By Laura Ogden (Dartmouth College)
I. Speculative Wonder
Tierra del Fuego, in southernmost South America, is famous for its isolation, breathtaking mountain ranges, glacial lakes, and penguin colonies. This is a photograph from Karukinka Nature Park on Tierra del Fuego’s largest island, aptly named Isla Grande. Not long ago rivers rushed through these mountain valleys. Now, beaver dams have slowed these rivers to a steady soft trickle. Water diverted forms vast, shallow ponds that saturate and kill the surrounding forest. Karukinka’s most urgent conservation problem is environmental change related to the introduction of beavers.
I began my research in Tierra del Fuego because I was interested in understanding the ways in which certain animals and plants become constructed as “out of place” and a threat to particular visions of nature.
This paper is part of a broader project that I am calling Speculative Wonder at the World’s End. I am using this term “speculative wonder” to suggest a mode of creative attunement to the politics of world making that both resists environmental essentialism –while at the same time is compelled by an abiding concern for stewarding the earth. From speculative realism to speculative capitalism, what the “speculative” evokes varies considerably. Here, I am using the term to signal a thought experiment that enables the investigation of alternative ways of encountering the world, and by extension, provokes the possibility for alternative environmental politics.
My use of the “speculative” follows Isabelle Stengers work. Stengers uses the term “speculative” to suggest a thought experiment that allows us to explore the “possibles,” rather than the predetermined “probabilities” (2010:12). The speculation here is a thought experiment about invasive species – one where we cast aside the idea of the species as something that is singular and static. Instead, we think about beings as emergent within specific socio-natural configurations.
Though I cannot work through this experiment in detail here, investigating the possibles proceeds along the lines outlined in the figure below:
What happens when invasive species become animal diasporas?
First, I recast invasive species as “animal diasporas,” then I show how beavers in Tierra del Fuego are entangled in different political-ecological assemblages. I am calling these assemblages “forest beaver” and “pampas beaver.” The end result of this speculative experiment is a reconsideration of the concept of the species itself.
II. Animal Diaspora
In 1946, the Argentine government imported twenty-five pairs of beavers to Tierra del Fuego, in the hopes of starting a fur industry. As these things go, this economic development strategy was not successful. Soon after their arrival, the beavers moved into Chilean Tierra del Fuego and began to occupy almost all of the islands within the archipelago, even swimming across the frigid Strait of Magellan to reach the Chilean mainland. Conservation biologists have described the environmental change related to the beaver introduction as being “as significant as the last ice age.”
I am using “diaspora” in an attempt to resist a kind of biologism of origin. Instead, following Hintzen and Rahier’s work, I am using the term to consider the subjectivity of belonging in the modern world (2010), though extending this idea to multiple beings. I recognize the term “diaspora” applied to nonhuman beings produces an uncomfortable tension—one I share.
At the same time, I think there is something productive in this tension, as it illustrates the challenges inherent to an ethics of living and dying where the human is not central. Understanding why certain species are considered objects (and therefore “killable”) rather than “subjects” (and less killable) has been central to posthumanist philosophy and associated scholarship. In the case of invasive species, the logic of killability is predicated on a politics of pure and stable nature that no one really believes.
In Tierra del Fuego, few conversations about beavers stray beyond the probabilities of eradication.
Forest beavers are entangled in a very different assemblage of beings than their kin in the pampas. Let me explain.
All kinds of speculative logics, associated with the commodification of life, have captured the forests of Tierra del Fuego. Most famously, these forests were once the center of a forest conservation battle that included anti-forest activists in the Pacific Northwest and debt brokers at the Goldman Sachs Corporation. Too complicated to tell here, but the effort to protect these forests became the first victory for a post-dictator Chilean environmental movement.
What is clear: beavers live in a forest governed by the logic of forest arborescence. Forest arborescence, following Deleuze and Guattari, offers a timeless vision of pure nature. As we know, the logic of arborescence, like speculative capitalism, is magical and mystifying – it turns forests into places without history and without people.
Though this kind of forest love is common to the wilderness paradigm throughout the world, it has a specificity that emerges out of a particular Chilean context. Many environmental activists became radicalized as human rights and peace activists under the dictatorship. For these environmentalists, deforestation was a threat to life itself.
And this is the assemblage where the forest beaver lives. It is a forest assemblage littered with the debris of older forms of life’s commodification. But for environmentalists, who are profoundly attached to the forests, beavers pose a distinct challenge to an ethics of life and living, that underlies their commitments.
Logs left behind after the Trillium Corporation went bankrupt.
All kinds of recent animal arrivals are remaking Tierra del Fuego. There are rabbit, foxes, mink, and others. But, pound per pound, sheep make up the most significant of these animal diasporas. Though Tierra del Fuego may as well be a metonym for isolated wilderness, for the most part, Tierra del Fuego is a working, agrarian landscape. Vast sheep farms occupy the northern part of Isla Grande, as they do the rest of southern Patagonia. Since 1877, the island of Isla Grande has been dominated by sheep, with an average of two to three million sheep roaming the pampas for the past century.
While sheep are ever-present, they are largely invisible in the debates about invasive species. This invisibility tells us a lot about the ways in which we value animal life.
A beaver pond on the pampas, a challenge to human exceptionalism.
Much to the surprise of the biologists who study beavers, beavers on Isla Grande have adapted to the steppe ecology (called the “pampas”) where sheep roam. These “pampas” beavers behave in ways that differ significantly from the behavior of the forest beavers. Pampas beavers eat different foods, they use different vegetation to create their dams. The pampas is a sheep landscape, littered with the fur, bones, and dried excrement of sheep. It is not surprising that beavers make use of sheep bones in their dam construction as well. Much to the dismay of ranchers, they also love wooden fence posts.
Most rancher owners and shepherds do not mind beavers. For them, beavers are not objects of concern. Instead, shepherds worry lambs freezing to death, and owners worry about the cost of production, new ranch management techniques, the price of wool. If estancia people mention beavers at all – it is with wonder at the appearance of these ponds – which offer a better supply of fresh water for sheep in this arid landscape.
Pampas beavers are enmeshed in an assemblage of animal diasporas, where sheep, dogs, shepherds, and now beavers make and remake each other.
Pampas beavers seem both same and different from the forest beavers.
The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, in a recent reflection on the notion of the species in anthropology, has argued that a specie is really a “point of view,” but a point of view that is relational rather than singular and static. It is a principle of relation, rather than distinction. What happens if we broaden our ideas to one of multispecies relationality where the “species” in these relations is always contingent, always part of an assemblage. What happens, in our experiment, if the idea of the species goes away.
Rather than some great Canadian species invasion, perhaps we should be considering, with wonder, how entities become through their relations with other beings and things – how they negotiate historically-constituted patterns of sameness and difference through animal diasporas.
I started this paper talking about the speculative. I want to end with wonder.
On land beavers are graceless, but their ponds offer a lightness of being, a safe tranquility.
The calm of a snow globe, sediments drift along the water column.
Beavers are night creatures, nocturnal.
Of course, they may not even notice the dark as they have such poor eyesight.
In a hazy blur, their world is profoundly enlivened by scent and sound.
Chew, Matthew K., and Andrew L. Hamilton. 2011. “The Rise and Fall of Biotic Nativeness: A Historical Perspective.” Pp. 35–48 in Fifty Years of Invasion Ecology: The Legacy of Charles Elton, ed. David M. Richardson. Oxford: Blackwell.
Davis, Mark A., et al. 2011. “Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins.” Nature 474 (June): 153–54.
Hartigan, John. 2013. “Mexican Genomics and the Roots of Racial Thinking.” Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 3: 372–95.
Hintzen, Percy C. and Jean Muteba Rahier. 2010. “Introduction. Theorizing the African Diaspora: Metaphor, Misrecognition, and Self-Recognition,” Global Circuits of Blackness: Interrogating the African Diaspora, edited by Jean Muteba Rahier, Percy C. Hintzen & Felipe Smith, Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Raffles, Hugh. 2011. “Mother Nature’s Melting Pot.” New York Times, April 3.
Stengers, Isabelle. 2010. Cosmopolitics I. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.