Paul Kingsnorth. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist. Faber and Faber, 2017.
Amitav Ghosh. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago, 2016.
Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke, 2010.
Mary Oliver. Upstream: Selected Essays. Penguin, 2016.
Jorie Graham. Fast: Poems. Ecco, 2017.
Robin Sloan. Sourdough: A Novel. MCD, 2017.
But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee;
and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee:
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee:
and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee…
I wish to speak a word for Nature…
—Henry David Thoreau
WHO SPEAKS, AND WHO LISTENS, in our literature? This question began to consume my thoughts last summer while at a writing workshop in the upper Midwest. Every morning, I’d sit on the shores of Stumpf Lake and listen to loons call over the water; and most mornings, I’d also spray myself with deet and walk in the woods, where deer, motionless, made eye contact with me and watched me pass, and horseflies tried to nest in my hair. That week I was reading the collected writings of British environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth. He argued that it was too late to save the planet; changing the way we tell stories about the world, he said, might be the only effective strategy left.
After a lifetime of activism, Kingsnorth had grown convinced that resistance to ecological devastation on a grand scale was futile. “The momentum of the human machine—all its cogs and wheels, its production and consumption, the way it turned nature into money and called the process growth—was not going to be turned around now…well-researched case studies were just washing up on the beach and expiring quietly on the sand, like exhausted jellyfish. There was no stopping what we had unleashed. We were going to eat everything,” he declared plainly and plaintively.
Across the disciplines, theorists agree that humans have become a geological force. In the last four hundred years, and particularly in the last seventy, humans have radically altered the earth, and though we have known for some time what we are doing, we have not stopped doing it. Living arrangements for humans, plants, animals, oceans, forests, microbes, and bacteria that took millions of years to develop have been undone by humans in the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. This is the Anthropocene, the epoch in which one species has become the major force determining continuing livability for the earth.
But underneath the crises of sea levels and species extinction, carbon dioxide and topsoil erosion, Kingsnorth identified a crisis of stories: the “tales we were telling ourselves about our place in the world were dangerously wrong.” In the Dark Mountain Manifesto, published in 2009, he issued a call to writers, artists, poets, and storytellers to “rise to the challenge of ecocide” with a challenge of our own, “an artistic response to the crumbling of the empires of the mind.” He called for stories that decentered the human—that portrayed humans as “one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession”—and that recognized that the world is not something we look down on from above, but something we are “enmeshed” in.
I didn’t know, sitting there on the shores of Stumpf Lake, waving mosquitoes away, whether Kingsnorth was right that it was too late to prevent ecocide, but his questions took up residence in my mind. Over the last eighteen months, I’ve wondered what the role of the artist is in the Anthropocene, and watched for examples of artists working in ways that cultivate mutual flourishing in this strange and unprecedented ecological era.
In my exploration, the first thing I discovered was that Kingsnorth was hardly alone in calling for an artistic response. The same year he published the Dark Mountain Manifesto, Australian eco-feminist Val Plumwood was also wondering how we would reverse “our drive towards destroying our planetary habitat.” She imagined similar solutions, arguing for poetry and literature which would “re-animate the world” by “being open to experiences of nature as powerful, agentic and creative, making space in our culture for an animating sensibility and vocabulary.”
More recently, Indian novelist and social anthropologist Amitav Ghosh, in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, explored the reasons why literary fiction has largely failed to depict climate change. While science fiction and fantasy have experimented with decentering the human and evoking climate catastrophe, he contends that serious fiction is expected to conjure worlds by showing us ordinary moments, not exceptional ones. Climate change and its effects feel out of the ordinary, exceptional, too strange for literary fiction. So writers in the Anthropocene must do more than decenter the human, Ghosh argues. We must find new ways to think, new words to convey the unimaginable, a fresh willingness to admit that events like hurricanes and flash floods, which once seemed highly improbable, have become common; we must recover a sense of collectivism in our stories rather than allowing the novel to be an “individual moral adventure.”
As a writer, reader, mother, and compulsive composter, I feel compelled by these arguments, and also unconvinced. “It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency,” Jane Bennett contends in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Necessary; and impossible. How can work in the humanities decenter the human? If I attempt in my writing to ascribe agency to plants, animals, and the nonhuman world, won’t I simply be anthropomorphizing? Won’t I be speaking for them, rather than allowing them to speak for themselves—and isn’t that a form of literary violence?
But then I remember reading A Wind in the Door when I was eleven. Madeleine L’Engle’s description of cell biology permanently altered the way I understood what it meant to be human. Charles Wallace says to Meg, before she travels with a cherubim and an elementary-school principal into a human cell, “A human being is a whole world to a mitochondrion, just the way our planet is to us. But we’re much more dependent on our mitochondria than the earth is on us. The earth could get along perfectly well without people, but if anything happened to our mitochondria, we’d die.” I understood, even at eleven, that if I am to the planet as my mitochondria are to me, then perhaps the story of what’s happening is larger and more complex than I can realize. Because of this fictional conversation, I saw the scale of my life differently; I recognized that I was not the protagonist.
For the past few years, in my reading, I’ve been looking for literature that similarly transforms my understanding of what it means to be a human in (is in the right preposition? a human with? or of?) the world. I’ve been watching for writers who reckon with the Anthropocene by attending to and even animating the nonhuman world in their work, and I’ve been trying to learn from them how in my own writing to portray the entanglement of human life with all other life on the earth.
A Creature with Appetite among Creatures with Appetite
Mary Oliver, of course, was queen of all this. Her work attends to the world with enduring curiosity and unsentimental wonder. In the essay “Sister Turtle,” she tells a story of following a gravid turtle, digging up her eggs, and bringing half of them home to scramble for her dinner. “For some years now I have eaten almost no meat,” the essay begins. “Though, occasionally, I crave it.” Oliver can’t agree with the Romantic poets who idealized nature: “to consider Nature without this appetite—this other-creature-consuming appetite—is to look with shut eyes upon the miraculous interchange that makes things work, that causes one thing to nurture another, that creates the future out of the past,” she argues. And while she deeply wishes to be “beyond all that”—somehow above the reality that the world is ultimately connected by spilled blood—she admits that she is not.
In telling the story of foraging for her dinner, Oliver places herself in the company of other hungry creatures: the mosquitoes who suck blood from the turtle’s face, the crafty raccoons who follow at a distance in order to dig up the eggs for themselves. She is not like these predators; she is one of them. For her, the natural world is alive, the ponds and marshes are “palaces,” and she is unwilling to say where “self-awareness” begins and ends for those who reside within them. “With the june bug? With the shining, task-ridden ant? With the little cloud of gnats that drifts over the pond? I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees,” she confesses. She sees all alive, alert—and hungry.
Oliver returns to the turtle’s nest, digs up the eggs, and takes thirteen of the twenty-seven home with her. “I scrambled them. They were a meal. Not too wonderful, not too bad. Rich, substantial.” She describes the eggs and their taste in detail, ending, “The eggs were small enough that thirteen made no greedy portion. I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.” The following week, she adds honey blossom leaves to her crepes. “My body, which must be fed, will be well fed.” That we are creatures of the earth, and that we eat each other, are both anguishes and delights which we cannot avoid but must learn to live with, and in telling this story, Oliver helps readers imagine a more lovely and realistic way to be a creature with an appetite and needs who lives alongside and is attentive to other creatures with appetites and needs.
A Porous Creature Called into Being by Other Creatures
Poet Jorie Graham troubles my understanding of the boundary lines I see between what is myself and what is other. Such distinctions are temporary, she says; our boundaries are time-bound, not eternal. Fast is a collection of poems obsessed with what it means to be human in the face of death, time, and the swiftly encroaching cyberworld. In the opening poem, “Ashes,” the problem presents itself: “Loam sits / quietly, beneath me, waiting to make of us what it can.” And what becomes of ashes and dirt? It is a “gathering,” she says elsewhere, “a merging of what comes.” And “I could become glass—that after that we would become glacial / melt—moraine revealing wheatgrass, knotgrass, a prehistoric frozen mother’s / caress—or a finger / about to touch / a quiet skin, to run along its dust, a fingernail worrying the edge of / air…” Existence is boundaried enmeshment. Our edges only touch for a moment. Death is a loss, but also a new becoming.
“Self-Portrait at Three Degrees” runs plant life together with human love: “Teasing out the possible linkages I—no you—who noticed—if the world—no—the world if—take plankton—I feel I cannot love anymore—take plankton—that love is reserved for an other kind of existence…” The speaker cannot quite discern between “I” and “you,” and by the end of the poem, sees self defined by emptiness: “Dwell there. Crosshatching of me and emptiness. Seeing into. Falls here. Given definition. Define anthropos. Define human. Where do you find yourself. Is it worth waiting around for.” It’s not just emptiness that gives definition to non-emptiness. Another being can provide definition, too, as Graham illustrates in poem after poem, recognizing that a dog’s gaze can say “you, you”—can make one aware of one’s selfhood—and insisting “I will say you.”
But as much as we try to speak and see each other into existence by noticing, naming, outlining the shapes and edges of “you” and me, Graham’s poems won’t let us rest easy with our categories. Standing at the bedside of her ailing father, she wonders what it is to touch another being:
The aluminum shines on your bedrail where the sun hits. It touches it.
The sun and the bedrail—do they touch each other more than you and I now?
The human, the nonhuman—all, in Graham’s poems, are temporary things which give to each other fleeting definition and identity, like a bird outside a house:
One bird close up by the house crow
makes the wall’s temporariness
If to be human is to be a thing in time shaped by other things in time—a name on a birth certificate; the object of a dog’s gaze; cremated ashes; a person who wants to love, though love seems small and out of place compared to plankton, viewed from space—if this is what it means to be human, then our connection to the nonhuman is intimate. We are “all entrances and exits”; “we must be in / common,” as the fetus says to her mother.
A Side Character Rather Than a Protagonist
Little in literature has transformed my view of the nonhuman world the way Robin Sloan’s novel Sourdough has. This is perhaps because it caught me by surprise. Knowing very little about it, I began listening to the audiobook on a road trip around the same time I read Paul Kingsnorth ask, “What would a novel look like if it were written by somebody who sang to the forest, and believed it sang back?” Sourdough’s description made it sound like smart chick lit, light and lovely and quirky—a story of a young woman who goes to San Francisco to work in tech but begins baking sourdough, and the bread changes her life. I was prepared for a send-up of start-up culture and foodie culture both. I was prepared for Lois Clary, a software engineer at a robotics company, to find a carb-happy happy ending. And so I didn’t notice the notes of magical realism that began appearing even in the earliest chapters.
Lois begins baking when her favorite sandwich shop closes and its proprietor leaves his sourdough starter with her. “It’s our culture,” he says. “I mean, ‘starter.’” But it is their culture, too, Sloan wants readers to see. Before culture meant arts, literature, and music, it meant food: it meant the bacteria and yeasts living in complex ecosystems making our meals delicious. The starter likes to listen to music, and loaves emerge with faces swirled in the dough. As Lois bakes more often, the faces in the crust look happier, and as she coddles the starter, it begins to perk up, then to make singing sounds and occasionally to flash with light. (Here was a forest singing back, à la Kingsnorth.)
The bread propels Lois into relationships: she takes some to her neighbors and shares it with coworkers. She builds a wood-fired oven in her backyard. Eventually, she earns a spot as a baker at an experimental farmer’s market, alongside makers of cricket-flour cookies, pink-light kale, and tube-grown fish. She brings a robot arm—the Vitruvian—with her, to help mix batches of dough, and to draw a crowd. But with the increased volume the starter grows lethargic, and Lois seeks advice from the other purveyor of bacteria at the market: the cheese monger goatherd Agrippa, who experiments with fungal growth in a cave that “used to hold nukes.” He tells her to respect her starter. “In every wheel of cheese,” he says, “there’s revolution, alliance, betrayal… Can you feel that?” Lois cannot; she finds him unconvincing, delusional. He is undeterred:
“Of course you can’t. I couldn’t, not at first. We’re blind to it. But this is their world, not ours, and their stories are greater.”
I frowned. “They’re just bacteria. They don’t think or plan. They just…exist.”
“Just exist? They do things we only dream of. They are fecund and potent, they can speak to one another with chemicals and light, they can form teams—oh, the teams they can form. Millions strong, all working together perfectly. If we could cooperate like that—if we could even get close—we would have all our problems solved…”
In the climactic scene of the novel, a food scientist attempting to create a kind of Soylent Green food source steals some of Lois’s starter. When the starter connects to her invention, it grows, building airy cracker scaffolding that keeps reproducing, taking over the entire farmer’s market, devouring a lemon grove and billowing above it, eating everything in its path. To stop its conquest, Lois joins forces with a librarian, the Vitruvian robot arm, the crickets, and the goats.
I’ve found this novel hard to categorize. Whether it ought to be shelved with magical realism, sci-fi, satire, or—where I think you will find it in the bookstore—simply with fiction and literature, its deceptively simple storyline blooms with implications for what culture means, who owns it, and who the real protagonists of our stories are. Now, when I stir my sourdough starter with flour, water, and salt, I see drama unfold before my eyes. I see the expanding dough as an intricately built cathedral. Now I notice the tree roots breaking up the sidewalk, and the ivy which has somehow pushed between the panes of my bedroom window and taps at me in the night, and I realize that our human story is short compared to these stories. I may not be the protagonist here. It may be that the bacteria are running this show, and I’m their servant, feeding them with flour and water on the schedule they demand.
Perhaps it’s too late for humans to save ourselves from this Anthropocene we’ve created. It is entirely possible that we’ve done more damage than we have time to repair. Maybe the bacteria made us do it. Maybe they are hungry for our demise, so they can go on without us. I don’t suppose I really believe that; but thanks to the stories and poems I’ve read, I do understand what it means to be human differently than I used to. I am better able to take my place as a created being with other created beings, to live with curiosity and respect. I am better able to understand that I don’t exist independently of the world around me, that all the boundary lines I like to think keep me separate from others are in some sense imagined and temporally bound. I can’t exist without others. And I may not be the hero of my story.
“This material vitality” of the nonhuman world, Jane Bennett writes, “is me, it predates me, it exceeds me, it postdates me.” Literature can strike the chord of recognition within us that allows us to see that humans do not alone act with agency and creativity. When stories and poems imagine humans as enmeshed and entangled with the nonhuman, rather than presenting us as individual protagonists, we can begin to see that we are not on the earth: we are with the earth. Without knowing the end of this story, we can still reculture our imaginations. And once we’ve done that, we’ll see ourselves and our companions a little better.
Amy Peterson is the author of Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy (forthcoming from W Publishing). Her work has been published in River Teeth, The Millions, Relief, Saint Katherine Review, and elsewhere. She is a postulant for ordination in the Episcopal Church.