„A Temptation to the Imagination“ – The Future History of US-American Literature (Long Read)

This is a paper I gave in summer 2020. I haven’t gotten to turning it into a ‘proper’ article, yet, but I don’t believe in things rotting in my cloud, so here it is and I’d be thrilled to hear your thoughts on my thinking together deep time and literary history (with US-American literary history as my experimental ‘object’).

As an „exercise in environmental speculation“, historian and geohumanist Jared Farmer created the „future fossil“ of a BlackBerry Curve 8300. In his reflection of the hows and whys of this exercise Farmer contrasts the short lived usability of gadgets like this with their harmful longevity in the terrestrial ecosystems, and the cultural effects of this insight:

Cover of Future Remains with an image of the “future fossil” in the upper right corner: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/F/bo27213130.html

“If my fossil signifies extinction and e-waste, it also bespeaks a cultural moment when humanists and artists have synchronously turned their attention to temporalities like ‘deep time’, ‘deep history’, ‘long-terminism,’ and ‘the long now.’ […] After a period of cultural quiescence, geology – the leading realm of inquiry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – has regained philosophical, literary, and artistic significance.”

Jared Famer, Technofossil, in: Future Remains (193)

Modernity seems to have come full circle in its choice of a paradigmatic way to know the world: geology’s temporal scales completely changed the way in which humans understood their place in Earth’s history two centuries ago and it seems to do so again, today. An old smartphone, a bit of polymer clay and some paint come together to turn a piece of waste into an “technofossil”, that is, a speculative object making tangible our present (or, at least, our immediate past) in the future perfect. The fake fossil wants to bring us to recognize the consequences of human actions from the perspective of an archaeologist in the far future. Imagining “us” – not as what we will be but as what we will have been – is not a new exercise but it gains significance at a time when the remnants of the actions of human collectives threaten to last almost forever. The material of the Blackberry device will persist for millennia and thus becomes visible as part of a global pollution crisis that is by no means an “environmental” problem only. It is a challenge to the Western way of life and unjustly threatens especially those who do not (yet) enjoy its comforts. The durability of the materials we fail to consume but throw away, the effects and exhausts of our lifestyle call into question not how, but if there can be a future for what we call ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’. “Perhaps” as Frederic Jameson wondered in Archaeologies of the Future, “we need to develop an anxiety about losing the future” (233) 

Farmers’ is one of many attempts to chart Future Remains and create A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. The collection looks at past and present-day objects to find “clues” for intertwined human and natural histories and thereby develop a relationship to the future (remains) which at first glance seems as strange as the curiosities themselves: “The objects gathered in this book resemble more the tarots of a fortuneteller that the archeological finds of an expedition: they speak of the future” (x). Like the “technofossil”, jars of sand, pesticide spray pumps and artificial coral reefs narrate a future perfect perspective on the present. The hope is, that “[o]bjects have the power to bridge spaces and join times. They can summon all at once the past, present, and future, blending the global and local – and thus they can disrupt linear narratives, including those about the Anthropocene.” (xi) Through the “object stories” and the future lives of present and past things they bring to life, the cabinet of curiosities becomes a haunted space. The future perfect imagination brings out the ghosts that our intentions and desires will have become. More so, it makes the new, that is, soon to be discarded things we accumulate look quite sinister, because the future perfect loop shows that the afterlife is always already included in the thing itself. 

A past that will have haunted the future – this is the sort of pun of the collection – is inherent in the objects we produce and use. Storytelling, here, becomes at once a means of divination and resurrection. It creates a narrative afterlife of already discarded things and shatters the illusion that you can ever truly throw something “out”. This collection of object-stories is a “future history” in many ways – most importantly, it imagines a future perspective on a shared present thereby creating a “we” that includes non-human actors in the story of what the future will bring. What makes this significance is not necessarily the Science Fiction premise to a collection of artistically and scholarly inclined interventions, but the fact that the interdisciplinary approach is translated into a series of speculative narratives. This is more than a playful way to engage in conversations and, ultimately, get active about ways to shape the future. Stories and storytelling gain new prominence in a discourse about the future that is characterized by a sense of peril which does not surpass so much as include and surmount past worst-case scenarios. 

“The future we face today is one that threatens our very existence as a species. It threatens the comfortable urban lifestyles that many of us hold dear and the habitability of the earth itself. The times we are in are critical, and the challenges we face as global citizens are complex, intractable, and planetary.”

Gidley, Jennifer M.: The Future: A Very Short Introduction (1)

Global Warming, Ocean Acidification, Terrorism, and an ongoing Nuclear Threat position “the Future as catastrophe” (Eva Horn) not at the end but the beginning of our stories. Again, Modernity seems to have come full circle: In The Future as Catastrophe, Eva Horn identifies the coming disaster as a major anxiety and motivator of modern activities from the 1700s until the present. Geology as a leading scientific paradigm popularized the idea that not only civilizations but whole species went extinct because of catastrophic events. Hence, the imagination of one’s own gadgets as future fossil is not a new but a thoroughly modern idea with a history of its own. That does not mean, though, that the current moment in history is a mere repetition of our modern beginnings, rather the “Catastrophe without Event” that is climate change and the subsequent popularization of the collapse of natural and cultural history require us to rethink not only possible futures but also our approach to rethinking the relations between Modernity and time:

“Whether or not the Anthropocene becomes part of the official stratigraphic record, its advent as a scientific object has already altered how we conceptualize, imagine, and inhabit time.“

Preface to Future Remains (ix)

As I am talking to you about fossils and forever changed relationships to deep time pasts and futures in a literary studies context, you already guessed why I stress the existence and importance of stories and storytelling in catastrophic futures discourse. It is not least an opportunity for academics in these disciplines to take part in a discussion that claims to influence every realm of life. What I want to talk about, however, is that this is more than a chance to claim a part of the current discourse, but that our expertise as literary and cultural scholars is indeed a vital one. Literary and cultural studies can contribute to this discourse an invaluable perspective: They do not predict, they do not forecast or calculate probable futures – but what they do do is follow, collect and navigate through the stories that make up and hold together the connection between pasts, presents and futures. As I am using the plural for all three terms, I am already hinting at the most important aspect of this contribution: the way in which literary and cultural studies are able to deal with multiple actors and temporalities without reducing them to a common denominator. What I want to look at, today, is the relationship between futures and storytelling that is expressed in both literary histories, that is both fictional histories and histories of literature. I will highlight some pitfalls and promises of literary history as a critical and scholarly endeavor and connect them to literary and future histories in two novels – Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (2006) and The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018). My aim is to show how time is being linked to storytelling as a practice of producing futures and how literary genres, practices and histories are employed to scale up human stories to planetary ones. Both novels challenge and tempt the imagination of their readers to look at their present and past as if from a distant future; they do so by disrupting the idea of human control over nature and narrative alike and, instead, map out ways in which stories and storytelling become instrument and actor in the production of futures.

While Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (2006) bursts with plots, characters and cultural references, its historical scope seems fairly narrow. It begins in 1893 with the “World’s Columbian Exposition” and ends in early 1920s Hollywood. The novel revolves around turning points in American and world history, or, to be exact, it lays out how turning points in American and World History were synchronized to a point where they became indistinguishable. Strikingly, many of the familiar historical landmarks of this period play at most a marginal role in Against the Day. Although almost all of the protagonists are in Europe at the time, even the “Great War” remains latent and unable to change a course of events that has been set in motion long before. The individual plots seem difficult to entangle, except maybe for readers of historical novels, fantasy and science fiction sagas. I stress this fact, because reading a text this dense with names, titles, references, points requires intense training in networked reading – it’s no accident that there is a “Pynchon Wiki” in which readers help each other navigate through the texts – that comes, I’m tempted to say “naturally”, with reading genre fiction. And this is, where Pynchon’s novel takes its cues: the historical references, seemingly second-tier events, more suitable for conspiracy theories than the historical record, connect to plot structures from Western, adventure, spy, conspiracy, and science fiction. Dime novel material that finds its apex in the plot strand about the “Chums of Chance”, a “celebrated aeronautics clubs” (3) whose members, in the course of the novel, get confused about their own status. Up to a certain point, they are both fictional and non-fictional characters within the novel. They meet all other protagonists and they are the heroes of countless youth-adventure-books that many of the other characters read. Only when confronted by so-called Trespassers, however, are they forced to question their own “reality”. Trespassers are future humans who manage to employ the Chum’s ambivalent status in space and time to travel into their past and confuse the aeronauts by sharing their future perspective:

SOON THE CREW began to find evidence of Trespass everywhere, some invisible narrative occupying, where it did not in fact define, the passage of the day. And it was soon evident that at all levels, from local to international, a neuropathy had taken over the Chums of Chance organization. [The Trespassers had studied their targets closely, knew of the Chums’ unquestioning faith that none of them, barring misadventure, would ever simply grow old and die, a belief which over the years many had come to confuse with a guarantee.] On learning that they might be no more exempt than any of the human supernumeraries they had been so carelessly aviating above all these years, some Chums of Chance turned in panic to the corrupt embrace of the Trespassers, ready to deal with Hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence they were so willing now to turn right around and violate on behalf of their insidious benefactors.

Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day (418)

Among the novel’s numerous plays on the relationship of time and space, time and faith, time and history and so on, this might be the most striking from a literary history perspective: If the stories we are telling us about ourselves and our place in history and culture can be shaken so easily by a future perspective – how can we keep telling them?

In Pynchon’s novel, the past has an advantage over the future in that it is able to believe itself even if individual (hi)stories contradict each other. This leads, different to popular narratives, to a more diverse world in which factual and fictional stories are not mutually exclusive. Three developments that reach from the future into the past change this diversity of realities: the Tunguska-Event (an explosion of still disputed cause that in 1908 destroyed vast amounts of forest in Siberia), the development of new ways to connect and represent the world through photography, film and electronic means of communication (the telegraph), and the developments in mathematics and physics that fundamentally changed how time is conceptualized. While at the World’s Columbian Exposition in the beginning of the novel, everything seems possible, the Hollywood ending suggests that different realities are forever distinguished in real and made-up ones – only no one knows which are which. The consequence is a future that seems inevitable. If the present is reduced to a single narrative – how would one attempt to shape the future?

Despite all declarations of the End of History (Fukuyama) or the End of the Gand Recit (engl? Lyotard), the narrative that still dominates is global capitalism’s notion of progress, the perverted epitome of Modernity. Interestingly, in the course of the 20th century, the main metaphor for this endeavor shifts from progress as technological (and social) innovation to economic growth, thereby naturalizing human endeavors once more as “organic”. This is where Richard Power’s recent novel The Overstory takes up and in many ways reverses Pynchon’s narrative. In the novel, trees become protagonists and enlist humans to aid them in ensuring their survival. Surprisingly, the novel, despite its strong references to Thoreau and the environmentalist movements, does not at all develop a luddite “back-to-nature”-narrative. Instead, it takes its cue from genre fiction and the stories that can be told based on the new images of trees and plant communication. The novel follows the stories of eight humans and their way to become ‘tree-people’, that is, they find connections to the plant world which compel them to fight for them by any means available. It turns out however, that the kind of co-existence humans and trees envision is not possible in the world as it is. The dominance of the modern-capitalist narrative and its strict distinction between real and unreal things, humans and non-humans, value and waste prevents open futures and might, in the end, prevent the future (for humans) itself. The Overstory offers a way out that, again, depends on future history and a future perfect perspective. Neelay, a Computer Game developer with a disability, envisions a world that does not cling to the opposition of materiality and immateriality but frees individuals, and that includes trees, from it by employing plant thinking (Marder), that is, existentially networked modes. The novel does not play out what that might look like exactly but offers a (utopian) vision, reactivating a pre- and early modern mode of imagining alternatives. The source of this vision, however, is not classic Utopianism but science fiction and future history:

“[Neelay] still binges on old-school reading. At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter. Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks. Domed cities like giant terrariums. Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds. There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it. When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.”

Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel (97)

The engineers vision of storytelling as a multi-temporal and historical endeavor that is decidedly not limited to literature, could be a defining principle for ‘making’ futures (happen). He learns how to make it real by listening to trees and learning about the symbiotic, multi-species webs that keep forests alive and thriving. More than a metaphor for future societies, Power’s novel reverses the reduction that Pynchon’s laments: learning from trees how to build futures, here, allows for more stustainable and more diverse societies.

If, following Jennifer Gidley, futures studies must deal with and open up multiple futures to resist the reduction to mono-narratives, we need to look at both texts about the future and the texts we write about those texts. Reading literary histories as sites that produce the ‘future remains’ of literature and literary studies, is a pivotal task of self-reflection and -assertion. To demonstrate what I mean, when I say that literary histories produce ‘future remains’ I will distinguish between those ‘literary histories’ that are ‘histories of literature’ and those that are ‘fictional histories’, that is, part of explicitly literary texts – this distinction is artificial, of course, but it serves a purpose: by taking into account the status of a text the practices of producing narratives can be made transparent. That is, by asking – am I reading a novel or am I reading an academic collection of texts? I assume different things about the position and aim of a text and its author(s). While in a novel – especially in a postmodern one like Pynchon’s and Powers’ – I expect the lines between fact and fiction to be blurred (or, at least I would not get angry if I find out that I have been fooled); a literary history follows a different set of rules. As they provide information and orientation through academic and or critical expertise, literary histories provide (and potentially deny) access to a literary canon by assigning each work a place in a larger landscape of literature. The emerging literary landscape is by no means a record of who wrote at what time, but the result of a rigorous selection process, that is, literary histories ultimately decide who is considered to write important or influential texts, what is considered to be literature (or a significant enough influence on literature) and who the intended and worthy readership is. This becomes more difficult and problematic with the scope of the endeavor. Even though, it seems, that never before has such a wide variety and diversity of texts and authors been so readily available to read and study, the concepts behind the histories – nation, gender, literature – have been challenged to a point that makes it seem impossible to provide guidance without discriminating against everything and everyone who falls out of one’s arbitrary “order”. Especially the project of so-called “national literary histories” – one of the most popular forms, often aimed at academics, students and an “interested public” alike, runs danger to popularize and manifest too narrow views of what nation, literature and history are. In the words of Elaine Showalter, author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx:

The twenty-first century must be the best of times for doing American literary historical research. Yet, ironically, the twenty-first century is also the worst of times for actually writing American literary history. Philosophical debates about whether literary history in general is theoretically possible or intellectually valid have discouraged the attempt to write histories like this one. Academic doubts that Americans still have “a unifying vision of national identity” have added to the complicated theoretical problems. By the end of the twentieth century, even scholarly authorities admitted they were no longer certain “we know what American literature is or what history is, and whether we have the authority to explain either.”

The decision to include or exclude a work or an author gives this particular genre of academic and critical writing unique power. Every text that is left out runs danger to be forgotten; everyone who is once claimed to be important or not might never be put in his or her place – but, at least there is hope that some of the texts and authors might, like fossils, persist and be re-discovered. Yet, more still, to stay in the metaphor for a moment, will dissolve into their surroundings and, hopefully, provide nourishment for their descendants, albeit invisibly. But even if one wanted, there is just too much material to include each and everything: “That’s why national literary histories are usually huge team efforts, with a board of editors, a village of consultants, an army of research assistants; and even then, many scholars have died before finishing their own contributions to the whole” (Elaine Showalter). In other words: before you might complete your contribution to what you think should remain of a literary period, author or ‘national literature’, you yourself might perish. Even if you don’t die in the process of writing your contribution or editing a literary history, you become or hope to become a “future remain”, a “literary fossil” by contributing to ‘literary history’. Like other historiographic disciplines, literary historiography is confronted with the fact that however well researched and structured their particular version of “history” is, they are creating a narrative whose capability to serve as a foundation for the development of future literatures, literary studies and (national) identities is more than doubtful. Since Hayden White and others trained our eyes to look at the literary qualities of (literary) histories, their status has changed, and yet, they are still written and might, as I will argue, have to be written and read. Showalter solves the dilemma of her literary history of Women Writers by stressing the fact that she, and she alone, is telling a story: “In this book, however, I tell a story of American women’s writing with a beginning, middle, and end, and I make selections, distinctions, and judgments.” She clearly marks her standpoint offering her authorial position for criticism by stating deliberateness and expertise instead of authority. 

Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors undertook this massive effort of a national history in A New Literary History of America (2009). The promise of “newness” in the context of written history deserves its own talk, but what interests me, today, is the revealing way it is at once supporting and undermining its own premise. More than a hundred essays by literary scholars, critics and authors explore historical moments; the first being “1507. The name ‘America’ appears for the first time on a Map. [A new Geography]” and the last a visual essay: “2008, November 4. Barack Obama is elected 44th President of the United States” (2008):

“The goal of the book is not to smash a canon or create a new one, but to set many forms of American speech in motion, so that different forms, and people speaking at different times in sometimes radically different ways, can be heard speaking to each other.”

New Literary History of America (xxiv)

The sheer number of stories that form this history, their contradictions and the disruptions of a clear cut all-American comes close to a poly-phonic almanac. The rigid chronological order – almost like the alphabet in an encyclopedia – seems to manage the feat of stepping back from a “meaningful” system. There is a system, yes, but it doesn’t judge, what it presents. Of course, the chronological system is conservative in many ways and everything but innocent, but it stands against a division in epochs and chapters resists a teleology and at least shows an effort to step away from an ideology of progress. Then again, Marcus and Sollors, betray their own non-system, when they compare their book to others in the series: the New Histories of French and of German Literature. A comparison of the titles – literary history of America vs. histories of French and German literature respectively – gives away, what the editors of the New Literary History of America have in mind as “their” project:

“this book represents an entirely different sort of challenge. The earlier projects began in the eight century and moved forward to trace the organic literatures of organic societies that preceded the emergence of modern French and German nations. […] this is the story of a made-up nation that in many ways preceded its society. Its literature was not inherited but invented, as if it were a tool or a machine, and discovered, as if it were a gold strike or the next wonder of the Louisiana Purchase. No tradition has ever ruled; no form has ever been fixed“

New Literary History of America (xxiii)

It does not need a comparatist to see that this comparison is itself made up. Yes, German and French histories of literature begin in the single digit centuries, but even without going into the details of European history, linguistically, politically or culturally, it is prudent to assume that the “organic” nature of both literatures and societies is a highly problematic notion. Apart from the fact that it suggests, that French and German literature – in comparison – reads like a transcript of ‘organic’ societies (what would that be?); the notion of a literature free from tradition may be a poetological statement, but it betrays a collective “Anxiety of Influence” (Harold Bloom). Still, the intent is striking and it mirrors the structure and diversity of the New Literary History. Like the literature that was “invented, as if it were a tool or a machine, and discovered, as if it were a gold strike or the next wonder of the Louisiana Purchase”, this is meant to be less a history of American literature, it is the story of America [“the American story”, xxvii]. 

The editors draw their guiding idea, the made-up nation, or “Made in America/America made” (xxiv), from two novels: Robert Macauley’s novel A Secret History of Time to Come (1979) and Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt (2006). The first, a future history in a narrower sense is chosen for its Rip-Van-Winkle hyperbole: in the time to come, America will have been forgotten, as if it never existed. Like Van Winkle during the Civil War, people fall asleep and wake up in a completely different country. Apex on the other hand deals with the practice of naming (in this case a town) and the history of emotions of nomenclature. Both stories serve the editors as evidence that:

“America was made up, as its historical story has always stood, from its first steps, as a temptation to the imagination. As America is made up out of nothing, it can vanish in an instant.”

The literary history, then, is a tool to ensure the endurance of not only literary texts but of the nation itself. Whereas Margaret Atwood in her 1972 guide to Canadian Literature, Survival, claims that “the main thing [in Canadian Literature] was to avoid dying” (24), the made-up nation and literature of “America” want more: it is diverse both in respect to authors and of genre and media. Sequoyah, Superman, Dr. Seuss, Billie Holiday and Alfred Hitchcock find their place next to Thomas Jefferson, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, Edith Wharton, Malcolm X and Toni Morrison. However, the “single unifying and informing symbol at its core” might still be, as Atwood claims in 1972, “the frontier”. The individual literary and cultural texts, as well as the essays about them, can fortunately be read against this grain. Even though Marcus and Sollors probably aimed to stress the arbitrary quality of “America” as a concept and its inclusive possibilities, the conflation of the United States and the Americas as a whole can – especially through the comparison with the supposedly organic European histories – be all too easily mistaken as an imperialist gesture. In the name of “e pluribus unum”, the intriguing idea of American exceptionalism as a fiction finds itself undermined by its own assertion: yes, it is made up, but it’s working too well to let it go. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the best literary histories that you can possibly read, the essays are excellent and challenge many preformed assumptions about what literature, history and nation can be. But the opposition of organic and made-up literatures, of literature preceding society in America but not in Europe and of an exceptionalism that positions “America” away from any (!) influence and tradition apart from its own, calls into question the ability of (this) literary history to think beyond its own story. 

In “Big is a thing of the Past” Historian Deborah Coen (2018) asks for a new methodology of historical research: In light of the impeding environmental and societal changes, she demands a “History of Scaling”, one that can deal with both the human and the planetary scales necessary to understand climate change and other potentially disastrous transformations. Making it up as we go won’t suffice if we look at the present, as Farmers “technofossil” suggests, from a future perfect perspective. The ecocritic Timothy Clark proposes a very similar thing to Coen’s “history of scaling”: “scale framing” (71) – Asking: “What could be more private that a couple deciding to have a baby? What could be more public that a couple deciding to have a baby?”, Clark develops a way to adapt reading to the deep-time thinking that is required in a historical moment in which the human impact on Earth has become a geological force. Starting a car in a short story becomes – intended or not – part of a larger narrative of humans irreversibly changing the face of the Earth. But how does “reading [a story] on a scale of six centuries” fit into writing a literary history that encompasses five hundred years?

You could say, it is a temptation to the imagination and not a new one: Whether you think of the promises of resource extraction that drove settlers to the Americas; of Thomas Jefferson’s Plans to rid “America” of the tree-cover that prevented its agricultural success; of Henry David Thoreau discovering the vegetal nature of all form in the melting snow on the train tracks close to Walden Pond; of Captain Ahab and the Whale; the city-jungles and jungle-cities of the domestic and military memory; the frontier excitement, gold and oil-rushes – all of these connect stories of individual exploration with spatial and temporal scales beyond the humans (some explicitly, some as an undercurrent). Surprisingly, that does not diminish the notion of the “made-up nation” and literature. According to environmental historian Donald Worster, from the first settlers onwards Americans succeeded in convincing themselves of being the “chosen people” regaining paradise and, thus, felt justified to exploit The Wealth of Nature (Worster). 

When “Nature” is basically up for grabs, everything that is built from and upon it, is an entirely human creation (approved by God, so to speak). Hence, these narratives can be read as testaments to a gothic nature claiming and reclaiming a place in the stories that seem to have denied their “organic” qualities for too long. As Leo Marx has shown in his seminal study The Machine in the Garden (1964), the American pastoral can only become visible in the moment of its disruption – a train whistle, a steam ship or another non-organic sound. But that’s not “America” breaking into the virgin wilderness, it is precisely in the (disturbed) wilderness that the myth of a “made-up nation” is contrasted with that of an untouched pastoral Nature as the real source of the nation. One directly sprung from a supposedly “virgin” land and always able to “return to nature”. But the disturbances have grown louder and threaten to displace Nature as a point of reference and a material reality. In order to seriously reimagine a sustainable relationship between storytelling and world, new future histories need to be written that transcend the lines between organic and made-up, fact and fiction, and, ultimately, human and non-human.

Turning our attention to forms of storytelling and narratives that are not part of the anthropocentric, Western narrative of progress and growth, this suggests, is a way to actually free our ability to imagine and shape futures. What both Pynchon and Powers (albeit in very different degrees of optimism) suggest is, that the tools are already there, the stories have begun to be told. The problem is, that we don’t take them seriously – they are “just” stories, “pop” culture and “children’s books”; that is, they are considered consumables without lasting value, maybe not even a spot in literary history. The “technofossil” at the beginning of this talk, however, reminds us that “consumables” are the very things that might define the future just because they remain. Imagining literary “future remains”, in other words, might not only teach us (literary and cultural scholars) to question the validity of our own narratives, it might just as well help us to tell new stories, to help shape futures in the plural and let us have been taught by those who must inhabit them.

Sitting on/like a Tree (Part II)

(To read part one, go to: Sitting like/on a Tree (Part I))

The Baron in the Trees 

Rory is in good company, many fictional and non-fictional humans seek refuge on and under trees. It is a special kind of refuge, though. Tree-sitters not necessarily seek shelter from rain and cold, persecution or outside threads, but one that creates space to think and to learn. Even if the interaction between the human who escapes an all-too human world to learn, study and think, and the tree isn’t reciprocal at first glance, I insist that trees cooperate in the endeavor. The question is: how and to what end? Can they “do” more than providing the support Rory Gilmore values so much? Isn’t it painfully obvious that trees are the victims of human ratio? Would they want to assist in actions that help wiping out even more of them?

Il Barone Rampante by Italo Calvino (Cover of the 1957 edition)

One of Rory Gilmore’s literary siblings, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s novel Baron in the Tree (Il Barone Rampante, 1957), radicalizes her notion of the study tree. Instead of sitting under the tree, that is, positioned firmly on the ground, Cosimo chooses the crowns of trees to position himself and think. While Rory sits on tree roots, shaded by the branches and leaves and thus not only remains visible, but does not leave the domain of humans, Cosimo moves a story up. He does so literally, by moving into the tree-tops and he does so figuratively by removing himself from the company and expectations of his family. He not only adds a layer to a story, he makes it worth telling a story at all. Climbing a tree and refusing to come down is indeed a radicalization in comparison to Rory’s claim to her study tree. In fact, Cosimo begins a new kind of thinking through his arboreal lifestyle.

One Story Up

What’s especially striking about Cosimo (and further connects him to Rory) is that he doesn’t really change for the trees. There is no planning, no thinking ahead or adjusting to tree life. Maybe because he is a teenager and uses his (last) opportunity to refuse the path that was chosen for him. 

Shortly afterward, through the windows, we saw him climbing up the holm oak. He was dressed and coiffed with great propriety, as our father wanted him to come to the table, though he was only twelve: hair powdered and ponytail tied with a ribbon, three-cornered hat, lace tie, green tailcoat, tight mauve trousers, sword, and long white leather gaiters that came to midthigh, the only concession to a way of dressing more suited to our country life. (I, being only eight, was exempted from the powder in my hair, except on gala occasions, and from the sword, which, however, I would have liked to carry.) So he climbed up into the gnarled tree, arms and legs moving through the branches with the assurance and speed gained from the long practice we’d done together.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

Cosimo leaves the dinner table in a rebellious act (he disobeys his Father’s orders to eat his snails). Running off and climbing a tree might not be too outrageous for a teenager, even though slamming a door might be the more familiar option – but his refusal to come down that makes him different. Cosimo remains in a strange stage between the cultivated and the wild. He is obviously able to climb and stay in the trees, but he still bears the signs of a gentleman. The clothes – though ragged at later points – his tastes and communication style allow him to literally move between the worlds. He corresponds with Enlightenment scholars, designs his own treatises, converses about social contracts and communitarian ways of life (when he meets a group of refugees also living in trees) and, later on, manages his estate. He also joins a group of outlaws (never leaving his trees) and only towards the end of his life does he figure out that he can live more “comfortably” and has cushions and good food brought up to him. Although he succeeds at his goal to never set foot on the ground, he lives a life that is neither that of a hermit nor that of someone who is part of a (human) community. Even his community with the trees – and this is where this novel becomes important to my research – remains somewhat estranged. 

Vantage Point

Cosimos middle ground – not quite on the ground but also not quite above it all – allows him and the reader through him to take a different look at an important historical period. His position is in a way the embodied version of that of the Enlightenment scholars he corresponds with (and becomes part of). Not the ‘’objective’ Appolo’s Gaze (Denis Cosgrove) of someone looking down on earth from space, but a partially connected mid-distance that allows some participation. In the words of the narrator, Cosimo’s brother, the world becomes “an entertainment” to Cosimo:

COSIMO WAS IN the oak. The branches were waving, high bridges over the earth. A light wind was blowing; it was sunny. The sun shone among the leaves, and to see Cosimo we had to shield our eyes with our hands. Cosimo looked at the world from the tree: everything was different seen from up there, and that was already an entertainment. The avenue had a completely different prospect, as did the flower beds, the hydrangeas, the camellias, the small iron table where one could have coffee in the garden. Farther on, the foliage thinned out and the vegetable garden sloped down in small terraced fields supported by stone walls; the low hill was dark with olive groves, and behind, the built-up area of Ombrosa raised its roofs of faded brick and slate, and ships’ flags peeked out from the port below. In the background the sea extended, high on the horizon, and a slow sailboat passed by.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

That is not least the vantage point of someone narrating the world or, like Cosimo, becoming the means or medium through which to narrate the world one is part of. Italo Calvino wouldn’t be Italo Calvino wouldn’t the Baron in the Trees be a meta-fictional text. But it’s not Cosimo who narrates or writes the world around, or rather, below him. It’s his brother who visits him in the trees but is mostly confined to imagining what it must be like to live like him. There is no authenticity-claim to his narrative. All the glory of being directly connected to the tree belongs to Cosimo. And yet, it is the narrator who thinks through trees as he does through his brother. 

Tree Texts

Meta fictionality – that is, the ways in which fictional texts design or envision how fictional texts work – and tree thinking combine to create a strangely beautiful set in this novel. It is a text about writing and even though the trees do not talk or move or do any of the exciting things they do in Richard Power’s overstory (which will feature in one of the next posts) or in Suzanne Simard’s Wood Wide Web, they do play a crucial role. With Cosimo withering away (rather spectacularly, but I don’t want to spoil the whole novel for you) the trees seem unable to resist the rationalized spirit of the 19th century. Himself an old man by now, the narrator reflects on the disappearance of the trees and, once again, bears witness to an almost magical act:

Every so often as I write I break off and go to the window. The sky is empty, and to us old people of Ombrosa, habituated to living under those green domes, it hurts the eyes to look at it. One would say that the trees didn’t bear up after my brother left, or that men were seized by the fury of the ax. […] That ornamentation of branches and leaves, forks, lobes, feathers, minute and without end, and the sky appearing only in irregular flashes and cutouts, maybe existed only because my brother passed there with the light step of a long-tailed tit, was an embroidery, made on nothing, that resembles this thread of ink, as I’ve let it run for pages and pages, full of erasures, of references, of nervous blots, of stains, of gaps, that at times crumbles into large pale grains, at times thickens into tiny marks resembling dotlike seeds, now twists on itself, now forks, now links knots of sentences with edges of leaves or clouds, and then stumbles, and then resumes twisting, and runs and runs and unrolls and wraps a last senseless cluster of words ideas dreams and is finished.

Calvino, Italo (2019). The Baron in the Trees (Vintage Classics) . Random House. Kindle-Version.

There is much to say about Calvino’s diligence in transforming the historical environmental transformation of Northern Italy (Giulia Pacini did it brilliantly in her article on the Arboreal and Historical Perspectives of the novel) and equally much to say about the alignment of light metaphors and Enlightenment with deforestation. The magical act I am interested in conclusion of this post, is that of trees into text. There are no physical trees in the biological sense of the word. Yet the empty sky is full of the memory of trees which transform very subtly into the blotched, smeared marks the narrator – turns out he is a writer – left in his notebook. While they become letters on a sheet of paper (ironically, a tree product) the trees could be mistaken as mere symbols. But they are, the narrative suggests, so much more. The uninterrupted gaze from the empty sky onto the written pages suggests a metonymical relationship. That is, the trees that disappeared on the surface (of the earth) reappear on the pages of the book. Seems like a sad replacement? Yes. But in a way it makes them more accessible, because we – such “Enlightened” people – are much more prone to notice the letters than the actual trees.

Tree Alphabet

It might be difficult to find hope in this ending. If we turn all wood into paper, all trees into letters, what would be left? However, this is the wrong question. Artist Katie Holten turns the tables once more and asks ‘Where can we go from here’? 

The tree alphabets she creates put the trees back into the cities. They are not to be sat on, but they not only show what’s missing they suggest it could grow back – we could help give the trees more room to grow. If only to lean against them and think…

I’ll stop here and begin anew when I take up Katie Holten’s cue and think some more About Trees. There will be more sitting and there will be (more) communication with and by the trees.

I want to thank everyone at today’s @dehypotheses “Bloggen experimentell” workshop for encouraging me to take time to write and tell you more about trees. It was a wonderful occasion – the not-often visible side of academia where we push each other in “friendly scholarship”. Thanks everyone! 

Sitting like/on a Tree (Part I)

I cannot believe it took me three months to even begin writing this post. I’ve been on an activity, alternating with phases of exhaustion, bringing the project along, writing new proposals (this is academia for you, while I’m happily announcing that I can finally write, all I do is plot new funding opportunities…) and trying to get a grip on the daunting mountain that is my to-write-list. What I have been doing, in other words, is behaving so anti-tree-ish that it feels like I haven’t learned anything at all. Shouldn’t studying trees bring me closer to them? And doesn’t getting close to trees mean at least trying to become a bit more like a tree? Well, this is what I claimed “arboreal poetics” does, but I am no writer and scholars need to disattach to gain knowledge. Or do they?

While I have not been writing this post, I have been thinking about it constantly. I even wrote a paper that deals with sitting under trees – yet, what I found (and what I did not put in the paper, because, you know, I try to look like a serious scholar sometimes) is that thinking about sitting under trees makes me nervous. Sitting on a tree even more and sitting like a tree outright terrifies me. Why is that? What does sitting under/on/like a tree do (to me) that causes feelings at all? If we look beyond a fear of falling off a tree – which is not my problem, I’m not a great climber, so I don’t –, there are two things that connect sitting and trees in ways that are more than prepositional. Or rather, they reveal that prepositional relationships are more that “just” grammatical.

The Study Tree

Let’s look at people sitting in, on, with, under and (maybe) like trees (I’ll get back to my own terror and eventual delight later). When I sat under a tree on a hike and tried to come up with scenes from literature and pop culture, I remembered one from Gilmore Girls that I liked very much, when I first watched it (Season 4, Episode 6). Rory is in college (YALE!) and having a bad day. Nothing works out the way she wanted it, there’s no way to study in peace and – shock! – now, someone is sitting under “her” tree. The outrage! 

(Thanks to everyone who helped me remember the episode!)

Well, it’s easy to dismiss this as a spoilt girl’s tantrum, but let’s look a little closer. While, yes, it is a little weird that a student at an Ivy League School (consider the tuition) who frettet about libraries all her life, can now not under any circumstances study unless she sits under a tree. It’s a decorative shot, too, but the tree does something for Rory that other “places” don’t. 30 minutes into the episode she encounters a guy sitting under the tree and tries to convince him, to leave:

Rory: Excuse me, you’re sitting under my tree

Guy: What?

Rory: My study tree. This is my study tree.

Guy: What the hell is a study tree?

Fair question! Rory cannot impress the tree occupier with her living situation (“I have roommates…” “So do I!”) and she certainly doesn’t help her case by sneering at his reading material (a magazine); when even her passionate speech doesn’t help, she first has to give up and later resorts to paying him off. Her speech, however, is what interests me, because it insists on a relationship that makes ONE tree special to one human:

Screenshot from a Buzzfeed article on “31 Things That Happened In “Gilmore Girls” That Make No Sense Now That I’m Older” https://www.buzzfeed.com/noradominick/things-about-gilmore-girls-that-make-no-sense-now-that-im

Rory: …but I finally found a great place to study and you’re sitting on it!

Guy: There’s a million trees on campus!

Rory: But this one fits my back perfectly, so I don’t get tired and the light is right and it’s just far enough away from anything busy. The noise level is perfect: it’s quiet but not Unabomber. And anyhow, I was just hoping that you would consider giving me back my tree!

Rory thinks her relationship to this tree – and it’s never mentioned what kind of tree it is – is so special that it simply must convince that guy to move. Well, it doesn’t and maybe it shouldn’t because this particular Goldilocks might be too used to everyone making room for her specific studying needs already. The reason this tree is special to her, though, makes it sound like office furniture: “this one fits my back perfectly, so I don’t get tired”. There you go, a tree aiding you in the neoliberal attempt to always be busy. But it’s also something about the light and the noise – the tiny world under the tree is different to the rest. (I resist going on about the Unabomber-Reference here – that leads into another forest on another day). Rory is on to something, but sadly she doesn’t leave the tree enough room to be more than a study tree. At least in her words she doesn’t. A part of me (the one that is immersed in the story, temporarily suspending disbelief and so on) wishes she would have put her book down and listened, or smelled or not do anything. Because with attention to the actual tree, she might have learned more about herself through the tree. I am speculating here, but the desire to be close to this tree might point to her own feeling of uprootedness – starting college, living apart from her mother, breaking up with her boyfriend – sitting with a tree might be a start. From this perspective, it does make very much sense, that she can study nowhere else…

If only she would study the tree…I will end here for now (realizing that I don’t have to write the whole thing all at once) and write more about people sitting on and under, even like trees another time. Not without telling you why it is, sometimes, terrifying for me to (have to) lean on a tree. It does take you out of (human) society and potentially makes you part of a different one. Not studying, not being “productive” in a human way – while it doesn’t make you go all “Unabomber” – isolates you from the ways of humans. It can help to concentrate, but it also changes the perspective on how life “usually” works. Most of all, it requires a kind of stillness, that makes me as nervous as it does Rory…

I’ll continue with a famous tree climber (Italo Calvino’s Baron in the Trees) to tell you why.

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.

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.