Problems of Place: A Journey Out of Oblivion into Ecological Care and Love

I was born in an extremely built-up urban environment, and have always been afraid of virtually all nonhuman animals. For a long time, I saw the natural world as out there, independent of my existence, and was oblivious to whatever happened to it. But this has changed.

This post features some of the works that I have encountered during my early adult years and that have had significant impacts on the way I perceive nonhumans. I will share how my watching and reading respectively of PangolinsThe World’s Most Wanted Animal documentary (2018-2019), and the Area X trilogy (2014) by novelist Jeff VanderMeer and Dark Ecology (2016) by eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, have brought about these impacts. I hope to both pay tribute to these fascinating texts and show that the arts offer thought-provoking ways through which we can realize our intricate enmeshment with, and vital dependence upon, the nonhuman.

Photo by Marcus Chua on Flickr.
[Image description: A baby pangolin clings its right front leg, and rests its head, on a larger pangolin’s lower body. The larger pangolin seems to be looking for ants and termites on the damp forest floor filled with dead leaves and rotten tree branches.]

I was 20 when I watched Pangolins, the first text that exposes me to global ecological crises. Native to Asia and Africa, the pangolin is a largely unknown scaly mammal and the most poached and illegal trafficked animal in the world.[1] The documentary follows conservationist Maria Diekmann in a heart-breaking journey to Vietnam, Thailand, and China, where demand for pangolins is greatest. This text recalled my childhood memories of seeing pangolins on menus at local restaurants and of going to places where pangolins’ scales were sold as medicine. It showed me the horrifying reality of baby pangolins separated from their mothers, and of pangolins brutally skinned and sold to black markets.

Pangolin scales
Confiscated black market pangolin scales are in high demand in traditional Chinese medicine.
Photo by Kenneth Cameron on Wikimedia Commons.
[Image description: close-up of a heap of pangolin scales.]

Wrapped within Maria’s passion and personal journey to save these shy creatures, Pangolins brought me to uncontrollable tears. The visceral effects of the documentary rescued me from my ecological oblivion and propelled me to be part of the solution. Starting to research more into socio-ecological problems like this one and those of climate change at large, I found more texts that have continuing influence on how I view, and interact with, nonhuman worlds.

Book covers of the Area X trilogy
Book covers of the Area X trilogy (2014); from left to right, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. Images uploaded on environmental critique.
[Image description: Three book covers with a letter X decorated with weird, leafy lifeforms on them. The left one has a red background, the middle has turquoise, and the right has yellow.]

In the same year that I saw Pangolins I read the Area X trilogy. These novels revolve around Area X—a mysterious, “pristine wilderness” located in the far south of the US—and the Southern Reach, a government agency established to try, and mostly fail, to investigate this anomaly through expeditions.[2] The trilogy brings me into an unknown world, where Area X transforms humans and nonhumans into bizarre hybrid creatures that elude the explorers’ understanding. Additionally, it has the power to threaten the engulfment and destruction of humanity. Reflecting on this captivating portrayal of Area X, I thought: “This isn’t fiction. This is reality.” Similarly to Area X changing and erasing humans and their infrastructure, climate change has had devastating impacts on the Global South, and recently, COVID-19 has caused a great deal of human death and loss around the world. VanderMeer makes me feel humble and overwhelmed in a world teeming with real weird and fantastic beings.

Area X draws me to the Biologist, the first-person narrator of the first novel Annihilation, because she inspires me to perceive nonhumans differently. The Biologist recalls her childhood where she spends hours observing all sorts of lifeforms residing in an abandoned swimming pool. Her attentiveness to each nonhuman being, her fascination with their lives, and her love for them, drive me to see nonhumans not as a bundle of disposable things for humans to exploit and reduce to abstract “nature” or “environment,” but as beautiful, unique, and distinct individuals, each requiring love and care.

Crabs at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Crabs at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, an area that inspires the Area X trilogy. Photo by Judy Baxter on Flickr.
[Image description: Two crabs sit on a sandy floor with plants nearby that are only partly visible.]

This ecological message permeates VanderMeer’s other work, particularly Dead Astronauts (2020) where the author tries to inhabit the perspectives of various nonhumans like salamanders and moss.[3] They share their emotional and sometimes tragic stories that make me feel for these lifeforms and that stay with me every time I come across them in forests. For me, this is one of the powers of VanderMeer’s fiction: they are so genuine and absorbing that they prompt me to pay more attention to the individual lifeforms around me and recognize their beauty.

A sense of dark ecology
A sense of dark ecology. Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.
[Image description: Dark leaves with raindrops against a black background.]

I came across Dark Ecology after reading Area X. Dark Ecology is an eco-philosophical book arguing that eco-awareness is “dark-depressing,” “dark-uncanny,” and “dark-sweet.”[4] Morton takes me on a journey through these three elements, showing that eco-awareness is often uncomfortable. For example, most of us have an affinity for, and feel a connection with, cute, fluffy nonhuman animals. However, it might not be so pleasant to discover that dispersed within our bodies are wiggly bacteria and microbes without whom we cannot survive and whose dynamics and being escape our understanding. Morton asks us to become accustomed to this unpleasantness, which doesn’t become less unpleasant through acclimation because beings are inherently strange. Morton argues that this is how we stop drawing a line between humans and nonhumans, and realize our intricate interrelationship with other lifeforms.

Human-nonhuman interrelationships
Human-nonhuman interrelationships. Photo by Dmitry Gladkikh on Unsplash.
[Image description: A woman and a toddler walk hand-in-hand in a dense and green forest in sunny weather.]

If Pangolins made me ecologically aware, Area X and Dark Ecology showed me how to perceive nonhumans more ecologically. The city I live in now is full of houses, paved roads, and concrete pavements, but it isn’t deprived of nonhumans as I used to believe cities are. Wasps, pigeons, blackbirds, grass, and many more coexist with me, all contributing to Earth’s ecosystems on which my life depends. To conclude my journey into ecological care and love, I want to share that it’s never too late to change, and change is possible when one knows what’s right and wrong and stick to the right path. Once you know, you cannot un-know.

[1] Victoria Bromley, “Pangolins – The World’s Most Wanted Animal” (BBC documentary, 2018).

[2] Jeff VanderMeer, Area X (New York, NY: Macmillan USA, 2014)

[3] Jeff VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts (London: Fourth Estate, 2020)

[4] Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016), 5.

*Cover image: Picture taken by author.

[*Cover image description: A pond is surrounded by trees and grass, with rhododendron flowers at the very back and daffodils on the front right. There are aquatic plants in the pond.]

Tagged with: