Category: Thoughts

cream and white persian cat sitting onmaggie nelson's the argonauts

In light of the catastrophic Electoral College victory of Donald Trump, cats around the country have expressed deep satisfaction in finding their families lying on couches in states of shock, fear, rage, and depression. Reporting from the living room, America’s cats say they have been receiving unprecedented snuggling, regular grooming, and bouts of intense affection. With hate speech, racism, and sexual violence apparently validated through the election of an unqualified demagogue, many families have recently found themselves holding beloved cats, asking their feline companions, why, how, for real? Really?

Pleased with the hours their families have spent on couches recently, cats noted that these difficult questions have compounded the immediate environment of fear inspired by the events of November 8.

“I like to see my people get home and arrive on the couch as soon as possible,” explains Neil, housecat, of Philadelphia. “Once installed, I’m finding that they may not move for hours at a time. All in all, I’d say I’m pretty satisfied with the situation.”

However, the nation’s cats have expressed concern that as families organize, strategize, and demand basic rights, they may once again leave the couch.

The Disaster We Want

We were planting asparagus when the topic came up. In eight small beds, earth dry despite a wet summer, we knelt, pressing the delicate ferny seedlings into the ground, mounding the soil around their bases. The day was hot and dry, our backs aching from bending over the asparagus beds, sweat rolling down our bodies. It was July. It would be three years before this asparagus could be harvested. Nearby Beno, three years old and currently the only child in this community of adults, plays at digging asparagus as well.

It was here that the end of Western Civilization came up. Rowan explained how ecological and social collapse was coming soon, and we listened. Most people wouldn’t survive this apocalypse, too soft, too dependent on the city, disconnected from the earth. Us though, he said, we’ll make it. It’s the people who know how to grow food who survive. Here in northern New England, on Rowan and Mountainsong’s farm (house off-the-grid, perennial crops installed for decades of no-till farming), here the family would survive America’s next fall. The others, travelers spending a few weeks on the farm, murmur their agreement: hands in the earth, a pantry full of home-pickled beets, a fresh spring bubbling up in the nearby forest, a new life.

Rowan and Mountainsong’s utopia is one not only embedded with the fantasy of collapse, it is one that depends on it. It is this relationship between utopia and collapse that I feel compelled to examine. It is a farm yes, but it is also a utopian dream; it’s a place separated physically and socially from a corrupt, earth-destroying world. But this dream is as much about connecting with nature through agricultural self-sufficiency as it is about surviving the collapse.[1] Without the assurance that the impending collapse will justify the farm, the necessary sacrifices lose some their power. But it’s more than that. It’s that there is a longing for catastrophe, for the opportunity to prove oneself, to survive. The collapse, the fall, the catastrophic storm, we want it. And we want this because we are yearning for a chance at redemption.

On a mountainside farm, Greg (25 years into what he calls the “practical application of a philosophy degree,” though Greg never completed his), drives his motorcycle between the fields: potatoes on a steep slope above the pond, greenhouses at the bottom of the hill, tomatoes where the stream pools in the nearby woods, making for easy watering. He explains that when the zombie apocalypse comes, he’ll wear a helmet made from a snapping turtle shell and I (unwilling to engage in turtle-based armament) will manage the farm while he guards the bottom of the mountain. Needless to say, neither Greg nor I, nor the ragtag crew I managed with his son, believe in the aforementioned apocalypse, nor do Greg and his family intend to ride out environmental catastrophe on the mountain. But it makes for an entertaining game to play, especially when the tomato blight comes into town and wipes out an entire season’s tomatoes and potatoes; the disease was carried, the rumor went, on seedlings from Home Depot and Lowes, bought and planted in gardens around the region and spreading the disease faster than any organic farmer could. Greg isn’t looking for redemption, but he certainly enjoys the fantasy of survival. This is a fantasy shared, oddly, by communities on both the political far right and far left, but also elsewhere in popular culture to a less extreme extent.

From primitivism and uncivilization to prepping, from the spectacular meltdown of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven to Nathaniel Rich’s flooded New York; from weather reporting that warns disaster is always within the next 18 hours to the reporting before, during and after Superstorm Sandy; from disaster capitalism to disaster porn, we are desperately in love with collapse. What is it that makes apocalypse so appealing? In dystopian climate literature, climate change can be a way to explore contemporary anxieties about environmental and social collapse; but it’s just beyond the terrifying apocalypse that the story gets started, these are post-apocalyptic narratives, even the ones where the majority of the story is the lead-up rather than the aftermath. Underneath this fear I see a deep utopian urge. When I delve into these murky waters, what I see is a fantasy of survival, of re-grounding, reconnection with the wilderness, of undomestication.[2] The fantasy of a new start is built into the catastrophes that populate many dystopian environmental fictions. Here the ultimate, and most deadly, redemption is offered. Not in religious terms but in ecological ones. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes of an old, dying world, rotten with environmental corruption and moral bankruptcy, the new world lies just on the far side of catastrophe. And because it’s there, this is the disaster we want.

We live with the consequences of events long passed and cause consequences that future generations will have to live with. We, whether this is read as all humans or a specific group of humans, have made the environmental catastrophe we live with, we have laid the groundwork for the apocalyptic collapse we fear.   It is the anxiety of being both victim and perpetrator.[3] A collective environmental shame and guilt informs these anxieties, giving shape to that dark longing for the fall.

With a pervasive message that “we” have sinned against the earth, have committed irredeemable wrongs to the natures (and peoples) we share this planet with, the fantasy is that catastrophe can set things “right again.” Hand in hand with Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, the fantasy engages with the idea that if only the slate were wiped clean, we could rebuild better the next time. Redemption may be found in surviving disaster.

I see a few things at work in this dream of catastrophe. First among them is the fantasy of survival. Mitchell Zukor, the protagonist of Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, compulsively calculates the odds of various lethal accidents and natural disasters, comforting himself with the statistics that ensure his survival. Mitchell’s obsessive anxiety can be read as a reflection of a cultural anxiety of and for disaster. It is what happens after Hurricane Tammy that brings me to the second thing I want to examine within the fetish of catastrophe. After surviving the storm, Mitchell ends up abandoning his financial consultant life for a rough-around-the-edges fantasy of self-sufficient agrarianism on the margins of New York City. This fantasy of uncivilization draws me to peer beneath the surface of utopian survival fantasies.

The vision is a catastrophe that offers redemption for an unwell society. From this, rebirth is possible. This is the space in which Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine meets the utopian urge. This violent re-start offers the only way, the fantasy suggests, to sever ties with the troubled world which caused – directly or indirectly – the catastrophe. Integral to this fantasy is a fantasy of embodiment. Popular culture is filled with anxieties over bodily weakness, lost connection with nature, and a fear of domesticity. This is not the domesticity of childcare and laundry, bill paying and grocery shopping. This is the containment of life within the bounds of “civilization.” So here, those anxieties find an antidote: the violence of collapse will wash away trivial concerns (such as mortgage payments and doctors appointments) and force a deep reconnection with nature, both internal and external. It is as if to suggest that we cannot break with the bad world we live in unless forced to do so. And then, forced to reconnect with our bodies, our physical abilities, we reconnect with nature, the external, material world. This narrative is played out in Odds Against Tomorrow as Mitchell discovers peace and confidence within himself when forced to paddle out of flooded New York City, relying on his skills, his intuition, his own abilities. Here, he engages viscerally with his body’s needs and capabilities. Later when Mitchell constructs his agrarian compound, planting in the orange dirt of the Flatlands and living – in a transparent rhetorical move – in an old bank, this hands-in-the-dirt utopia cements his deep connection with nature. Underscoring the uncivilization Mitchell has built, his beard and “crazy hobo” appearance almost become an additional character in the final pages of the book, described more than ten times in thirteen pages, each time emphasizing his wildness: “[the beard] looked more feral than ever, a chaotic blizzard” (300).   Here, Mitchell plays out masculinist fantasies of reconnecting with nature, with the “real” as it were, willfully foregoing the domesticities of the city in favor of hard work, agriculture, and solitude. Mitchell is redeemed by surviving the storm and building this utopian uncivilization dream in the remnants of the city.

I began this reflection with Mountainsong and Rowan, who I met while apprenticing at another farm nearby, because the vision of farming is close to my heart. So close, in fact, that when offered I very nearly left college to farm, that there’s not a week – sometimes not a day – when I don’t imagine a farm of my own. The dream of my hands in the dirt, the hot sun, backbreaking harvest, rain on good soil, is a powerful one. And it was largely domestic concerns that pulled me away: the desire for health insurance, family members who will ultimately require support, the luxuries of a job indoors. It’s not regret, but knowing I chose this doesn’t make the dream any less beautiful. Still, I wonder, does my utopia depend on disaster? Is the dream of the farm more enticing as a fantasy of survival? Am I yearning for redemption, for freedom from my own implication in environmental harm? Are my dreams secretly dreams of collapse?

[1] It is, of course, important to acknowledge that not all utopian yearnings are necessarily embedded with collapse. Nonetheless, I believe that fantasies of collapse are inherently connected with fantasies of survival and rebirth.

[2] Acknowledging here that “wilderness” is itself a fantasy, one deeply embedded in American sensibilities.

[3] Though, of course, it must be noted that while a lot of cultural energy is expended fearing the environmental harms we have brought on ourselves, the distribution of these risks and harms is not, and will not be, even. The disadvantaged and disenfranchised will carry the greatest weight, and for the most generations. As Ulrich Beck describes, we live in societies where risk is distributed across time and space, however, unevenly. It this therefore deeply problematic to consider environmental harm and risk in the context of a “we.”

Breaking new ground


Newtok, Alaska.  Travis: https:

What is the relationship between sense of place and resilience?[1] In Norway one study found that communities with deep connections to the land have the highest resilience. In other words, a strong link to place is key for place-based advocacy and for helping communities maintain cohesion in the face of natural and social disasters.

So what does it mean when a community has a deep, strong bond to a place that is increasingly imperiled? What does adapting to climate change mean for northern Scandinavia’s Sami whose tundra grazing lands melting? For Gulf Coast communities like the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw of Isle de Jean Charles who have recently chosen to relocate the entire community beyond the sea’s reach?

This is the very challenge that is faced by communities in the United States’ Pacific Northwest, as rising seas encroach onto land long a part of cultural practice and memory. Nowhere is this more stark than among Alaska Native communities, deemed in 2014 as some of the most vulnerable in the country. The community of Newtok voted two decades ago to relocate as rising waters ate away at their homeland, yet federal support has never materialized, meaning for over twenty years the community has lived in a kind of limbo – part way towards relocation, unable to complete the move. For Newtok, the choice is clear but action is in slow motion. Federal funds are available for coastal communities to develop wetlands and build seawalls, for flood response infrastructure. However, the funding mechanism for communities which seek to relocate, rather than rebuild, is narrow.

A similar example is the community of Kivalina, Alaska. Each storm takes the village closer to disaster, but until crisis strikes, no funding will help the community move to higher ground. In order to hold on to lifeways rooted in specific places, these communities must now seek to connect those traditions to new locations.

This double-bind also evokes memories of forced Native American relocation, settlement, and removal. Yet, in this century, without support for relocation, these communities are at risk of losing their way of life as members leave one by one, fragmenting the community. Until a discrete tragedy has struck these communities, freeing up millions of dollars in federal disaster funding, little support is available.

Still, these communities aren’t waiting for that to materialize. Instead, in Newtok, the move continues, slowly, one building at a time. In Kivalina, the ReLocate is bringing together community members, artists, and ethnographers, to reconceptualize home, as an idea and a place.

A History of Dwelling in the Kivalina Region. ReLocate:

[1] Resilience itself being a troubling term, however. Is it about “bouncing back” to a real or imaginary state? Is it about building on opportunities in the face of challenges? I feel sure that a key part must be about holding onto the cultural practices and beliefs most important to a community while adapting to a changing world.

Musing on the Anthropocene

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Anthropocene.

Donna Haraway has called for us to see the Anthropocene as a boundary: it’s a limit after which the world isn’t what it was before. Instead of thinking of this as an epoch, she suggests, we should think of it as a turning point. At the same time, since we all need to live through it, live into it, I think we need to pay close attention to what potential the Anthropocene brings.

Different theorists and scientists put the start of the Anthropocene all over the place. Is it the advent of agriculture, which kicked off a 10,000-year stabilization of the earth’s climate? Is it the nuclear test in 1945, marking a transformative moment for how we think of ourselves in place, time, and environment? Jason Moore argues persuasively that when we mark the Anthropocene’s beginning influences what we think this era is about. When we argue for its start defines the kind of story we’re telling about our epoch.  Lots of theorists are on the hunt for names other than “Anthropocene” for this period. Moore suggests “Capitalocene” and locates its start with the rise of modernity. For him, this period, marked by catastrophic changes to the planet’s climate and ecosystems, is precipitated by and shaped by the systems of commodification and appropriation of capital. Haraway, on the other hand, calls for the “Chthulucene” as a time of heightened interconnectivity and the queering and redefinition of human/non-human family/non-family kin/non-kin boundaries, an idea that is as alluring as it is radical.

But I want to argue for the Anthropocene. Yes, it’s an anthropocentric term by its very definition. And, Moore is also right that the word relies on a binary separation of humans and nature – something I’ve been looking for an alternative to for a long time. I want to look for an Anthropocene that offers us Haraway’s transformative moment, and I want that to be a moment where we can also see ourselves in the not-self, the boundary between human and nature finally and fully abolished. But calling our time the Anthropocene is also a way of restoring agency to individual people.

In the face of catastrophic impacts on the global environment, it can be hard to feel any power to change anything. A kind of paralysis sets in: “I do not like the world I live in, but I am but a cog, a tiny piece of a vast machine.” How am I (the proverbial I) to “say no” to the unacceptable problems of that machine? (Not to mention, though mentioning here, the problem of “How am I to change this system and still pay my bills, show up at work on time, and support my family?” A question that is not at all a distraction or an excuse). This is where I think calling this time the Anthropocene offers the restoration of agency. Calling this time the Capitalocene effectively points the finger at the global economic systems and capitalists that, over the last few centuries, have driven the extractive practices that led to climate change. This late capitalist system is still made of individual people (and some of them reap enormous benefits from this destruction, of course). But calling our time the Capitalocene reduces each person to a minuscule part of that larger system. By calling it the Anthropocene, I think it’s possible to emphasize the possibility of individual (and therefore collective) action.

So, I still want Anthropocene – not the moment when humans became a dominating geophysical force, but instead as the era when humans are conscious of this force. A reflective geophysical force is one that can make choices.

The world we live in after COP21

Protesters in Paris, December 2015. Photo: Mark Dixon.

Protesters in Paris, December 2015. Photo: Mark Dixon.

The way I see it, the signing of the COP21 agreement – from the media blitz to the deliberate separation of conference attendees from climate activists – marks a watershed moment in the geo-political conversation around climate change. But there’s a world of difference between a change in conversation and a change in greenhouse gas emitting activities.

Still, in the coming decades, I believe the agreement at COP21 will be remembered as an historic turning point. This is not the moment when the international community turned back the tide of emissions, this is the moment when climate change became a truly international conversation.

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Summer is the season of meadows

By summer, the forest is a cool, dim respite, a darker, more peaceful place to escape the heat of the sun. But it is the meadow that properly represents this season of blazing hot days, especially in muggy Philadelphia: swampy afternoons linger and rainstorms blast out of the early evening to drench the world. To me, summer has always been the season of meadows.

I sit, lie down, fall back into the grass and see only sky, bits of grasses and shrubs just coloring the edges of my vision. A few clouds float past, a hawk circles high above, the horizon expanded by the shift in perspective. In the meadow, the world is all waist-high. While in the woods, we are dwarfed by even small trees, here everything is closer and we are put into a natural context by this proximity. We are a part of this meadow, I am reminded when thorny blackberries grab at me and I pull a caterpillar from my skirt. Milkweed stalks bend and bounce slightly in the breeze, knee-high butterflyweed shines fluorescent orange in the field of green; vetch climbs up and down the grasses, sprinkling the meadow with purple. I lean into the smell, the heady, rich perfume of milkweed mixing with the warm smell of dry grass.

Meadows offer a space for biodiversity to flourish, with full sun, cooler microclimates below the grasses, and space for small mammals like field mice and voles and myriad insects to find their food and shelter. I watch a dragonfly, dark against the dense green of the field, land first on a branch of invasive bittersweet, then a young sassafras. Everywhere, the edges of the meadow are tinged with the shifting ecology of this place. Sassafras and cottonwood, sun-loving forerunners of the forest, are beginning to move in. As much as meadows are the home to biodiversity, they are also a battleground for invasive plants. Though the green vista of a meadow can seem inevitable, it’s not. Here, where sun is plentiful, plants with an evolutionary advantage from regions far afield can rapidly take over: bittersweet, mile-a-minute, thistle. The meadow is always in flux. This grassy field where I lie now, here in northwest Philadelphia, was farmland fifty years ago, and before that, it was forest.

This meadow offers me a place to settle down into the spot where I am. An eastern swallowtail butterfly makes its slow loops among the flowers, a creamy yellow and rich black punctuation mark on the afternoon. We made the meadow as we made the city. That this meadow is here at all is the result of a walk humans have taken together with the wild living land.

Mysteries of Vernacular

I have recently discovered an amazing project called Mysteries of Vernacular.  The creator, Jessica Oreck, makes these tiny films using old books and stop motion animation to tell the history of words.  Ultimately she plans 26, one for each letter of the alphabet, though as of now there are only four of these perfect little films: Assassin, Clue, Pants, and Hearse.  Each film details the history of the word, tracing it back to its root and illustrating its development and evolution with delightful paper cutouts and ink drawing animation.  From the colors, music, and narrative voice, to the matter of fact way in which remarkable details are revealed, these films are a perfect antidote to a world in love with irony and too cool to acknowledge the actual coolness of our world.  It is eye-opening to imagine, as in the case of hearse, how many different things a word can mean in a short span of time and the film illustrates this wonderfully.

Part of what I love about the project is the reuse of old, unloved, discarded books. Oreck says all the books she cuts up and draws on for Mysteries of Vernacular are ones she found on the sidewalk and dollar bin.  My installation A Migration of Words was a similar project in giving life and agency to the books society has thrown away.  For that project I chose books either from the clearance rack at the used bookstore or from the trash itself, rescuing and then dismantling the books to transform them into something new.

But it is more than this material similarity that draws me to Oreck’s Mysteries of Vernacular.  I love words and each of these little films is a beautiful journey in to the past, in the history of the word.  In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Oreck said that her projects are “intended to instill a sense of wonder in the viewer” and this is certainly the case with this project.  With each film you are drawn into the history of word and shown something strange and beautiful and unexpected.  I imagine these words sneaking about their days, smugly knowing so much more than we do.  Not just the books, medium for the illustration of the story, but the words themselves come to life, and, hours and days later, they stay with you.  The films draw me back the importance of words, and of the power they hold.

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