Week 7 – Staying with the trouble of ecological “discomforts”
As Lawn morphs into Meadow (probably much to my neighbors’ chagrin), Wild Ones move into this suburban Asheville Land. Rewilding seems to be working from an ecological standpoint, and the fecundity of late spring ushers in a flurry of Animal activities amongst the Wildflowers, Grasses, Clover, and more than a few invasive species. As I wander, admiring the diverse varieties of pollinating Bees and Butterflies, I disturb a nest of tiny Eastern Cottontail Bunnies Sylvilagus floridanus. I quickly back away, fearing that Goober, my Canine friend (who is an unfortunately avid hunter of little furry beings), might notice my discovery. Later, I observe their mother enjoying the Lettuces, Cabbages, and Kale in the raised garden beds. I have more leafy greens than I can eat right now, and have been sharing them with humans wherever I can, so I don’t mind also sharing them with the charismatic, cute, and adorable Bunnies who also live here.
Later in the day, I notice a Crabapple Tree (whose abundance of newly formed little Apples had me prematurely and joyously thinking of future cider and preserves) has been stripped of its leaves and immature fruit by a browsing family of White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus. And a Groundhog Marmota monax, who has recently taken up residence under the shed, doesn’t share the polite manners of the Bunnies when it comes to food distribution. Rather than nibbling delicately at a few leaves and then wandering off to enjoy some Meadow grazing, he yanks entire Plants out by the roots, consuming them with impressive, albeit alarming, comprehensiveness.
My cultural programming immediately seeks to divide these discomforting relationships with more-than-human co-residents into binaries of “good” and “bad” and seeks a “solution” to control or solve perceived problems. Should I build fences? Leave Goober to solve the Groundhog “problem,” while simultaneously hoping he leaves the Bunnies alone? Trends in “rewilding” tend to portray a return to wildness with exclusively positive narratives (Li, 2018; Mortali, 2019). We are told that getting out into nature is good for our health and overall well-being and that the reintroduction of keystone species, such as Wolves, boosts ecosystem health and restores biodiversity (Bekoff, 2014; Foreman, 2021; Monbiot, 2017).
These stories carry elements of truth, but in places, such as Europe (and my backyard), where rewilding is currently taking place, the complexities of inviting the Wild Folx back into historically domesticated, human-controlled spaces are revealing themselves (Tokarski, 2019).
My chosen methodological approach to rewilding, co-operative inquiry, demands that what matters to co-researchers/co-inhabitants is not only accounted for but awarded equal weight to my own concerns (Bastian, Jones, Moore, & Roe, 2017), further complicating issues of competing interests with Deer and Groundhogs. A well-ingrained sense of human exceptionalism thinks in possessive terms – my Land, my Crabapple Tree, my Crops – but in order to foster not only my own flourishing but also to work with Others to foster theirs, I need to challenge the impulses of binary thinking that would label these interactions as entirely problematic and “stay with the trouble” (Haraway, 2016) of the complexities of wildness returning to this Land.
I wonder if the psychological bifurcation of the “bad” aspects of Wildlife might cause humans to overreact to uncomfortable engagements with more-than-humans, such as by killing Groundhogs (which is legal in North Carolina, while relocating them is not) and erecting eight-foot-tall fences (which is the most-recommended solution on the internet to deal with Deer in the garden). Furthermore, seeing the wild world through the exclusively positive, rose-colored lenses of new age psychobabble, “we turn them into objects of admiration, beautiful and majestic, but still passive objects; or into ecosystem engineers, almost robotic in their efficiency. What we lose is the sense of these [A]nimals as independent agents that do not necessarily conform to our ideas and desires” (Tokarski, 2019, p. 59). Pigeonholed viewpoints based on ideas, as opposed to real world relationships, prevent us from seeing the natural world in a holistic way that could lead to “possibilities of partial recuperation and getting on together” (Haraway, 2016, p. 10).
As I rewild with the Land and all its inhabitants, and I dig into and deconstruct my conditioned responses to “problems,” myriad complexities reveal themselves:
“…what seems needed to better understand the potential consequences of rewilding are approaches that seriously reflect on the resistance of nature and its disconcerting agency, the possibilities of coexistence with such agency, and the significance it acquires in our lives and in shaping our relations with nature. It is particularly the problematic aspects of living with such agency that form a challenge that we find difficult to accommodate and so must pay attention to—perhaps much more than we have so far” (Tokarski, 2019, p. 13).
Mateusz Tokarski (2019) suggests a hermeneutical approach, focusing on meaning, to attend to rewilding discomforts. In contemplating and researching meanings, I discover that for some North American Indigenous people, Deer represent the power of gentleness and unconditional love as opposed to force to foster flourishing (Andrews, 2010). In the tales of King Arthur, a White Stag leads knights of the round table toward the mysteries of their own essential wildness. In Indigenous European lore, the Celtic goddess of the Wilds, Flidass, drives a chariot driven by Deer (Ozurrson, 2018). The aptness of these meanings does not escape me. As I seek to shed my own cloak of domesticated conditioning, I must also learn to get along with the needs and interests of Deer and Groundhog co-researchers with an unconditional love that seeks to know them holistically – good, bad, and otherwise.
I cannot and would not want to speak for Deer or Groundhog, but in considering what matters to them, I think it’s safe to assume that they want what all living beings want – access to food and shelter, safety for themselves and their families, an occasional treat, and spaces that allow for their own self-realization, whatever that may entail. Groundhog is a complex, agentic being, both adorable and somewhat annoying, with a taste preference for cruciferous crops. I can protect early sprouts of Broccoli, Cabbage, Collards, and Cauliflower from him, allowing them time to grow for us both. Neither one of us will starve because of this delayed gratification. His existence is more precarious than mine, particularly with the ever-looming threat of Goober. My humanness allows me to offer him protection and safety, and by allowing this Land to rewild, plenty of wild food to enjoy while the Vegetables mature. This Land is his home as much as it is mine.
Unlike the sedentary Groundhog who lives only on this Land, the Deer range across a wider habitat. In watching them, I note the Land functions as a corridor for them, connecting two forested areas where they spend most of their time. They almost always take the same route, browsing whatever they find along the way. My human gift for reasoning suggests that I should probably find a different location for Crabapple. I can also plant other floral species to strategically attract and discourage Deer, thus ensuring their continued well-being, while at the same time protecting my own interests and increasing overall carrying capacities for other Wildlife.
I will certainly miss those Crabapples this autumn. Living together with Wild Folx, like relationships with all people, are complicated and not always perfect. The World Wildlife Fund (2016) estimates Mammal, Reptile, Bird, and Amphibian populations have been reduced by 68% since 1970. In 50 years, more than half of these sentient beings have been sacrificed on the altar of human greed, obliviousness, and selfishness. The least I can do is stay with the trouble and do my best to be a good neighbor.
Andrews, T. (2010). Animal Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small: Llewellyn
Bastian, M., Jones, O., Moore, N., & Roe, E. (2017). Participatory Research in More-than-Human Worlds: Routledge.
Bekoff, M. (2014). Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence: New World Library.
Foreman, D. (2021). The Wildlands Project and the Rewilding of North America. Denver Law Review, 76(2), 535-553.
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene: Duke University Press.
Li, Q. (2018). Forest Bathing: How trees can help you find health and happiness: Viking.
Monbiot, G. (2017). Feral: Rewilding the land, the sea, and human life: The University of Chicago Press.
Mortali, M. (2019). Rewilding: Meditations, Practices, and Skills for Awakening in Nature: Sounds True.
Ozurrson, H. (2018). The Great Hunt: The historical perspective and themes in the mythology of the White Stag. Retrieved from http://codextwobears.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-great-hunt-historical-perspective.html
Tokarski, M. (2019). Hermeneutics of Human-Animal Relations in the Wake of Rewilding: The ethical guide to ecological discomforts: Springer.
WWF. (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era. In (pp. 74): World Wildlife Fund International.
*Throughout this website, I will use capital letters for the names of more-than-humans to signal their personhood.