Talking about Trees in “Dark Times”. Re-Reading Brecht and Rich

One more war makes all the difference, yet, I am not going to write about war or Ukraine or Russia or how many more wars there are. I am still going to write about trees. How can I? How can I talk about trees when the world is burning, when bombs are falling on people, when thousands are forced to flee their homes and try to get where you are, sitting in safety, writing about trees?

What times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds!

Quoting Brecht has become a cliché and still, it is the reference that came to my head immediately when Russia invaded Ukraine and war came so painfully close to my home. I am saying “I” and “my”, because I do not possess and I don’t want to assume the ability to universalize my thoughts. But I do want to connect them to trees and, yes, that means I am reassuring myself what I am doing, writing about trees “in dark times”. This is not an analysis or an interpretation, this is me finding my way to trees through texts, this is what I do, this is the only way I know how.

I don’t want this to be another postcard or a meme with an inspirational quote on it. But I also don’t want this to be an academic text either. This is personal and so is my work. So I invite you to read with me.

To those born after

by Bertolt Brecht (1939)

Truly, I live in dark times!

A trusting word is folly. A smooth brow
A sign of insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrifying news

What times are these, when
A conversation about trees is almost a crime
Because it entails a silence about so many misdeeds!
That man calmly crossing the street
Is he not beyond the reach of his friends
Who are in need?

It is true: I still earn a living
But believe me: that is just good fortune. Nothing
That I do gives me the right to eat my fill.
By chance I am spared. (If my luck runs out
I am lost.)

They say to me: eat and drink! Be glad that you have the means!
But how can I eat and drink when
It is from the starving that I wrest my food and
My glass of water is snatched from the thirsty
Yet I do eat and I drink.

I would like to be wise
In ancient books it says what it means to be wise:
To hold yourself above the strife of the wolrd and to live out
That brief compass without fear
And to make your way without violence
To repay evil with good
Not to fulfil your desires, but to forget them
Such things are accounted wise.
But all of this I cannot do:
Truly I live in dark times!

This is the first of three parts of a poem in which the tree verse is only a tiny part in a much larger attempt to address “those born after”. The German “Nachgeborenen” is a peculiar word that is not really in use (at least to my knowledge) but immediately produces a temporal relationship which you cannot escape. For this first part to be set in the present of the lyrical I generates some friction with the title addressing future beings. It creates a feeling of witnessing someone experiencing the very things they talk about, thus, a feeling of immediacy that has the potential to hurt. And it should. While the second part reflects on the lyrical I’s own involvement in “the dark times” in the (injust) fight for justice and the third ends in a plea to look with forbearance (Nachsicht) on those who succumbed to meanness and hatred in the very attempt “to prepare the land for friendliness”, this first part could as well say “you” where it says “I”. At least, that is what it sounds like to me.

I have read this poem often and wondered about it – there are answers to it and myriads of interpretations – because it neither excuses nor accuses itself or its reader of ignorance, but it complicates the relationship between presence and past by pulling the latter so much closer.

I don’t live in dark times, I want to reply – the sun is shining, the buds on the branches of the tree in front of my window are almost bursting into leaf and bloom, I am warm and sheltered, my family and I are healthy and can expect help should we not be – but I live in dark times, because people around me are dying of a disease that we are close to forgetting, the leafs on the trees are too early because of a warming climate and the warmth I enjoy in my home and my office comes from fossil fuels that finance a war, right now (and they have financed war and injustice for too long) – “Yet I do eat and drink” and I enjoy sunshine and birthday cake and playing with my kid. 

It feels presumptuous to even compare “my” dark times to Brecht’s or, for that matter, to those who have to flee, who starve, who don’t know what tomorrow look like. So, am I the “man calmly crossing the street”? Probably, but so is the I in this poem. Again, there is no excuse, no accusation, but many question marks. So what about the conversation about trees? 

Sure, I am practiced enough in what I do, to connect to the thread that I have laid out in the last paragraph – the tree buds, the gas, global heating – to a by now equally familiar argument, that it would be just as criminal NOT to talk about trees. Look at what is happening to them – where the forests aren’t outright burning, trees are in peril of pests and drought, dangers with which they would be able to deal, would we not continue to burn fossilized beings on an almost unimaginable scale. But how on earth can you even make such an argument? Can you really weigh humans against trees? I’m not going into the moral argument here. I am not a deep ecologist. Instead, I not only “eat and I drink”, I heat my home and I enjoy the pleasures of fossil fuelled life. So why talk about trees if that makes you look even worse? Is it a case of “virtue signalling” (a problematic concept in itself), that is, plain hypocrisy – me filling my blog with thoughts about difficulty that is virtually non-existent? While I hope not, I am not sure. And I shouldn’t be. 

Where I look for answers, or more precisely, for a language to even approximate the feelings of loss and lostness and their blatant a-synchronicity with my daily life, is literature. Poems especially, because they intensify the contradictions without necessarily offering an escape. Sure, there is escapist reading (and I want to stress that I do think that this is an absolutely legitimate form of engaging with text and not with the world for a while), but this is not ,I think, what “a conversation about trees” means. Again, it’s tempting and almost easy, now, to dwell on the “almost” in “almost a crime”, in order to defend conversations about trees. They don’t need defending, though. Because it’s not about the conversations or about the trees. It’s about the ways in which we judge them, conversations and trees and the people clinging to both.

So don’t be mean to people talking about trees, even now? Or don’t stop talking about trees, because they are still in peril? And it’s all connected? I really don’t know which of these things I want to suggest or ask or get on with. All of them, none of them. I don’t know.

To have you listen at all

If talking about trees means you are turning away from the world of humans and human suffering, it would, indeed, be hurtful. There are many claims that most people’s new found (or old) fondness of trees is nothing but puppy love. A caring for nonhumans that masks the carelessness with which we treat other humans. Gerbrand Bakker, for example, accuses forester Peter Wohlleben of fostering just this kind of infatuation and, thus, of diverting attention from the historic and present plight of humans by confusing them with trees. To me, this sounds a lot like what Michael Rothberg calls “competing memory” (2009). That is, the fight for a place in “collective memory” as if it were a case of “real-estate-development” with space for only one kind of attention, only one line of remembrance and, taking it further, only one species deserving of care. 

Put like this, it sounds even more ridiculous to me and, as Leila Essa has shown in her wonderful essay, this kind of thinking leads to even more exclusion (even where it means well). If we treat attention and memory, both forms of care, like scarce resources, we are engaging in a hypocrisy that is even worse than caring for trees instead of humans: after all, our collective track record of saving scarce resources is, to put it mildly, not great. Claiming that there is not enough attention or capacity to remember seems, at least in tendency, like a very convenient excuse.

Yet, it happens. You can turn to trees to turn away from humans. Sometimes you must, but sometimes that hurts trees as much as it neglects humans. In a sort of Midas-effect, everything we turn our attention to, turns to metaphor and symbol, if not to gold as in the myth of king Midas’s eternal punishment. There we go – that makes talking about trees even worse and poetry…no! Because these kinds of conversations, the poetic type that is, know how to grow metaphorical language into something that is both real and not, both about trees and about humans, both eating and not ignoring the hunger of others. 

What Kind of Times are These

by Adrienne Rich (1991)

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

The first time I read it, it seemed to me, Adrienne Rich was providing me with an optimistic call for attention to trees. We do have to talk about trees! People will listen, when we talk about trees! She (or the lyrical I) clearly loves them and the mushrooms with whom the trees grow, as did Brecht by the way. But this is not a poem about the love for trees. At least I am not sure it is (only) about that. There is so much silence entailed in that poem, it almost bursts at the seams. The sadness of that last stanza…”why do I tell you/ anything?” Because you might not listen to me, if I were talking about anything else. Because maybe there is a kernel of truth to the suspicion that we talk about trees to avoid other conversations. 

We can’t. A conversation about trees does, indeed, “entail a silence about so many misdeeds!” But it is getting harder to look past this fact. The silence might be all that is left if we do. So, “to have you listen at all, it’s necessary/ to talk about trees.” This need not be a purely sad statement. If trees retain the ability to make people listen that is a good thing. I am convinced of it. So turning to trees might mean turning away for a moment – but not for longer. The challenge lies in being happy (tree buds, spring!) and aware (global warming, war), in not letting the one outshine the other. We need to the silence to care for the unheard, one might say, if that didn’t sound too much like another damn inspirational quote. So, with the trees, I am heartbroken, yet, I try not to turn away for too long. They can’t and so can’t many humans right now.

This has no conclusion.

——

Brecht’s poem: To those born after, An die Nachgeborenen first published in Svendborger Gedichte (1939) in: Gesammelte Werke, vol. 4, pp. 722-25 (1967), here: The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine. W.W. Norton 2019, pp. 734-736. Another translation as well as the German original in full can be found here.

Adrienne Rich, “What Kind of Times are These” from Collected Poems: 1950-2012, W.W. Norton 2018, p. 291. (The Dark Fields of the Republic 1991-1992).

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Talking about Trees in “Dark Times”. Re-Reading Brecht and Rich," in Ecological Imaginaries, 11/03/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/279.

Sensing, Questioning, Reflecting – Meaning-making in/through Multimodal Ecologies

Guest post by Kirsten Jüdt

It is my pleasure to welcome guest author Kirsten Jüdt. Kirsten is a doctoral researcher in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Conditions of Disruption” at TU Dresden, where she investigates “Contact Scenes” between humans and non-humans, scientists and non-scientists, knowledge-seekers and their ‘objects’ (together with Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz, Jakob Hammerschmidt and me).

I first came across Hanna Tuulikki’s Air falbh leis na h-eòin | Away with the Birds by accident in 2017. In the final phase of my M.A.-studies, I was doing research for my thesis on intermediality and ecological communication. Having a background in comparative literature, my interest always went beyond what we generally perceive as a (literary) text. I was interested in the synergy of different media (film, photography, literary text) to negotiate human-nature-relationships, an interest that reaches beyond an examination of nature and literary text because to me, ecological thinking means to see the arts as and in the environment of social, cultural and political spheres.

Watching Tuulikki’s performance (view the full piece here) for the first time was equally alienating and intriguing: You hear a complex web of non-lexical sounds mimicking bird calls woven together with rhythmic cyclical phrases like hion-dail-a-la-horo-hi-ho-uuuuuuu (movement 2), or pil-il-iu (movement 3) invoking the waves of the sea on the shoreline and the different seabirds in their habitats. Being immersed in this soundscape, I felt like being taken out of my conscious and into the present moment, experiencing my senses as such. These strange voices seemed to carry their own and my humanness to a space ‘in between’ sea and land, immersed in the elements. I felt like I was part of what happened in Tuulikki’s performance, being connected to birds, humans and landscape and couldn’t help but be amazed at the human voice taking on more-than-human qualities asking Can I sing bird or water or landscape?

But while the soundscape took me out of my analytical mindset – a welcome diversion from my usual approach to research objects – it was the editing of the video that caught my eye. You see the Isle of Canna (the original site of the performance), its mountains and water lines, rocks, the sea, flying birds, the audience arriving by ferry and the performers in their oyster-catcher costumes on the shoreline. Dissolving black and white footage of the landscape alternates with the coloured footage of the performers, digital reproductions of a film tear and an overexposure at the end – a bird flying into the sun. These disruptions distanced me from what I was experiencing and brought my attention to the distinction between what was shown (the content) and how it was presented (the form), I became aware I was also immersed in a piece of art.

I knew I was watching a performance, that the voice played a crucial role, that the costumes of the performers suggested a metamorphosis from human to bird, but looking at each of the components alone did not provide an access to what ‘it’ was that I was trying to interact with and extract meaning from. I only had gotten hints at the fact that something was communicated beyond words – by imitation, vocalization and gesture; by integrating body, environment and different media. At first, I thought this was only of interest for performance and theatre studies and too far-fetched for an ecocritical thesis that dealt with literary texts and photo-text relations. I had no idea how to include it in my M.A.-thesis (so I didn’t) but I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. Tuulikki disrupted my expectations in a way that left me questioning how ecologies and media interact, how art produces ecologies and disrupts them at the same time and, not least, what the “nature” of these disruption is. 

How to get from Ecocriticism to multimodal ecologies? 

So, why not pursue this in a PhD-thesis? While Tuulikki’s interest in ecologies and the more-than-human finds expression in alternative approaches to making kin at the intersection of visual arts, contemporary music and contemporary performance, I wondered if there was a connection to genuine fields of literary studies. In fact, Tuulikki draws on Scottish-Gaelic folk tales, songs and poetry that imitate birdsong and depict a close relationship to the landscape. Yet, approaching Tuulikki’s work through an examination of intertextual relations, i.e. ways of constructing meaning through other (preceding) texts still wouldn’t do the whole project justice – yes, literature was one part of it, but I also found that Tuulikki’s performance itself was part of a larger collection of material. 

Screenshot “Away with the Birds” Hanna Tuulikki

Air falbh leis na h-eòin | Away with the Birds is a composition written for ten vocalists and comprises five movements exploring the mimesis of birds in Scottish-Gaelic songs, yet besides the original on-site performance on the Isle of Canna (Inner Hebrides, Scotland) and the 50-minute film I watched, the project also entails a website that functions as a digital interactive reinterpretation of the performance, a map of Canna drawn by Tuulikki herself, a podcast, interviews and other material documenting the collaborative artistic process. The website (fully accessible when I first visited – unfortunately, some of the material has disappeared since then) contains a multitude of content, for example a visualisation of the score in the form of  concrete poetry, drawings of seabirds, archival material of the folksongs, field-recordings of the birds that are imitated in the score, the song lyrics and poems used in the score and extensive audio-commentaries about each movement. Tuulikki here offers a rich experience of the artwork in a broader (cultural) context that goes beyond the parameters of performance and exhibition.

Thus, I discovered more layers of meaning, in fact, most of what I thought to be non-lexical words or mere sound was actually part of the Scottish song tradition, i.e. keening and waulking songs women sang at work, or had its roots in Scottish poetry. In this way, Away with the Birds invites its viewers and listeners to become navigators to explore the panorama of the shore and cliffs, i.e. the specific characteristics of the landscape the performance is located in, learn to hear the hubbub of the birds as a musical chorus and eventually unearth what Tuulikki calls ‘mnemonic topographies’, “the land encoded in the song, the lore embedded in the land”.

Sympoietic Assemblages

I quickly realised that I came into contact with a naturecultural placemaking which is part of a broader cultural context of border-crossings through artistic practices and forms of expression that I want to explore further. Academically speaking, I would describe Tuulikki’s project as what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls an “open-ended gathering” (2017, p. 22) of human and non-human ways of being that emerge in a “complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical” (Haraway 2016, p.58) communicative situation. I would call this sympoietic assemblages (see Tsing 2017; Haraway 2016) because this concept  a) “captures the heterogeneity of living and nonliving beings, as well as the interconnectivity of the various elements of the ecosystem, in both form and content” (Ergin 2017, p.87) and b) “encompasses experiments in community making, ranging from poetry and visual art, literary criticism, and performance to walking, foraging, farming, cooking, and being outside along each other, whether human or other than human, in space and place” (Hume and Osborne 2018, p.2). Thus, sympoietic assemblages open the conversation about various kinds of relations: Between the arts and the environment(s), arts and sciences, humans and other-than-humans, between methods/concepts/ways of thinking in and across the disciplines, between different modes of being that find their (artistic) expression in a variety of forms.

Gathering Research Questions

However, complex combinations of artforms, media, resources, and ways of questioning the human position in nature such as Tuulikki’s directly question my role not only as ‘silent’ recipient of her performance(s), but as a comparatist.

There is no single message to be extracted from a work of art, interpretation becomes an artform itself. And what could be more important to literary and cultural studies than the art of understanding and communication (hermeneutics)? And what could prove more productive to gathering further research questions than incomprehension itself? What then, are the consequences for ecocritical investigations of sympoietic assemblages? While artists like Tuulikki combine scientific and artistic approaches (artistic research), I believe it is also necessary for scholars to cross approaches/methodologies of the different disciplines and develop a more complex, that is to say, multimodal approach.

What I need, then, is a language and methodology that allows me to describe all of this at once or, at least, positions me somewhere neither “objective” nor completely immersed. As of now, I envision myself as entering an ecotone (a transition area of ecosystems) where ecology, multimodality, artistic research, aesthetic educational processes and disruption meet. My questions concern content and form of sympoietic assemblages as well as their naturecultural context(s). How and in which contexts do artists create sympoietic assemblages? In which ways are the traditional disciplinary approaches, when taken alone, inadequate to engage with sympoietic assemblages? What attitude, knowledge and methodology is required to ‘interact’ with any form of multimodal artefact? To what extent do sympoietic assemblages bear the potential of aesthetic educational processes? How do they show different ways of seeing? How can recipients approach and translate aesthetic experiences into meaningful communication?

This field of research questions, then, enables me to explore the ‘in-between’ of disciplines, multispecies entanglements and (artistic) work processes. However, it doesn’t lead to arbitrary method pluralism but rather allows ‘us’ to learn and become ‘fluent’ in different ways of being. In the long run, I believe that multimodal ecologies yield a process that weaves together direct experience, imagination, scientific and artistic ways of knowing (see Brodie, Goodrich and Swanson 2016, p. 14). And, in addition, multimodal ecologies aim at including participants of various social groups and bridge communication gaps between artists, scientists and the public. ‘Reading’ as well as producing – in the sense of seeing, questioning and reflecting on – any form of multimodal artefact, like Tuulikki’s Away with the Birds, becomes a richer experience when considered in a broader context. Approaching urgent questions of the Anthropocene, then, is a matter of collaborative meaning-making and extracting compelling narratives for guiding cultural behaviour (see Brodie, Goodrich and Swanson 2016, p.11).

Kirsten Jüdt is a doctoral researcher at TU Dresden where she works in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption”. She studied Comparative Literature and English/American Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany) and English Literature & Drama Studies at Bath Spa University (England). She received her M.A. from Ruhr-University Bochum in 2020 with a thesis comparing intermediality and ecological communication in the works of Kathleen Jamie and Esther Kinsky. 

The research project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption” is part of the Excellence Measure “Disruption and Societal Change” at TU Dresden (TUDiSC) and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Freestate of Saxony under the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder.

——–

Ergin, Meliz. The Ecopoetics of Entanglement in Contemporary Turkish and American Literatures. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

Goodrich, Charles. “Entries into the Forest“. Forest Under Story. Creative Inquiry in an Old-growth Forest, edited by Nathaniel Brodie et.al., Ruth Kirk Book Fund, 2016, pp. 5–14.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

Hume, Angela, und Gillian Osborne (eds.). Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field. University of Iowa Press, 2018.

Lilley, Deborah. “Kathleen Jamie: Rethinking the Externality and Idealisation of Nature“. Green Letters, Bd. 17, Nr. 1, Februar 2013, S. 16–26. doi: 10.1080/14688417.2012.750841.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Cite this article as: Kirsten Jüdt, "Sensing, Questioning, Reflecting – Meaning-making in/through Multimodal Ecologies," in Ecological Imaginaries, 23/02/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/215.

Melting Laboratories, or: Ecocritical Readings of Icy Landscapes

Guest Post by Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz

It is my pleasure to welcome guest author Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz. Svenja is a doctoral researcher in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Conditions of Disruption” at TU Dresden, where she investigates “Contact Scenes” between humans and non-humans, scientists and non-scientists, knowledge-seekers and their ‘objects’ (together with Kirsten Jüdt, Jakob Hammerschmidt and me).

Ice and Ecocriticisms

Ice is at the forefront of global debates about climate change. Rising temperatures cause ice to melt and melting ice causes temperatures to rise even further. The consequences of these processes are disastrous on every scale: the collapse of the gulf stream, rising sea levels, the loss of habitats for numerous species, droughts and hunger, erosion. Melting ice is the imagery that is used whenever there is a discussion about climate change. Dramatic pictures of ice shields with a single polar bear on them circulate through tabloids and social media; in documentaries such as the BBC’S Planet Earth, we see time lapses of Arctic ice, that, like lungs, breathes by retreating in summer and expanding in winter, thereby providing the planet with processes that are vital for the survival of life. Ice is ubiquitous in environmental discourses whenever the need arises to show something that is hard to see in more temperate (or tropical) climates. It serves as hard, but disappearing proof. The act of disappearing symbolizes such a convincing image for change, that it promises to bring (hard) science into contact with everyday life and convince even those, who deny what is so clearly visible.

Yet, despite the fact that almost every debate on climate change at least mentions ice, its full potential in discourses in ecocriticism is yet to unfold. There is a rising interest in ice and its disappearance, as books ranging from Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice, Andri  Snær Magnason’s On Time and Water, or, in literary studies, Sabine Frost’s Whiteout show, yet in comparison with literary texts and scholarships on trees, animals and other “wild things”, ice ranges at the fringes of public and academic interest. The reasons why ice does not receive the same attention as other ‘natural’ beings or spaces are as manifold as ice itself, but, at this point, remain somewhat speculative. It might be that landscapes as extreme as Arctica and Antarctica are way too hostile for humans to associate ideas of reconnecting with nature, which is one of the focal points of early ecocriticism. They often remain tied to stories of survival and dominance and rarely to those of coexistence. It might be that ice is a landscape that is too remote, too far removed from everyday life for most people to be thought of as a medium for cultivating relationships to non-human nature – at least from a western point of view; indigenous groups such as Sámi and Inuit show otherwise. 

Ice is hard to grasp, literally as well as cognitively: It is the frozen state of water, but when it melts, it turns into a different state, and the description of being solid and frozen not longer fits. A fact as simple as that brings forth a number of complex problems for scientists and literary scholars alike. Established ecocritical premises, viewpoints and modes of analysis can fall short when confronted with icy landscapes: Frozen landscapea do not seem like spaces in which an individual person can understand that they are part of an ecosystem; the barrenness hardly suggests a life for people in reciprocity with the land. The extreme cold suggests hostility and does not seem like a space that offers refuge or a safe haven as a familiar forest might. Ice is dynamic, it tells different stories compared to mountains or trees in spring. Where to place humans in such a landscape? How to narrate and depict the instability of ice? Not only the ice itself challenges analysis and criticism, the icy environment deprives humans of their senses, their ability to distinguish individual ‘things’ and thus, treat them as such. Yet, ice-texts hold a great potential for ecocritical readings: They produce critical nature relations and allow us to re-evaluate human-nature-connections. Polar ice, in the extra-textual reality often serves as a laboratory for science on global warming, for military tests and a still largely untouched field for resource extraction. Yet, it can also become a laboratory for ecocriticism. Ice-texts challenge us to think about coexisting with threatened nature, but even more so with threatening nature. Icy landscapes can be visited, enjoyed, experienced if one is either a inhabitant of the Arctic circle or wealthy enough to afford a touristic trip. Storytelling, then, provides a form of access, that in some respects is not just “second hand” but provides information and context that is not even available to those who have “been there”. Herein lies another challenge and potential of ice: it questions notions of authenticity on a fundamental level.  

Harley D. Nygren – NOAA At The Ends of the Earth CollectionImage ID: corp1014 ([1]), , https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22083

Ice intensifies questions that are important for environmental storytelling in general – it isolates (like a laboratory setting) problems that are not necessarily unique to “ice” but to human-nature-relationships under the conditions of change: How, then, does one narrate a landscape that could disappear without a visible trace, that is dynamic in spreading, retreating, melting, growing? Are they even “landscapes” (with all the cultural baggage this term implies) or are they seascapes, waterscapes, something entirely different and does it even matter what you call them? How can you read ice, whether as a reader, as an ecocritic or as a scientist?

Ice is exceptional in its role and potential in ecocriticism, both as a precarious archive and as a producer of human-environment-relationships. Moreover, polar ice presents a canvas for the literary imagination, filling the vast amounts of white with stories on human survival from the age of polar explorers. It is a refuge for all kinds of creatures such as Frankenstein’s monster disappearing into the frozen wilderness, home and residence for Lovecraft’s horrible tentacle-headed Cthulhu, or polar worms being considered for biochemical weapons in Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. It is romantically charged with the sublime, the awe-inspiring. And it is part of a history of domination, turning Arctic and Antarctic poles into prizes in a long-ongoing scramble for nationalist and economic supremacy; polar ice is embedded in discourses of post- and neocolonial environmental protection and resource extraction that marginalizes the voices of the people that live there. Yet, these voices are not necessarily lost and reading ice through an ecocritical lense has the potential to shift the focus from tales of domineering and loss to coexistence and creativity. Therein lies the potential to highlight agencies beyond humans.

Frozen Agencies

In Marie Darrieussecq’s novel White (2003) ice does not only fulfill the role of providing the background for a plot that takes place in the precarious and extreme landscapes of the Antarctic. Much more than that, the polar ice brings forth its own agenda in the novel. It refuses to be analyzed by scientists, it refuses to be dominated by humans, it refuses to by claimed by explorers. Instead, it provides the characters in the novel as well as the readers with challenges – to be grasped, understood and categorized. This is due in part to not only the barren and extreme landscape, but also in part of the narrators, spectral beings that just like the ice, refuse to be categorized and analyzed, are fluid in their shape and appear visible, or rather, readable only to the reader, whether as ghosts of former polar explorers such as Amundsen or Scott. Edmée Blanco, the protagonist of Darrieussecq’s novel, is a telecommunications scientist who has to decide between two different scientific missions to participate in; one of them leading to Mars, the other to Antarctica. Blanco, whose telling name hints almost painfully obvious at the title of the novel, chooses Antarctica and goes on a journey to help establish a European scientific base at the south pole. As the title of the novel suggests, she is met with endless white surrounding her. As ecocritics, however, we can also take the white as a metaphor for the voids that are yet to fill when it comes to Ice-ecocriticism.

White : Darrieussecq, Marie: Amazon.de: Bücher

Looking at the Antarctic ice from a purely scientific point of view in White (it being as far removed from human existence as different planets like Mars), sets up expectations for (the) matter, presents it as an object to be discovered and analyzed based on rational, scientific methods and viewpoints. However, the spectral beings do their best to sabotage the mission and provide distractions for the scientists. Invisible and inaudible to them, they declare themselves to be like spiders, swinging on their thoughts and feeding on emotions – which, in the extremity of the surrounding hostile landscape provide a feast for them. As ungraspable as the ice itself, they provide a way to narrate about humans in the non-human landscape: in their spectraliltiy, fluidity, insgraspability, they form an in-between between the ice and the humans. On the first page, they tell the reader that the area is lonely and empty, and their awareness of their in-between state since there is, “[no] one left in a radius of four thousand kilometers, except for three Russians who are hibernating in the Vostok base. And us, of course, but how can we be counted?” (Darrieussecq, White, 3). Donna Haraway proposes that “It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledge knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds”( Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 35).

The spectral beings can be read as fictional expressions of this in taking a de-centered position that puts neither humans nor nature at the center but observes them in interaction with another. As the reader follows the protagonist Edmée Blanco going south, the spectral narrators present the ice as indifferent and independent to humanity as possible, when the first iceberg appears:

 “It is a scout, a sentinel. A warning. Something enormously white. And imagine how cold it must be, in the centre. It is not something that warms up the deeper you go, like the Earth, or bodies. And behind it, the impassive continent. You can imagine that if you went around the iceberg (how long? an hour’s yoyage? a day?) there would be the hidden side of the moon, signs that have been left there, an intention. But this has nothing to do with humans. It can do without them. Ice, that’s all there is to it. No meadows after the thaw, or trees, or streams, or even familiar deserts, with sand, scrub, a dried river bed.” (Darrieussecq, White, 17) [Emphasis added S.E.-K.]

Ice, that’s all there is to it, it has nothing to do with humans – and yet, humans and their impacts aren’t absent from the icy landscapes at all. Scientific proof for the connections of humans and the ice can be found in abundance. Even in the Antarctic, which, in Darrieussecq’s novel, remains unaffected by the discourses on climate change, is not an impassive continent that is as far removed from everyday existence as outer space. However, even by the wordings “It can do without them”, the ice is presented as independent of humans, as a place that doesn’t exist to be easily visited, or narrated. As the scientific mission reaches the southernmost continent, the reader is told: 

“This is a place to which visiting humans have given very few names. Not many come here, and none stay (alive, that is); and those who have kept a diary did so to recount their conquest, an exploit, or to say farewell to their loved ones with their frost-bitten fingers. Later, those who will stay here for scientific, political or military reasons will speak international pidgin English and will content themselves with snow, ice and white or hazard a desert and flat, or when effusive solitude. And when they are alone, quite alone in their minds, alone with their mother tongues, why would they describe anything?” (Darrieussecq, White, 61) [Emphasis in the original]. 

Only few visit the ice, thus direct experience of the matter (literally) is rare for humans. Those who do visit – for scientific, military and/or political reasons – are neither equipped to survive nor are they able in their records to account for how the ice affects humans (and vice versa). The oppositions (ice/humans; nature/culture) remain fixed and thus overshadow any kind of interaction. The environment seems so hostile that it deprives humans of their very human capacity to even utter the experience of the ice, language loss seems to turn the humans into parts of the environment instead of turning the environment into a background for them. 

Yet, even in White, the rational scientists cannot escape their humanity which operates not only on rational, but also on emotional, poetical, and philosophical motifs. They are in need of more words than the snippets of pidgin English exchanged in the novel, and they do feel the urge to describe their icy environments – and yet, they lack the words, the language to do so. As they drill holes into the frozen ground and pull the ice cores to the surface, they are reminded of their humanity, as Peter Thompson, once of the engineers in the novel exemplifies: “And these long tubes of raw, blue, deep-frozen time which the glaciologists are extracting, millimetre by millimetre, carefully clutched in their gloves, make Peter philosophical.” (Darrieussecq, White, 89) This works because the cores and their time scales put a single human life in a different perspective and challenge familiar relations and relationships. As Nancy Campbell puts it, “Human beings, lodged on Earth’s thin crust, must drill deep or soar high to understand their environment. Knowledge comes from far beneath our feet, from distant outer space.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 25). This knowledge is hidden in the ice and not necessarily easy to access even if you suspect it is there. The ice, in the novel White and outside of it, gains meaning or is viewed as a storage for knowledge because humans look for understanding of themselves in their surroundings and put their own perspective and agenda onto the frozen matter. The ice itself, the frozen matter, merely (still) exists, and “[i]t is there for no one, just like the snow, the ice, the lakes in the depths and the bedrock beneath them, like the sky and the tiny hint of wind and empty space. It is expecting nothing. It wants nothing. It is flat, cold and indifferent.” (Darrieussecq, White, 64)

But the polar ice is not flat, cold and indifferent to the humans because it brings them their physical and psychological extremes. The seemingly barren, empty landscape reflects the sun multiple times, polar ecosystems, though everything but lifeless, contradict (European) expectations of ‘natural environments’ that were developed with trees and lakes, meadows and fields in sight.  . The protagonist of Darrieussecq’s novel has to grapple with these extreme conditions: “[…] Edmée Blanco stares at the five suns, and her human brain is the sole living thing, messy and living, in all that array of spheres and crystals.” (Darrieussecq, White, 63). Not only does this landscape provide extreme physical conditions that cause the human senses and perceptions to be warped, it also comes with another predicament that makes life for humans difficult: Extreme loneliness. Places as hostile and as far removed from urban centers and settlements seem to be hardly reconciled with ideas of the movement of ecocriticism, to foster a reconnect to nature.

However, they are there. The polar ice regions might be indifferent, but they are affected and impacted by humans, changed by global warming. The scientific interest in this frozen matter is huge, for research on climate change, for research in geology and biology, for military reasons and after all, for capitalist regions, since there are vast amounts of natural resources hidden underneath the ice; gasses and fossil fuels. However, reading the frozen mattera through an ecocritical lens bears much more potential than just an analysis of Cli-Fi novels that deal with current political development, but allows to develop a self-critical ecocriticism in re-assessing ecocritical perspectives. 

Ice-Ecocriticism

In the novel White, going to Antarctica is set to be as likely as going to space. Already in 2021, billionaires like Elon Musk launch their own rockets and announce “affordable” space travel in the near future. If you can leave earth, how far away can the end of the world be? At the same time, accelerated global heating moves polar ice closer because it becomes obvious how closely connected global ecosystems are… Reading ice ecocritically also means to find ways for how humans inscribe meaning into indifferent matter. Ice, as the abundance of ice texts shows, is charged emotionally and imaginatively, it is a reservoir for myths and mythologies across epochs and cultures. In a way, thus, ice becomes an archive for human activity both in a scientific and cultural sense. It shows how theories such as the nature-culture-distinction no longer hold (frozen) water. Even the scientists in White are amazed by the possibilities of ice:

“’You can’t imagine what can be found in the snow. Ten metres down, the smoke from the start of the industrial revolution. At three metres, the ash of the Solfatara. Stick your arm in up to your elbow, and you’ll pick up the remains of the World Trade Center. But if you dug much deeper, deeper even than our glaciologists, then you’d discover prehistoric climates, the evaporation of the primitive oceans and the scents of the forests that covered Gondwanaland!’” (Darrieussecq, White, 99)

Ice cores, drilled into the Antarctic and Arctic landscapes show remains of events that were important for humanity. This works only because we ascribe meaning to them, because we declare them to be culturally significant, we turn them into archives for human history. Ecocriticism, here, has the potential to parallelize the correlation between science and the production of knowledge with its counterpart in literature.  In the era of the Anthropocene, we take the focus away from the indifference of the ice, its mere existence, and turn it into a space that holds the evidence of our modern existence, as Nancy Campbell shows in the Library of Ice: “The polar ice is the first archive, a compressed narrative of all time in a language humans have just begun to learn. Only a few people are fluent: we rely on scientists to read the alphabet of elements and isotopes for us.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 26)

File:K.A.Colorado Ice Core Sculptures Series.jpg
K.A. Colorado’s proprietary series of Ice Core Sculptures include this group portraying climate change and ocean health, created for NOAA for their permanent collection. Photo taken in 2015 at the artist’s studio. M.R.Tahan.books, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What happens to those archives when they disappear? Ice does not only confront ecocritics with questions of how it can be read, but more interestingly how it can be narrated and grasped. In works of creative non-fiction such as Campbell’s, it is understood as a conservation of all traces of human existence, providing glimpses into the circumstances of living in the present and living in the past. But what happens when such a conservatory disappears? What happens with the contents stored in this archive? And who is able to talk about this ice? And who listens? The ice, read as an archive, provides a canvas for ecocritical possibilities that blurs boundaries, it is mesmerizing. Rational, scientific language is not enough to unveil the sublime, the mundane, and the archival potential of the ice:

“These giant icicles are witnesses to global climate and its history. Within them is evidence of past temperature, the gas composition of the lower atmosphere, solar variability, ocean volume, volcanic eruptions, rainfall, the extent of deserts and forest fires. Under the magnifying glass the cross-sections of the core glow like magic lantern slides. Summer and winter snowfall have an entirely different appearance: the coarse-grained summer hoar is covered with a fine-grained layer, densely packed by the winter winds. This pairing is known by scientists as the ‘depth hoar/wind slab couplet’. It is a surprisingly poetic term, which calls to mind the neat closing lines of a sonnet. The couplet forms an annual marker that – like the growth rings of trees – can be counted to date the core.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 25)

Ice helps us to understand that there is no one single approach to ecocriticism, in fact that there is no ecocriticism but multiple ecocriticisms that bring humanities and sciences together, not in a binary model but as a layered, cylindrical core, describing hard facts  in poetic terms that provide glimpses into human existence in a time of crisis. Ice seems to be non-graspable, non-narratable – it’s just there. Ice-ecocriticism weaves together these multiple strands to unveil meaning or knowledge from the ice for non-experts since “[t]his knowledge can’t be separated from the words in which it is expressed. But, like the ice, the reach of some languages is diminishing, to the extent that the state of the language may be of as much concern as the ecosystem it describes.” (Campbell, Library of Ice, 116) The ways to speak of ice are manifold – whether as Creative Non-Fiction in The Library of Ice, or in Cli-Fi novels such as White. The ways to read it ecocritically are just as diverse. And just as urgent.

Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz is a doctoral researcher at TU Dresden where she works in the interdisciplinary project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption”. She studied Comparative Literature and English/American Studies at Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany), Limerick (Ireland) and University of Oklahoma (USA). She received her M.A. in 2021 from Ruhr-University Bochum with a thesis comparing French, German and US-American Climate-Fiction (Cli-Fi).

The research project “Disrupt!Research. Dynamic Collaboration under the Condition of Disruption” is part of the Excellence Measure “Disruption and Societal Change” at TU Dresden (TUDiSC) and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the Freestate of Saxony under the Excellence Strategy of the Federal Government and the Länder.

Donna Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.

Marie Darrieussecq: White. Translated by Ian Monk, Faber and Faber, 2005.

Nancy Campbell: The Library of Ice. Readings from a Cold Climate, Scribner, 2018. 

Cite this article as: Svenja Engelmann-Kewitz, "Melting Laboratories, or: Ecocritical Readings of Icy Landscapes," in Ecological Imaginaries, 10/02/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/155.

Idyllic Abandonment and the Hope for Redemption

Some thoughts on Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment and the pastoral genre

Once more, I have Twitter to thank for the recommendation to read Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. Life in the Post-Human Landscape (2021) (@wolfseule this time)! I devoured it last summer and it hasn’t left my mind since. In this book, Flyn not only reports her encounters with abandoned spaces and people (human and nonhuman), she does so in a way that confronts the still prevailing stereotypes of human-nature-relationships head on. This is not a book about saving the world, but about letting it be.

Places like Bikini Atoll and Chernobyl and the Lothian bings show us that the absence of man is often all the stimulus required to start the resurrection. Time is, after all, the great healer. The question is: how long does it need? Then: how long have we got?

Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (S.239).

Her accounts of Chernobyl and the buffer zone in Cyprus as well as the reports from the volcanic exclusion zone in Montserrat are so well written that, as @wolfseule put it, you almost become suspicious of the seductive narrative. How, you ask yourself, can someone write so beautifully about places that are wrecked beyond recognition, beyond reproach? How are you supposed to follow the narratives of redemption without feeling the utter despair of being part of the culture that destroyed the sites in the first place? Do you even still know what that means – destroyed vs. intact, beautiful vs. ruined?

No, you don’t and that makes Islands of Abandonment so intriguing. This might very well be a prime example of a third nature poetics. That is, a way of writing and story-telling that, like its ‘subject’, refuses neat categorization and, instead, reaches out in uncanny ways. Flyn’s text reflects and envisions a poetics that is neither purely textual nor material but instead connects them in a sort of post-apocalyptic poiesis. So much for my opinion of the book – of course, there are things that I will criticize (that’s my job), but this is a magnificent book and it has sucked me in like no other in the past year. Still, it left me wondering about practices of abandonment and their pastoral (latin) or idyllic (greek) qualities. If only to get a little closer to my unease regarding Flyn’s concluding optimism, I’ll attempt to unravel some of these threads here.

Apocalypse or pastoral; or does it even matter?

Despite decades of critique, it seems that “pastoral” and “apocalypse” remain the dominant modes of ecological storytelling and, possibly worse, the interpretation of environmental history. Greg Garrard summarizes the critique in Ecocriticism (2004) and identifies what they have in common: both are ways to assert human dominance over nonhuman nature by means of (narrative) pervasion. According to Garrard, the prevalent relationship in the pastoral is that of the pathetic fallacy (Garrard 2004, 36), the recognition of one’s own feelings in the ‘behavior’ of one’s environment – you know, when a character is brokenhearted and it starts raining, when trees lean toward people to console them, any reflection of human feeling in nonhuman nature. John Ruskin, the art critic who coined the term in 1856, used it to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nature poetry or linguistic imagery of nature. He is, to put it mildly, not a fan of the Romantics and their tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman nature and he does have a point. Idealizing nature, especially by means of anthropomorphizing nonhuman behavior, always runs the risk of eradicating nonhuman nature altogether. Whether that is really what happens in the pastoral, a genre that dates back to the ancient Greeks, and whether it is fair to throw out Vergil with Woodsworth (or whether they should be thrown out at all) is a debate for another time. But what strikes me is that the risk of eradicating nonhuman nature precisely by projecting humans onto it can be read as the literary equivalent of an apocalypse. After all, there is no ‘nature’ left in both cases.

Bear with me, I am aware that there is a stark difference between an idyll (and especially its 21st century incarnations – think Instagram and suburban backyards) and an apocalypse (think Mad Max), but I want to point out the structural similarities. The secularized apocalypse of the modern period, that is, the end of the world without hope for a metaphysical afterlife, is one of the major ideas to fuel the very processes that now threaten to make the apocalypse a reality (cf. Horn 2018). Yet the pastoral as an ideal is nearly as dangerous because it limits ideas of nature to a very narrow set of images. An example: while national parks act as (often no doubt necessary) refuges for vegetal and animal wildlife, they threaten to exclude humans. Mostly, you guessed it, humans that are not white, male and affluent. But it also hinders nature to do what nature does by preserving a state that a limited group of historically and culturally situated humans deem ‘pristine’. It stops being ‘nature’ right the second when you try to pin it down as such. Any concept of purity produces shadows which might subvert the whole effort. So is it all the same in the end? Does it matter whether you speak ‘of’ nature in terms of pastoral or apocalypse? Or is speaking ‘of” nature the actual problem? From the vantage point of the 21st century it becomes obvious, that the risk to confuse the two is real:

When the early European settlers of America walked out into what seemed a vast and pristine wilderness, thinly peopled, it seemed to them to be an empty place, God-willed, ready to be claimed. They cast themselves in heroic roles, struggling against a wild and untameable nature. And even today, in popular culture, a vision of the primordial wilderness – the unsullied Eden – that preceded modern America persists: a place where deer sprang nimbly through the tall grass, and darted through endless forest. But what has grown increasingly clear is that much of this ‘forest primeval’ must have been relatively recently regenerated. The Arcadian dreamscape celebrated by the colonial pioneers was, in fact, a post-apocalyptic one. (Flyn, 68)

In this passage, Flyn interweaves not only pastoral (Arcadia is the mythical site of the pastoral/idyllic) and apocalypse, but also imaginary and material landscape. In her narrative (and hers is exemplary in that respect) text and material world are closely entangled. The settlers project their idea of Arcadia onto the land they occupy while being (conveniently) ignorant of the reason why the land they “find” is so empty. This is, pastoral imagination serves the purpose of universalizing an a-historical view of the world. This is precisely what pastoral does (at least more often than not) and why ecocritics like Greg Garrard criticize it: because the pastoral is so closely connected to an idea of time-lessness as an idea of being away from history (i.e. the hustle of everyday life, which, for most of history, meant war, famine, disease). To be clear, we are still talking about a literary mode, or, genre – but it should have become clear that “genre”, here, means more than a container for certain motifs and plots. Genre is also (I’d even go so far as to say first and foremost) a set of devices which puts things in motion, or – like the pastoral – seems to have the opposite effect. For my reading that means, genre is never the result of an interpretation or a mere category for texts (i.e. this and that text “belongs” to this or that genre) but something that shifts and changes within a text and in conversations between texts. So, when I look at texts and genre, rather than organizing them by genre, I look at what genre does in or for them. And this is particularly important, when the genre comes with as much cultural, moral and historical baggage as pastoral.

So what does it do? So far I have tried to show that pastoral works almost like a time-out. The idyll provides momentary relief from the outside world – a space within which time and history do not matter. But only for a while. Virgil’s Eclogues, for example, make it very clear that resources are scarce and can only support so many shepherds who have to leave the shadows of the trees at night. What makes the pastoral potentially dangerous, then, is forgetting to leave. That is, denying the (human) history of a space and, thus, naturalizing a situation that is in itself the product of history. This is not a new insight. Far from it: Already in 1964, Americanist Leo Marx looked at the disruption of the pastoral myth of the United States, environmental historian Donald Worster has written extensively on the harmful identification of the “New World” as a paradise (for the colonizers and settlers that is…). This idea is too complex to unravel here, but note that it can be understood as a spatial realization of something that was expected after the end. And I mean THE END, that is the promised lands fell together with the kindom of the heavens promised after the apocalypse (again, only to a lucky – or pious – few…). No wonder, everyone got so excited. This kind of eschatological perspective on an actual space that was at the same time merged with ancient ideas of a-historical spaces is still at work. At the very least it is in cultural criticism, scholarship and pop culture.  

Whether or not they are spatially or temporally organized – the paradise within the wasteland or the redemption after judgement day – contrasting a desirable and peaceful vision of human-nature relationships (pastoral) with one in which everything has gone awry (apocalypse) is still a go-to way to make an argument or paint a picture (figuratively as well as literally). However, I do nurture the suspicion that the main reason we (literary scholars, that is) only keep those opposites to have an excuse to present ourselves as smart enough to undermine them. But then again, they do help to sort through things and this is what Cal Flyn does in order to develop a kind of ecological reading that might translate into both ecological story-telling or writing and, possibly, action.

Writing after the End

In the manner of post-human and post-apocalyptic writing, Flyn moves well beyond lamenting the loss of a supposedly pristine nature and looks instead for “life in the ruins” (Tsing). She does so, because there is no way around the fact that humans have transformed the earth: 

We have written ourselves into the DNA of this planet, laced human history into the very earth. Every environment bears a palimpsest of its past. Every woodland is a memoir made of leaves and microbes that catalogue its ‘ecological memory’. We can learn, if we want, to read it – to observe in the world around us the story of how it came to be. (Flyn, 13)

This is far from the idyllic violence she observes in the above quote on settlers confusing a post-apocalyptic landscape with Arcadia. That there is no nature (left) is the premise of Flyn’s book. At least if “nature” is identical with the idea of ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’ wilderness devoid of humans. Well, if that was ever even conceivable, it’s well beyond reach in the present. But Flyn goes further. She looks at the places which have been wrecked beyond belief. The culprit of this wreckage is with very few exceptions: human beings. Mining dumps, sites of nuclear disaster, toxic harbors, forests invaded by non-native plants and ruined cities – the places Flyn visits and so vividly describes are the opposites of the idyllic photographs in travel advertising and instagrammable encounters with beautiful nature. Yet, the two have more in common than you might think:

And, as with other forms of aestheticism, it can be taught. To come into an abandoned mine, or spoil heap or quarry or car park or oil terminal, and see it for the natural wonderland it has become is, I admit, a difficult ask. But in these environmentally straitened days, it is a taste worth cultivating. (29)

This is such a modern thing to say. I adore the sentiment personally (you should have seen me on Christmas, arguing with my grandmother about the beauty of weeds – she was not convinced!). At the same time I want to acknowledge, that not only are ruins and wrecked places already highly aestheticized (#lostplaces), the habit to cultivate this particular taste is as Romantic as it gets. As in: the Romantics (great connaisseurs of the pastoral, too, by the way) were the original ruin-appreciation club. Of course, with ‘vanitas’ and the discovery of Roman ruins (in Rome) as an inspiration and reminder of either the classics or of the fragility of life and (high) culture) the fascination with ruins reaches back further, but the Romantics really turned it into a trend.

Sure, the kind of ruination Flyn explores is different from the romantic longing for bygone times insofar as the capacity to destroy landscapes, soils and atmosphere is far greater than it was in the still mostly pre-industrialized world of the early and mid-19th century. Yet, the admiration for plants and other nonhuman life to prevail and re-colonize the residue of human civilization is closer to today’s taste for destruction. 

Caspar David Friedrich: Ruine Eldena mit Begräbnis (Der Friedhof bei der Kirchruine). After 1801.
https://skd-online-collection.skd.museum/Details/Index/910647

As the Romantic period (especially in Germany) is once again used as a scapegoat for each and every esoteric failure of the present, I want to make sure that I am clear here: Re-activating Romantic sentiments and perspectives, or, as German Poet Marion Poschmann puts it “re-romanticizing” the world, is not automatically a bad thing. In fact, many ‘nature writers’ argue it is necessary and if it is, there is not much left that the human-stained environments we are left with (Poschmann’s example are street trees). Nevertheless, it makes sense to be wary of aestheticism – and Cal Flyn makes it clear in many instances that it is not the goal of her book to justify or propel the destruction of natural environments. Rather, she looks at “islands of abandonment” as “forbidden experiments […] – though conducted unwittingly, they nevertheless offer insights into processes too immoral to otherwise induce: nuclear meltdown, toxic contamination, stalemate warfare, political and social collapse (Flyn, 237-238).

 In other words, the (relatively) confined spaces of these islands offer glimpses into a possible future on an even larger scale. Again, Flyn activates a genuinely modern trope: the “future as catastrophe.” Literary scholar Eva Horn has argued that this is a way for modern humans to imagine themselves in the future perfect (in German “Futur II”) in order to assess the present. By imagining stand-ins like the “last man on earth” in catastrophic or even post-apocalyptic futures, it becomes possible to connect one’s present self (and society) to a future which has to live with the consequences of present decisions. If there is anyone left, that is. 

But there is almost always someone left, if not necessarily human. Island of Abandonment tells truly amazing stories of plants and microorganisms transforming toxic waste dumps to livable spaces, of forests recovering almost the minute humans leave them alone (or lets say, a minute in tree time). Flyn is smart enough to include criticism of her optimism – doesn’t she devalue the work of conservationists and the like? 

To me, these narratives of redemption offer something different: they are torches burning in a darkened landscape, beacons of hope in a world that sometimes feels bereft of it. They remind us of the power inherent in the world around us. And they are studies, too, of the benefits of sometimes surrendering control. We have a tendency to roll up our sleeves, to ‘get involved’ in natural processes – often on the basis that sites have been impacted by humans in the past: that it is ‘our responsibility’ to undo the damage wreaked by our kind. But these sites remind us of the value of holding off from some of our most invasive, interventionist methods of conservation (238).

Flyns islands work similarly. However, they take up the curious spatio-temporal position of the idyll. They are at once part of the present and the future, they are part of the world and not and – like in the classical idylls – she cannot stay in them. With the notable exception of Detroit, Michigan, the places she visits are too toxic or otherwise rendered unlivable (for humans). Consequently, her optimistic perspective is a projection, too. The proposal is intriguing, if maybe suspiciously so: Let it go! Don’t roll up your sleeves and get to work – the result of human interventions speak for themselves. But what does “abandonment” mean, then, can or should we really just let go? What does that even mean?

Abandonment done right

To be honest, the idea of “letting go” freaks me out, yet, when it comes to nature, I am curiously intrigued by things running wild. Even this prompts me to formulate yet another clarification – during the pandemic, letting things run wild, is most often a convenient excuse to do nothing and avoid responsibility – this is not what I mean. And I don’t think it would make sense in terms of ecologically responsible behavior. But I agree with Flyn. If you watch what happens to, say, an abandoned lot, it is difficult not to be amazed at the speed with which it grows into a wilderness. It might not contain the plants you deem desirable, that is, it will be full of ‘weeds’, but why not?

https://www.instagram.com/p/CMiKolNL_7P/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Visiting Chernobyl, Flyn reflects on the value of abandonment. Once you look past the displaced people (and it does need some astheticizing to do so), what you see is a wildnerness like no other. James Lovelock, the earth systems scientist who coined the Gaia-hypothesis together with Lynn Margulis, apparently thinks we should cherish the fact that we have sites like this.

But Lovelock went further still: we might choose to contaminate land, thus creating exclusion zones voluntarily, as a perverse method of protection. Perhaps, he mused, ‘small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers’ (Flyn 78).

But Lovelock’s idea of intentional abandonment is ignorant of many of the effects nuclear contamination has on the environment. Flyn, on the other hand, is very aware of the fact, that what she sees is only a fraction of what goes on:

What we don’t see are the stillborn, the stunted, the mutants that have died and been eaten before they have ever been observed. And even when we can find some – the double-headed pines I come across at Yanov, their torsos twisted, and limbs braced against each other, conjoined twins at war with their siblings – those individuals don’t tell us much (80).

If not in so many words, Flyn acknowledges that abandoning is a choice, too. Not rolling up your sleeves requires a decision, too. Doing nothing and doing something, then, lie very close together. But they are not the same. There are “various flavours of abandonment” (92) to which one can become accustomed and it is this becoming accustomed to abandonment and/or surrender that might be the point. Letting go, that is, is a form of care. Knowing when you hold someone back by intervening, is an important step not only in human relationships. But this is a difficult task, because we are so used to performing control. “At what point must we learn to let go, and watch the repercussions of our past actions spin out into the void, and give the Earth its head to respond and adapt in the ways only it knows how?” (Flyn 169)

Maybe it is time to actually assume the role of “stewards of the earth” – but not in the Spaceship Earth kind of way of the late 1960s, not as a figure in control, but as someone who cares enough to let go. This sounds almost too sweet, but would you know how to clean up a toxic waste dump? Probably not, but plants do, and bacteria do and the best thing we can do is to let them. In my view, this is where it really becomes idyllic. Not because it is too good to be true (it might be), but because it imagines a human-nature-relationship that is build on coexistence and companionship rather than intervention, control and exploitation. You enjoy the fruits, the shadow of the trees, the honey and the buzzing bees, but you leave. None of this is yours. At least, this is my proposal to read this post-human narrative of redemption in a way that is sympathetic to Flyn’s approach. What I cannot to is shake off the feeling that ‘nature’ might indeed be better off without us. Not the most idyllic ending in the conventional sense, but one that takes the genre seriously.

P.s.: It was the research network “Politiken der Idylle” that got me into reading and thinking about idylls and the pastoral. I was surprised how complex and nuanced especially Virgil’s Eclogues are in terms of environmental reflexivity – so thanks for introducing me to these texts.
If you read German, you might be interested in the collection “Paradigmen des Idyllischen” that I edited together with Nils Jablonski. Do make sure to check out the cover..

 ___

Aleida Assmann: Cultural Memory and Western Civilization. Arts of Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Cal Flyn. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape (S.169). HarperCollins Publishers 2021.

Eva Horn: The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age (transl. by Valentine A. Pakis). New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Marion Poschmann: Laubwerk, Berlin: Verbrecher Verlag 2021.

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Idyllic Abandonment and the Hope for Redemption," in Ecological Imaginaries, 26/01/2022, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/114.

„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.

Cited Texts:

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. A List. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2012 [1972].

Coen, Deborah. „Big is a Thing of the Past: Climate Change and Methodology in the History of Ideas“. Journal of the History of Ideas 77, Nr. 2 (2016): 305–21.

Farmer, Jared: Technofossil, in: Mitman, Gregg, Marco Armiero, und Robert S. Emmett, Hrsg. Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Gidley, Jennifer M. The Future: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Marcus, Greil, and Werner Sollors, Hrsg. A New Literary History of America. Harvard University Press Reference Library. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2009.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory. A Novel. New York; London: Ww Norton & Co, 2018.

Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day. London: Vintage Books, 2007.

Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. 1. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "„A Temptation to the Imagination“ – The Future History of US-American Literature (Long Read)," in Ecological Imaginaries, 24/09/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/109.

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! 

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Sitting on/like a Tree (Part II)," in Ecological Imaginaries, 12/07/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/107.

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 Italo Calvino’s tree climber Cosimo to tell you why.

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Sitting like/on a Tree (Part I)," in Ecological Imaginaries, 22/06/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/103.

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).

Cite this article as: Solvejg Nitzke, "Of Happy Fish and Wellermen: Notes on the Marine Politics of a “Social Media Hype”," in Ecological Imaginaries, 22/03/2021, https://ecologies.hypotheses.org/94.

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

Part I: Happy Fish

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

Not Writing in the Pandemic

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

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

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

What Fish have to Say

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

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

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

Jacob Rees-Mogg

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

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

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

Power to the critters!

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

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

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

What Fish can do

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

Frank Schätzing: The Swarm (US Cover)

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

Looping back to the beginning

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vegetal Descent and Cacti Offspring in Arizona Local Art

Guest Post by Christina Becher

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: Gina Beca: Pelvic Crest (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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