Fieldnotes: T minus 41 hours

Posted on Nov 29, 2015 in Animals & Plants & Stuff, Fieldnotes

My sabbatical officially starts in 41 hours so I thought I’d round up a few things that are on my mind…

I first learnt of Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s work from her book Braiding Sweetgrass, and it’s rich in wonderful ideas. She uses a phrase, almost in passing, that I’d almost forgotten from my undergraduate studies: “a council of animals.” Now it makes me think of Latour’s “parliament of things” but more vital, perhaps closer to Bolivia’s Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra.

Of course animal councils are found in many indigenous and pre-industrial European stories, reminding us that other animals have their own agency, knowledge, and politics that are not easily dismissed as “mere” anthropomorphism. And I find myself wondering if humans are excluded from these councils–from this counsel–because we’ve forgotten (both on purpose and by accident) how to communicate with other animals?

A quote from David Abram’s Becoming Animal is on the front page of this site:

“How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to the other beings…that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world . . . For we walk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives. Yet if we no longer call out…then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us – and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.”

This weekend’s global climate marches–part of the People’s Climate Movement leading up to COP21 in Paris–speak to the urgency millions of people have placed on finding a way into this council, of hearing this counsel. Similarly, the Climate Games slogan brilliantly refuses to decouple from the world, offering new identities and biopolitics: “We are not defending nature–we are nature defending itself.”

'We are Nature defending itself': an activist makes moss graffiti in Paris with the slogan of the Climate Games. Photo: @JEBA_JE via Twitter.

‘We are Nature defending itself’: an activist makes moss graffiti in Paris with the slogan of the Climate Games. Photo: @JEBA_JE via Twitter.

In Quechua culture, ayni (reciprocity or mutuality) binds everyone and everything together in ways that might model responsibility and accountability in other areas. Similarly, in a wonderful essay I came across this week, Kimmerer asks “What can I give in return for the gifts of the Earth?

“In response to this question, I’ve heard from some that the Earth asks us nothing—that there is no possible voice in a collection of ecological processes. But I think that just means we’re not listening. How does she ask? She asks by modeling generosity in times of plenty, by reminding us of limits in times of scarcity. She asks us to learn through the consequences of our failures and through the examples of our non-human teachers, helping us imagine how we might live. But we have to listen.


What should be our response to the generosity of the more-than-human world? In a world that gives us maple syrup, spotted salamanders, and sand hill cranes, shouldn’t we at least pay attention? Paying attention is an ongoing act of reciprocity, the gift that keeps on giving, in which attention generates wonder, which generates more attention—and more joy. Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgment of pain. Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine. Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond. To be responsible.”

And after posting this essay to Twitter, @ekbarbarossa offered Robin Wall Kimmerer’s recent keynote talk, “Mapping a New Geography of Hope,” in exchange:


Well worth a listen.


I’ve also been reading The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (originally picked up for Deborah Bird Rose‘s chapter, “Death and Grief in a World of Kin” but I haven’t been able to put it down yet) and asked Daniel Heath Justice (@justicedanielh) if he could recommend anything on animal studies, and he pointed me to the 2013 Studies in American Indian Literatures Special Issue on Animal Studies and said that Craig Womack‘s article “There is No Respectful Way to Kill an Animal” is a provocative must-read.

OMG he wasn’t kidding! I’ll come back to this essay in the coming months, I’m sure, but for now I’m stuck thinking about killing animals, prayers and ceremonies, and those “rare instance[s] in which imagination cannot carry the day since it does not compensate for inequitable violence.”

He also recommended the work of Kim TallBear (@kimtallbear), which I know a little about and is excellent, and Brian Hudson, who I’m not familiar with but whose dissertation sounds absolutely fascinating in its exploration of sovereignty and suffering.


I was recently at University of Waikato for a PhD viva, and had the pleasure of spending several hours with Dan Fleming. Not only does he keep alpacas, but he reminded me of Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy, which is typically gorgeous but also raises interesting possibilities for bringing people, animals, suffering and death into the open–and facing our failings.

Dan recommended Eric Santner’s On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin and Sebald, which I said sounded like something I’d really enjoy. When I got home I was a bit embarrassed to find it in my ever-growing stack of Books To Eventually Read…

I’m curious to know if or how it relates to Anat Pick’s Creaturely Poetics, which made me rethink what it means to be vulnerable.


Coming up this first week of sabbatical: finishing some overdue writing and p.o.v. filming as I wait for ethics approval to start my new fieldwork.