you want to know more about the conditions of academic work in Germany

[3] I put “historical” in scare quotes because I am at once convinced and annoyed by the seemingly ubiquitous use of the attribute to “this moment in time”. Yes, we are experiencing something that we will be talking to our grandchildren about, but what kind of worth can a statement like this assume when you do what you can (individually and collectively) to pretend that business as usual is right around the corner or must continue at all costs? 

[4] This is a huge topic, and I will write more about it at a later point, but let me point you to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s excellent work on that question, for example her essay “Speaking of Nature” in Orion Magazine and her book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), see review here.  

[5] The use of the subjunctive is deliberate, here, and not a sign of academic obscurity. I follow Timothy Morton’s claim that “not being able to think in the subjunctive is also a big problem for ecological thinking. Not being able to be in the ‘may’ mode (…) edits out something vital to our experience of ecology (…): the hesitation quality, feelings of unreality or of distorted or altered reality, feelings of the uncanny: feeling weird” Timothy Morton: Being Ecological, 2018.

[6] While I am at it: Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s story The Violence of the Lambs (GQ October 2011) if you’re interested in decidedly unfluffly animal agency.

[7] What happens to people when they “become” crowds is explored in detail in the current issue of Coils of the Serpent: Crowd(ed) Futures (ed. by Mark Schmitt and Solvejg Nitzke 7/2020). Mark’s and my conversation also features some virus-related-thoughts.

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Of Happy Fish and Wellermen: Notes on the Marine Politics of Brexit and Writing during a Pandemic," in Ecological Imaginaries, 08/02/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/72.

Vegetal Descent and Cacti Offspring in Arizona Local Art

Guest Post by Christina Becher

When I was invited to contribute to the blog Ecological Imaginaries, I was pretty excited: Suddenly there was a chance to write about something I came cross during my time as a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona in Tucson (USA). One of my favorite things there are the ubiquitous and colorful murals that seem to compete with the faded colors of the desert in Southern Arizona. As a PhD candidate in German philology who is interested in vegetal-human hybridizations, I was especially intrigued by the vegetal motifs: Displaying different types of cacti, agaves, palm trees, and other plants mingling with human figures or body parts, several murals evoke the impression of a plant-based depiction of belonging, kinship, and caring. Beyond that, other kinds of local art proved that a lot of artists in Tucson have a particular sense for their surrounding vegetation. With this text, I want to introduce you to the vibrant and vegetal-aware art scene in Tucson and take a look at the murals, especially the recurring motifs of belonging and care.

My journey started in Cologne and once I arrived in Tucson, I was struck by the local flora that was new and somewhat strange to me. I experienced the opposite of plant blindness[i] which has broadly been discussed in the sciences and also in non-academic contexts since the term was coined by two US-American biologists in the late 1990s. Plant blindness is defined as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.”[ii] In this light, it is not surprising that I spotted the unfamiliar flora as soon as I stepped out of the air-conditioned Tucson airport and into the heat—not only because my work engages with literary imaginations of plants, but because I left my ‘own environment’ and found myself within new surroundings full of plants I only knew from artificial stagings in hothouses, orangeries, palm houses, or from my windowsill. I was already familiar with cacti and co., but I was accustomed to their specific framing as exotic and somewhat alien in Germany’s temperate climate zone.

I had numerous encounters with interesting plants in front yards, on the roadside, or in parks. Yet, I also encountered vegetal life displayed in Tucson’s local art: For instance, I visited some markets where local artists offered their products. Some artisans offered soaps and body lotions with the creosote bush’s scent (Larrea tridentata). The creosote is an inconspicuous bush with tiny green leaves and small yellow flowers that grows in the Southwestern deserts of the US and in Mexico. It can survive months without any water and emits a recognizable scent after the few rainfalls in these arid regions. I was told that some people in Tucson automatically think of rain when they smell a creosote (actually, it is not the same as the petrichor you smell when rain hits dry ground) and some people even place a flowering twig in their bathroom to enjoy its scent in the humidity. The creosote is also very remarkable when it comes to procreation: Besides its option to reproduce sexually it is also able to create clones by vegetative propagation that reflects the creosote’s adaption to its extreme environment. However, desert plants are involved in a tough fight for water, and vegetative propagation would create rivalry close to the parental generation’s territory. In order to reduce the struggle for life for its own offspring, older branches and twigs in the center of the bush die while new ones are coming up in the outer regions. Ultimately, the bush transforms into a growing ring of new plants.

The creosote bush is depicted in Tucsonan local art alongside other plants: On the artisan markets, I discovered vegetal drawings by Marcy Ellis and Gina Beca. Both artists have a distinct way of connecting female bodies or body parts with various features of the Sonoran Desert. Gina Beca’s drawings, for example, play on topics like body awareness, female sexuality, and maternity. Her visual vocabulary includes species that are typical for Southern Arizona like the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), which is the highest and most famous cactus in Arizona; prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica), whose pink fruits are part of the Mexican cuisine; and brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), whose yellow flowers light up in the desert. In addition, Gina Beca depicts plants that are not that common in the Sonoran Desert like Tephrocactus aoracanthus, with its long spikes, and the succulent Kalanchoe tomentosa. In her artwork (see fig. 2), the latter species is nestled into a pelvic bone, whereas the cactus’ spiked parts are sprouting upward. The drawing creates a tension between round shapes and long thorns, but also poses other oppositions like soft and spiky, dead and alive, rose and green.

In the spirit of ecofeminism, the drawing depicts what Prudence Gibson, a plant studies scholar, calls “plants as becoming-woman.” In the “emergent state of radical reinterpretation of vegetal life,” the growth of plants allows for becoming-woman being seen as “both an independent and a collective state of being.”[iii] Traditionally, Western cultural history depicts flowers as symbols for women and femininity. However, artists like Gina Beca and Marcy Ellis apply rough and prickly plants like cacti and agaves, that are native to their home region instead of employing delicate and soft flowers in order to merge them with (female) body parts.

Figure 2: Gina Beca: Pelvic Crest (2019)

The drawing Pelvic Crest (fig. 2) offers an interpretation that is two-fold: For one thing, it shows the cactus being nestled into the pelvic bone like a baby, imagining a female body being pregnant with the desert that is symbolized by the local plants. On the other hand, we see a pale pelvic bone, that is reminiscent of life and death at once: The desert with its plants takes over once a human dies and absorbs the body in its motherly womb again. Outlining a lifespan from birth to death, the drawing presents the desert both as mother and child at the same time. A mother, that cares for her children and provides them with a space to live until they die, and a child, that needs attention and that has to be taken care of.

Besides the drawings and paintings, I also came cross another medium that displays human-vegetal entanglements: Tucson has hundreds of large-sized murals all over the place. A lot of them picture Tucsonan sights, Southwestern folklore, local vegetation, famous people, animals, or a mix of all of them. The combinations of humans and plants intrigued me the most: Some walls are graced by a desert heart or a green lung (both by Lalo Cota). Each of these murals depict a human organ that is essential to the body’s vital functions. Where one would expect the heart’s veins and aorta, several saguaro arms grow upwards, accompanied by some prickly pears, whereas the lung is provided with oxygen by a tree that grows between its lobes. Other murals feature female heads that are brought together with prickly plants like in the paintings of the famous agave lady and the crested saguaro lady (both by Rock Martinez). A very detailed mural is located within the neighborhood where I lived during my stay in Tucson: Compass to the Southwest (fig. 3) was painted in 1989 by the Mexican-American artist David Tineo and it intricately combines a lot of natural elements mentioned above.

Figure 3: Compass to the Southwest by David Tineo (1989) at the intersection of N. Park and Helen Street at the former building of University of Arizona Press. Photograph taken by Christina Becher, CC BY 4.0

The mural is divided into three parts: The sky forms the background, showing celestial bodies and maybe a comet. The middle contains cultivated fields with green crops, human figures such as a woman with a child, and a wide road that leads to the iconic building of Mission San Xavier del Bac (located ca. 10 miles South of Tucson within the “San Xavier Indian Reservation” of the Tohono O’odham Nation). The church of this Spanish Catholic mission with its two white towers and the opulently decorated entrance portal forms the center of the mural. Also known as “The White Dove of the Desert,” it was built in late 18th century by O’odham laborers, though the mission was established a century before that. It was part of the Spanish missioners’ ambition to convert the natives to Catholicism. Between 1822, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, and 1848, when the Mexican-American war ended, Arizona belonged to Mexico. Hence, elements of Mexican and Chicano legends and folk art are all over the mural. Plants, animals, and human figures inhabit the foreground that shows the earth’s surface as well as a subterranean view. In the mural’s center is a single cactus plant that looks either like a Ferocactus pilosus or perhaps like a saguaro, although the first one often grows in groups and its yellow or red flowers appear as a circle around the top. It is more likely that the depicted plant is a young saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), the iconic plant of the Sonoran Desert that only grows in this region. This cactus can reach a high of 40 feet and develops several upward-pointing arms that create its typical shape, familiar from Wild West visuals. However, it takes decades until the slow-growing plants develop their first arm, and some columns never do. The pale orange flowers in the mural, admittedly, do not fit in either: Saguaro flowers are white and known as Arizona’s state flower.

The cross section below the cactus offers a subterranean view. In addition to a plant that could be a local agave on the bottom right, it shows three human bodies, encapsuled in uterus-shaped bubbles that are connected to the columnar cactus via a root system. The three bodies are likely to be male on the left, female on the right, and a smaller child between and slightly above the two. They are depicted in the fetal position and appear embedded in the brown and ochre soil that surrounds them. The cactus above the earth’s surface appears to be nurturing them through the root system.

The mural evokes the impression of being rooted in Southern Arizona’s ground and being nurtured by the soil and local plants that figuratively parent the human figures—a parallel between the mural and the drawing Pelvic Crest (fig. 2). In Compass to the Southwest, ‘belonging’ is tied to a geographical area with its specific culture and folklore and to the environment’s particular vegetation that has an impact on everyone’s lives. The mural communicates a feeling of belonging that is strongly connected with an emphatic sense of place. The human position in this ecosystem is not dominating other species but intricately interwoven with non-human and more-than-human agents. Historian Alexander Demandt, who coined the term dendrogony in his cultural history of trees, derives this term from the Greek dendron for tree and gonos for offspring or progeny to describe the phenomenon of the ‘arboreal birth’ in ancient myths.[iv] Many of them bring together human birth and trees, for instance the origin story of Adonis, whose mother Myrrha gave birth to him while being metamorphosed into a myrrh tree, or the first humans in Norse mythology, Ask and Embla, who were made from driftwood of ash and elm trees. In analogy to dendrogony, Tucson’s art seems to imagine its descent from cacti, a kind of ‘cactogony.’ Certainly, local Arizona art shows that many people in the Sonoran Desert are well aware of and attuned to their environment and its particular flora.


[i]     I want to underline that I am aware of the problematic assumption that underlies the term plant blindness, that is to “assume that all people experience and sense the world in the same way, that abled bodies are the default, and that disabled bodies are lacking or less than.” It is important to acknowledge that plant blindness employs a disability metaphor, hence it is an ableist term. However, it sounded the bell for a greater interest in the vegetal kingdom and became popular even beyond the academic realm. This is why I employed the term in this context, but I also want to point out that there is a “call for a shift in the narrative.” Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie et al.: We do not want to ‘cure plant blindness’ we want to grow plant love. In: Plants People Planet 1.3 (2019), pp. 1–3, here pp. 1 and 2.

[ii]    James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler: Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. In: Plant Science Bulletin 47.1 (2001), pp. 2–9, here p. 3.

[iii]    Prudence Gibson. The Plant Contract. Art’s Return to Vegetal Life. Boston: BRILL 2018 (=Critical Plant Studies 3), p. 123.

[iv]    Cf. Alexander Demandt: Der Baum. Eine Kulturgeschichte. 2nd, reviewed, and extended edition. Böhlau: Köln et al. 2014, pp. 103 a. 106.

Christina Becher is a doctoral student in German Philology and EUmanities Fellow at the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne. Before beginning her doctoral work in April 2019, she studied at the University of Münster, where she completed her two MA degrees in German Philology and Cultural Poetics of Literatur and Media. Christina’s project on “Vegetal Empowerment” explores the various functions of vegetal-human hybrids in literature and visual arts. Interested in hybrids from the 20th century to present time, she focuses especially on their emergence in poetological, feminist, and ecological contexts.

Cite this article as: Christina Becher, "Vegetal Descent and Cacti Offspring in Arizona Local Art," in Ecological Imaginaries, 29/01/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/57.

Seeing (like) a Tree: Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

This is the first of a series of readings in which I explore texts that propose the possibility of encountering trees or encountering the world through trees. Like small reviews these readings are supposed to give hints to how human-tree-relationships form the core of what I call ‘the cultural poetics of trees’ in my book project “Making Kin with Trees” which I will officially start writing in March 2021. Each text features one exemplary perspective, book or author and leaves room for connections and comparisons. Look out for texts on seeing, smelling, sitting, writing and becoming (like) a tree in the near future.

What do you look for in a forest? Solace, stress relief, beauty or solitude? What can you bring back from the forest to your “real life”, from encounters with trees, other than cones, twigs and leaves? One answer might be: a new way of seeing. This is an acutely privileged thing to say, let alone write. But encounters with trees, in many parts of the Global North, and certainly most of the parts, which produce the majority of what is recognized as “Nature Writing”, have become less a necessity than a way of “tuning” (Morton) the senses. Indeed, forest dwelling activities like foraging, feeding pigs, collecting firewood and hunting have indeed past-times of the privileged rather than sustaining activities. I want to acknowledge the privilege of not needing to hunt, gather or forage in the forest, not because I’m interested in reinforcing the clichée of a need to “return to nature”, but because I want to draw attention to the no less existential ways in which (Nature) writers engage with trees. Learning to see with or even like trees aims at alienating the “I” from itself in order to see something else. What this “something else” might be and how it might be related (or not) to the desires of “returning to Nature” or, more specifically, to “becoming a tree” is a recurring question of this mini-series and probably the blog as a whole.

It’s tempting to go into the history of ‘seeing’ as a cultural practice, but let it suffice to say that after centuries of exploring the possibilities, conditions and media that make seeing im/possible, it is still mostly regarded as something that “just” happens. Think of how often you are asked to “just” look or open your eyes to see something that has been right in front of you all the time. Especially, if the context has anything to do with “Nature” the supposed immediacy of our senses is often romanticized in a way that makes it look like “culture” spoilt our vision entirely. With regards to plants the in/ability to see is especially striking. There are few texts on plants in recent years (including my own) which resist the temptation of beginning with the phenomenon of “plant blindness” (Wandersee/Schussler): the apparent human inability to see plants at all if there is virtually anything else to see. If for example, there is a picture of a forest and students are being asked to describe what they see, plants are barely noticed at all.

So, to make people see plants is at once a political and a rhetorical task. It’s political because you won’t protect what you don’t notice (presumably – though I do hope that we can manage to find ways to extend our idea of protection in that regard); and it’s a rhetorical feat because you can start your text with a revelation: Look, you are living in a vegetal world! Exposing something that is not exactly new but has been hidden from view is a powerful move that engages readers and listeners. No wonder “revelations” play such an important role in religious discourse. However, from the perspective of trees this is interesting because it complicates seeing further: So you cannot just go and see the trees. You might not see the forest for the trees, but maybe the opposite is true, too: are you not seeing the trees for the forest – that big, dark, meaningful image packed with cultural associations?

Again, culture seems to stand in the way of seeing (no cabin that’s not somehow Thoreauvian, no hut that doesn’t recall some witch or another), but – that’s the beauty of it – the rhetorical revelation is supposed to help you see. It’s weird, if you think about it: instead of going to the woods to see trees, you read a book first, to teach you how to see trees. It is gut-wrenchingly impossible to get around and the problem at the heart of “Nature Writing” and there might be no text rivalling Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek at laying the finger in that particular wound:

Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, “not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.” […] I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing. If Tinker Mountain erupted, I’d be likely to notice. But if I want to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life, I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 32.
Okko Pyykkö: Kuopio Forest, CC BY 2.0
https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kuopio_forest.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

I chose Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) because it is one of the most impressive texts of the Nature-mode, I know. See how I slipped in “Nature-mode” so casually? I will use it, because I am – like many Nature Writers by the way – not happy with the label Nature Writing. Like Science Fiction theorist Seo-Young Chu, “by mode I have in mind a category more expansive than ‘genre’ and less determinable.” You will notice with time, that I find Science Fiction and Nature Writing to be much closer related than usually assumed, but for now it is important to note that I understand it less as a genre (the convenient and very useful label you look for in the bookstore) than a mode (a set of practices and ways of relation to the “objects” of writing). 

This becomes particularly apparent in Annie Dillard’s writing. She has been named a “female Thoreau” and that is in as many ways true as it is besides the point. As Diana Saverin puts it, it’s not about the authenticity of wilderness experiences, but about writing choices: “Dillard had never left civilization. She’d simply left civilization out of the book.” That could be said for Thoreau’s Walden, too, but the pathos of Dillard’s Pilgrim is very different from Thoreau and other “great men” of Nature Writing. It is by no means more humble – after all – Dillard’s text is not afraid to ask the very big questions and it is absolutely sure of its artistic quality, but I’d claim that even though she did “leave out civilization”, she developed a keen eye and precise language for small wildernesses. That required learning how to see (anew).

Dillard took that task quite literally. In the beginning of the book, after she tells stories proving her to be an acute observer of what author Kelly Brenner so aptly calls “Nature obscura”, she writes about a surgical procedure that helps people regain their eyesight. Their experiences of seeing for the first time what is mostly an overwhelming “dazzle of color-patches” (29) serves Dillard as a model of describing her own. The description of one girl in particular impressed her:

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974 , 35.

The “tree with the lights in it” is a recurring phrase in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Just like the changed vision Dillard claims with this image, the phrase is at once plausible, convincing even, and vague. You know there is something to see – a tree that is not in the “foreground” while light is shining through her* branches, but a tree of which the lights are part, like fruit – but to describe it in the radio voice over that Dillard claims is needed to “really” see what goes on before your eyes. Seeing, as it were, must forge a pact with language and it does so in a truly poetic way. Dillard’s text layers observations and anecdotes from different discourses (personal experience, medicine, nature writing, religion and transcendence etc.) and condenses them (in German “to condense” means “verdichten” which is neatly close to poetry, “Dichtung”). The ensuing image is something that decidedly cannot be seen “for real” and yet it delivers a change in sight that makes sense to the reader. It reveals a world that has been there all along and burdens it with the profound experience of being able to see for the first time at all.

There is no doubt, that it can be a burden to “gain” sight. Where “a distheartening number of [patients] refuse to use their new vision” (29) because it is too overwhelming, Dillard has the ambivalent luck that “the vision comes and goes”. Writing about a “vision” (with many references to theological and transcendental discourses throughout the book) adds another layer that strengthens the poetic quality of the experience. It seems to be a transcendental experience that is, however, brilliantly held back by mundane failures. 

One of them is the attempt to not only see a tree, but see and look like a tree. Dillard encounters a “silly-looking coot”:

I froze stock-still, thinking that after all I really was, actually and at bottom, a tree, a dead tree perhaps, even a wobbly one, but a treeish creature nonetheless. The coot wouldn’t notice that a tree hadn’t grown in that spot the moment before; what did it know? It was new to the area, a mere dude. As tree I allowed myself only the luxury of keeping a wary eye on the coot’s eye. Nothing; it didn’t suspect a thing—unless, of course, it was just leading me on, beguiling me into scratching my nose, when the jig would be up once and for all, and I’d be left unmasked, untreed, with no itch and an empty creek. So.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 45.

This episode, reminiscent of Thoreau’s encounter with a loom at Walden Pond, seems to be a success story of tree-vision at first. Looking like a tree, i.e. convincing herself that “she really was, actually and at bottom, a tree […] a treeish creature”, enables Dillard to observe the bird that she deems too shy to let her observe him any other way. What a beautiful image to become a tree, or at least, tree-like in order to be able to really see what lives around ourselves. But Dillard – and this really makes her writing great – does not hold back in revealing the foolishness of thinking you finally “got” how “it” works:

At its next dive I made the Osage orange and looked around from its trunk while the coot fed from the pool behind the riffles. From there I ran downstream to the sycamore, getting treed in open ground again—and so forth for forty minutes, until it gradually began to light in my leafy brain that maybe the coot wasn’t shy after all. That all this subterfuge was unnecessary, that the bird was singularly stupid, or at least not of an analytical turn of mind, and that in fact I’d been making a perfect idiot of myself all alone in the snow. So from behind the trunk of a black walnut, which was my present blind, I stepped boldly into the open.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 46.

Nothing happens. The whole disguise, the effort of “getting treed” was a game Dillard played with herself. This is more than a funny episode, because it holds a potential for failure that is not re-claimed for the human experience by making it tragic. Absolutely mundane, the misinterpretation of the birds sensibilities, turn out to be no less important than a more sublime failure: there is in the end no way to really know “Nature”. But the attempt counts: “I had gotten, after all, a very good look at the coot.” (47) And, more than that, for a while at least the human in the picture attempted to assume another form, another way of seeing and being seen. Alas, the old practice of camouflage was not enough. It still stank of the human intention to get something, if only a “good lock” from a nonhuman nature. 

A tree, overexposed (Dresden, 2018 CC BY 4.0 Solvejg Nitzke)

To become more tree-like one has to find a way of not wanting, of seeing without intention and, tellingly, this can be only realized in writing. Tellingly, Dillard choses another arboreal image to illustrate what that means:

The broadleaf trees of the world’s forests have cast their various fruits: “Oak, a nut; Sycamore, achenes; California Laurel, a drupe; Maple, a samara; Locust, a legume; Pomegranate, a berry; Buckeye, a capsule; Apple, a pome.” Now the twin leaves of the seedling chestnut oak on the Carvin’s Cove path have dried, dropped, and blown; the acorn itself is shrunk and sere. But the sheath of the stem holds water and the white root still delicately sucks, porous and permeable, mute.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 261.

Seemingly dead, a winter tree is anything but lifeless. It just holds back until more favorable conditions arrive, it cannot force growth, but, then, it doesn’t help for writers to do so either. Like the bell that is being rung (passive!), Dillard discovers in her writing and being-outside that the winter tree knows something about building worlds that she has to learn: to be dead for a while is the condition of life/writing:

The death of the self of which the great writers speak is no violent act. It is merely the joining of the great rock heart of the earth in its roll. It is merely the slow cessation of the will’s sprints and the intellect’s chatter: it is waiting like a hollow bell with stilled tongue. Fuge, tace, quiesce. The waiting itself is the thing.

Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974, 261.

I spoke of Dillard’s “pathos” before. There it is. It is not one of control or dominance but neither is it a call for caution and humility – it is the insight that to see a tree means to stand back, to lose oneself and wait; it is the insight that to write a tree means to stand back to lose oneself and wait and not expect a profit. There will be none, but another occasion to wait.

*I tend to use personal pronouns when I know a tree by name. This one is a cedar and hence a “she”. “Hence” means, I decided it is, it could be different – trees are queer anyway, but I more and more refuse to think of them as “it”.

  1. Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological, The MIT Press, 2018.
  2. James Wandersee & Elizabeth Schussler: Preventing Plant Blindness, in: The American Biology Teacher 61 (2), 82-86. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4450624?seq=1
  3. Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. [1975]: HarperCollins e-Books 2014.
  4. Seo-Young Chu: Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 2010.
  5. I urge you to read the wonderful Article The Thoreau of the Suburbs by Diana Saverin (The Atlantic, 2015).
Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Seeing (like) a Tree: Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”," in Ecological Imaginaries, 30/11/2020, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/48.

Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything

In the very first session of the introduction to Comparative Literature at Ruhr-Uni Bochum, we were taught how to justify picking this subject to our parents. While I have told this anecdote a number of times as a funny twist on how my mother might have been the only person in the entire world who was actually relieved that her daughter decided to go for literature as her subject, I never quite lost the feeling of that first contact with what is now my profession. The feeling is an almost paranoid fear of being called out on doing what is actually a hobby (reading), a weird but all encompassing doubt about both the seriousness and relevance of my work. In short, it is the gut feeling that the “just” in “just fiction” might reflect more that a person’s attempt to discredit the capacity of literature to actually do stuff. 

By now I know that it is not just a feeling – it is the result of underfinanced humanities departments, expectations of “usefulness” and “applicability” that (being derived from engineering and, equally damaging for both cultures, from the natural sciences) have rarely anything to do with the work of a humanities scholar and almost never with the work of literary scholarship. It took me a while to get there, but the tip we were given in that introductory class followed those lines. While this is probably not the worst idea (even though I have doubts whether parents, who are not on board with you studying complit, will come around when the first thing you do is telling them about this French sociologist and cultural capital), I feel a growing sense of Bartleby-esque resistance to thinking of my work in these terms. So, if you came here to learn useful stuff about literature, I will disappoint you right away. This is not what I do. But what am I doing and why do I feel the need to do it despite constantly pointing out absurd conditions in academia and the need to tell people about it, who don’t even do what I do?

Looking for answers to these questions is part of the reason why I opened this blog. As with many things, there probably isn’t a straight response, but there might be more stories, and, as with many more things, for me, they have to do with trees. Not with roots, or branches, or leaves or all the single parts of a tree which lend themselves so well for (often all too heavy) metaphorization, but with the ways in which they require us to form words, stories and poetic texts in order to understand them. If I want answers to the question of why not only me but so many task themselves with writing about writing, talking about language and trying to find ways to put into text how texts become actors (many more meta-activities could be listed), then looking at trees, plants, symbioses and seemingly non-textual or -linguistic relationships might seem counterintuitive. But this is where – excuse the vegetal pun – the roots of the problem can be found.

A weed dinosaur, if you look (not too) closely, growing over human structures, not caring for what we think its species should be able to be

It would be all too easy to claim that it is literature’s job to make legible what otherwise remains incomprehensible. In novels, trees talk, in popular science, humans can read tree rings, in nature writing, humans follow tree roots everywhere – easy, isn’t it? Literary scholars, then, might be reproducing that job by making literature legible through analyzing, categorizing, historicizing. Too easy, indeed – what literary scholars do instead, or rather on top of that, is making things more complicated: Wohlleben tells you trees are friends and help each other? Here’s Johannes Wankhammer researching the different forms of Anthropomorphization and their pitfalls (Wankhammer). Ever heard of forest bathing? Here is Elisabeth Heyne showing you the different modes of perception (rain) forests induce (spoiler, not all are pleasant). And one more: You ask how trees become theme and motive in a text? Here am I telling you, they don’t, instead humans have to become tree-like to even see the giant plants. All of these texts and more are examples for how literary and cultural scholarship is much more than an explaining and archiving device. “We” don’t “just” communicate literature or other discipline’s results. Instead (or, again, on top of that) we find stories and keep telling them. We Reader poems and connect them to more poems, trees, (hi)stories. We excavate layers as much as we add new ones. The kind of knowledge this produces is actually very tree-like, because you can barely access it without becoming a little like it in the process. There is no writing about trees that isn’t making you a little bit arboreal while you’re reading. This might be special for the humanities and especially the Disziplinen dealing with literature. With us, you can see how we alienate ourselves from ourselves in order to melt into someone else and something else’s world (more on the barely hidden reference to hermeneutics and “Horizontverschmelzung” another time…).

In order to ‘see’ (read, hear, understand) the stories trees tell, you need to be able to connect them to other stories. This is what we do (I hereby claim): connect stories and provide a kind of guided tour through a jungle of texts and actors and things and more text, all the while leaving traces, changing the shrubs and producing more text. It sounds a little mysterious, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it is not. There is of course a way of learning how to do this, there are numerous ways of finding the benefit in studying literature…this is mine. Making things more complicated but also more exciting, making you understand less and being more adventurous with how you look around. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me…

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Trees, Stories, and Academia, or: What Literature has to do with Anything," in Ecological Imaginaries, 16/11/2020, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/37.

Ecological Imaginaries

Ecological relationships are a product of human imagination. Trees do not need humans for the exchange of nutrients with fungi or the provision of shelter for birds, but it takes human imagination to narrate these exchanges as meaningful relationships. Words and matter are intricately intertwined and as such increasingly gain attention in the environmental sciences and the humanities. It is increasingly recognized that the exploration of ecological relationships requires comparatist work in the broadest sense as it not only transgresses national and linguistic borders but the boundaries of the human. Ecological Imaginaries aims at collecting and connecting stories, images, thoughts and conversations about and between ecological partners, spanning human (incl. cultural) and non-human environments and relationships. This is a place where poems meet scientific papers, academic discussion meets experimental forms of knowledge (and) communication in order to explore the diverse ways in which matter and language collaborate to form environments, ecologies and storied worlds. This blog branches out from two research projects: “Making Kin with Trees” analyzes narrated relationships between humans and trees as the product and the condition of an arboreal poetics, or cultural poetics of trees; “Precarious Nature” investigates popular texts of the 19th century, such as Village Stories, popular science, journal articles, or travel writing, as generic modes which employ ‘ecological storytelling’ as a practice to mobilize human-nature-relationships; precarious nature, that is, is both the condition and effect of a mobilization that causes (and makes possible in the first place) the destruction and the protection of non-human environments. The blog also serves as an environment to host and spur new projects and relationships and nurture existing ones. Collaborations within the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network (plants.arizona.edu) and collaborative projects such as “Interspecies Signalling” (with PD Dr. Susanne Gruß and Prof. Dr. Regina Schober) will find space to explore ways in which to think, narrate and practice ecologies and ecological relationships. Ecological Imaginaries contains a multitude of textual formats: flash research reports, book reviews, observations from public and social media, and conversations with and guest posts by scientists and scholars working on related questions. It aims at reaching an interdisciplinary audience of scholars and scientists as well as communicating current research to an interested public. In a way, the blog itself emulates the ecologies that are its topic. Existential as well as spontaneous connections not only characterize non-human ecosystems but academic networks as well. This blog project extends an invitation to learn from trees and other non-humans how to forge connections and create conditions for livable ecologies to emerge.

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Ecological Imaginaries," in Ecological Imaginaries, 27/10/2020, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/1.