by Amanda Fiorino
I love to consider and reconsider narratives, and how these times of unpredictability and uncertainty are framed. Turning them over like a cherry seed rolling around the soft tissue of my tongue as I wonder about what might have been overlooked, dismissed, undervalued, or shaken off rapaciously. Particularly, certain elements that might feel too disturbing to even think about. Elements that puncture and permeate the most well-laid foundation. A foundation that might be relied upon for its perceived solidity and impermeability, only to have roots bulge and lift the well-placed stones from their designations. I'm especially drawn to binaries and cultural dualisms, spaces where the multiplicitous nature of life is conveniently left out.
When I speak of narratives here I mean meta-stories that govern cultural "normativities," reinforce larger relational agreements that embed themselves into movements and institutions, and guide our activisms. Activisms can become attempts at futuristic cosmologies. Creation stories that seek to change the world, with relational tenets for all to imbibe. Stories matter. Not because of their perceived rightness or wrongness. Rather, they matter because they are living forces that reside in the cellular, soft-tissued, body of existence. They matter because they are of matter. Stories take time to gestate, and are often marked by their wily, resilient root systems.
One particular narrative that is quite prevalent within many environmental movements is the idea that the more-than-human (MTH) world is voiceless. And, as such, is in need of humanity speaking up for and on behalf of them. This also shows up in justice movements with folx who experience cultural marginalization - an attempt to situate voices out along the periphery away from "centralized" voices. But when you understand the world from eco-plicitous entaglements, centers become nexuses of dendritic and rhizomatic proportion. Places of multiplicitous apprehension, horizontal becoming, and trans-specied connections. Under-standings proliferate, and interdependent co-arising mutualisms fruit hybrids that are poly distributes dawning evolutionary possibilities. The bee pollinates the flower, the flower proliferates and fruits, the fruit feeds the bear, the bear spreads the fruit seeds through it's scat, the scat calls in the flies, and the flies feed the birds. Gut bacteria that live in the human stomach help digest certain foods that humans cannot digest on their own - both are fed.
The voiceless-narrative spawns dualisms, and is similar to the idea that human's are either "unnatural" (i.e. separate from nature) or certain behaviors are categorically "unnatural" if they are deemed ecologically destructive (i.e. capitalism, industrialization). Actions become polarized and removed from the myriad other complex relationships that make "polarities" possible. This narrative also intersects with the narrative of human exceptionalism - we'll get into that another day. Let’s re-frame, shall we.
The Earth is not voiceless. The Earth’s multiplicitous voices are all around us, about us, and within us, announcing themselves with boisterous, sharp, polished, gurgling, rapturous, crunchy, crispy, crackling, bubbling, soothing, lapping, humming, buzzing, growling, rumbling, fur-licking, ass-sniffing, carcass-rolling, screeching, screaming, hissing delight. There are those who may just not be listening, or even wondering where they might listen from and how they might listen.
Whether it’s the coo and rapid fluttering wing beats of pigeons on the balcony, the yip and howl of coyotes after having made a kill, the smashing of windows and burning of buildings, the yeast in our guts craving sugar and directing us toward edible satiation, the scurrying cockroach in a cupboard, or the aching cry of whales bouncing their vocal chords off of guiding currents - voices resound and abound with agency and participation. This is especially noticeable when we wander into territories that are collapsing. We sense it through the missing sounds that caress our eardrums, and the absent aromas that crash against our nasal passageways.
We are not isolated or singular beings bubbled off from the Earth, and humanity is not some problem to be solved or fixed. We are an articulated note of the many notes Gaia spits and sings from the caverns and cracks of life's entangled emergence. We can feel, heartrendingly so, the swelling biodiversity of life slipping away, perishing within and about us, reaffirming how enmeshed and embroiled we are.
What I’m (shortly) going to say may rub. It comes from a rigorous and heartbreaking apprenticeship with Grief, and being a mother of these times (not just in these times). A Grief that burrowed up through my feet, pressing its tendrils deep into the marrow of my bones. A Grief that hollowed out my eyes, emptying those squishy orbs resting in caves of bone, that I might see other possibilities. A Grief that could smell the shaky and hot musk of my new-found vulnerability. The vulnerability of having a piece of my heart walking around outside of my body in and with the world. It's the kind of vulnerability that feeds a certain kind of ferocity. A ferocity that rattles away residual essentialisms that attempt to placate raucous and hair-raising manifestations of Mother (*not to be made synonymous with a particular gender or species).
I celebrated and grieved the world Areion was birthed into (and still do), and felt the exquisite rage that hungered for a place to point a finger. A finger-pointing that would surely direct me toward credible actions and "to do's" that could derail the momentum of mass, global collapse. To fix in place a world where all current inhabitants would forever remain because, of course, I want Areion to hear whale song, to smell lilac, to see mustang run thunderously across grasslands filled with mad-dashing mice and wind-sailing hawks. To be irrevocably changed, shaped, and enveloped by Earth's multiplicity.
Every day involved a maddening fear of my own impermanence, heightened by Areion's age and the fragility that comes with it. Overlaying that fear was the way life marked me with experience - the trauma of abandonment (that's also tethered to homelessness and abuse). A kind of aloneness that alchemically necessitates a deep recognition: I've never been alone, and my belonging is vast. I've been en-webbed with my ancestors, holy others in waking and dreaming states, and forces dwelling in the spaces between things my whole life. Beings, ecologies, and visions that spread the spillage from my ever-breaking heart with their pawed, finned, scaled, feathered, rooted, mycelial, five-fingered appendages, letting the tear-soaked blood of my life drip over the edges of emergence. Each droplet rolling over the endless assemblages of the world.
This world's beauty is gut-wrenching, and pulls the breath so graciously offered to my body the day I was born right from my lungs. Moments of awe and terror incanted through every compelled expiration. A world that my life belongs to, and from which my life is made possible. An emergent life. An impermanent life. A blessing of a life where nothing has ever been promised. A life animating the polyphyletic soma that is the corporeal "me." A life that is not moved by the concern of whether or not humanity will continue to exist.
That might seem like a surprising thing to say for one who is a mother. One whose child is "inheriting" what older generations "leave behind." Let me qualify. That doesn’t mean I want humanity to perish. Nor does it mean I’m twiddling my thumbs during the apocalypse. Apocalypse/apokálypsis (Greek) in its oldest sense, meaning "to reveal." And as the poet David Whyte pointed at in his poem "Revelation Must Be Terrible," revelation can be terrible. Terribly awe-full and frightening.
Rather, I'm choosing to stay with what is constantly unfolding and enfolding the “me” that is multi, poly, and plural. I'm listening to and for the voices of ancestors (I don't mean just humans, nor do I just mean ancestors within the last 65 million years), unknown future ones (who may not include humans), and the ecologies of my belonging (the lands I have sprung from, and the lands I have rooted into). A listening that senses their presences through holographic stretches of time, where the understanding that these times are so much bigger than humanity resides. Times beyond our full comprehension, and certainly beyond our hoped-for control.
As an aspect of expanded-states, listening in this way could be likened to eco-mystical practices that enable us to interface with terran and cosmic forces capable of shaping and re-shaping our sense of place and purpose. By "purpose" I mean the relational fields that beckon our imaginations and erotic passion to conspire ongoingly with the world. A storying-with existence, which includes the unseen and formless, as well as the ancestral. Listening in this way re-members our bodily awareness to an animistic consciousness that recognizes the divinity, intelligence, agency, and ensoulment within matter. Eco-mystical states initiate transformations through embodied conversations with the animistic world, and our synesthetic bodies are the medium by which we can listen.
Mystical experiences, by their very nature, challenge and erode fixities and certainties. And at a time where one might say there is an absence of deep listening from many of the multi-specied humans, might we consider this an evolutionary stage necessitating change? That what was being listened for and where we were listening from needed to be interrupted? That the crack of what we might call a "collective trauma" has opened up a chasm of potentiality that allows other narratives and ways of being to come through? And that eco-mysticisms are a part of the "trauma work" that enables people to listen deeply from unknown places within themselves? For trauma disrupts our worldviews and sense of "self," and these times are asking for us to be in relationship from renewed places of yet-to-be-known possibilities.
I'd like to acknowledge here that the topic of trauma is vast, and beckons a whole other essay, or better yet, a saga to be written. Which also means we have to address our understanding of healing. That is another essay coming "soon" by myself and colleagues. Ok, let's continue.
I don’t understand these times to be unnatural. Extinction is Gaian. Humans are Gaian. I'm not saying I wish to see the whales or bears or flowers of the desert pass out of corporeal existence. I grieve their disappearance, and encourage the imagining of other relational possibilities; of other sublime ways we can story-with the world. I also feel compelled to carry the knowing that the Earth has never sustained the same shape. In fact, notions of sustainability are, well, unsustainable. The Earth has never been fixed, and is a most miraculous and terrifying shapeshifter.
Current conceptions of sustainability spring from industrial paradigms pursuing the belief that humanity could continue to live in particular ways that could go uninterrupted. "Sustain," at its root, means "to endure" or "keep up a particular action." Life is not sustaining - it changes, expands, collapses, diversifies, and complexifies. Even our most well-intended environmentalisms seek to sustain ecologies and species, in that they don't disappear by "human means." The trouble with this pursuit is that humans will never not be entwined with all of life, and even when unintended, have and continue to have a hand in the terraing of the world.
Though there are many claims that romanticize our bipedal ancestors, humans have not consistently lived "sustainably." Rather, the extinction of megafauna (spanning a 125,000 year period) coincides with the arrival of humans. In that, humans participated in their demise. This does not mean that all human life-ways have been extractive and consumptive. Indigenous cultures have demonstrated this (and many still do, to the best of their ability given the far-reaching grip of colonizing culture), which often coincides with an understanding that what the land gives, the land can take away. As was the case (more recently, in 2018) in Hawai'i when the island's volcano erupted, and offerings were brought with the understanding that, that's what it means to live with Kīlauea. I also wish to be careful here, as it's a slippery slope in the essentializing of indigenous peoples. And these times we are living are very complex.
*It's necessary to pause here and recognize that current conversations around indigeneity and colonization can reinforce the cultural dualism of "natural/unnatuaral" where "indigenous" is synonyms with "natural," and "colonialism" is synonymous with "unnatural" (i.e. not arising from the Earth). A cultural dualism embedded within another narrative to be curious about. A place where we can ask questions that break open assumptions, essentialisms, and simplifications. How we understand these words informs the nature of our conversations, and thus our activisms.
Before humans stepped onto the Gaian stage, there were dinosaurs. Before that, amphibians and trilobites. Before that... you get the point. Mass extinction is the loss of biodiversity - a “biotic crisis.” That doesn’t mean what once was had no impact on what comes “after.” Rather, it’s demonstrated that Gaia never scraps any shape or form. Those shapes of complex *intra-action carry over, and inform future lives of possibility.
My intent here is not to reinforce a narrative of "defeat" (i.e. there's no point in doing anything we should just give up - which, by the way, is still a form of participation), nor reside within the "savior," and by extension "salvation," narrative that perpetuates a particular triangulated expression of victim/perpetrator/rescuer in contemporary form (which is a relic of the archetypal Hero's Journey). For "victim", at its root, denotes a creature that is killed for ritual/religious sacrifice. That, along with human exceptionalism, is for another day.
My intent is to direct attention toward the agency of the Earth, and all its inhabitants. Agency that inspires adaptational and evolutionary unfurlings. To honor that we humans are not in a creation-vacuum. We are porous creatures that have been made possible by our *transcorporeality. We exist because of viral, bacterial, fungal, floral, aquatic, and mammalian creatures alike. We have never stopped being in-formed by them. We are made possible by their presence, and by their absence. Even now, and now again, and again, we are in-formed by their disappearance. The grief that we experience with their loss changes us (when we are available to it), just as much as their corporeal and phenomenal loss affects our ongoing-ness.
Grief is an eco-mystical agent of trans-formation with cellular, metamorphic implications. "Meta" as in larger storied change. A kind of storying that is a "with-ing." Grief enables our ability to re-orient ourselves to the emergent story we are a part of. It creates a spacious receptivity that readies us for both coming to terms with what is, and strengthens our muscle for being with landscapes of uncertainty. It grounds us in the humus of our mysterious existence.
Though we are a seemingly mighty force, we are not the only force. And our existence belongs to and is a part of a larger chthonic force. A force of mammoth proportion with the capacity and intelligence to (re)generate and destroy.
With huge changes in carbon cycles, the Earth has shaped and re-shaped itself. An "itself" that is an assemblage of life-forms and life-ways. Volcanoes flooded hundreds of thousands of square miles, incinerating life long before the impact of an asteroid. The first mass extinction we know of (2.5 billion years ago) was initiated by the first photosynthetic bacteria that produced oxygen from sunlight and carbon dioxide which killed off all anaerobic bacteria. Isn’t it (at minimum) compelling, unsettling, even disorienting that humans are, now too, participating in a carbon cycle whose trajectory appears, by all accounts, to be one of mass extinction?
I’m not moved by a desire to sustain humanity’s presence in the world. I'm also not hoping humanity is wiped off the face of the Earth. Rather, I’m moved by the sheer magnificence of existence. By the brilliance in knowing that we, as a species, get to participate alongside other astounding life-forms. How we story-with the world matters. And I say that while holding the intersectional nature of these times. I feel it's necessary that the impact these times have, disproportionately, on those who are socio-ecologically and geo-politically disadvantaged, strained, struggling, and suffering is further embedded within our activisms. Activisms are more effective when they address intersections and crossroads, and actions more fruitful when we intimately examine the narratives they spring from.
As a mother, I do worry about what the world will be like a year from now, ten years, fifty... That's animal. It stems from the ecological imperative to live, and to protect one's territory and kin. And, the three years of relentless grief, panic, the frantic sense of urgency, and the unbearable vulnerability was initiatory. An initiatory ground that was further amplified by previous personal and ancestral experiences. Ground that helped me more fully compost varying layers of trauma; experiences that sensitized me, equipping me with particular ways of understanding and engaging these times. A fecund soil rich with mycelial agents that changed me, shaped me, de-formed, and re-formed me. A ground that still does. I'm Gaian, of course it does.
Moving with and through that initiatory space gifted me an ever-deepening relationship with my ancestors (particularly of the Passamaquoddy and Greek, as well as oceanic and prehistoric), and the ecologies they spring from. I found a way, gradually, to a place lifted out of the stretches of linear and singular time. I could feel myself relinquishing well-worn narratives while spinning toward a place pregnant with alarming possibility. A terrain that asked a great deal of me, and invited me to listen from unknown places within myself.
I’m not teaching my wee creature to save the world, nor to center their/his efforts in the continuation of humans. I’m imparting, instead, the practice and skill of listening. Of listening to all the voices. Seen and unseen. Past, present, and future. Viral, bacterial, fungal, floral, mammalian, and aquatic. Ancestral and inter-/intra-generational (not just the singular human). Listening from a place of hybridity, transcorporeality, and intra-action. Which also means listening to the stretches of place and space marked by absence and adaptation.
I’m imparting to my wee creature the skill of creating-with all of life; of grieving-with all of life; of dreaming-with, wondering-with, imagining-with. I want Areion to understand belonging as so much more than this immediate moment, or even a few generations ahead. I want to support the cellular transmission of spiraling imbrications stitched together by Gaian cycles of transformation we call "time." To feel the fleeting nature of existence, and to love it from all the endless places of inter-connected possibility. To venture out beyond simple conceptions of good and bad; beyond binaries and easy-evils.
When we listen to the chorus of creation, and feel ourselves as a strand in the emergent tapestry of distributed agency, more possibilities (not yet known) reveal themselves. Apocalyptically so. And though they might be terrifying at first glance, monstrous even (as in refusing to be fixed by ideology and prescription), isn’t that a mark of chthonic ones? For monsters are divine portents that ask us to pay attention.
How might we render ourselves capable of meeting Medusan possibilities, and stand within our precarious existence wondering what other narratives are now seeking to be engaged? What other narratives are stalking us? Haunting us? Narratives that long to be lived through the body of existence. And when we do so, what unfathomable possibilities open up around us and within us? For questions lifting from the stretches of the entangled and unknown edges of emergence invoke endless possibilities.
*Transcorporeality was coined by Stacy Alaimo in Bodily Natures
*Intra-action was coined by Karen Barad in Meeting the Universe Halfway
*the idea of "staying-with" comes from Donna Haraway's work Staying with the Trouble