You have a second body

And it’s tethered — in ways both identifiable and mysterious — to microbes, whales, ice shelves and landfills.

 

In August 2020, I took a solo road trip from California — which was burning — to Michigan. Stopping for a hike outside Denver, I summited a rocky crest only to behold a foreboding, ashen horizon. Colorado had also caught fire. The next day, driving through Iowa, I gawked at the imploded silos, uprooted trees and collapsed barns left in the wake of a derecho storm. At the same time, we were five months into a pandemic. Things felt apocalyptic.  

This was one of many experiences I’ve found myself re-evaluating after reading Death by Landscape, writer Elvia Wilk’s insightful (and accessible) deep dive into climate anxieties and ecological weirdness. The book is a collection of Wilk’s “fan nonfiction” bibliographical essays, which pore over scores of novels, short stories and theories by writers wrestling with the Anthropocene. Titled after Margaret Atwood’s 1990 fable about a girl who transforms into a tree, Death by Landscape features highly readable, annotated essays that move at an exciting clip and dig into plant intelligence, virtual reality, science and climate fiction, trauma, toxic waste and queerness, black holes and much more.  I’d previously assumed that the landscape was exacting revenge upon humankind, but Wilk challenged my compulsion to simultaneously anthropomorphize and “other” mountains, forests and wind. Why had I so automatically reduced their complex, rhizomatic behaviors to mere vindictiveness?

Across three themed sections — Plants, Planets and Bleed — Wilk grafts expressive, winding vines between luminaries of speculative fiction like Octavia E. Butler, Jeff VanderMeer, Han Kang and Ursula K. Le Guin; cultural critics and philosophers, including Michelle Wallace, Emanuele Coccia, Lauren Berlant and Mark Fisher; poets Walt Whitman and Anne Carson; and medieval mystics Marguerite Porete, Hildegard von Bingen and Julian of Norwich. What sets Death by Landscape apart from many essay collections is that readers needn’t be familiar with the writers or topics in question to imbibe the work’s spirit. The book is a bewitching object, inviting anyone eco-curious into an intimate, verdant discourse by simple virtue of Wilk’s enthusiastic fandom. Suddenly, gardening, favorite hiking trails — even entertainment — feel uncanny in the best ways. 

The Very Large Array is seen in front of the Bear Trap Fire as it burns in the San Mateo Mountains in May in Socorro County, New Mexico.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

When I first saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s post-cataclysmic classic Stalker (1979), I regarded its primary setting — the “Zone,” an exclusion area of abandoned industrial architecture reclaimed by flora — as a wasteland. Similarly overgrown, long-vacant edifices define Station Eleven (2021), the HBO Max miniseries adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s genre-subverting 2014 post-plague novel. But because I watched Station Eleven while reading Death by Landscape, instead of bleakness, I saw potential: art-appreciating, post-capitalist communities, entwined ecstatically with the terrain. Throughout Wilk’s ruminations, “plant-becoming” in fiction — see VanderMeer’s celebrated Southern Reach Trilogy — is a seductive theme.

Metaphysically speaking, we’re already there. Referencing novelist and science writer Daisy Hildyard’s book-length essay The Second Body (2017), Wilk proposes that in addition to your public meat body —  the body that goes to work, has sex or gets headaches — you have a second body, an “ecosystems body,” that is “tethered — in ways both identifiable and mysterious — to microbes, mosquitoes, whales, ice shelves, landfills, and annual average rainfall, as well as, of course, human political and social formations.”

Writing is not productive, in the capitalist sense, but regenerative, like giving a gift.

Good writing, especially fiction, Wilk argues, illuminates such mind-bending convergences. And writing is not productive, in the capitalist sense, but regenerative, like giving a gift. Death by Landscape’s gift is Wilk’s bold refusal of reactionary fatalism in favor of championing our species’ most transcendent quality: imagination. Because if individual writers can germinate crushing dystopias or beguiling utopias with equal, convincing fidelity, then the “few rich people and corporations largely culpable for (this) ongoing disaster” — which is already dystopic for many — can certainly choose which futures to engineer and manifest. 

In May, I road-tripped across the U.S. again, westward this time, reading Death by Landscape for the second time. The complex problems impacting the environment hadn’t changed, but my perspective had. Trekking the Ozarks, I considered my own ecosystems body. Instead of bemoaning the enveloping humidity, I visualized being subsumed into fractals of lush vegetation. Throughout New Mexico, the sky was choked by wildfire smoke. But at the Very Large Array — 27 jaw-dropping radio telescopes built in the 1970s to observe black holes, gamma-ray bursts, quasars and pulsars — and The Lightning Field, artist Walter De Maria’s delicate but expansive 1977 land artwork, I sidestepped cynicism, momentarily, to admire these fantastic, imaginative interactions with the landscape. Both warrant critique, of course, but they remain poetic, risky, strange. Days later, atop enormous boulders in the scorching Mojave, I inventoried my summer reading list, culled from Death by Landscape: Omar El Akkad’s American War (2017), Coccia’s The Life of Plants (2018), Han’s The Vegetarian (2007). While the endless, free sunlight sizzled my first body’s skin, I remembered Wilk’s evaluation of the DIY green-tech subculture solarpunk as “a curiously utopian impulse … built on a clear-eyed understanding of a dystopian present.” I thought about drought, fire and the ongoing pandemic, but also storytelling and creativity. Weirdly, regenerative futures felt possible.  

Sean J Patrick Carney is an artist and writer in Berkeley, California. 

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