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writing with nonhumans

Megan Betz

How my daughter first and most frequently navigated the Orchard.

How my daughter first and most frequently navigated the Orchard.

We were fortunate to have Dr. Laura Ogden visiting IU the last two day, helping guide discussions with a great collection of scholars from across campus. This morning, she led a methods workshop, sharing her thoughts on the heaviest lifting method at work in multispecies work: writing while holding onto the contact zones of humans and more. I took pages of notes that I’d love to share here, but I wanted to focus on the most practical piece of the morning. But stick around to the end—I’ll close this post with a “speculative wonder” reading list.

For 15 minutes, we had to sit with our thoughts and write what emerged while considering the following question:

Thinking about an intimate moment that is hear and far—how are nonhumans sensing the world?

 Here’s what emerged for me.

- - -

I think of the way that my daughter can never unknow apple trees. I think of how I can never know pruning these trees without also calling to images of the beginning of her life. In many of these moments, she is literally entangled in me. Still bound in my body as we plant the first apple trees in our front yard. Nested against my body as I review pruning diagrams, manuals, videos—all form of instruction as I brace myself for tending our trees. I think of leaving her in the care of my parents for the first time, so that I could go to the orchard with my husband and attend a pruning workshop. Then, we are together again. She is wrapped against me, nursing as I hold my mug of coffee and watch as my husband—always quicker to action than I am—take the first pruning cuts from those trees we planted. I watch from the window, holding onto the things I can still control—my baby, my mug. Later, we are again together, and this time our family of three navigates the orchard together. From her position in a carrier, Madeline watches as I prune branches from an enterprise apple tree. I hand her small branches, and her mittens tangle in the small buds where fruit and leaf would unfold.

I think of the way Madeline and the pruning cuts I make will always be in the process of sealing themselves off from me. Of the way, even in knowing the apple tree, Madeline knows only the stories of apples we’ve been allowed to keep alive. I think of the way that she has already learned to eat around the apple core, then discard it without considering the seeds.

Lately, I think of the wild apple tree. Is there such a thing? And yet, can a tree ever be otherwise? Can we save the seeds from the fruit our trees bear, plant them, and allow them to come into the world, our yard, our diet, in all of their rule-breaking nature? Can we learn to love these unwanted, unasked-for, unconsidered apples, and what futures would that open for us?

The apple has not yet made it into seed banks. To make a new apple tree that in any way reflects the tree you’re currently working with, you must clone it. Take a cutting, graft it onto root stock, and nurture the connection for years. There is a high mortality rate at nurseries. In seed banks, there is a 100% mortality rate. The genetic material must be kept in its tree form—a branch and its roots—and this never makes it through more than a moment of the seed bank’s permanent winter. In maintaining the integrity of the fruit we’ve deemed fit for our diets, we fail to imagine an apple tree otherwise.

And yet, each year, the apple tree does only this. Creates each new apple with multiple alternate unfurlings for our future. With each pruning cut, I wonder what I’m cutting away—and what my daughter will choose to grow, will be able to grow, generations from now. Will we be tending the same trees? The same cultivar of tree? An apple that is currently known?

- - -

Overall, Dr. Ogden encouraged us to consider how thinking through and with the lives of other species help us write them. Here are some pieces that may support you in that process. I’ll be requesting many of these from the library soon.

  • Bryant, Levi R. ; Srnicek, Nick & Harman, Graham (2011). Towards a Speculative Philosophy. In Levi R. Bryant, Nick Srnicek & Graham Harman (eds.), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism.

  • Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Duke University Press, 2012.

  • Martin, Emily. "The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 16, no. 3 (1991): 485-501.

  • Ogden, Laura A. "The Beaver Diaspora: A Thought Experiment." Environmental Humanities 10, no. 1 (2018): 63-85.

  • Ogden, Laura A. Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

  • Seigworth, Gregory J., and Melissa Gregg. "An inventory of shimmers." The Affect Theory Reader 2 (2010).

  • Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I & II. University of Minnesota Press, 2010 & 2011.

  • Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary affects. Duke University Press, 2007.