The Way We Talk About Nature Is Getting Weirder

A new book argues that giving space to strange phenomena helps us pay better attention to the crises of our time.

Collage of videos with a human eye in the middle surrounded by natural disasters
Internet Archive; Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

“The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it,” the cultural theorist and critic Mark Fisher wrote in his 2017 book, The Weird and the Eerie. Strange phenomena call our attention to the sprawling nature of time and our own insignificance. Think of H. P. Lovecraft’s ancient sea beast in “The Call of Cthulhu,” emerging improbably into the present. Think of Jeff VanderMeer’s breathing “tower” in Annihilation, with its life-forms that defy scientific understanding. Think of the wildfires in Spain that brought weather extremes to unexpected places. Think of the near-unfathomable rupture of a global pandemic.

The way we talk about the natural world is getting odder. In the early days of the pandemic, sightings of wild animals in cities and rideshare scooters abandoned in waterways prompted the “nature is healing” meme, with its suggestion that human inactivity was a boon to the planet. Writers have long picked up on this anxiety, composing stories that question 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 linked to our environments than we tend to believe. As we live through the Anthropocene, our current epoch of human-made disaster, a new book, Elvia Wilk’s Death by Landscape, argues compellingly that giving more space to the weird can help us reconsider our relationships to nature—and, even in the face of institutional inertia, exercise greater responsibility to each other.

Death by Landscape draws from Fisher and others to show how authors are giving voice to these experiences. Some fictional characters, for example, are literally becoming the landscape. In the 1990 Margaret Atwood story that lends its name to Wilk’s collection, a girl disappears in the wilderness. Her friend becomes convinced that she has transformed into a tree and perceives her in a woodsy painting issuing a strange shout of “recognition, or of joy.” Han Kang’s 1997 story “The Fruit of My Woman” witnesses its protagonist slowly transitioning into a houseplant to “escape” her apartment and her husband, who waters her until she fruits from the mouth. “The story of person-becoming-plant is not about reversal or reversion to some imagined natural state,” Wilk writes. “On the contrary, it’s about seeing people as always already plant, plant as always already human, and those distinctions as always already weird.” In other words, we are part of the picture, but we must surrender our place at its center.

What would it look like to become a more integrated part of our surroundings? For answers, Wilk burrows into the rabbit hole of speculative internet subcultures. The solarpunk movement, which gained popularity in the 2010s, speaks a language of futuristic DIY sustainability that could include “solar rooftops and roadways” alongside art nouveau design, according to one proponent on Tumblr. It may be more aesthetic than practical, Wilk admits. But solarpunk-adjacent fictions such as Omar El Akkad’s American War, in which domestic combat rages over enforced sustainability measures, raise more interesting possibilities. In El Akkad’s dystopia, citizens are forced to rely on cutting-edge but painfully slow solar-powered vehicles while older “fossil cars” are considered contraband; meanwhile, deadly northern drones circle overhead as southern insurrectionists prowl with antique rifles. This collision of sci-fi warfare and environmentalism, Wilk suggests, is jolting to the reader, in part because it reminds us that sustainable technology doesn’t automatically deliver a utopian future. On the contrary, she writes, it would require acts of “collective imagination and organization” to realize even the relatively modest improvements that the solarpunks advocate.

Wilk, it should be said, is also a practitioner of the weird. Her smart, scrappy debut novel, Oval, shares concerns with the works she discusses: environmental collapse, devastating inequality, profit-seeking tech overlords, and the neuroses these conditions can cause. Another promisingly weird technique influenced the novel’s development: live-action role-play. The sophisticated Nordic style of gaming—which takes cues from psychodrama and BDSM play, among other ideas, and encourages players to build complex societies and explore topics like consent rather than, say, try to win—inspired Wilk to run a LARP simulation of her story with experienced gamers. The exercise helped her understand how characters might act as climate disasters unfold in her book. But the most surprising experience was how her role in the LARP bled into her daily existence, “blurring … the line between the narrative of your life and the narrative of the game.” She wonders whether such games, with their elaborate social structures and emphasis on collective decision making, could “bleed” back into civic engagement in a deeply inegalitarian real world. The idea that we might LARP our way to a better society seems a bit precious. But think about how you perform a role at work and sometimes take it home with you. As long as we’re gaming out social roles, they might as well be equitable ones.

Death by Landscape is an attempt, essentially, to shift the cultural vibe. Wilk is troubled by the societal impulse to cede intractable problems 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 abet this impulse. She points to 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 “max out the empathic faculties” of its audience and doesn’t 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 headier, but also more interactive: close-reading a novel, participating in a LARP, or using VR that allows actual conversation. Though the insights these experiences may yield are individual ones, they offer something akin to an “emotional education” and ultimately encourage us to look outward.

Still, an emotional education can be traumatic. Wilk writes memoiristically, and anyone can see how her themes “bleed” into her life. At one point, armed with Bessel van der Kolk’s popular 2014 trauma study, The Body Keeps the Score, she seeks out treatment for 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 losing old coping mechanisms. The return of repressed emotions is the very definition of the weird: It brings into our everyday lives memories that we neither welcome nor totally understand. But these bursts are not the end, Wilk writes. They’re a step toward changing our relationships with ourselves and those around us.

Fisher, too, connected such weirdness to trauma, reminding readers that, in Lovecraft’s work, the weird “concerns ruptures in the very fabric of experience itself.” That interpretation is especially helpful to understanding the monsters we live with today. What are the climate crisis and the resulting pandemic if not traumas that have torn through ordinary experience? These phenomena have inspired brief moments of heightened meaning, but sustaining them will take greater attention.

The point of rupture, for Fisher, was not to debilitate but to allow “the new to emerge.” Wilk wants readers to begin that process by reading and living more intentionally. “I’m not delusional enough to claim that a novel is going to explode the value systems, politics, economics, and forms of knowledge that have produced the extinction era,” she writes. Rather, her essays are an example of what the literary scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called “reparative reading,” a practice that aims to rebuild readers’ sense of responsibility to the world we live in by seeking unexpected possibilities, play, and even pleasure in what we read—rather than only the starkest and most depressing realities. In pointing to small, individual moments of clarity, Wilk suggests that living attentively is a continuous project. It might not revolutionize our world, but it can ignite new approaches to the everyday problems of our era, approaches that we can share. The works that Wilk explores are not solutions, she writes, but “small explosions with far-reaching fragments.” The idea, then, is for us to take these weird fragments as far as we can.

By Elvia Wilk
By Omar El Akkad

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