Sanctuary of the unseen forest - long shot
Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest (2022) Marshmallow Laser Feast in collaboration with Andres Roberts and James Bulley, Courtesy of artists and Sandra Ciampone

How do we cultivate a better relationship with the more-than-human world?

The bonds between humans and the worlds around us have been illuminated by the rise of digital innovations in contemporary art; immersive exhibitions like Marshmallow Laser Feast:Works of Nature have opened up new avenues of perception.

Central to the MLF’s mission is making visible the “hidden connections” that allow us to “see the world as well as ourselves differently”. Through flowing, pointillist visualisations of oxygen and carbon dioxide, moving between trees and human respiratory systems, we are confronted with the critical interrelationships that make us possible. We see how trees feed us (oxygen), but how we also feed them (carbon dioxide).

Through these visualisations, the tangible boundaries of our bodies melt away, along with the individualised character of our existence within capitalist modernity. I talk of modernity here as the connected historical processes over recent centuries that encompass the emergence of scientific reason, the development and expansion of capitalist markets, the production of colonial empires, the consolidation of nation-states and the rise of industrialisation and urbanisation. These combined forces strongly impact our lives today. MLF’s view that “our collective future depends on seeing the invisible networks between us and nature” is likely informed by the often problematic impacts these dominant influences pose.

A young woman looking at a large screen of a digital tree artwork in an dark exhibition space

'Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest', Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, installation view, ACMI, 2023. Photo by Eugene Hyland

As a researcher in conservation, I’ve long been interested in human-nature relationships, especially in the context of plants, ecologies and the practice of nature conservation. Beyond thinking about how these relationships play out in our everyday lives, I’m interested in how we comprehend them, or the way these relationships are often hidden from view. As such, MLF’s invitation to “see” these relationships is an exciting one. But having been asked to situate ourselves in nature rather than as observers that sit outside it, how do we respond to this invitation of a reciprocal world? What does it mean to enact our collective futures as result of having seen?

I want to pose the idea of being response-able for our collective future, especially when it comes to the more-than-human worlds (plants, microbes, dirt, rain and more, and their multitude of interactions) presented by Works of Nature. I split the word ‘response-able’ deliberately, following writers like Karen Barad and Donna Haraway, to encapsulate a process of attuning ourselves to how others (human and more-than-human) respond to our actions, interventions or efforts to care. And in the case of species like the kapok tree (ceiba pentandra) in ‘Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest’, how we might respond to the needs of more-than-humans in the context of a modern world that has transformed ecologies so thoroughly and explicitly. And furthermore, how do we respond to the needs of the kapok tree in a world where progress and prosperity are made possible by turning away from more-than-human response-ability?

As Thom van Dooren writes in his book The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds, response-ability to the ecologies we inhabit can be thought of as a process of “cultivating the capacity to see and to respond well”. For Van Dooren, to treat ecologies differently in a changing world means to recognise that they are “not simply resources to be conserved or abandoned, inherited or cast aside”. Unlike traditional western nature conservation, this kind of response-ability acknowledges the histories of exploitation and extraction, and instead of seeking a return to an imagined pristine ecological past or ‘pure’ wilderness, considers the ways to care for species as part of our dynamic and uncertain futures. Futures where the ecological entanglements that support life have fundamentally shifted, where we must confront the complex legacies we have inherited.

Ceiba tree research photos from the Amazon rainforest Courtesy Marshmallow Laser Feast, Ersin Han Ersin

Ceiba tree research photos from the Amazon rainforest Courtesy Marshmallow Laser Feast, Ersin Han Ersin.

Cities are sites where these complex legacies come to the fore. This is perhaps why proponents of ‘novel ecologies’ have looked intently at cities, to explore ways of caring and being response-able for more-than-human life in a practical fashion. Novel ecosystems are those that have been heavily modified by human agency and activity, often in extractive and destructive ways. In novel ecologies, species are finding new niches in which to flourish (endangered frogs breeding in farm dams, bandicoots occupying rusted car bodies and owls stalking possums in city parks are just some examples), and people are finding new ways to create habitats and ecological niches for more-than-human life in these margins.

Weeds in city landscape - Copyright © 2020 Christoph Rupprecht, licensed under Creative Commons.

The plant life of the city: weeds that grow through the cracks and are often considered unwanted. Not only are these ‘novel ecologies’, they might point us to new ways of living with more-than-humans. Copyright © 2020 Christoph Ruprecht, licensed under Creative Commons.

As Christoph Ruprecht notes, the ‘weeds’ that peek through the cracks in our cities have long been dismissed as “life out-of-place”. Yet, these plants are the result of the same socio-economic processes that make the city. Just as global capital and its materials circulate, so does plant and animal life; as by-product of a more ‘valuable’ resource, as a resource out of favour, as companion for settlers and as stowaway. In this sense, the weed is the plant life that modern cities produce. Whether such weeds ‘belong’ ecologically in a given city is a fraught question. The preconditions for life that inform endemism – soil type, hydrology, slope, micro-climate, inter-species interactions – have been disrupted by the concrete, steel and glass of the modern city. Perhaps response-ability to weeds might mean seeing weeds as plant-y forms of resistance to modern cities; resistance that could be fostered, cared for and encouraged in ways that allow both plants and people to inhabit cities differently. As anthropologist Anna Tsing argues, attentiveness to more-than-human worlds in the shadow of progress can remind us “how to look around rather than ahead”. For example, the way that plants grow, spread and occupy space can help forge alliances with people in re/claiming urban environments. For this reason, plants have long been at the heart of making urban commons, challenging property rights and guerrilla gardening.

Guerilla gardening - Creative Commons

Working with plants to co-opt urban spaces through guerilla gardening is one way of enacting response-ability to/with more-than-human life. (image via Shutterstock – Creative Commons)

Thinking about response-ability as a kind of alliance or cohabitation with more-than-humans can also shift the focus of nature conservation from restoration, redemption and a return to the past. Indeed, as is the case in Australia, historical benchmarks of ecological condition have long been positioned as pure nature, absent of human intervention. Yet, we know that past nature is the result of thousands of generations of First Nations care and cultivation. As ethnographer Deborah Bird Rose argues, it might be time to look beyond efforts to restore/redeem a lost past, and to think about response-ability to the more-than-human world as a kind of ‘recuperation’. In this sense, recuperation recognises that ecologies are forever changed. A recuperative relationship with more-than-humans is about finding new ways to live and flourish in the ruins; ways that are humble, that are about relearning in uncertain times and about living with troubled ecological legacies.

As Works of Nature shows, responding differently to more-than-humans and seeing our reciprocal relationships with them in these ways means seeing their agency, their ability to act in and on the world. The idea that trees might talk to one another as part of intricate systems of communication above and below ground is one such example that has recently entered mainstream discourse. More subtly, western science and conservation is becoming more open to the idea that the affordances of plants (growth, movement, spread, death) have more to teach us than we’ve often acknowledged. This includes a willingness to accept that plants might actively co-produce knowledge with us about their lives, shape how to care for/with them, and structure the modern societies – all that have so often been framed as exclusively human achievements.

However, the celebration of seeing and acting upon the agency of more-than-humans in western thought is something of a bitter pill. These are not new ideas, but old (and ongoing) ways of being in the world. Seeing and knowing the agency of more-than-humans is part of a relational existence that is often core to the cosmology of First Nations. As Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee woman Vanessa Watts emphasises, many First Nations position more-than-humans as part of society, not outside it. While careful not to generalise across First Nations, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson talks about this as a type of “place-based internationalism”. In other words, it is an attentiveness to human relations within and across Nations, but also inter-relationships and response-abilities to plant and animal nations as well. This is a world where more-than-humans are not made resourceful by being positioned as inert, static and dead, but a world where the dirt and sky are alive, and plants participate in our society. This includes weeds! As Uncle Lex explains on Darug Country, “(weeds) still have a spirit that deserves respect. They are still part of Country and live on in connection with people and place”.

A young boy enjoying 'Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest' Marshmallow Laser Feast, Works of Nature Photo by Eugene Hyland

A young boy enjoying 'Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest', Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, installation view, ACMI, 2023. Photo by Eugene Hyland

As a settler, one of the ways I understand response-ability to more-than-human worlds is in the context of healing Country. As Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) notes, to care for ecologies in collaboration with other settlers might feel good and offer ecological benefits, but it risks re-inscribing colonisation when it does not consider whose stolen land it takes place on, and how First Nations want to heal that Country. Supporting First Nations initiatives, like those pursued by DJAARA through their Galk-galk Dhelkunya (Forest Gardening Strategy), offers tangible ways to approach response-ability.

But the relational worlds I’ve described are are worlds that western modernity and its trajectory of human progress has hidden behind a curtain. These worlds struggle to coexist with a modernity that is grounded in the imagined separation of nature and society, which is the necessary precondition for resource extraction, exploitation and the destruction of more-than-human worlds. Yet, we know this separation is a fantasy as our collective futures are entwined, which the kapok tree drives home to us. The world we see through Works of Nature is both a helpful invitation, that highlights the absence of response-ability to more-than-humans in western thought/discourse/expression; it takes spectacular, tangible visualisations to make evident the relations that sustain us. In this sense, seeing these relations, tending to them in small ways – taking response-ability for them – is an act of resistance towards remaking the world.

Dr Benjamin Cooke is an Associate Professor in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT. Ben has research interests in the social and political dimensions of nature conservation, which includes urban natures, protected areas and human-environment relationships. Ben also teaches into the Bachelor of Environment and Society, including subjects that focus on environmental ideas and action, and applied environmental research.

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