“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town,” is a saying often attributed to the literary giant Leo Tolstoy. But even the inability to legitimately trace the quotation back to the man himself tells a third story, “The retro-causal quest”. The work claims authorship that can’t be proven. The quote is deracinated, from an author, and most importantly, from an ecological context. What was it attempting to address? Russian literature? World literature? Late 19th century Russian agricultural practices? What happens when the man being quoted has more bacterial cells in his body than he does human cells? What happens when a town comes to a man? When a journey goes on a story? When a stranger comes into a body?
In an age of ecological crisis and mass extinction I want to propose that there are not one or two stories. Every story, like every human body is an ecosystem of other stories: the virus that taught us mammals how to develop wombs, the ancient ecological pressures that molded us into multicellularity, our pulsing microbiome, our fungi-dusted skin, our metabolic reciprocity with every substance we breathe and drink and eat. Every recombinatory miracle of genetics gives birth not to an individual on a hero’s journey but to a biodiversity of competing and converging aliveness. A patchy topology of differences. If we understand that our bodies are ecologies, so should our stories represent textured, relational, sometimes ruptured ecosystems.
What is ecological storytelling? Capitalist propaganda mostly masquerades as modern literature. Sand castle monologues that never mention a single tree or animal or weather event. Anorexic novellas with three malcontent human characters that have affairs, live in cities, and worry about money. I call it MFA literature in the age of mechanical reproduction. These stories have no root-systems. No resilience. If you subjected them to any of the climatological crises we are actually experiencing, all the trees would topple. All the characters would melt into soggy drywall. Worst of all, these deracinated stories do not mulch our hearts. They do not compost our animal fears in the face of radical uncertainty. They do not help us or the earth survive.
We need to decenter human narratives. But that, at least to me, does not produce the facile literature of something like The Overstory with its fetishized nature, over-sexualized and simplistic female characters, and overreliance on tragedy to create false importance. Ecological storytelling can mean writing as a coral reef. But it does not ONLY mean having your main character be a mountain or a black bear. Stories with bears for main characters still abide by human narratives. I want to propose that ecological storytelling offers us new ecosystems in which to place our beloved human characters. What if we planted a human love story in a non-human narrative? This is, interestingly enough, more representative of our lived reality. No matter our self-asserted mastery of the earth, we are still subject to its tectonic twitches and viral choreographies.
Here are some ecological narratives I have been wondering about. Think of them as prompts if you’d like. Bowls to pour your characters into. Good dirt for growing mushrooms and wildflowers.
Mycoheterotrophy – This refers to when a plant creates a parasitic relationship with fungi. The plant receives all its nourishment while giving nothing, at least in terms of quantitative measurements, to the fungi. Many believe there is something qualitative and mysterious happening between the two that queers our idea of a transactional relationship. What could a relationship like this look like between characters? What if a character was a myco-heterotroph with a landscape, depending on its ecological nourishment while doing some oblique, unquantifiable work for the landscape? How could mycoheterotrophy inform stories about disability, intimacy, and illness?
Inquiline Communities – This zoological term refers to animals, insects, bacteria, and fungi that live within the body of another being. A good example is the pitcher plant that creates a water-filled cavity that hosts an incredibly diverse array of insects and bacteria that then, in turn, nourish the plant with their excrement. What if we thought of a narrative as an organism that opened its body up to other plotlines and relationships? How would that change the shape and progression of a plot? What if plot wasn’t linear, but womb-like. A perfect example is the Knights of Arthur’s Round Table. The Round Table is not a linear plot. It is an inquiline community of stories. A womb that gestates and is strengthened by the narratives that eat, make love, decay, and transform all within its soft embrace.
Lichenization – Lichen is the product of intra-active intimacy: fungi and algae forming a new being altogether often with the help of other yeasts and bacteria. These non-human lovers don’t produce a child. Their act of reproduction isn’t about division. It’s about fusion. They are the child of their own anarchic lovemaking. What would a love story modelled on lichen look like? Or what would it be like to have two different modes of storytelling slowly begin to fuse to create a new being altogether?
Gregarity and Swarming – When grasshoppers, usually solitary creatures, begin to bump into other grasshoppers regularly they begin a morphological transformation that is practically unprecedented in the rest of biology. They become locusts: grow muscular, change shape and color, and most importantly, become incredibly dynamic and social. This transformation is called gregarity and it is the first stage in the swarms that devastate crops, sweep across cities, and terrorize ancient scriptures as divine plagues. What would swarming look as a narrative device? How could it inform narratives about revolution and social movements?
Mycelium – If mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of an underground mycelia, what if characters erupt from a deeper matrix of plot? What if an author knew that three characters were really the fruiting body of one buried mycelial theme? One hidden ecological consciousness? How could this subtly inform and confound relationships “above ground”?
Other “plots” I’ll write more about at some point include invasive species, cell apoptosis, leaf abscission, river meandering, and phototropism.
Human beings did not invent stories. We arrived inside of them. We are told by geological stories with scales too large for us to even grasp. We are infected with fungal stories. Civilization itself may be a non-human narrative, authored by fermentation yeasts using humans as its characters. Let us write stories that seek to be as textured, complicated, and diverse as an old-growth forest. As feral and involuted as a spoonful of dirt holding one billion bacteria, up to ten miles of mycelial fungi, and thousands of protozoa.
- Essay by Sophia Strand