‘Death by Landscape’ explores how nature got weird


“The strange brings something to the familiar that usually lies beyond,” said cultural theorist and critic Mark Fisher. wrote in his 2017 book, The strange and the weird. Strange phenomena draw our attention to the sprawling nature of time and our own insignificance. Think of HP Lovecraft’s ancient sea beast in “Call of Cthulhu”, improbably emerging in the present. Think of Jeff VanderMeer’s breathing “tower” in Annihilation, with life forms that defy scientific understanding. Think about the fires in Spain which brought extreme weather conditions to unexpected places. Think of the near-unfathomable rupture of a global pandemic.

The way we talk about the natural world is getting weirder and weirder. At the start of the pandemic, wildlife sightings in cities and abandoned ride-hailing scooters in waterways prompted the “nature heals” meme, with its suggestion that human inactivity was a boon to the planet. Writers have long captured this anxiety, composing stories that challenge assumptions about our connection to nature. Some depict plants communicating with people telepathically, while others imagine people’s moods influencing planetary collapse. Such premises insist that we are more deeply connected to our environment than we tend to believe. As we live through the Anthropocene, our present time of man-made catastrophe, a new book, Elvia Wilk’s Death by landscapeconvincingly argues that giving more space to the weird can help us reconsider our relationship with nature and, even in the face of institutional inertia, exercise greater responsibility to one another.

Death by landscape draws on Fisher and others to show how authors give voice to these experiences. Some fictional characters, for example, are literally become the landscape. In Margaret Atwood’s 1990 story that gives Wilk’s collection its name, a girl disappears in the desert. Her friend becomes convinced that she has turned into a tree and perceives her in a wooded tableau emitting a strange cry of “gratefulness, or joy”. Han Kang’s 1997 story “My Wife’s Fruit” sees its protagonist slowly transform into a houseplant to “escape” her apartment and her husband, who waters her until she bears fruit. from the mouth. “The person-becoming-plant story is not an inversion or a return to an imaginary natural state,” Wilk writes. “Rather, it’s about seeing people as always already planted, plants as always already human, and these distinctions as always already weird.” In other words, we are part of the picture, but we have to give up our place in its center.

What would it be like to become a more integrated part of our environment? For answers, Wilk is digging down the rabbit hole of speculative Internet subcultures. The solarpunk The movement, which gained popularity in the 2010s, speaks a futuristic DIY sustainability language that could include “solar roofs and pavements” alongside art nouveau design, according to a proponent on Tumblr. It may be more aesthetic than practical, admits Wilk. But fictions adjacent to solarpunk like that of Omar El Akkad american war, in which internal battles rage over imposed sustainability measures, raise more interesting possibilities. In the dystopia of El Akkad, citizens are forced to rely on state-of-the-art but painfully slow solar-powered vehicles, while older “fossil cars” are considered contraband; Meanwhile, deadly northern drones circle overhead as southern insurgents prowl with ancient rifles. This collision of sci-fi warfare and environmentalism, Wilk suggests, shakes the reader, in part because it reminds us that sustainable technology does not automatically deliver a utopian future. On the contrary, she writes, it would take acts of “collective imagination and organization” to achieve even the relatively modest improvements advocated by solarpunks.

Wilk, it must be said, is also a follower of the strange. His intelligent and scrappy first novelOval, shares concerns with the works she speaks about: environmental collapse, devastating inequalities, profit-seeking tech lords, and the neuroses these conditions can cause. Another strange and promising technique influenced the development of the novel: live role-playing. The sophisticated Nordic style of play — which draws on psychodrama and BDSM play, among other ideas, and encourages players to build complex societies and explore topics like consent rather than, say, trying to win — inspired Wilk to run a LARP simulation of her. story with experienced players. The exercise helped her understand how the characters might act when the weather disasters unfold in her book. But the most surprising experience was how his role in the LARP seeped into his daily existence, “blurring…the line between the narrative of your life and the narrative of the game”. She wonders if such games, with their elaborate social structures and emphasis on collective decision-making, could “bleed” again into civic engagement in a deeply unequal real world. The idea that we could GN our way to a better society seems kinda precious. But think about how you play a role at work and sometimes take it home. As long as we play on social roles, they might as well be fair.

Death by landscape is an attempt, essentially, to change the cultural mood. Wilk is troubled by the societal impulse to cede intractable issues like the climate crisis to the realm of individual responsibility. (It’s no coincidence that such messages are often spread by megacorporations responsible for the worst effects of the Anthropocene.) Even supposedly revolutionary technologies encourage this impulse. She discusses virtual reality programs that confront viewers with global disasters, including melting icebergs in Greenland and the horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis. This visual language, intended as a “futuristic”empathy machine,” actually tends to “maximize the empathetic faculties” of its audience and does not reliably motivate philanthropic action. Instead, Wilk writes, it becomes a one-way “trauma machine,” allowing users to witness suffering without seeing its large-scale causes. Wilk’s version of engagement is more engaging, but also more interactive: perusing a novel, participating in a LARP, or using virtual reality that allows for real-life conversation. Although the insights these experiences can give are individual, they offer something akin to “emotional education” and ultimately encourage us to look outward.

Yet emotional education can be traumatic. Wilk writes in a memorial way, and everyone can see how his themes “bleed” into his life. At some point, armed with Bessel van der Kolk’s popular 2014 trauma study, The body keeps the score, she seeks a cure for the mysterious maladaptive behaviors she has developed. A therapist helps her reintroduce painful memories to desensitize her mind and body to them. She experiences “extinction bursts,” eruptions of hidden emotions that resurface when a person is faced with the loss of old coping mechanisms. The return of repressed emotions is the very definition of the strange: it brings memories into our daily lives that we do not fully welcome or understand. But those bursts are not the end, writes Wilk. They are a step towards changing our relationships with ourselves and those around us.

Fisher, too, linked such strangeness to trauma, reminding readers that in Lovecraft’s work, the strange “is about ruptures in the very fabric of experience itself.” This interpretation is particularly useful for understanding the monsters we live with today. What are the climate crisis and the resulting pandemic but traumas that have torn apart ordinary experience? These phenomena have inspired brief moments of heightened significance, but sustaining them will require greater attention.

The breaking point, for Fisher, was not to weaken but to allow “the new to emerge”. Wilk wants readers to begin this process by reading and living more intentionally. “I am not delusional enough to claim that a novel will explode the value systems, politics, economics and forms of knowledge that produced the Age of Extinction,” she writes. Rather, his essays are an example of what literary scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called “restorative reading“, a practice that aims to rebuild readers’ sense of responsibility for the world we live in by seeking unexpected possibilities, playfulness and even pleasure in what we read, rather than only the harshest and most depressing. Pointing to small, individual moments of clarity, Wilk suggests that living mindfully is an ongoing project. It may not revolutionize our world, but it may spark new approaches to the everyday issues of our time, approaches that we can share. The works Wilk explores are not solutions, she writes, but “small explosions with large fragments.” The idea, then, is for us to take these strange fragments as far as we can.


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