It is hard to feel good about animals these days. The news about them is just so relentlessly bad. on the one hand, we are said to be causing the sixth mass extinction, extinguishing thousands of species each year. On the other, we continue to refine the art of industrial killing, feeding our insatiable demand for flesh. As John Berger famously lamented, “Everywhere animals disappear” (1980:26)—except, that is, those animals (and plants) that specialize in calamity: the “invaders,” “weeds,” and “parasites.” In a world of constant disturbance, these unloved species are appearing everywhere. They are nature’s disaster capitalists, “pathogens of globalization” (Bright 1999). But does this mean we should despise them, as so many environmentalists say we should, or can we embrace their enterprising, entrepreneurial spirit? Can we learn to love the lowliest and unruliest of beings? In his provocative new book, Eben Kirksey says we must.
The hero of this multi-sited, multi-species ethnography is the “ontological amphibian,” a figure Kirksey adapts from Peter Sloterdijk (2011, ten Bos 2009). This labile being moves from umwelt to umwelt, continually entangling itself in novel multi-species assemblages. It moves freely among worlds, much like the figure of the multi-species ethnographer himself. Ectatomma ants in Panama; rhesus macaques in Florida; cattails in Costa Rica; even the widely reviled chytrid fungus, blamed for annihilating actual amphibians worldwide: each reveals how “multispecies communities… have been formed and transformed by chance encounters, historical accidents, and parasitic invasions” (1). Each thus reveals the potential for a politics of environmental hope.
Or so says Kirksey, who wears his hopefulness on his sleeve. As he announces at the outset, this is a book about “happy accidents,” “collective hopes,” “symbiosis,” and the “reciprocal embrace” of disparate [End Page 295] species surviving in precarious times (1, 3, 4). It is also a book about a specific though diverse group of humans, the “thinkers and tinkerers” who “garden in the ruins” left behind by globalization, cultivating what Isabelle Stengers calls “relations of reciprocal capture.” Insisting that we reject the apocalyptic thinking of mainstream environmentalism, Kirksey turns our attention to the “desires, affective attachments, and dreams” that motivate these “organic intellectuals who are sifting through the wreckage of catastrophic disasters, searching for hope within landscapes that have been blasted by capitalism and militarism” (6, 5 ,7). By studying how humans and their non-human companions make happy homes in these “blasted landscapes” (a key motif borrowed from Anna Tsing ), Kirksey strives to reveal a political community promised by the very notion of multispecies ethnography: an emergent ecological ethnos, united by bonds of more-than-human solidarity.
Kirksey is not the first environmental thinker to write in praise of weedy species, and his eco-cosmopolitan outlook is shared by many scholars and popular writers looking for an upside to the Anthropocene (e.g., Marris 2013, Pearce 2015). Nor is he the first to challenge what Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore (2013) call the “Edenic sciences”—fields such as conservation biology, which tend to see the creation of novel ecosystems in a tragic light.” Kirksey’s innovations are methodological and formal. He does not just engage in participant observation; he translates his fieldwork into collaborative artworks and parascientific experiments, enacting the happy, creative mutualism that he celebrates in his subjects. Performances proliferate, enrolling a multitude of actors into spatially diffuse and culturally heterogeneous networks. Frogs arrive in the mail; ethnoprimatologists watch feral macaques eat grapes from the hands of tourists. In many ways, the story reads like a picaresque, its heroes convivial rogues, living by their wits and subverting social norms in search of a happy home. In this way, Kirksey treats emergent multispecies communities as “model ecosystems,” which Heather Paxson and Stefan Helmreich describe as prescriptive “tokens of how organisms and human ecological relations with them could, should, or might be” (2014:168). Follow the parasite-picaro, Kirksey urges. Take heart in its promiscuous peregrinations.
Kirksey’s story begins on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal, one of the world’s most famous tropical nature reserves and research centers. Here, as...