anthropology of environments: what I learned from the horseshoe crabs

anthropology of environments: what I learned from the horseshoe crabs

panoramic view of Long Island Sound at dusk (water with a shore at the right hand side of the image)
Long Island sunset (winter 2019)

“Would you believe me now
If I told you I got caught up in a wave?
Almost gave it away
Would you hear me out
If I told you I was terrified for days?
Thought I was gonna break” — Maggie Rogers, Light On

I spent the better part of last year living and working in the US, falling asleep every night only two blocks from the mysterious lull of Long Island Sound — the weight and presence of water seeping in through every part of my mind and being as I tried to make sense of what it means to be a prairie person here along the eastern shores of North America. It wasn’t so much the rote work that transformed me (though of course we must honour the people and situations who manifest us in a particular place, in a particular time). No, to my great surprise, it was the proximity to sea creatures of all manner that transfixed and altered me beyond recognition and rearranged my very being: oysters, horseshoe crabs, cockles, algae, jellies, fish, herons, ducks, redwing blackbirds, hawks, grasses, and sand became welcome company on my many long walks along the shore. Waking up surrounded by the elm trees, the birds, the oak and the knowledge that the sea was moving, mysteriously and rhythmically only a few hundred feet away, was an intoxicating kind of being.

an image of a grey misty day where the ocean and sky appear as one matrix
sea sky

The sea was teaching me not to allow the institution that brought me there to replicate itself as a viral output (maybe US institutions think of themselves as a viral improvement?) of Oxford or Cambridge or Bologna. (I am reminded here of Povinelli’s thoughts on the virus:

“The Virus copies, duplicates, and lies dormant even as it continually adjusts to, experiments with, and tests its circumstances. It confuses and levels the difference between Life and Nonlife while carefully taking advantage of the minutest aspects of their differentiation.” (Povinelli 2016: 19)

What better way to think of the european institutions that planted themselves on stolen Indigenous land in North America, institutions that built themselves through, and extracted wealth through, enslavement of African and African-descended people, than as aggressively viral? How did the university-virus come to be the voice, and the matrix, for these lands and their stories while paying no heed or mind to what the lands/waters/atmospheres themselves want/demand/manifest?)

The sea was teaching me to honour this place. In its irreplaceability and irreproducibility. The sand and salt and rocks and wind and leaves and heat and shells were all of speaking, softening, fomenting. They were reminding me, too, of the histories of violence visited and exacted upon this place: of genocide, of enslavement, of injustice. The sea, nearly abutting the solid sandstone foundations of nearby colonial institutions, mediated from those halls and walls by backfill that made the long wharf anachronistic, was letting itself be known.

Through my years of rote western education I had started to lose the wonder and excitement that comes with being in the land and learning it all over again. Ironically, training as an anthropologist, an endeavour that is supposed to teach one to train our curiosity and attention on relationships and all that they entail, had numbed and dulled me to the world around me. Rushing up through the stone and plaster and concrete institutions on both sides of the Atlantic made me forget that I can always soften into place and find meaning wherever I am. My amazing colleague and friend Anja Kanngieser (2015) teaches me, through their work, of the importance of listening and attunement:

“By using sound to explore political relations, matter might be brought into contact with ideology in ways that do not try to make them fit, or so that one might negate the other. Rather, it becomes possible to see how those political relations can help to build new and creative terrains for human and more-than-human negotiations. A geophilosophy is not a definitive, stable thing; it is not easy, it is a process of experimentation, it is fierce and invites contestation as much as collusion, pause as much as progress. This is a political position, a sounding position, a position of listening and hearing, a position perhaps as competent for approaching the lichen and the deep time poetry of the volcanic rocks as for unsettling the ongoing colonization and exploitation of resources and bodies by capital.”

This blog post is, at its core, a meditation on Anja Kanngieser’s work. And a follow-up to ongoing conversations I have been privileged to have with them. I want to make it so so so clear: this piece is only possible because Anja Kanngieser’s work teaches me, unequivocally, to honour the experiences I had in Connecticut that go beyond the ‘work’ as it is framed by western academic conventions. Without these lessons, without Kanngieser’s theoretical direction, I would have maybe missed what the sea and sand and trees and time and space were speaking into existence. Anna Tsing (2015) calls for an ‘arts of noticing’, and this also requires us to soften. It requires us to do away with a lot of the human ego that drives academe and disciplines. It requires us to meld into time. Allow seconds to stretch out as lifetimes. Pause. To pay attention. This is not metaphor. The act of stopping and softening is necessary in a world that calcifies us, hardens us to our responsibilities and our impacts. To be soft is not inaction. As I learn from Anja’s work, softness, presence, and pausing allows us to feel when the horseshoe crabs are near. To know when the leaves are budding. It removes the chatter and backfill of egocentric academic discourse and trains us upon the very things we are being called to do with these short and precious lives.

What I learned from my time in Connecticut: I could stand on the edge of Long Island Sound for eternity and never lose the sense of love and depth and mystery and hope and trepidation and momentum that it offered me. Funny, it had never occurred to me that the edge of the sea (not the university a few miles inland) would be my actual teacher.

Almost as soon as I moved into the waterfront in August 2018, I was called into work with those sea creatures without fully understanding why: every project I contributed to in the last year became a frenzied call to the water, the fish, the ocean, the millions of years manifest in those massive waters. I dug deep through time and space, and at night they came to me in dreams. In the acupuncture clinic, my mind was inundated with images of ancient sea creatures, with mud and silt. Water and muck and light and shadow.

digital line drawing of a small stickleback fish

My home province in Canada is built on marine remains. This long and powerful history, in part, is what gives us our petro-wealth. The bodies and traces of ancient creatures both plant and animal have transformed into geologic wealth that fuels every aspect of the Alberta economy. It is a petro-ontology or paleo-ontology that weaves our breath, thought, hubris, and movement today with the bodies and memories of creatures who existed millions of years before us. As a little girl, my dad taught me that 100 million years ago a massive inland sea stretched all the way from what is now called the Western Canadian Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. Beneath the peat and soil that stretches across Alberta’s prairie-scapes today lay millions of years of memory and history, transformation and knowledge that settlers violate and disrespect by hacking and fracking and burning and burying and exhausting into the lands/waters/atmospheres around us.

early dusk on Long Island Sound with clouds spread across a blue sky and the sun setting in the lower right hand corner of the image

We are rarely afforded the opportunity to be transformed by the lands we teach within as scholars in western academe. The hustle and bustle of admin, research, and teaching keep us out of connection with the lands, waters, and atmospheres we move through in the institutions that employ and remunerate us. The gift of my unexpected sabbatical in the US was of course the chance to meet so many amazing scholars working at institutions across the country. And I treasure the visits and meetings and collaborations that came out of my time working in the US last year. However, the even bigger gift, if I may be so sentimental and un-careerist, really was from the 8 or so blocks of cityscape I came to know so intimately at the edge of Long Island Sound — next to a nature preserve and sandwiched between a marine magnet school and some waterfront condos. In my apartment in a former Oyster fishing captain’s house, I came to feel my way through the wood, plaster, and nails and sunk deep into the mud, grass, earth, water and lost sense of the boundedness that has shaped me in more landlocked places. And somehow, I was working memory and futures simultaneously across spacetime — planted firmly in the prairie stories of Alberta and while also manifesting knowing and being along the shorelines of New Haven. Petro-Alchemy.

Ostensibly this is a blog about Anthropology, but I choose to see the discipline as a departure point for the study of relations of all manner (for a good meditation on this, be sure to check out Anand Pandian’s new book). The relations and refractions and responsibilities inherent in our existence. What we choose to do with those relationships is really up to us and the beings we are in relation with. All too often, North Atlantic Anthropology has prized its internal (some might even say nepotistic) relations between/within a few very storied and colonial institutions: an intellectual and fiscal closed system jealously guarding the matter within it (see this recent study of American Anthro’s social relations by Kawa et al. (2018)). However, if we allow ourselves to soften into other possibilities, if we dissolve and fracture and loop and weave and rupture those laboratory glassworks circulating American Anthro’s highly concentrated condensate, we stand a chance of redistributing power.

drawing of a blue horseshoe crab against a multcoloured background
horseshoe crab

I take lessons from the oil in my home province: where there is injustice, where we are weaponized against our kin, we still have tools available to us to escape the pipes, lines, and canals built to separate us from the world that birthed us. Leak. Spill. Seep. The rhythmic waters of Long Island Sound, themselves once bounded as glacial Lake Connecticut before they spilled out over their boundaries and flowed into the Atlantic, brought me into a meaningful and pointed form of relation. And forever transformed me. And now it is my responsibility to bring those lessons into everything I do, no matter where I find myself.

If there is one thing I implore of the discipline: let us soften into the places that hold our institutions, and do our best to be good kin to the lands, waters, and atmospheres that sustain us as scholars, as humans. Let us remember that we are only able to do this work because relations around us are holding us with them (see: Watts (2013), Reo (2019), Kanngieser (2015), Tsing (2015), Haraway (2016) and many others for guidance). The calcified remains of the old white supremacist colonial capitalist orders of being are not coming with us as the world shifts. Let us be the acid dissolving those old hateful orders. Let us be agents coming into new equilibria. As many brilliant thinkers, scholars, advocates around the world are shouting: it is time to manifest something otherwise. In Anthropology, this change is not going to come from within the discipline as we already know it. Time to seep, leak, spill outwards and manifest new possibilities outside the closed loop systems now running the show.

Works Cited: 

Kanngieser, Anja. 2015. “Geopolitics and the Anthropocene: Five Propositions for Sound”. GeoHumanities 1(1): 80-85.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Kawa, N. C., Clavijo Michelangeli, J. A., Clark, J. L., Ginsberg, D., & McCarty, C.. 2018. The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities. American Anthropologist, 121(1), 14–29.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.

Reo, Nicholas. 2019. “Inawendiwin and Relational Accountability in Anishnaabeg Studies: The Crux of the Biscuit”. Journal of Ethnobiology 39(1): 65-75.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Watts, Vanessa. 2013. “Indigenous place-thought and agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!)”. Decolonization 2(1), 20-34.

One Reply to “anthropology of environments: what I learned from the horseshoe crabs”

  1. A lovely meditation, which, oddly enough, reminds me of my father. We lived at the head of a tidal estuary that flowed into a small river that flowed into Chesapeake Bay. My dad loved to go fishing. One day I asked him why. I will never forget his answer: “If I told people I like to go out and stare at the water, they would think I was crazy.” In one of my last memories of him, it is dusk. He is sitting at the end of our pier staring at the water. A great blue heron flies down and sits beside him, no more than a yard away. They stare at the water together.