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  • Consider the SquirrelFreaks, Vermin, and Value in the Ruin(s) of Nature
  • Nicholas Holm (bio)

You know, they say three species disappear off the planet every day. You wonder how many new ones are being created.

—Fox Mulder, “The Host,” X-Files (season 2)

Paustovsky the nature-lover notices no flamingos, no shrimp, no crabs, no marine mammals. Even though, as almost every guidebook mentions, the Caspian ringed seal is frequently seen frolicking in the harbour at Krasnovodsk. . . . And suddenly I think I understand what is driving Paustovsky: he had to describe the eastern shoreline of the Caspian as a Martian landscape, the bay at Kara Bogaz as a deadly morass. How else could he present the industrialisation of this virgin territory as a blessing? Paustovksy, who viewed “a living bond with nature” as a prerequisite for the writer’s calling, had mentally transformed the bay at Kara Bogaz into the ultimate expanse of “non-nature.”

—Frank Westerman, Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin’s Writers

Environmental and ecological movements, as varied and inconsistent in their ideologies and politics, goals and methods, as they might be, share at least one crucial idea in common: human society should do its best not to (further) damage nature too much. Although they might disagree regarding what it means to “do one’s best” or “damage too much,” regardless of their professed radicalness or the perceived depth (or shallowness) of their ecology, all organizations or persons who claim the designation “ecological,” seek to limit,1 if not prevent entirely, the damage inflicted by humanity on what, for convenience’s sake, will here be referred to as “nature.” This situation gives rise to a contradiction, however, particularly with respect to the purported progressive politics of left-leaning green movements. Although such movements have the capacity to envision an improvement in society, which in this context connotes a more eco-friendly [End Page 56] way of living, I argue that they fail to imagine any possible positive development in their central object of concern: the natural world.

The dominant environmental discourse does not allow for the possibility of progressive changes in the nature that it is attempting to save. Instead, in the language of groups such as Greenpeace, almost any changes in natural systems, relations, and populations, unless perceived to harken back to an earlier state, are almost inevitably interpreted as damage. While newer currents in ecological science have moved away from equilibrium models of balance and stability in nature, the assumptions of earlier understandings of a static nature continue to structure much popular, political, and even scientific environmental discussion. As a consequence, environmentalism can be understood as always potentially and problematically conservative with respect to nature in ways that, I suggest, echo social prejudice regarding problematic and “undesirable” citizens of the modern state. Drawing on the subfield of “new ecology,” I thus suggest the contours of an alternate, progressive understanding of the environment that does not seek simply to valorize, venerate, and protect nature’s status quo: Because why, for those who wish to revolutionize society (often in the service of nature), can nature never be revolutionized? This particular provocation will be investigated via the figure of the squirrel, who I suggest functions as a “natural revolutionary,” whose disruption of discourses of nature is defused through the mobilization of terms such as “vermin,” but who, if considered as a worthwhile inhabitant of a legitimate environment, can point the way toward a progressive, rather than conservative, conception of that realm often referred to as nature.

However, before I offer any further argumentation, I believe it is pertinent first to offer a brief biographical note to explain how my particular fascination and valorization of the squirrel arose, and which provides the context for the genesis of the current discussion. Given the widespread global distribution of the squirrel, who exists as a domestic (not to be confused with domesticated) creature across Eurasia, Africa, and throughout the Americas, my upbringing in New Zealand—one of the few landmasses on earth devoid not only of squirrels but of any native rodent population whatsoever—could be considered woefully squirrel-free. Consequently, my move to North America for...


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