On grieving species and ways of life

In previous posts, I began to explore how the notion of a landscape might be treated as an assemblage of relationships among bodies and ideas, playing out at different scales, from the intimate to the meta-historical. Among other things, I was interested in how landscape can be thought outwith the constraints of anthropocentrism. What does it mean to think nonhuman animals and material processes into our accounts of how narrative spaces form and change; to think of landscape as an ecosystem of multiple bodies and ideas?

Migrating stalks and pelicans; irrigation apparatus.

Thom Van Dooren’s book Flight Ways offers one model for thinking through the proposition that ecological relations are, at a fundamental level, not only biological but cultural: “It is inside these multispecies entanglements that learning and development take place, that social practices and cultures are formed. In short, these relationships produce the possibility of both life and any given way of life.”[i]

Van Dooren’s avian case studies are selected both for the ways they entangle material and narrative forces in the storying of space, and for their particular, precarious situation at the edges of possible extinction. Against this backdrop theme of “violence and potential loss”, Van Dooren develops the concept of species as “flight ways” – “evolving ‘ways of life’ that are shared, produced, and nurtured in the world through the work of successive generations of living beings.”[ii]

Cranes arriving from Africa, on their way North.

Flight ways as a concept thus allow us to appreciate two things: first, how the cultural and the biological are immediately bound up both in each other and in actual avian practices of living, and second, how these practices stitch together the cultural and the biological across multiple scales in time. Van Dooren asks us “to work across entirely different temporal horizons: to think about species in a way that acknowledges that they are vast evolutionary lineages stretched across millions of years, while not losing sight of the fleeting and fragile individual birds whose lives and labors both constitute and enable the continuity of this larger species.”[iii] As his case studies – which range from plastic-fed oceanic albatross to captive-bred Whooping cranes – abundantly demonstrate, “species do not just happen, but must be achieved in each new generation, held in the world through the labor, skill and determination of individual organisms in real relationships of procreation, nourishment, and care.”[iv]

Adult cranes spend more time watching, while young cranes forage continually.

Van Dooren does not pause to note, however, that species as such arguably do not happen at all. The species concept remains a necessary but contested one in the natural sciences, reflecting not so much an inherent order in nature as a human need for workable categorical units, for purposes of classification and analysis. Though animal populations do tend to cluster around particular, recognisable types, these groups frequently splinter, overlap, or bleed at the edges in ways that defy rigorous systematisation. Much of the confusion, as Jody Hey points out, comes down to the differences between taxonomic species (definitive) and evolutionary groups (emergent and fluid):

Most importantly, we must keep in mind that the evolutionary processes that caused the patterns that we recognize, and which we use to form taxa, are processes that acted long ago. As time passes, the wave front of evolutionary processes leaves behind strong patterns of similarity and differences among organisms. It is those patterns that we use for the taxa, but the place where evolutionary groups exist is at that wave front – they are caused by the evolutionary processes that are going on right now. The patterns of similarity that we recognize are the remnants of former evolutionary groups that might have long since shifted and splintered.[v]

Hey, too, points to a tension between generational and evolutionary timescales that the species concept makes apparent. Though Van Dooren makes fairly uncritical use of the species concept, his notion of flight ways in fact aligns well with the idea that a species is not a fixed and bounded entity, but the emergent and provisional product of an ongoing process of perpetual change. Change and continuity here are not at odds with one another; change, or difference, is the means by which a given entity can be said to persist through time.

Elsewhere in the book, Van Dooren explores how this question of species thinking comes to the fore in the kinds of violence practiced in the name of ‘care’ and ‘conservation’. When conservationists intervene to prevent the extinction of a dwindling population (in this case Whooping cranes) through captive breeding and reintroduction, both science and policy are configured in terms of effects upon species rather than upon animal beings. Individual birds of both the target species and other, ‘helper’ species, may be made to live and die in extraordinary ways in the interests of preserving – or generating – a sustainable ‘wild’ and ’natural’ breeding population. While Van Dooren stops shy of passing judgement over difficult choices made in the name of species preservation, the concept of flight ways allows him to address more clearly that link between the lives of the individual and the species – and to articulate what else is at stake in those choices, in terms of perturbations to ways of life that persist only precariously across generations of individual beings.

River restoration landscaping project; spoonbill feeding in shallow water.

The question of species, then, raises an important question of interspecies politics. What determines which species, and which individuals within that species, shall have the opportunity to enjoy an autonomous existence, and/or the power to restrict the autonomy of another? To insist on the fundamental relationality of cultural and biological ecologies is not to overlook the fact that those relations are always relations of power – and that those relations of power take shape within an unevenly distributed field of possibility:

[I]t does not seem to be enough to say that we are all bound up in relationships of dependence in a multispecies world. The brand of holistic ecological philosophy that emphasizes that “everything is connected to everything” will not help us here. Rather, everything is connected to something, which is connected to something else. While we may all ultimately be connected to one another, the specificity and proximity of connections matter — who we are bound up with and in what ways. Life and death happen inside these relationships. And so we have to understand how particular human communities, as well as those of other living beings, are entangled and how these entanglements are implicated in the production of both extinctions and their accompanying patterns of amplified death. This kind of information requires case-specific study and an approach that moves beyond absolute distinctions between humans and nonhumans, the living and the dead.[vi]

Interspecies politics calls for a way of reckoning those entanglements – and their narrative power – that moves beyond human exceptionalism. For Van Dooren, this is a matter of learning to attend to nonhuman practices of storying place:

[L]iving well with others can never be about just learning to tell new stories; it must also involve learning new kinds of attentiveness to the stories of others – even if they are unspoken or are told in other-than-human languages. In taking up this approach, I am explicitly rejecting the common notion that narrative is an essentially, and perhaps constitutively, human capacity… [nonhuman animals] “represent” the world to themselves, too; they do not just take in sensory data as unfiltered and meaningless phenomena, but weave meaning out of experiences, so that they, like humans, ‘inhabit an endlessly storied world’.[vii]

Cranes wheeling about the corn dispenser. How feeding affects migration is one conundrum in which the question of crane ‘storying’ practices makes itself apparent.

Here Van Dooren argues for the significance of animal practices of storying by attempting to point out the possible ways in which animal subjectivity proximates the human. The trouble with this approach is not only that it inadvertently produces a hierarchy of human proximity[viii] in which some animals matter more than others, but that it assumes a peculiarly anthropocentric mode of subjectivity as the principal site of meaning-making. I wonder instead whether it might be useful to approach the problem from the other direction – in other words, to explore in what ways our supposedly distinct human practices of meaning-making are in fact predicated upon common animal (and material) aptitudes and tendencies. How much of the power of ideas and stories flows not through discursive channels but through material and affective fields of relation?

Van Dooren’s approach (drawing on theories of discursive place-making) centres the act of storying in processes of representation, even as he attempts to stretch the bounds of what constitutes a representational act.[ix] I would like to push a little harder beyond the bounds of such representational analysis. Could storying – the generation and persistence of ideas in space – be a more immediately  material process than Van Dooren suggests? How do animal and material practices of storying (flight ways) unsettle conceptions of our own storying practices as primarily cerebral, semantic, and interpretive? Perhaps we should be seeking to attend not only to ‘different languages’, but to the ways in which meaning-making exceeds linguistic modes of thought. To begin to address this task, I wonder if it is necessary to think beyond the constraints of the unitary species concept; to attend to the life of ideas at the scale of landscapes that both constitute, and are constituted by, multi-species relationships?


Pursuing these questions in the troubled landscape of the Huleh Valley brings me back round to a key focus in Van Dooren’s book – how attending to nonhuman modes of meaning can help us to grieve better, by understanding more fully not only how we are implicated in processes of extinction, but how we are included in the kinds of loss that extinction involves.[x] The fabric of the Huleh Valley is thick with material traces and stories of sometimes violent loss – openly acknowledged, eulogised, or pointedly unremarked. How can a non-anthropocentric, non-representational approach to the storying of landscapes make this loss available to us in new ways? Specifically, can it help us understand not only how we are implicated in past processes of loss, but how we and these losses are immediately and presently involved in each other, so that acknowledging loss becomes not simply a question of judging past actions, but a matter of more fully understanding the storied forces that play out in the (always) present tense?


[i] Dooren, T. V. (2014) Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, New York, Columbia University Press, p.4

[ii] Flight Ways, p.22

[iii] Flight Ways, p.22

[iv] Flight Ways, p.37

[v] Hey, J. (2001) ‘The mind of the species problem’, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, vol. 16, no. 7, pp. 326–329, p.329

[vi] Flight Ways, p.60

[vii] Flight Ways, p.78

[viii] See Calarco, M. (2016) ‘Animal Studies’, The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 24–42.

[ix] Flight Ways, pp.67-7

[x] Flight Ways, p.18




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