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.

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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.

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.