restricted access Subnature Writing
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Subnature Writing

Within the rural settings typical of Romanticism and Realism abounds an overlooked ‘ruderal’ setting: edges of fields and abandoned pastures, pools of runoff and drainage ditches, roadsides and railway embankments. Ruderal landscapes are residual places, the remainders of pastoral practices, industrialization, warfare. These are vague terrains whose residents unsettle existing concepts of nature. Gilles Clément observes that for the botanical vagabonds known as ruderals—or, more dismissively, ‘weeds’—the difference between a parking lot and a talus field can be negligible. Such plants stitch together spaces generated by both anthropogenic and natural disturbances, thereby eliding any division between the natural and the unnatural.

Neither actively cultivated nor naturally-occurring, generated by human activity but largely abandoned, these rogue life forms and makeshift landscapes point to the third possibility—Clément speaks of The Third Landscape—of the ‘subnatural.’ From smoke to puddles, detritus to dust, such peripheral and denigrated environments have been the recent subject of engagement by theorists of architecture and urban design.1 While literature exhibits a receptivity to these in-between spaces, literature’s theorists have not been equally hospitable. [End Page 151]

If ruderals favor places of unlikely growth, it perhaps figures that the carefully tended countrysides of the 19th century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter would serve as a site of their flourishing. Critical inquiry into his depiction of the natural world has tended to linger over those pastoral scenes largely absent of human life and only sparsely interspersed by pristinely-maintained dwellings. Yet, for all of those exhaustive descriptions of place, those narratives remain fascinated by the nondescript debris of a terra incognita:

When I, in the spring, had left our capital and was walking slowly up a mountain behind the coach, I once came to a standstill by a pile of boulders that had been taken from a river bed and strewn by the road. I regarded this thing with a sense of awe. I recognized the harbingers of our mountains in the red, white gray, dark yellow and speckled stones all with flat rounded shapes; I recognized the craggy home of each one, where it had been separated and from whence it had been sent out. Here it lay among comrades whose birthplaces were often many miles distant from its own; all of them had assumed the same shape, and all were waiting to be broken apart and used on the road.2

In critical thought there has been an emerging recognition and reconsideration, as Ben Woodard writes, of how “the Earth has been used to ground thought instead of bending it.”3 The roadside pile serves as one such site of a shake-up. Not yet a substrate for commerce, but no longer geologically stratified, the superfluous stones can be read as a rudimentary marker of the shock of modernity with its economies of resource extraction.

Standing in for absent memorials, debris also acts as the site of a multidirectional memory. The word ‘ruderal’ itself retrieves the Latin rudus [‘rubble’] and scatters it into modern languages. Writing of rubble and ruins in the Gran Chaco of Argentina, Gastón Gordillo observes, “For the rural poor, these palimpsests of debris evoke—rather than dead relics from a distant past—the latent and ongoing presence in the living geographies of the present of the processes of violence that created them.”4 Likewise, but in ways that remain to be worked out in greater resolution, conspicuous anomalies and vacancies in Stifter’s landscapes mark out displaced responses to the sometimes violent suppression of popular uprisings around 1848 in Austria. References to these events remain cryptic, but the cryptic itself is represented in the catacombs, underground dwellings, and remote hideouts into which his characters often withdraw. [End Page 152]

Sub-terranean space could also be construed here as something less than a terrain, an inadequate ground that permits no sustained dwelling. In Walter Benjamin’s brief 1918 essay, Stifter’s writing is defined by its inadequacy: “The ability to somehow present ‘shattering,’ whose expression man seeks primarily in language, is absolutely lacking for him.”5 Yet already Benjamin’s vague expression “to somehow present ‘shattering’ [irgendwie ‘Erschütterung’ darzustellen...