How can we learn to love haunted landscapes?

In “Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene”, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt, Anna Tsing and Heather Swanson write that “Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life.” But this haunting does not just involve one interpretation of time: “ghosts show us multiple unruly temporalities”, they write.

In “Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene”, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt, Anna Tsing and Heather Swanson write that “Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life.” But this haunting does not just involve one interpretation of time: “ghosts show us multiple unruly temporalities”, they write.

“Anthropogenic landscapes are also haunted by imagined futures. We are willing to turn things into rubble, destroy, atmospheres, sell out companion species in exchange for dreamworlds of progress.”

To see that physical, ecological, geographical landscapes are haunted, “it is not enough to watch lively bodies. Instead, we must wander through landscapes, where assemblages of the dead gather together with the living.” It is feeling into the “presence of plants whose animal seed-dispersers are no longer with us”; feeling into the accumulation of dust and smoke and other particulates that obscure the clarity of the sky; feeling into the forever chemicals that have embedded into rainwater everywhere on earth; feeling into the centuries-old myths that govern the land and the generations of orators that carry them.

“We call this return to multiple pasts, human and not human, ghosts.” They are eerie, uncanny, reverberating, and they are leaving, have been leaving, have left, and will leave tracks and traces. Ecologists call our forgetting the “shifting baseline syndrome”, the authors write. Even as our “newly shaped and ruined landscapes become the new reality”, forgetting “in itself, remakes landscapes, as we privilege some assemblages over others.” But reading their words more closely, it doesn’t seem to be an embracing of nostalgia towards older landscapes, or desire for purer landscapes. Instead, it is a call to sit with “these shared spaces, or what we call haunted landscapes, that relentlessly trouble the narratives of Progress”.

It is not only the narratives of Progress that these landscapes trouble. It is also other normative, dominant narratives. When we sit with haunted landscapes, when we are forced to learn about them, and learn to love them, we are troubling the ideas of normal, of natural, of valuable. We think about what makes landscapes worth saving, protecting, restoring; we think about who we are to be saviours.

Eli Clare’s “Meditation on Natural Worlds, Disabled Bodies, and a Politics of Cure” elucidates these ideas. In his essay, he juxtaposes ecological landscapes and bodily landscapes, inviting us to think through the body as landscape. There is an impulse, an ideology within Western thought and culture to desire cure; “cure rides on the back of normal and natural. Insidious and pervasive, it impacts many, many bodies.” Clare shares from his many personal experiences that people he has encountered “offer disabled and chronically ill people prayers, crystals, and vitamins, believing deeply in the necessity of cure.” He goes on to compare ecological landscapes to bodily ones; perhaps in the same way that people believe landscapes should be cured, that we should return to the idealised, not ruined landscapes of the past, they too, believe in “cure’s mandate of returning damaged bodies to some former, and nondisabled, state of being.”

We should, of course, be able to immediately see the ableism in this framing, as Clare proceeds to point out. The problem lies not in individual bodies which live disability, but in social injustice, in social norms that refuse to honour the value of bodily difference. What does it mean to resist curing, and all that curing comes with—the desirability of perceived purity, the preference of homogeneity and the rejection of difference? Clare points us towards the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of cure, as “restoration of health”.

Following the word restoration, he adds: “To restore an object or an ecosystem is to return it to an earlier, and often better, condition. We restore a house that’s falling down, a prairie that’s been decimated by generations of monoculture farming and fire suppression. In this return, we try to undo the harm, wishing the harm had never happened.” The longing to restore an ecosystem is understandable, and at times even noble. But Clare reminds us that often the “return may be close but never complete”, because restoring ecosystems are “not about re-creating a static landscape somehow frozen in time, but rather about encouraging and reshaping dynamic ecological interdependencies”. In a similar way, Clare writes, for many disabled and chronically ill people, “there is a time before our particular bodily impairments, differences, dysfunctions existed… But can any of us move our bodies back in time, undo the lessons learned, the knowledge gained, the scars acquired?”

We are not simply suggesting a correspondence of the two: bodily landscapes and ecological landscapes are entirely different, and thus the desire to restore, and to restore, both types of landscapes, must be understood differently. But perhaps the line is not as clear-cut, and perhaps there is use in blurring the distinction between them. Which is to say that on one hand, we should not be wanting to romanticise the “white colonialist, capitalist, industrial damage” that was done (is being done, will be done) to our ecological landscapes; but that on the other, perhaps we should stop ourselves from desiring to return to a past before that damage was done. (And in the grey, we can still resist ongoing and future injustices.)

To return to haunted landscapes: can we learn to love them?

Clare writes: “Sometimes restoration is a bandage trying to mend a gaping wound. Sometimes restoration is an ungrounded hope motivated by the shadows of natural and normal. Sometimes restoration is pure social control. I want us to tend the unrestorable places and ecosystems that are ugly, stripped down, full of toxins, rather than considering them unnatural and abandoning them.” it is ambiguous here whether Clare is writing about bodily landscapes here, or ecological landscapes, but it is likely both(-and). Here it is appropriate to tie in the abolitionist language of anti-disposability: how can we move beyond abandonment, beyond disposability? Do we abandon landscapes that have been ruined, only deciding that the “pristine wilderness” is worth saving? Do we run away from toxic lands, polluted waters, infected ecosystems, in hopes that nature will run its course?

“How do we witness, name, and resist the injustices that reshape and damage all kinds of bodies—plant and animal, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human? And alongside our resistance, how do we make peace with the reshaped and damaged bodies themselves, cultivate love and respect for them? Inside this work, these stories, the concepts of unnatural and abnormal stop being useful.”

Eli Clare, “Meditation on Natural Worlds, Disabled Bodies, and a Politics of Cure”

As someone who lives with chronic illness, Sophie Strand has found the words and metaphors to transcend these categories, to live interstitially, and leads us towards thinking about these landscapes differently. Where does the body begin and the landscape end? At what point do we become separate from, or part of, haunted landscapes? In the anthropocene, humans are doing the haunting, some will say, but is the doing so active? Can we so clearly delineate the actor and whatever is being acted upon?

Like Clare, Strand too questions the politics of cure. She says, “I think a lot about how we live in an antibiotic culture. Not just medically, but [also] philosophically, culturally, and ecologically. We are always trying to manage and clean things up.” Speaking from her experience of relentless rounds of antibiotic gut cleanses when she first got sick, she now questions our culture of anti-contamination, sterility, regulation, amidst the wider context of the institutional medical complex. Urbanised cities, like the diverse bodies that exist, are haunted landscapes. Situating herself within Anna Tsing’s idea of disturbance regimes, Strand cuts through the dichotomy of city and nature, refusing to “fetishi[se] some pristine option as opposed to cities”.

Read in the context of “Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene”, Strand would perhaps suggest that we are all haunted landscapes. “The truth is that we are [all] implicated,” she says, “there’s no exclusion zone. We're all threaded through with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that happened years ago—those are in us, actually molecularly, we are all threaded through with pollution that we cannot undo, but we need to learn how to collaborate with.”

If we begin to see ourselves as all implicated, then that helps us further move away from the concepts of unnatural and abnormal. Of course, this doesn’t negate the real difference that exists between us: nondisabled and disabled bodies are different. (Though it’s worth adding here a comment that Clare makes: “In disability community we sometimes half-sarcastically call nondisabled people temporarily able-bodied… because of the one instant that can disable any of us.”)

But it will benefit all of us to see how implicated we are with each other. To think about how we are all haunted, and how the haunted landscapes are a part of us too. In “We Must Risk New Shapes”, Strand notes that “as species die out by the hundred every day, we may need to fuse our bodies to other bodies. Symbiosis is often a survival tactic… Life is a process of addition. A concatenation of matter. Even your solitary self must inhale air. Where does life live? In the air or your lungs?” In resisting restoration, fighting cure, embracing complexity and enacting anti-disposability, we must learn to re-body; re-conceptualise what we think of as “body” (especially in a world of multispecies entanglements: see Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet), bodily landscapes and ecological landscapes both; resist the idealised version of these landscapes. And we must learn to love them all the same, even as they are.

“I am a body plus. A body plus trauma, plus illness, plus pollen, plus spores, plus caretakers and friends and loved ones and wild kin.”

Sophie Strand, “We Must Risk New Shapes”


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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