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The New Wild by Anna Tsing

‘Poetry can repair no loss,’ John Berger writes, ‘but it defies the space which separates.’ This year, The Clearing has commissioned seven writers to mark the Remembrance Day of Lost Species. These pieces are not eulogies. Although they respond to the grief and disorientation of our times, they are also songs of hope and memory, commitment and renewal. They mark the immensity of current and past losses, but defiantly —by bridging the ‘space which separates.’ Our seventh and final piece is by Anna Tsing, who examines the impact of ‘invasive’ species, their human causes and our response to them. 

 

Once, colonial explorers, settlers, and engineers imagined the ‘wild’ as a terrain beyond their imperial control.  As they worked to conquer that terrain for their own purposes, however, they encouraged a host of uncontrollable new forces.  The infrastructure they helped to design and implement nurtured frightening ways of being, which spread and scattered far beyond their command.  In this new wild, earth’s inhabitants unlearn habits of living with others, instead wreaking havoc on livable ecologies.

 

In this time of mourning for what Deborah Bird Rose calls ‘double death’ [i.] – that death of possibility we also call extinction – a particular kind of wildness spreads, and it is not the generative wildness of the terrain beyond imperial civilisation.  Imperial and industrial transformations of the landscape encourage nonhuman collaborators; working together with humans, but without human control, they make the terrors of the Anthropocene, including extinction.  We know some of these double-death-dealing collaborators as ‘invasive species,’ that is, organisms which, carried to new places by human infrastructure, wipe out indigenous ecologies not prepared for their onslaughts.  Other collaborators, however, are themselves natives, and these are the subject of my reflections here.

 

What does it take to make a native plant or animal or fungus abandon its companionable habits to carve a path of destruction across the landscape?  The answer is simple – even as ways to address this are so difficult to imagine within current standards of progress and civilization.  Through their disregard for more-than-human effects, imperial and industrial landscape projects have changed the terrain for interspecies relations, promoting the new wild.

 

Photograph: Mauritz Kafiar

I first encountered Merremia peltata, a woody vine of the morning-glory family, while living with rainforest dwellers in Indonesian Borneo.  Balaran, as local people call it, has enormous leaves, the size of a person’s face, and creamy white flowers. You can find it in the forest almost anywhere in island Southeast Asia; indeed, its native range stretches from Madagascar to French Polynesia.  In the Borneo forest, it joins many other woody vines, crawling up tree trunks to reach the light, and spreading its leaves in the forest canopy.  In contrast to the many other species of vines that provide them with water, fruits, or medicines, the Meratus Dayak people with whom I lived had not accorded balaran special attention.

 

When commercial logging hit the forests, however, everything changed.  The logging companies carved roads and cut down the trees, exposing whole hillsides to sudden light.  Topsoil poured into streams as hillsides sloughed their living materials.  One plant — and really only one — took over these newly bright spaces: balaran.  Balaran draped itself from dead and dying trunks and slithered across hillsides.  Living trees that miraculously withstood the logging and the ensuing erosion were smothered by balaran.  Before, when Dayaks made small farms in the forest, and then returned those farms to forest in a few years, pioneer shrubs and trees came up almost immediately — wild gingers; ground figs; bamboos — quickly creating shady ecologies in which trees soon took over again.  Some trees were saved in farming, and others, although cut, re-established themselves through stump sprouts; the secondary forest contained many components of the earlier assemblage.  In contrast, commercial logging created persistent non-forests: spaces in which even hardy pioneer species could not take hold, and remnant vegetation could not survive.  If you have seen kudzu in the southern United States, draping over roads, houses, and abandoned farms, it looks a lot like balaran.  Balaran stifles forest succession, creating a long-lasting monoculture for itself.

 

A few years ago, I began to visit a village on the opposite end of Indonesia, in the islands off Papua, about as far away from Borneo as one can get but still be in the same wide-flung archipelago.  Raja Ampat is a mecca for international tourists, who flock to admire the beauty of its coral reefs and birds of paradise.  In 2002, the islands were given status as their own regency to recognise the economic potential of the burgeoning tourist trade.  The regency-in-the-making needed funds to set up its governance projects, and great swathes of the islands were logged by commercial timber companies.  Perhaps a casual tourist, passing by in a motor launch, might not even notice: those logged hillsides are really green.  But what is that green?  Merremia peltata.

 

In one village, for example, logging stopped in 2008, but the logged hillsides are still completely covered by the vine, with hardly any forest regrowth.  In contrast, after ten years, former gardens have trees with the girth of a person’s leg.  Under conditions of commercial logging, though, this vine smothers everything, blocking forest resurgence.

 

In Raja Ampat, the vine is called tali susu, ‘milk vine,’ because of the white sap it exudes when cut.  It’s an ordinary vine in the forest, local people told me, and it does not cause any trouble as long as the forest is intact, or interrupted by small gardens.  Only great feats of deforestation make this vine an ecological monster, a collaborator in destroying livable landscapes.

 

Commercial logging is now, at least tentatively, banned.  But there are many ways to achieve the commercial-logging effect.  Road building is one.  When the government carved up the forest and paved roads — ostensibly to support the very biodiversity-tourism such roads threatened to destroy — settlers and entrepreneurs from many places rushed in to reap the spoils.  Making deals with local village heads, they cut the trees on both sides of the road as far back as they could.  Their alacrity achieved the same efficiency of deforestation that the companies had pioneered. Tali susu took over, draping from dead and smothered boles and forming a thick coating over what once were village orchards. Orchards and farms died.  Tali susu had made itself a monoculture.

 

Photograph Mauritz Kafiar

Once tali susu had my attention, I saw it everywhere: taking up residence in urban construction sites and vacant lots; spreading along roadsides; lying over the remains of anthropogenic forest fires.  And as I began to read about Merremia peltata, I learned that it has generated an extensive literature.  Indonesian biologists worry about Merremia’s penetration into forested national parks; Merremia follows what they call ‘forest fragmentation,’ a cautious term with which they group illegal logging, farming, and land clearing for road construction inside the park [ii]. Once Merremia is established, they explain, biodiversity plummets.

 

Yet there are also scholars who defend Merremia, and it is useful to listen to their voices, too.  In the village in Samoa studied by geographer William Kirkham, male commercial taro farmers appreciate Merremia because it shades out the weeds they would otherwise have to clear [iii].  (It is significant, however, that the female farmers he spoke to described Merremia as a noxious pest.) Kirkham conducted vegetation studies in a stretch of land around this village.  He found several plants that could live with Merremia, including two that have leaves of similar size and shape as Merremia.  The three survivor-species he identified push stems through the Merremia mat to expose their leaves to sunlight.  This suggests that on closer observation, Merremia is not always a monoculture, as several other plants can snake under and then through its mat.  Based on this observation, Kirkham argues that Merremia infestation is the first stage of forest regeneration in Samoa; indeed, he argues, its robust growth prevents the incursion of other more terrible foreign weeds.

 

It seems possible that on the degraded landscapes Kirkham describes, this might be true: Merremia is the best succession one can get.  However, this situation is quite different from those I observed in Indonesia, where village agroforestry successions were part of a cycle between gardens and forests that quickly resulted in pioneer trees.  The regrowing forest did not go through a Merremia phase — until the great disturbances of commercial logging, large-scale forest fires, and road building made way for Merremia.  After that, it was unclear just how long it would take for a new forest to emerge. The quick regeneration of the forest these places had known was blocked.

 

There are places in the Pacific, too, where local men resent and despise Merremia.  In Vanuatu, a community initiative put up a major fight against the vine, here called big lif.  ‘Big lif covers up every tree in the bush,’ said Chief Solomon Tavue of Matantas Village, interviewed for a video the initiative posted online [iv]. ‘When big lif climbs into the canopy, the weight of the vine breaks the tree tops, and the trees die,’ explains Bill Tavue, a local conservation officer.  ‘Big lif leaves cover the ground and find new trees to climb.  Then big lif controls the place.’  Villagers were particularly concerned that black been trees (Castanospermum australe) could not flower when smothered by big lif; the fruits of these trees are a valued cash crop.  During the initiative, villagers lined up in close march across the forest floor, stopping every few steps to inject herbicide into the vines that crisscrossed the ground. As big lif withered, birds quickly returned to the forest.  Forest trees began to recover.  Black bean flowered, and villagers could collect the seeds to pay for their children’s school fees.  It was not impossible to overcome big lif, but it was a lot of work.  The new wild tends to be that way: after passing a tipping point, it’s not easy at all to bring local ecologies back to where they were before.

 

In the light of what is happening with Merremia, it is worth asking again: what makes a native plant or animal or fungus abandon its companionable habits to carve a path of destruction across the landscape?  Unfortunately, Merremia is not alone.  Many beings have become newly destructive through the affordances of ecologically uncareful and uncaring infrastructures.  Consider the ‘jellyfish transitions’ that are taking place more frequently than we who love fish would like: under certain conditions (overfishing, pollution, introduction of exotic jellyfish, ocean warming, and more), fish decline, leaving jellyfish as the dominant fauna of the sea.  Martin Vodopivec and his colleagues have argued that one platform for jellyfish proliferation is the ‘ocean sprawl’ of human-made marine infrastructures, such as natural gas platforms [v]. The broad flat underwater surfaces of marine infrastructures induce cloning of jellyfish polyps, a form that is otherwise quite rare. Instead of developing quickly into swimming adult jellyfish, the polyps on marine infrastructure just proliferate, making more jellyfish. Marine infrastructure encourages jellyfish blooms.

 

Elaine Gan documents the change in which an inoffensive rice-sap eater in the Philippines, the brown planthopper, became the major pest of rice fields soon after the Green Revolution, when synthetic nitrogen was introduced as fertilizer [vi].  Brown planthoppers sucked nitrogen-enriched sap from Green Revolution rice, and this enriched food — added to a new lack of enemies, killed by insecticides — changed planthoppers, giving them higher reproduction rates, quicker adaptation to local conditions, and longer lives. Green Revolution inputs bred their own antagonists, which then also spread out to destroy the farms of the remaining traditional farmers.  Insects become serious threats to farming when agribusiness makes them so.

 

Jellyfish take advantage of infrastructural affordances; brown planthoppers draw nutrients from the industrial enhancement of crops.  Would I be going too far to compare these examples to the ‘enhancement’ of all our foods with the toxins created by the careless infrastructural development that has characterized industrialization since its birth?  Historian Kate Brown, studying the landscape effects of radiation after the Chernobyl disaster, was surprised to find an economic boom in nearby communities based on the export of wild blueberries — many of which are quite radioactive [vii]. Blueberries absorb radiocesium from the mineral-poor local soils, and  exporters ship them around the world as a health-giving organic product.

 

As global shipping ‘unintentionally’ carries both species and toxins around the world, they often enhance this new wild.  (And do you really believe that after so many exposés, this lack of attention to nonhuman hitchhikers can be classified as ‘unintentional’?  Might ‘intentionally inattentive’ be a more rigorous description?)  Sometimes hybridization with exotic variants, carried in by shipping, allows native organisms to ‘go wild’ in the terrifying sense I have been discussing.  Writing about the reeds that line ditches and shores in North America, Tom Bassett and Carol Spindel ask, ‘How ha[s] an easy-going native species, that used to play nicely with others, evolved so quickly into a powerful and pushy super-plant?’ [viii] This common reed, which grows in both North America and Europe, is Phragmites australis.  But the reed had different populations on each side of the Atlantic Ocean  until European subspecies were introduced into North America in the ballast water of European ships. The ballast was dumped at the swampy edges of the ships’ American destinations; the European subspecies then moved out and hybridized from those locations.  The new hybrids act quite differently to the original American reeds.  Not only do they spread prolifically, but they outcompete other plants, driving them completely out of the areas to which Phragmites has spread.  Like Merremia, this hybrid Phragmites takes over territories for itself.  As Bassett and Spindel describe, the enhanced Phragmites is ‘a powerful fighter with multiple superpowers…. Humans cut it down and poison it, but it’s a Rasputin of a plant, springing back again and again.’

 

I have saved until last the most terrifying story of all: the story of the fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, popularly known as Bd, that is not just killing individual frogs but wiping out so many kinds of frogs around the world.  Almost all scientists working on Bd argue that the epidemic of disease has spread through global industrial shipping, particularly of commercial frog species that carry the fungus but do not die from it. [ix]  Some argue further that a global hypervirulent lineage of Bd has emerged from this trade.[x] In transferring both frogs and the fungus that kills them around the world in great numbers, the trade seems to have proved a nurturing ground for virulence. Trade doesn’t just move things around: it can also encourage native diseases to go wild.

 

What does it take to make a native plant or animal or fungus abandon its companionable habits to carve a path of destruction across the landscape? If the Anthropocene is that epoch in which human disturbance has become the most dangerous force on earth, this new wild is a key part of it.  It behooves us not only to learn about it but also to feel its terrors and betrayals.  When I look at Merremia, I feel choked and smothered in its curtain.  But exterminating Merremia won’t even touch the problem.  If it wasn’t Merremia it would be some other creeper.  It’s not the plant I hold responsible.  It’s the intentionally inattentive industrial and imperial practices that created the new wild as a set of affordances.  Can we change that?  You tell me.

 

 

ANNA TSING is an American professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of numerous books, including The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) and Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2004).

AUTHOR’S NOTE. My thanks to Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman, and Feifei Zhou, with whom I am co-curating Feral Atlas: the more-than-human Anthropocene, a digital archive, game, and research and teaching tool for documenting what I call here ‘the new wild.’  This essay is inspired by our collaborative process.

PHOTOGRAPHY by Mauritz Kafiar, used by permission.

NOTES

i. Deborah Bird Rose, 2012. ‘Multispecies knots of ethical time,’ Environmental Philosophy 9(1): 127–140.

ii. Jani Master, Sri Tjitrosoedirdjo, Ibnul Qayam, and Soekisman Tjitrosedirdo, 2013. ‘Ecological impact of Merrimia peltate (L.) Merrill invasion on plant diversity at Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park,’ Biotropia 20(1): 29–37.

iii. William Kirkham, 2005. Valuing invasives: understanding Merremia peltata invasion in post-colonial Samoa, PhD. Dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.

iv. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Au2lWVhPBp8

v. Martin Vodopivec, Alvaro Peliz, and Alenka Malej, 2017.  ‘Offshore marine constructions as propagators of moon jellyfish dispersal,’ Environmental Research Letters 12(8). 084003.

vi. Elaine Gan, 2017. ‘An unintended race: miracle rice and the Green Revolution,’ Environmental Philosophy 14(1): 61–81.

vii. Kate Brown, n.d. ‘Radioactive blueberries,’ In Anna Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman, and Feifei Zhou, eds., Feral Atlas: the more-than-human Anthropocene.  Digital project in preparation.

viii. Tom Bassett and Carol Spindel, n.d., ‘Entangled species: Phragmites and humans in North America,’ In Anna Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman, and Feifei Zhou, eds., Feral Atlas: the more-than-human Anthropocene.  Digital project in preparation.

ix. Matthew Fisher, Trenton Garner, and Susan F. Walker. 2009. ‘Global Emergence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis and Amphibian Chytridiomycosis in Space, Time, and Host,’ Annual Review of Microbiology 63:291–310.

x. Rhys A. Farrer, Lucy A. Weinert, Jon Bielby, Trenton W. J. Garner, Francois Balloux, Frances Clare, Jaime Bosch, Andrew A. Cunningham, Che Weldon, Louis H. du Preez, Lucy Anderson, Sergei L. Kosakovsky Pond, Revital Shahar-Golan, Daniel A. Henk, and Matthew C. Fisher. 2011. ‘Multiple emergences of genetically diverse amphibian infecting chytrids include a globalized hypervirulent recombinant lineage,’ PNAS   https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1111915108

 

The essays in this series were supported by the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. You can find out more about their work here.  

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