The wind tears apart the signal
by Jeff VanderMeer
In the modern era, in the middle of the slow apocalypse of global warming, I find great value in experiments like Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology. We live in a time when approaches to interacting with the environment, including in storytelling terms, are rapidly changing. Some methods of telling stories and some kinds of stories are going extinct, too escapist or not granular enough to survive. Others have become less useful as delivery systems for meditation or mediation on this subject because too compromised or commodified by familiar tropes. Thinking seriously about our environment and how we live within it requires that we reassess the storytelling ecosystem—it’s a habitat in which experiments and mutations will flourish during the interregnum, cross-pollinate, and then perhaps themselves go extinct or be supplanted when global warming truly overtakes us.
One useful strategy for writing about the Anthropocene that I see reflected in Heldén’s project falls under the general category of “de-familiarization.” While this strategy has been used for some time to make readers see anew what has come to seem commonplace—Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Bend Sinister using the syntax of the travel brochure to describe a prison camp comes to mind—it seems much more urgent today, when there is so much we render invisible, even in our mundane daily existence.
In the context I find most interesting, de-familiarization manifests in part as a search for greater granularity and complexity in fictions (and nonfictions), and thus becomes part of that quixotic quest for a more detailed and useful “truth.” It can apply to just a portion of a narrative work, too. Is Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, for example, climate or ecological fiction? No, not in its entirety, but when the narrator fixates on the scenes of oil in the backdrop of news reports as he walks through the transitional space of the terminal, the oil not leaks out out over fellow travelers but in its descriptions oil attains a kind of agency or power—and an intentional fetishizing—that is, indeed, almost uncanny, and makes it impossible to view as inert or something in the backdrop, and conjures up Heldén’s own line, sampled from a friend’s song, that “We thought we could control the night.”
In Astroecology, Heldén takes the familiar space of an ordinary forest with ordinary signs of human habitation and by a process of interiority through a nameless narrator (perhaps some version of the author/creator, but not necessarily) and juxtapositions of different natural, human, and exterior-to-human interfaces (pop culture and other, which become unhinged or detached from their linkage)…makes both a personal and universal statement. The personal comes from Heldén’s inspiration, as he told me, in a family home, a place of loss with a “garden being reclaimed by weeds and other plants” and eventually by the forest itself. In a way similar to how scientists delivered their theses via poetry in the 1800s, before the rise of specialization, but with the added personal element of the passing of Heldén’s father as subtext and hidden from view…and yet still felt, even without that knowledge.
There’s a modern context for considering trees, and plants in general, that, like many facts about the world, is not sufficiently conveyed by or acknowledged by fictional narratives and that also creeps through the backdrop of Astroecology. The New York Times recently discussed the book The Hidden Life of Trees, based on experiences in German forests:
[As most biologists know] trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
This is the raw mulch Heldén brings with his impressionistic text and his associations. He writes, “Ask: Gravity, radiation, making it visible.” That which exists behind the scenes, found in the basic expanding knowledge of the world, changes and contaminates texts like the Astroecology makes it evolve each new month we engage with it. The cosmic streams through the space between the words because our words are never enough, even in an honest striving.
There is another kind of defamiliarization that speaks to ecology, which is to view war not just as a human conflict with terrible consequences, but as a history of the inexplicable enacted upon natural ecologies. To cite just one possible hypothetical example, which could occur across either experimental or traditional narratives, I was struck by the juxtaposition between descriptions of the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes and other readings of the naturalist Alexander Humboldt exploring European forests more than a century earlier, in Andrea Wulf’s Humboldt biography The Invention of Nature. Forest warfare during World War II included targeting the tops of trees with mortar and missile fire to make them explode and kill soldiers below. While machine-gun nests would riddle trees with bullets as a side effect of pitched battles between infantry units. In short, these battles were also violence perpetrated against trees, with profoundly traumatic effects.
What Heldén dramatizes through image could be thought of as peace-time war ecology. It is peaceful enough to us, but it is a violence against the flora. There can be no reconciling the meaning of that, and no one can, once noticing this fact, see just the peace in the author’s words. Damage lives there, too, and wounding. As he puts it, “A familiar scene slowly changing.”
But violence can occur in the world of words as well, and in that world we find, as the New Yorker noted last year, that some dictionaries are replacing the words of the natural world with words from the human world, just as trees are made into wood. “Acorn” replaced by “motherboard” is the saddest trade-off I can think of. In this context, Heldén’s encyclopedia at book’s end is not just a grace note or an afterthought but a vital part of his project.
The encyclopedia explicitly shows the process of extinction in entries on blue whales and bumblebees at the beginning. Loneliness, map, memory, sentience, are repurposed explicitly—or implicitly contain or embody new or altered meaning as part of Heldén’s repurposed set of words. Storm, spider, swift. Horizon, pawprint, ruin. The familiar become unfamiliar and then familiar again, and thus restored to us and the stress of our regard.
At the far end of the scale and depth of Heldén’s ruminations lie other artifacts, outside of the confines of his project. Aase Berg’s poetry with its vigorously bleak yet oddly hopeful vision of a contaminated Earth on which, despite everything, life still exists and takes on strange new forms seems to exist at an end-point beyond the end of Astroecology, and yet contained within it with lines such as “Soot from burnt out stars falling slowly to the ground.”
There has never been a better time to be brave and pushing outward in our storytelling. Not because we wish for ecological collapse to create new stories for us, but because we hope for reconciliation. We hope that the limits of our imaginations are not what we fear they are, and that we can reach beyond those limits to find a kind of balance. We hope for ways in which the human experience can merge with the “natural,” so that nature and culture become one with the least harm to either, and so that we understand and share the ghosts of both.
An endeavor like Astroecology is more aligned with what I’ve been reading in eco-philosophy than straight-forward fiction, perhaps more attuned to the subtlety required to meet the challenge of reflecting, refracting, and projecting--internalizing---the necessary sedimentary layers and help us put aside the fallacy that what we cannot see does not exist. Heldén’s interdisciplinary approach allows us to join him in that quest.
Jeff VanderMeer’s most recent novels comprise the best-selling and award-winning Southern Reach trilogy, which explores the dysfunction in culture and the mysteries in nature through the lens of the uncanny. He was called “the weird Thoreau” by the New Yorker and lectures frequently on issues related to the environment and global warming.