Capital’s Shade: Battlegrounds and Luxurious Estates in a Heated Climate

Shade is a commodity both figuratively and materially. With cities heating and electricity ceasing to be cheap, the availability of shade becomes political. Who has access to shade? Who or what provides shade and whose shadows loom over those who are in need of cooling? These questions reach far beyond current ecological crises and reveal social and economic inequality in which trees become more than just objects who block the sun’s rays, but agents of a (possible) future in which shade might become a common good.

Cutting Back

Who would have thought that trees were to play a significant role in a labor conflict? In July Hollywood’s struggle between screenwriters, actors and major studios, indeed, came down to trees. 

Universal studios were fined for illegally trimming a row of trees that happened to shade the picket line of strikers just before a heat wave was expected to hit Los Angeles. Who would do that? Temperatures over well over 103°F (40°C) are a major threat to humans and the only thing between the relentless rays of the sun and the strikers would have been the leaves of the trees (probably a species of Ficus). Outrage ensued and while the 250$ fine won’t have hurt the studio, it at least acknowledges that you cannot cut trees whenever it suits you. 

The LA Times used the opportunity to put out a pun-ridden headline: “Striking writers and actors throw shade over tree trimming at Universal picket line”. The headline is a sad reminder of the difference between the figurative throwing of shade – making someone look bad or disrespecting them – and the literal meaning of shade in a city in which shade is a precious commodity.

Although no one at Universal admitted to having the already sparse canopy cut to inconvenience strikers, the act is reminiscent of sinister battleground tactics. It seems crass, to compare the illegal trimming of city trees to warfare deforestation, but both acts lie on a common spectrum of environmental violence. The cutting or, in a more 20th century ‘fashion’, the defoliation of forests (e.g. by means of chemicals like the infamous “Agent Orange”) serves the purpose of depriving the enemy of cover. Being able to hide in the shadows of a familiar forest is so huge an advantage that even the most sophisticated armies are in severe trouble when a forest is involved. The Varian Disaster (Clades Variana), that is the defeat of the Roman army in the Teutoburg Forest is the stuff of legends and taught the Romans to quickly get rid of forests in which rebellious barbarians could hide. This resonates with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whose conviction that he will be defeated by a forest comes true (even though it is an army disguised as a forest, but who’s counting). Environmental violence is not an ancient prerogative and, maybe most chillingly, it is not restricted to warfare.

Die Hermannsschlacht (kolorierte Reproduktion),
Gemälde von Friedrich Gunkel, 1862–1864

Robert Pogue Harrison, in his cultural history of the forest, describes how deforestation itself was viewed as an enlightened practice, because it literally brought light into the dark worlds under the canopy. Only much later, it seems, did people realize that they needed the shade as much as the shady environments.

The old stories gain significance in light of the tactics of oil-drilling and mining companies in the Amazon and rainforests all over the world. Once the forest is gone, protest literally loses ground, hence many enterprises, be they illicit or not, create a fait accompli rather than following due process. The fines and punishments, if there are any, often hurt no more than the 250$ that Universal was faced with. War tactics, it seems, still pay off. What remains are dry fields, scorched by the sun. The arboreal dimension of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment leaves behind L.A. sidewalks and deserted rainforests alike.

Owning Shade

Ancient Romans did not only establish deforestation as a weapon, but also claimed shadow as a luxury. Preceding the Romans, trees were a domain of gods and kings. The sacred groves of ancient Greece and Persia inspired the landowning nouveau riche in Rome to establish lush parks and gardens in which they invited their guests to lounge in the shade. Claudia Klodt, a classicist at Ruhr-University Bochum, has demonstrated the importance of trees as status symbols in Roman private horti by collecting a truly staggering amount of literary and epistular examples (see Klodt 2020). Owning trees, especially old trees, did not only, according to Klodt, locate the tree-owner within the social hierarchy, but also demonstrated power over nature itself. Most importantly, shade-trees manifested their owners status as a member of the owning classes (if you excuse my Marxist’ anachronism, here). The trees were both symbols and materializations of the leisure their owner was able to afford. A pine or poplar tree afforded the shade in which its guests could pursue leisurely practices such as music and poetry. Both human and arboreal beings were forced to labor like the poor peasants and their fruit trees. 

The rich of the Roman empire, like so many in the ruling classes of the following millennia, lounged comfortably in the idea of being like the shepherds in Virgil’s eclogues – that is, simple, idyllic humans enjoying nature and themselves. This powerful fiction depended both on the ability to return home when the tree’s shadow grew too dark and on someone else performing the labor that one’s own wealth is built on. 

Come, let us rise: the shade is wont to be
Baneful to singers; baneful is the shade
Cast by the juniper, crops sicken too
In shade. Now homeward, having fed your fill-
Eve’s star is rising-go, my she-goats, go.

(Virgil, Eclogue X)

The freedom and possibility to access and leave shade whenever it suits you is, like leisure itself and the opportunity to pretend to be a poor shepherd as long as it does not become too uncomfortable, is undeniably a privilege. But it is not only a privilege of the ancient roman landowners or the mean capitalists at Universal, it is one that forms the condition to connect with trees beyond necessity. Sure, you care for a fruit tree in order to harvest and you might appreciate its shade, but this kind of care is framed as labor and still not valued as high as the outdoorsy variety of nature lover’s pleasure that is the present equivalent to the “arboreal attachments” of the past. Labor and necessary care seems to taint human-nature relationship and once you need a tree (for food, wood, shade) rather than simply enjoying it, it becomes somewhat impure. At the very least, it depends on your status whether you can afford to sit inside in your climate controlled office or home and laugh at the poor souls who sweat outside and mourn the foliage that provided at least some relief form the scorching sun and the necessity to fight for fair labor conditions.

Shade Commons

The history and present of shade distribution is complex and Los Angeles is only one of its prominent battlegrounds. Shade, of course, is not only provided by trees but by architecture and other ‘natural’ features and the amount you need varies from location to location. What seems to be common to most places where shade is necessary to mitigate the impact of hot and heating climates, is that shade has become a commodity. While being able to create comfortable environments has always been a prerogative of the rich, access to shade or lack thereof and, moreover, the ability to provide shade or take it away, is one of the most audacious signs of inequality in modern societies. Retreating into summer houses and seaside resorts while others sweat in increasingly unlivable city environments is an established practice. Watching from air-conditioned rooms while having the little shade cut away that might enable workers to enact their right to strike , seems especially cruel.

It is, however, an opportunity to discuss the potentials of “shade commons” or the possibilities for activism and city planning, to provide shade and help make cities more livable and equitable. But, as journalist Sam Bloch has shown in his article on shade in Places Journal, Los Angeles is one of the cities historically not too keen to provide much comfort outside privately owned property, lest people without the means might enjoy leisure they have “not earned”. The cynical conflation of private property and the impossibility to “make a living” from one’s work is obvious in the challenges to plan a city lush with shade-providing green. 

But not only are there many activists fighting for a more sustainable city canopy, the celebration of trees as co-conspirators in the effort to create new commons for livable futures is palpable world-wide. Maybe it is time for trees and people to go on strike together and engage in a common fight for the right to access the means of production not for some abstract kind of profit but for the right to live and breathe where you are and to sit in the shade and do nothing for once. A tree will never do nothing, but I am sure trees appreciate being left alone, too.

Further Reading/Listening on Shade

  • The Podcast 99 Percent Invisible created a couple of fascinating episodes on the topic: Shade & Shade Redux
  • Sam Bloch’s Article will be expanded into a book to be published with Random House
  • A very different perspective on the difference of the shade LA trees throw compared to the live oaks and giant maples in the deep south is provided by Amaud Jamaul Johnson in his Emergence Magazine essay Felling Light
  • For a celebration of trees and city canopies read: Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli: Cities and Canopies. Trees in Indian Cities (2019)

Cited Texts

Claudia Klodt. “Zu Gast im Garten. Bäume im zweiten Odenbuch des Horaz.” Heimgartner, Stephanie, et al., editors. Baum Und Text: Neue Perspektiven Auf Verzweigte Beziehungen. 1. Auflage, Christian A. Bachmann Verlag, 2020, p. 27-64.

Robert Pogue Harrison. Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Paperback ed., [Nachdr.], University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Giulia Pacini. “Arboreal Attachments: Interacting with Trees in Early Nineteenth-Century France.” Configurations, vol. 24 no. 2, 2016, p. 173-195. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/con.2016.0015.

Mixed Messages: Meta-Travelling to a Time of Environmental Unconsciousness with Lightyear

This is not a proper movie review. Full disclosure: I am an absolute Toy Story Fan (all of them!) and I knew I’d love the new part of the franchise, the minute I saw the trailer. It came out this week and I took my daughter to watch it, determined to have a good time with a movie that I waited 27 years for. (My daughter is six years old, so maybe a tiny bit too young for an action packed Space-Flick, but she loved it too.) So, I am the worst person to criticize anything Buzz-ian, but I am definitely going to spoil the movie for you with the following, so if you (like me) have a soft spot for Pixar and Buzz, go see it and come back later to read this.

Lightyear lets you know right away that it is far removed from our present. Not because it is a movie about the future or the past or in a far-away universe (it’s kind of all that, too), but because it is a hyper-fictional story. The first shot – white text on black screen – goes something like this: “In 1995 a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear action-figure for his birthday. It was a character from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” (miss-quoting from memory here, but you get the gist). So this is more than a prequel. Lightyear is a movie that was originally the implicit precondition for a fictional boy’s action figure in a movie about toys who come alive when said boy is not looking. It was always ok not to have seen the movie, because the fact that there was an action-figure of a space ranger with expandable wings, blinking lights and tons of catch-phrases made it immediately clear why the cowboy doll, Woody, Andy’s first favorite toy, got jealous. Let’s face it, Buzz was MUCH cooler. (This is the nine-year old me speaking who saw Toy Story when it first came out and I am not to be debated on this.) The sequels revealed more about Buzz (there was an adversary, a backstory, all that kind of stuff but it always remained blissfully vague). Lightyear, thus, fills gaps that might not have needed filling. But, you know, there are a gazillion Marvel movies, so leave this one alone. Also, as much as I try to watch this as a movie I did not know I waited 27 years for (yes, I am probably going to repeat this number a lot, because it feels weird) without my media/cultural studies glasses on, I couldn’t and this has a lot to do with the weirdly awesome meta-set up of a movie that tells the story of a movie within a movie that was always only alluded to.

So why would I write about Lightyear on a blog about ecologies? Because it pretends so hard that it’s not about that at all. After all, this is a version of a movie that someone didn’t need to come up with because the pattern of movie-merch is so familiar that making up the merch is enough to tell a story about toys (and movie merch). So the prequel to a story that even in the fiction mostly existed so you can produce toys and Pixar (later Disney Pixar) can make movies that are higly self-referential. Oh boy, my head is already spinning from all the meta-levels and I work with stuff like that all the time…and I am not even getting into all the intricate levels of allusion and movie-references…

Anyway, I think – despite my love for all things Toy Story – this is a premium piece of capitalist realism (Mark Fisher) and in some ways so postmodern, it almost hurts. “Almost” meaning: it lets me know all these things right away, before even the first star-spangled sky-panorama. So what does it say? The movie says, “Hey Solvejg*, let’s watch this, like it’s 1995!” What a great ivitation, I would love to. Let’s play pretend…let’s ignore that there’s a heat wave, all kinds of crises, and that we really both know that we’re both too old to pretend we don’t know that Astronaut-flicks don’t work like that anymore. This movie, however, pretends that this is all possible – a suspension not only of disbelief but of context altogether – for old time’s sake, for the kid(s), not least for the kid in you. 

Or does it pretend? Does Lightyear really avoid signals to the present? It doesn’t, otherwise it wouldn’t be censored in many countries for two women kissing, it wouldn’t continue the diverse casting that Star Wars and many other franchises finally (!) implemented. But while it successfully stars a cast in which the white, male hero (with the voice of Captain America’s Chris Evans after all) seems so out of place, he has to work together with others (who still seem like a band of misfits) and get over himself. Which is, basically, the story of the 1995 Toy Story movie but with a much wider range of humans. And yet, despite all of this, the movie pretends that this is all easily solved and, this is where I come in, that you can still tell a story about humans colonizing a planet and the biggest problem being that the hero finally needs to learn how to be a team player. 

I am convinced, the movie really knows that this only works on the pact of playing pretend. That is, on the shared nostalgia of Pixar’s team finally doing that movie and me finally getting to watch it. But it seems, neither of us trusts nostalgia. Not even for two hours. Lightyear sends so many mixed messages and the whole thing is so meta that it leaves me wondering whether it wants me to know what it shows and so obviously NOT comments on the fact that it is, in the end, an even bigger comment? Do movies even work like that? Well, I am, as you can tell, confused and I think this confusion says something that is at least noteworthy in the context of (contemporary) ecological story-telling.

This is where the spoilers start. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Captain Buzz Lightyear and his commander, Alisha Hawthorne, go on a detour to a planet on which their board-computer detected life (whatever die-hard fans say about the movie, the AI running gags alone make it worth watching, so many easter eggs…). So they land smoothly, don’t notice that that alone is always a bad sign in a movie and go on exploring (wonderful teachable moment to short-cut your kid to genre-awareness btw, that is if you raise your kid this way ;). An eerie, yet beautiful (i.e. ”alien”) landscape of trees with redd-ish leaves and scarce undergrowth unfolds before them and captivates them enough so they don’t notice that plant-like tentacles begin to snake around their spaceship, which is full of cryo-sleeping scientists and more space rangers. Long story short, plants and insects reminiscent of almost the entirety of outer space horror (to name only a few: I thought of Spaceship Troopers; Alien; The Call of Cthulu and really doubted whether it was such a good idea to take my kid, but she’s much tougher than I am) attack, they need to flee, something goes wrong, they crash on the other side of a mountain ridge and have to make due on this planet until they’re able to restore the hyperspeed-crystal to fuel their spaceship and go home (which, I assume, is planet Earth, but i am pretty sure they never mention it – which, in itself is interesting). In order to do so, they can ‘mine this planet’s resources’ and that’s basically that.

The rest of the movie is about Buzz’ attempts at testing a hyperspeed crystal which literally brings him out of tune with (the) time(s). In a neat take on Einstein’s twin paradox, while Buzz feels he’s only leaving the planet for minutes, he’s actually gone for years. And while everyone has full lives and ages, he is stuck trying to undo a mistake that for him, makes all that happens on T’Kani prime worthless (of course he changes his mind in the course of the movie). 

While for me the first five minutes set off several alarm bells (monster plants; extractivism; trees in a wasteland), none of this is a problem ever again. Plant tentacles and giant bugs are really only a nuisance rather than a problem or – this is almost unthinkable in this context – lifeforms who might have a right to live on their own planet. Nope, you chop them, electrocute or shoot them and all is well enough. There are also no plants in the growing modular make-shift city or any mention of agriculture and although in the course of the movie the trees from the beginning sequence reappear without leaves, this is also not recognized in the movie. Which is strange, because apparently there is food, though apparently artificial (which is what Buzz’ stereotypical ‘astronaut food’ suggests) and different to terrestrial traditions. There is a lengthy discussion about ham sandwiches and whether you should put ham between two slices of bread or vice versa (obviously the latter, you gotta evolve somehow on a new planet) during which I could think of nothing else than where and how they’d get the ingredients without pigs or crops or vegetables? Well, they came from a vending machine. What’s more to ask?

It is this weird and, I suspect, intentional or at least collateral ignorance toward resource-use that puzzles me the most. Maybe because I could under no circumstances verify whether the math behind the time travel makes sense (I am, however, very proud to have recognized the twin paradox and roughly explained it to my daughter). More probably it is because I have trained myself to look for the ecological context of a given movie. And (I hope) it’s not just me. Decades of post-apocalyiptical wasteland and Roland-Emmerich-type disaster films, global warming narratives and debate (I hate calling it “debates”, because what is there to debate!?) and, for me at least, dozens of texts about anthropogenic transformations of global ecosystems do this.

So what about this movie? Is it another instance of denial? I don’t think it is. Maybe it is a type of benevolent escapism, an offer to hit pause for just a couple of others. Rarely have I felt so targeted as an audience. This movie offers two hours of respite in an air-conditioned theatre playing pretend during a literal and figurative heat wave. Yet, there are enough signals pointing to the fact that even for Buzz Lightyear “infinity…and beyond” isn’t easy to achieve anymore. Giving up on the crystal that could turn everything around and make it un-happen in favor of the people and the planet who are there, who have “a full life” in spite of everything is a message that goes beyond the simple “you got a friend in me” of the original movies. Maybe, just maybe, I wish Andy (and me) had seen this movie with its disturbing lack of answers to environmental crises, when we were ten years old. I stopped believing that one movie might have or will change anything. Still, that even the movie that gives itself a perfectly plausible excuse to not talk about the way we (humans with lots of training and technology) treat ‘our’ planet, cannot seem to look past the wreckage, is strangely hopeful in its pessimism. There might not be a way to turn everything around, but there’s life in the ruins.

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.

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?

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.

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