It is difficult to comprehend humanity’s position within our vibrant ecology, particularly when that environment—traditionally seen as such a stable property, is so clearly susceptible to human influence. Mark Payne, author of Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction (2007) and The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (2010) tracks the reciprocal relationship between myths, narrative patterns, and poetry, and the types of awareness that emerge around ecology. Mark Payne is a Classics Professor, teaching at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He also runs an incredible poetry series at U of C’s Gray Center during the school year.
Caroline Picard: In your book, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010), you begin with how hunting narratives often center around the human realizing that he—usually a he—is seen by the animal he is about to kill. At the risk of starting out with too grand a beginning, I started wondering if perhaps our awareness of the Anthropocene parallels that hunter’s awareness somehow, where the human suddenly sees itself within a larger, collective, and conscious environment?
Mark Payne: I see the question of time and how to make sense of ourselves in a dislocated narrative. One kind of dislocated narrative is a conversion narrative where two parts of a life lie on either side of a traumatic break. Are we there yet? Are we nearly there yet? Doubtful I think.
CP: What do you mean by a dislocated narrative? In what way or why is it dislocated?
MP: I mean it like a dislocated joint. The two parts don’t work together any more. Understanding that we were in the Anthropocene ought to feel something like that I imagine.
CP: This makes me think about a later section of the book about metamorphosis, and maybe especially a part in Ovid where you describe humanity’s confused origin story—whether we were “made by God from his own substance, or whether Prometheus scooped some leftovers from the sky that were mingled with the earth,” making us into the image of a god as one might a dumpling (or at least that’s what came to my mind). “This passage speaks of a kind of homelessness in the world on the part of human beings,” you say, “separated from animals by their later birth and stance, but unsure of their kinship with higher beings. Every transformation in the poem underlines the futility of their efforts to close the gap between themselves and the gods by widening the one between themselves and the animals.” (125) On the one hand, I feel like the predicament you describe here—perhaps especially in the context of animal/human hybridity the chapter lays out (almost as a way of illustrating one’s own alien-ness as it appears in one’s self, spouse, a neighbor, or an encounter with a stranger)—seems exactly the same now as it was then; in other words, this same confusion or homelessness is just as relevant to ancient Roman society as it is in the Anthropocene. On the other hand, I wonder if we might need different narratives, myths, poems, and fairy tales in framing otherness and contextualizing humanity?
MP: Why is it that we have this capacity for ecstasis? But then maybe the animals are no more captivated by where they are than we are. Once I spent some time with a Gila monster at an oasis in Arizona. We both seemed equally out of sorts with the desert despite our different adaptations. But we do not trust ourselves when we go along with the other animals, as Heidegger puts it. I think it’s more about trusting what we already have than always needing to innovate. I guess I don’t really trust that impulse of always needing to move on from what’s there already.
CP: That makes sense, though I sometimes feel like humanity has been in this multi-generational conversation with environment, and its tone has recently changed; it’s less predictable, maybe, noisier. More direct. Maybe instead of thinking about needing some new approach, we need to adapt or evolve? I have a hard time understanding how to take on the violence that’s been enacted on our world thus far, especially when the future seems so dark. What would the ancients say about that? How would/do you approach teaching landscape today?
MP: I think the loss of Nature and the loss of the past are the same thing – a loss of shared life. Hölderlin talks about gleaning – going over the ground again for what we didn’t realize was there. Adaptive mutation is an open question I guess, but I doubt that we can will it into being for ourselves. I feel more hopeful about endurance in being possessed. If we could stay with the remains I think it might have more lasting consequences as a possibility of transformation. That’s how I would teach an ancient landscape, as trying to stay with it, now that it has come all this way to be with us.
CP: In an essay you wrote about trees, you spend some time describing how Christopher Stone’s proposition, whereby trees’ rights would be incorporated into our human legal system. I love the way you describe the awkwardness of that endeavor—how we might then have arbitrate between sometimes conflicting desires of a grove of trees, a paper corporation, a beetle infestation, and it’s local rabbit, robin, human, or bee populations. I feel like you set that exercise up in contrast to the lyric poet who seems better equipped, somehow, to bridge human and nonhuman experience. I was wondering if you could say more about the way poetry specifically assists the imagination? What kind of attention can we find there that we may not find in legal computations of equivalence?
MP: I feel like the poet’s role, or poetry’s role, anyway is to disequilibriate, that is to say, to throw everything out of balance with disharmonious attachments. I think poetry is really good at that. Disequilibriation might be the beginning of liberation. Stone begins with disproportionate attachment as the beginning of ecological concern but then wants expert panels to make the decisions. I would like it if we could linger some more with the kinds of discomforts that poetry provokes.
CP: At present, I understand you are working on a new book about shared life, or choral life. I got the sense that you were proposing that shared life illustrates how landscape—something we have traditionally relegated to a silent backdrop—is something that steps forward and participates, perhaps the way a Greek chorus does in a play. I’m wondering how you see that chorality, and what narrative it is attuned to? Would rhythm be an important factor here as well?
MP: It’s the uncanniness of it that I’m trying to get at. That there’s not just this tree here and this tree there as we typically encounter animals as singularities but that these trees have a shared life together that is also part of our shared life together with them. It’s like the way the chorus comes forward and retreats. I think that’s what you mean by rhythm, except that rhythm to me suggests a kind of regularity whereas the coming into awareness of shared life is more aleatory. It has the structure of attention drift even though it is bringing something to us.
The following comic was inspired by Inherencies (Nov-Feb 2016): a solo exhibition by Rebecca Beachy, and originally appeared on Hyperallergic. Beachy’s show was also mentioned here, on Bad at Sports’ Edition 44.
Thanks to Jillian Steinhauer for all of the editorial support.
Five days into the HKW’s Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue, I had a chance to meet with Samuel Hertz, a Berlin-based composer interested in the idea of sonic ecology, and how one might build an interactive sound installation using electronic instruments. In the following conversation Hertz and I explore questions of knowledge production, optimistic technologies, and the fullness of space, particularly in relation to Tomás Saraceno and an affiliated seminar led by his studio assistants, Knowing in the Anthropocene. You can listen to some of Hertz’s recent work here.
Samuel Hertz: I think you’re totally right to point out knowledge production as a focal point of this curriculum. But alongside the discussion of knowledge production is also a discussion of what constitutes knowledge and what it means to know in the first place.
CP: That blows everything open. Like basically how do we know what we know? For instance, someone in my seminar asked “How do you know the snow is white?” You say the snow is white because you know the snow is white. That’s the beginning premise from which we then go on to determine what is not white. The example illustrates a logical bias.
SH: In my first seminar, Axiomatic Earth, there was a similar discussion in terms of the scope. It came into conversation about the relationship between hard science and data versus the knowledge produced by shamanism. The discussion went in two directions. One was the implicit assumption of shamanism as a belief system as opposed to a form of knowledge. Those two options aren’t necessarily the same thing, but to some people, they are. Embedded in that distinction is an implicit position on what knowledge is, and whether or not knowledge is belief. As the conversation continued, it shifted over into thinking about whether shamanism is a type of science or … how to pose the question so that the answer doesn’t also assume a dominant narrative about what knowledge is. Like, if we’re trying to fit the circle of shamanism into the squares to put it crudely but couldn’t it be that science is a form of shamanism or why even bother trying to put the two of them in the same basket?
CP: Like they might have commensurable integrities, somehow, even if they are different.
SH: Yeah, exactly.
CP: As someone was brought up within a scientific narrative, I think it’s difficult to seriously imagine alternatives…
SH: Yeah. I mean, it’s been interesting to struggle through that. I’ve always been excited to question the way that scientific narratives sit within my own mind—how I make work, for instance, or even how I understand the external world. The interesting part that keeps coming up here at the HKW is when scientists present data in the context of catastrophic elements that are part of the Anthropocene, like global warming for example. There are figures and facts but the way we parse those figures to make an argument remains complicated.
CP: I wonder if we could equate knowledge production to a factory situation. Where something concrete is being made in a systemic way, and the results—the objects of thought—can be disseminated in the world and manipulated thereafter. With her emphasis on intra-action, Karen Barad points out how the frame that you used to circumnavigate or isolate or filter experience is something that’s going to affect the outcome.
SH: The scope of a tool really frames the data it collects. Today Andrew Yang used the phrase, “The ambiguity of the device,” which I particularly liked—especially because I tend to work in mediums mediated by certain technologies with their own specific histories. Where you there this morning? One of the presenters described how her group tracked the metadata for citations that included the phrase “Technosphere” as it had been reported from Peter Haff’s paper. That’s a very concrete way of knowing how a specific type of knowledge is produced.
CP: The map that popped up tracked a high amount of “Technosphere” activity around North America and Europe.
SH: There was one citation in Eastern India and one citation in what I thought was Tanzania. Immediately I thought, “Right, of course.” I mean, this whole conference, is predicated on an idea that comes from a very specific place, with a whole trajectory. It’s not so surprising that it came from an American male.
CP: That map seemed like an interesting way of highlighting the politics embedded in a word.
SH: Which is that’s helpful too I think the idea of the Technosphere is both critiqued and for what it represents and whether people think it is actually applicable. For me, I want to focus on whether the term is helpful or not.
CP: In other words, if we are all plugged into this massive data field that we’re participating in and subject to, what might the word “Technosphere” reveal?
SH: So far, the debate tends to be around whether or not people feel this is a helpful way of articulating our role in these algorithmic networks. It gets complicated. Even the term Anthropocene is still contested.
CP: I shift between feeling hysterically unable to extricate myself from the Technosphere on the one hand, and then on the other feeling like I’m being dramatic. I go back and forth. Is the world really ending? It doesn’t seem like it. And then someone points out that the world has already ended for tons of species and habitats, including humans…
SH: I experience that same impending doom mindset, but it’s been tempered by a seminar I was in called Knowing in the Anthropocene which focused largely on the work of Tomás Saraceno. They’re working with the concept of the Aerocene which isn’t precisely related to the Anthropocene. Saraceno’s studio is more interested in conceptualizing air or aerospace as a tactic for humanity’s next step. Over the past few days, I have literally been in the clouds with those folks.
CP: How do you feel like their Aerocene vision manifests?
SH: I can only appreciate it from a perspective of how I make work but I think we tend to conceptualize air or everyday space—I mean the physical space that’s between you and I right now—as being empty. The concepts the Aerocene and I share in common is that we prefer to think of space as being quite full. Saraceno is very much about using the air as a medium, it’s almost liberatory.
CP: He encloses air in bags, is that right?
SH: Yeah. The basic structure of Tomás’ sculptures are air enclosed in giant plastic bags—they use plastic shopping bags to make huge envelopes. Once the air is trapped inside, the sculptures are left out in the sun and the temperature differential between the outside atmosphere and inside warmth causes the sculpture to float. It’s like a hot air balloon except there isn’t any gas or fuel.
CP: I saw a picture this morning, for instance, where a person was floating in the air, attached to one of the balloon structures.
SH: It’s a little hard to get the sense of what the trajectory of the Aerocene projects because at least mathematically speaking, Tomás’ studio has done calculations to show the amount of weight these aerosolar sculptures can carry is quite large. Additionally, we don’t have to restrict our thinking and assume that things must be light in order to fly because clouds are actually extremely heavy. I think cumulus can be up to 40 tons in weight. That’s incredibly heavy! Tomás and his team have done a lot of calculations to prove that this theoretically is possible and that they have had the longest … I’m trying to think about how to phrase it… The longest continuous non-fuel powered human flight, I think. Three hours in the desert of one person being carried by one of the aerosolar sculptures, powered solely by the sun.
CP: That’s awesome.
SH: Tomás and his team members like Sasha Engelmann, for example, are sparking interesting conversations about what it might mean to use aerosolar sculptures not only as human carrier devices. Tomás is thinking about the potential to build cloud cities with the Aerocene, or how these aerosolar sculptures can encourage extra human modes of sense perception, helping us understand the way that wind and air operates on a level that’s different from what the type of information we get from satellite imaging, for instance. They’re working on new ways of working with that but the parts that interest me are his strategies to form a new modes of knowledge about the world around you. That can include animal knowledge as they think about it in terms of possibly sensing magnetic data like birds do implicitly and things of that nature, for example.
CP: I’m interested on how that approach has influenced your own work as well. You do sound and performance?
SH: Yeah…In a lot of my work I would say that perception is one of the generating principles and I approach that in a variety of ways but a lot of it is to do originally with a composer by the name of Maryanne Amacher. She produced amazing work after research at MIT on something called otoacoustic emissions which, basically, are when your ears take in sound, they actually produce sound as well.
Just to explain a bit about these pieces—the way they work is that there are different tones produced by the sound elements in the piece and when listened to at the correct volume which is loud—I don’t find it so loud but I think some people might find it a bit abrasive—external melodies and patterns in the sound create different melodies and patterns in the inside of your ear that would not be audible if you were listening to the piece at a lower volume; and if you’re listening to the piece on headphones, I don’t think it works. Really, it is an acoustic effect that is produced and heard by your ears simultaneously.
CP: The only time that I’ve ever experienced something like that, Peter Brötzmann was playing at Corbett vs. Dempsey and some of the sounds he produced made my inner ear go crazy. I had an amazing moment when I suddenly realized that that was the point. My inner ear vibrations were part of his composition.
SH: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It pretty much turns your ear into a transducer. Amacher’s studies were my jumping off point to ask how the body extends itself into space in other ways? I did more and more research, always coming back to the idea that perception allows you to enter into a space while also allowing a space to enter you. I started to think more about the body as being porous, and thinking about space as a full medium through which things—things like energetics and signals and impulses and reverberations—are passed and constantly passing through. When you think about that in combination with everything else that’s going on, you would consider space to be quite full. That’s my background and how I’m thinking about a how we exist within a space and how at the same time, we make it as we hear it. This idea of world making through perception I think is really important to me.
CP: When you compose, do you compose primarily using electronic musical equipment?
SH: Recently I’ve been making work for multichannel installations. I approach them from a couple different ways but the most obvious is that each one is immersive. In that sense, a viewer already has an embodied sense of space but what I’m really interested in is how sound starts to move around you when you’re in that environment. Do you consider yourself to be a part of an ecology or an environment when that’s happening? Or are you simply inside of a sound installation? I’m also interested in a type of ecology or logic that runs by itself. It’s an environment that will never do the same thing, while also remaining in the same sound world unless something very drastic has changed in its input.
CP: Is that because the aural sounds are generated in response to their environment?
SH: Yeah. They tend to be a series of feedback loops. I’m using that term here not in the sense of sound feedback, but “feedback” in terms of logic systems. So there are aspects of the system that trigger other things to happen. The overall effect becomes quite circular. Aesthetic decisions made by myself or sometimes the computer are also influence the composition as well. I’m trying to probe the limits of what a given system can do…For instance, what changes can I make to the system that will allow it to act spontaneously but also return to the circular logic systems that I’ve built into it? What are changes that are so great as to change the system entirely? I feel like the aesthetics match the immersive environment where I’m imagining that the body is lending itself to fuse sounds together into some coherent, explorable whole.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
This interview was originally published on Bad at Sports on Dec 27, 2013.
Chuck Cannon moved to Chicago in 2015 when he accepted the position as the first Director of the new Center for Tree Science at the Morton Arboretum to spearhead a new initiative around tree science, study and education. The Morton Arboretum is an unusual place, a tree museum, essentially, where visitors travel to observe a highly curated collection of different indigenous and nonindigenous trees. The first time I went there to meet Chuck we walked around the grounds discussing whether or not trees know things, a conversation that since had a lasting impact, eroding my assumptions about where thought is located and how it might be retained.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about your work at the Morton Arboretum? What is it like to be a tree doctor working in a tree museum?
Chuck Cannon: The best thing about going to work at the arboretum is literally being surrounded by thousands of very cool trees. They have been brought into our living collections from all over the world. Our collection’s staff have been bringing in interesting trees for almost one hundred years. I go for a short walk and compare an American and European oak side by side. Or a Japanese elm to one that is a hybrid between an American and Chinese elm. These trees evolved on different hemispheres. They have been separated for a very long time and we’ve done this unusual thing of bringing them together again, perhaps after two million years or more of separation. It’s like going on the Voyage of the Beagle without ever getting sea sick or even on a boat.
And trees largely remain a mystery. Despite the fact that trees are probably one of the most essential creatures on Earth, and despite the fact that they grow everywhere, we know little about them. We know the broad elements of their life and about forests, but we are missing a lot of the day-to-day details. We think of trees as behaving slowly, over long periods of time, but it is the accumulation of daily behaviors, of a chronic water deficit or nutrient imbalance, too hot with low humidity, that leads to the eventual decline or vigor of a tree. You walk by a tree for years and then you suddenly notice one day that a substantial part of the crown is leafless and might be dead and we think how did that happen? We don’t have any easy cues to understand the “mood” of a tree. As a kid, I helped my parents raise a lot of animals and you learn to tell whether a young calf is feeling sickly just by looking at it. It’s head hangs down a bit, it’s eyes are watery, and its nose a bit snotty. How do you notice that a tree is not feeling so well? How does it act if it is being attacked by an internal fungal infection? Does it ooze sap, or wilt? We have little native intuitive ability to read a tree’s mood or physical condition but they certainly do send signals, both intentional and unintentional. That’s to me the essential mystery of a tree and what draws my curiosity. They are a very alien life form compared to animals but they are enormously successful. A tree doesn’t have a brain or a nervous system but yet it makes animals and insects do its dirty work all of the time.
CP: Given that strangeness, how do you approach trees contextualized by such a longstanding institution?
CC: As a tree doctor, I feel very fortunate to work at an institution devoted to the scientific study and sustainable care of trees. The leadership of the arboretum has always held scientific research to be a central part of the arboretum’s mission. I was hired last year as the Director of The Center for Tree Science to lead an ambitious goal for the Morton Arboretum to somehow overcome the neglect of tree biology. Although research has long been a major part of the Arb’s activities, we are creating several new programs to get our small in-house team of scientists aligned with a global network of scientists of all stripes. The hope is to work together to advance meaningful research on trees, fostering appreciation and understanding among students and early-career scientists for basic tree science.
CP: Why now?
CC: I have a real sense of urgency. One has to only glance briefly at the basic trends around the world—the astounding explosion of the human population and the accompanying and equally disquieting explosion in our per capita consumption; take that alongside the degree to which forests have been converted and damaged so that nothing can be considered outside the direct impact of human activity. Clearly, we can’t continue doing what we are doing and expect a good ending. Something fundamental has to change. Our economic system? Wouldn’t be the first time.
CP: It must be strange that you are immediately happy to live and work alongside trees every day, while being nevertheless especially aware of the ecological crisis we inhabit by virtue of the trees’ proximity.
CC: Basically, I feel like the kid who got the golden ticket but now, we have to try and fill Willie Wonka’s shoes and make trees somehow wondrous and magical to the rest of the world.
CP: As I understand it, you started working as a researcher studying primates in Borneo, but shifted your research to trees. How did that transition happen?
CC: Yeah, as a young boy growing up in West Texas, I had an intense interest in human evolution but you know a lot of people weren’t comfortable talking about it. At college, I wanted to understand how humans became “human” instead of being just another primate. I was fortunate to be chosen as a research assistant to live and work at a remote research station in a national park near the western coast of Indonesian Borneo for a year. While doing my research on primate behavior, I was also responsible for monitoring vegetation plots where all of the trees were measured and tagged. Each month, we’d go look at them and observe whether they were flowering or fruiting. Now, this is a mature tropical rain forest; the trees are quite tall. They are massed together and tangled with vines and epiphytes, and deciding whether a tree was flowering or not was difficult. Doing it properly was a lot of work. It easily took hours to finish a single plot. You can imagine, much of my time as a research assistant was spent looking up into the forest canopy, trying to see flowers and fruits in a confusing chaotic green mass of leaves and branches tens of meters over my head.
CP: How did that compare to the research you conducted on primates?
CC: My primate research was quite difficult because I was studying gibbons and they were not well-habituated to human presence. To find them, I got up in the dark, early morning, typically putting on wet clothes, throwing together some crappy cold lunch, and going out to listen where the male gibbon was singing. Gibbons are territorial and monogamous, so the pair sing a duet most mornings, starting with a bit of male soloing before daybreak. Even when I managed to get out there before they disappeared on their morning forage, it was very difficult to follow them and gather the data I needed. So, after many months of going through this, I only had a few minutes of quality data on primate behavior but pages and pages of quite invaluable data on tree reproduction. Also, trees don’t go anywhere. You can stagger out of bed at 8:30 am, scratch around a bit, take your time getting to work and when you go out, the trees are still exactly where they were last time you visited them. Basically, perhaps unflatteringly, studying trees fit my metabolism. I’m a lousy failure at being a birder. Also, I began to realize that very few people were studying the trees themselves. Lots of conservation biologists were talking about the endangered animals that live in tropical forests but few were actually talking about the trees that make up the forests, so I began to see that shifting over to studying trees and forests could provide a more meaningful and significant contribution. We tend to take trees for granted. They are a ubiquitous part of the landscape, everywhere you look practically, and they form the structure and productivity of any forest community, but few scientists devote their research specifically to trees.
CP: When did you realized you were more sympathetic to trees?
CC: I just remember one day, while I was working in the forest, and I was standing in front of some massive tree that was covered with climbers, its bark deep and furrowed, completely oblivious to me but covered in living things. A little movie of its life played in my head—imagining this grand old tree as one of thousands of tiny seedlings, so vulnerable and hopeful, while people were just starting to sail around the world; and that it grew in that same spot for hundreds of years, unknowing to all of the great events in human history. The rise and fall of empires seemed like ant hills. The New World was still innocent of the Europeans. Some trees in that forest are so old. A single individual, a single lifespan, was possibly longer than much of humanity’s history. I found that very intriguing.
CP: During a talk you gave last winter at Sector 2337, you explained that trees know when they reproduce. Can you describe how you’ve observed that knowledge? What is it like for a tree to know?
CC: That’s a tricky question because we have a very poor understanding of tree awareness. We have a pretty poor knowledge of even their basic behavior. While they don’t have a nervous system or musculature for active movement. they are not passive organisms. They have fine control of their breathing rates, down to the leaf level, through their stomata. So while you look at a tree and see it as a single unit, each leaf is responding to the exact light, wind, and heat conditions it is experiencing. This behavior is not controlled in a centralized way but each branch can be thought of as a competing “lineage” of clonal cells. As they grow, they have to maintain their balance, simply not falling over, while responding to the light and wind conditions of where they germinated. They have complex behavior each day as they respond to the weather as it changes with the seasons. They interact with many animals and fungi, resisting attack from insects, signaling to other trees about the attack. Their behavior changes dramatically as they grow from a tiny seedling into a mature tree. How this behavior is organized and coordinated is not understood.
The reproductive behavior of trees or tree sex is particularly poorly understood but obviously it is a critical piece of the puzzle. First of all, there is the timing. You must flower when the rest of the individuals in your species are flowering, so that the pollen isn’t wasted on the wind. How do trees know when to flower? In the temperate areas, it’s relatively easy because you have a very strong environmental signal—freezing weather in the winter and a big thaw in the spring. But in the tropics, in places where it rains year round and the weather and day length etc. remain pretty much constant, how do you synchronize yourself with potential mates? Frankly, we don’t know.
CP: Accepting that a tree possess knowledge, and even intention about its reproduction, would blow upon traditional ideas about what it means to “know.”
CC: I do believe that trees “know” quite a lot but that knowledge is obviously processed in a very different way. Is it stored some way? If so, where? Some studies have shown that individual trees often wait several years accumulating the necessary resources so that they can reproduce. Somehow the tree knows that it should wait until next year to give it a shot. There is a structural knowledge to a tree, the tissue that is created to conduct water, support branches, etc., build up an understanding of how to live in that particular spot, right? There’s also a dynamic knowledge to a tree, how hormones are produced, pheromones and volatiles released, phenolics and alkaloids concentrated. Again, it is not really centralized but the trees’ slow process of emerging is highly adaptive to its environment.
CP: You also showed a slide during that same talk arguing that we need to let our trees be kinky if they are going to survive the Anthropocene…
CC: My point is relatively simple. We’re heading into a future that seems very difficult to predict. The normal parameters of how things work are no longer valid. That is why I think the Anthropocene is a useful term. The question is whether we will last long enough to leave a trace in the geological record. With both human population and consumption increasing, our impact on the Earth’s biosphere is obvious. Natural areas are mere postage stamps, surrounded for many miles by agriculture monoculture or human infrastructure. The processes that have generated the incredible natural wealth that we enjoy today through millions of years have been interrupted by human activity. And I am sure they will return to normal in the not too distant future but what we need to do is survive the dramatic shift that seems necessary to achieve a new “normal.” We can’t break Nature but it can sure break us.
How do we emerge on the other end of that ‘re-adjustment’ intact? We obviously won’t do that by looking backward and regretting what we are losing. Instead, we need to be looking forward and utilizing the resources that we still have. Much of the invaluable genetic resources and diversity produced by millions of years of evolution are now being lost without a trace.
CP: And the answer is kink?
CC: What I meant by trees being kinky is allowing them to bend the rules of sex beyond their normal parameters. Sex is all about mate choice. But how do you choose a mate as a tree? First of all, you can’t even select your mates yourself. You have to lure some insect to your reproductive parts and reward it with some nectar and then send it off in hopes that it will go find that fateful soul mate out there in the forest. Or, worse yet, if you are an oak, you send massive amounts of pollen on the wind, hoping that it blindly lands where it should and not where it shouldn’t. There are estimates that an oak tree produces more than 100 billion pollen grains during a single spring flowering. To me, this means they have incredible evolutionary bandwidth. Compare this to humans, who might attempt producing offspring with one or two mates. You can have ten kids but you are supposed to only have one mate. But each one of those pollen grains is off on its own adventure, hoping for the best. A single tree could potentially have sex with every tree on the planet during its lifetime.
Typically, we think of individuals being “faithful” to their species. A general assumption is that hybrid crossings lead to less successful offspring, although a certain hybrid vigor does emerge in some circumstances. I think trees are among the most promiscuous organisms on Earth. I think breaking the basic rule of being a “good” species is key to tree sex. They conduct enormous experiments in genetic recombination and they only need ONE successful offspring for all of that exploration to pay off. From the perspective of a tree, because its offspring might only become a mature tree in two hundred years’ time, how do you know what the environment is going to be like at that future time? In a few generations, the local climate might have changed considerably, or a new bug might have come to town, etc. How do you produce an optimal offspring when your own ability to predict the future is quite limited? You try a lot of options and produce a wide variety of offspring! In the 40’s, a German geneticist named Richard Goldschmidt put forward the idea that major changes in evolution occur through the production of “hopeful monsters”—a dramatic novel shift that fits a new unprecedented niche. This is sort of what we need now, with the coming of the Anthropocene.
CP: That also seems interesting to think about within the context of a curated tree collection…
CC: I think the arboretum setting is ideal for allowing these kinds of genetic experiments, conducted naturally by the trees themselves. We have the Chinese chestnut by the American chestnut. We have oaks from around the world. I actually don’t believe that it will lead to one huge melting pot where all of the oaks begin to look like some mongrel oak. I do think there are reasons species exist and we can recognize distinct types. This divergence is necessary and powerful. But it is also quite possible that something entirely new and successful will emerge from this natural experiment. That “hopeful monster” idea.
CP: After your talk, I remember someone asked how we should relate an interest in tree kinkiness with traditional agricultural and horticultural strategies—specifically with regards to wine. Certain grapes have been carefully and conservatively reproduced to ensure that the resulting wine is the same as it has always been. To me, the question illustrated an interesting tension between the Romance of cultural traditions and the controlled goods they yield—goods that so often encapsulate human identity and accomplishment, i.e., wine, cheese, yogurt, maybe even apples. It’s hard to square that tradition against a dismal future, where human identity may not even exist. Should we give up the ways that winemaking, for instance, informs our approach to the landscape?
CC: A leading researcher for Gallo Wines recently spoke directly about this issue because wine breeders feel tightly constrained by the market. Everyone demands that Merlot remain Merlot, somehow sacred, while in fact, when you consider all of the research that they have performed about mouth feel and volatiles and aromatics etc. etc., all the things that make up the taste and value of a wine, they know how to grow grapes that taste fantastic and yet, you can’t sell them because this new fantastic grape variety doesn’t have a recognizable name and didn’t emerge out of the Old Country. It’s a bit ridiculous. It’s like demanding that new automobile technology not be introduced because we really like our Model T. There is nothing sacred about wine varieties. In fact, they are a hybrid plant, with these varieties grafted onto an American rootstock that was brought over to Europe to save the vineyards which were being attacked and killed. If you really remained true to these varieties, you should have let them go extinct. We can still continue to improve them. It’s not as if the ancient Romans perfected the wine grape and we have no power or ability to modify or improve them to our own modern tastes and climates.
CP: That makes sense, and maybe highlights a strangely human propensity to impose a kind of changelessness on the world. But it’s heartbreaking also somehow, and maybe that’s one of the ways I feel very much implicated in this Anthropocene question. On the one hand, I’m all for crazy tree evolutions and multispecies enthnographies, and let’s disrupt the status quo, or redistribute wealth etc., and yet funny things like coffee, cheese, wine, bread—I would miss those things. Even further, I admire the generational craft they contain.
CC: It’s a problem with purity. Purity and diversity are almost naturally opposed to one another. Demanding purity negatively impacts diversity. To maintain a particular type of grape, you have to propagate it clonally, and to refine it further, you would have to breed it with itself, which leads to inbreeding. If you demand that a particular natural product, like perfectly consistent ears of corn or just so long fat potatoes, remains utterly the same and mechanizable, you have to basically break one of the fundamental tenets of evolution—that the population varies. Nature is all about change and exploring that change, exposing the potential of that change. Nothing ever remains the same in nature. There is no “right” way to do anything.
It’s that reason that I promote tree kinkiness. We emphasize diversity and freedom of expression in humans but we demand an unnatural level of consistency in nature. As we enter the Anthropocene, there is no way to predict the future climate or most appropriate land use or the dominant economic drivers of the future. We cannot hold trees to a level of fidelity that we don’t expect of ourselves. Going forward, we should be willing to imagine unnatural sex in trees in order to create a new type of tree that meets the needs of the future. Tree breeding is difficult. I was discussing the process of breeding a new variety of tree and it takes roughly 15 years, under the best circumstances, to develop and test a new type of tree and get it into the marketplace.
CP: Do you think standards will continue to make sense in our Anthropocene future?
CC: Nature is all about change. We are trying to hold nature to a standard that it rejects. It is always poised to mutate and change and adapt to the new reality, which throughout history is generally unpredictable and the process is rather chaotic. We talk about sustainability a lot these days without recognizing that sustainability itself is an unnatural concept itself. Populations naturally boom and bust, species teeter on the edge of extinction and then expand across a continent as conditions change over tens and hundreds of years. What we are trying to do is reach some type of steady state with high levels of constant production, completely predictable and standardized natural products, like the utterly predictable potato, indistinguishable from a vast field of identical potatoes? I’ve always struggled a great deal with the idea of sustainability because I don’t see it anywhere in nature and so we are trying to invent something that is basically supernatural. To me, going back to my search for what makes us ‘human’ versus a ‘primate’, it is the spiritual, the belief in good, the quixotic search for sustainability. To make the transition into a new bright and shiny world without causing the sixth great extinction or plunging ourselves into a new dark age, we will have to defy or at least bend some rules of nature.