A Multispecies Collective Planting Trees: Tending to Life and Making Meaning outside of the Conservation Heroic

By McLauchlan, Laura | Cultural Studies Review, September 2019 | Go to article overview

A Multispecies Collective Planting Trees: Tending to Life and Making Meaning outside of the Conservation Heroic


McLauchlan, Laura, Cultural Studies Review


ePRESS

Introduction

For a long time, I held Jean Giono's 1953 short story, The Man Who Planted Trees, as a model of a life made meaningful through environmental action.1 Even after the disappointment of discovering the story was fictional, the tale of Elzéard Bouffier, a shepherd living in the Alps of Provence, offered the hope that committed environmental action might result in a permanent-or at least very long-term-contribution to the flourishing of ecosystems. Throughout the story, set in the first half of the 20th Century, Bouffier plants thousands of trees. In the decades through which the short story travels, his labour gives rise not only to the emergence of a vibrant forest, but to wide-spread reinvigoration of the world around him: as a result of his consistent labours, birds come to make their homes in the newly-emerged forest and people return to once again inhabit the valley. As Bouffier ages, the forest is placed under the permanent protection of a ranger so that, at the close of the story, the forest is presented as being set to continue in perpetuity, an achievement framed as a memorial to Bouffier's 'truly exceptional qualities'.2

For me, as a pākehā (non-Māori) girl growing up in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand (hereafter Aotearoa), this story of ecological rescue and restoration both reflected and reinforced my hopes that extinction crisis I grew up in could be 'solved' by human action. However, in order to create tales of such heroics, a story must overlook ecological realities of interconnection, ambiguity, change and uncertainty.3 Heroic narratives, ubiquitous in Western story-telling, typically tell of superior individuals fighting on the side of the 'good' in a worlds containing both forces of evil good and evil. Heroic tales rely on the notion of independent, rational actors-individuals boldly forging new paths in the world and righting wrongs as they do so.4 Approaching conservation and extinction as problems to be heroically 'fixed' not only potentially greatly underestimates the complexities of the challenges at hand, but may even exacerbate matters.5 Heroic visions of conservation and anti-extinction action shift focus away from the multispecies reality of life, overlooking the ways in which a forest, to return to Bouffier's work, is always a multispecies happening, a (never-entirely harmonious) collaboration of soils, bacteria, fungi, water, sunlight and more.6 As theorists such as ecofeminist, Marti Kheel, and ecologist and literary scholar, Joseph Meeker, have argued, tragic heroic modes not only reduce complexity, but require that ecologies be reduced to reductive battle scenarios.7 Even establishing the possibility of a wholly 'good' action requires that one overlook the necessary harms that are part of care.8 Even Bouffier's planting, for all it brought to the humans, birds and others who came to live there, would have displaced the lives of those who preferred the scrub and harsh tundra. Ecological realities make Bouffier's work of planting no less meaningful, but certainly more complex.

While there have never been certain futures, in our times of environmental crisis, the confidently heroic ending of the The Man Who Planted Trees, with its promise of a humanled, unambiguously-positive, stable solution, increasingly feels out of accord with the precarious realities of our times.9 Climate change is already altering our weather and seasons; translocated biota-particularly humans-have caused massive levels of species extinctions; poisons and radioactivity are damaging not only living beings but their heritable genetic material; capitalist expansions and plantation logics have wiped out huge tracts of previously flourishing ecosystems. Yet, despite the realities of such precarity, heroic framings continue to constitute a major aspect of the public narratives that inform conservation practice.10 In settler-colonial countries like Aotearoa, establishing such tales as norms also marginalises and renders 'cultural' Indigenous recognition of kinship with the more-than-human world. …

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