Searching for the Anthropocene

By | April 22, 2020

Writing about an elusive yet encompassing topic: environmental catastrophe and our role in it

Guest Post by Christopher Schaberg

Listen to Chris speak more about this on our podcast

I’ve written a strange book about contemporary environmental awareness.

It all started about seven years ago, when I thought I might write a book about Michigan. I wanted to write a book that reflected on my home, the Leelanau peninsula—a heart-achingly beautiful place where I return each summer with my family, where I later spent a whole sabbatical year. During this time, I had been writing short, impressionistic essayettes, thinking I would eventually assemble them into the basis of a book on place and region, a literary meditation on the limits of bioregionalism and on ecological thought. At Loyola University New Orleans I taught Literature & Environment a few times over those years, and these courses fueled my desire to write this book.

But at the same time, I was sort of secretly losing confidence in my ability to write about this topic. Place. Region. Home. It seemed simultaneously too quaint and old fashioned—nature writing at its worst—and too mind bogglingly complex.

The pinky finger of Michigan: Here was an intricate, glacially formed ecosystem, a geologic time-stamped landscape that I could at best graze the topmost surface of, contributing little more than a ridiculously personal, aesthetic assessment. Or, worse, just a myopic, existential morass. Still, I liked the idea of writing an anti-nature writing book: a 21st-century Walden of sorts, with lessons for post-modernity.

I floated the idea to a publisher with a strong list of Midwest regional titles, and the project picked up momentum for a while. I went back and forth with an editor at the press, crafting a proposal and honing a sample of writing from the book. Along the way, we had the idea that the book might be better off being about two places: northern Michigan and New Orleans. It would have these up/down, north/south, country/city, there/here dynamics—opening up a kind of dialectical approach to the topics of place, region, and home. This sounded intriguing and compelling as a framework, and I wrote some sketches of the “down/south” part: walking along the Mississippi River, wandering the neighborhoods, even some excursions into the bayous surrounding the city. Comparative books came into my life and inspired me: Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, Margret Grebowicz’s The National Park to Come, Alphonso Lingis’s Trust, Lauret Savoy’s Trace, and David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen, among others.

This initial packet of materials was sent out to readers, and I received an incredibly encouraging review from one person, a nonfiction writer who just immediately got it. And then, after a lag of a few months, I received a second, anonymous review that was—not exactly severe, but tepid at best. I was invited to write a response to the reports, which I did. But then my editorial contact at the press seemed to lose interest in the project. Our communications about the book lost momentum. I don’t really know what happened, but it ultimately just wasn’t a fit—it sort of sputtered and then swirled, caught in an editorial and conceptual eddy. (‘Fit’ is an extremely awkward, ambiguous factor in academic life—whether it’s a matter of finding a job, fitting into an institution, or landing a publishing deal. But it’s a very real factor, nonetheless.)

By 2016 I had stalled out entirely on the project, and I wrote another book about airports, instead. When I was up in Michigan for a full year, on my sabbatical, I was finishing that book, Airportness. It was ironic, in a way: There I was up in the woods of Michigan, through all the seasons: In neck-deep snow and wading in icy rivers casting flies to steelhead trout, hiking the dunes, watching a Cooper’s hawk raise four chicks in a white pine in front of our house, gathering chanterelle mushrooms in July…. Meanwhile, I had abandoned the Michigan book idea completely and was sitting in the quiet woods writing about LAX, my mind in a chaotic terminal 2,276 miles away.

As it happened, that year I also found myself cobbling together another book about teaching literature in a moment that had been coined as the age of post-truth. This book ended up with some writings about Michigan: foraging for mushrooms, picking up beach trash, and dealing with ticks under the dark shadow of Donald Trump. One of those essays was called “Trump in the Anthropocene,” and something clicked around that time.

I realized I had never been writing a book about Michigan, all along. I was writing about the Anthropocene.

This is the current geologic era defined by human impact, a recognition that humans have made such significant marks on this planet that we have caused innumerable species extinctions, amplified weather events, and in general put the future of habitation on Earth as we know it in serious jeopardy—at scales that we can witness. I was writing about Michigan unraveling as a sure, steady place—because it was caught up in the matrix of Anthropocene incidents and effects. I also realized around this time that the two parts of the book were not Michigan and New Orleans, even though geographically it made a neat, fairly intuitive dichotomy.

No, the other place I needed to focus on—albeit once again—was a non-place. This was a topic I’ve been obsessed with for almost 20 years: the airport and what I’ve called “the culture of flight.” Air travel found its way into this book as an asymmetrical register and counterpoint to the pastoral ground of northern Michigan. When I lay on the sand at the edge of Lake Michigan, I see contrails in the sky and am reminded of this vast global system that appears far away but which turns out to be shot through my everyday experience of the woods and shorelines I call home, not to mention the myriad other creatures and things that inhabit this terrain. As Bruno Latour, in his latest book Down to Earth, writes: “Instead of enjoying the spectacle of jet trails in the blue sky, we shudder to think that those planes are modifying the sky they are crossing, that they are dragging it in their wake the way we are dragging the atmosphere behind us every time we heat our homes, eat meat, or get ready to travel to the other side of the world.”

So my book would not be a here/there book or a north/south book at all, but instead a book about place and no place, the trembling comfort of a cherished life on the ground and the miasmatic skein of frantic human transit that indicts every place framed, inhabited, and exhausted by human activity.

I started working on the structure of this new iteration of the book with my editor at Bloomsbury, Haaris Naqvi, who had helped me with my other books and understood some of the more eccentric turns my writing could take. Around this time, I was also working with Steven Beschloss on the Narrative Storytelling Initiative at Arizona State University, and I realized the importance of adding new stories to how we understand and think about environmental awareness right now, and this realization helped me grasp the final shape of the book. Part I, “Home Sick,” is about being up in Michigan, increasingly overwhelmed by the concept of the Anthropocene; Part II, “Jet Lag,” is about the global network of air travel that precludes anyplace from ever being merely or fully a ‘place’ as such—one of the late symptoms of the Anthropocene.

My book ends with dilemmas around the current new terminal construction project outside of New Orleans, and all the fantasies and predicaments that cluster around this site, in proximity to an eroding coastline. It ends with wish images of space travel, and how the scions of the new rocket age are recycling tropes from the golden age of flight some 60 years ago. It ends with Boeing’s debacle with their newest model, the grounded 737 MAX aircraft—talk about a perfectly apt, ironic Anthropocene misnomer if there ever was one!

One early reader of the manuscript called it “atmospheric,” which I think is a nice description of Searching for the Anthropocene, and I’d like to do that word justice. My book concludes around the tattered edges of human flight and its fallout. This is a story that hasn’t ended, and we’re very much in the thick of it, from trendy corporatese to capital investments in new aviation designs.

Searching for the Anthropocene is the inconclusive, open-ended result of this labyrinthine journey I’ve been on—that we’ve all been on. I call the book “searching” for the Anthropocene because it’s more about the search than the finding. Because the Anthropocene is not hard to find, as it’s everywhere (if it’s anywhere), everything that my fingers touch and every place my body goes. But to search for the concept is to somehow draw the frame into the foreground. It becomes heavy, looming, awkwardly everywhere thought goes—and all around it, too.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and author of Searching for the Anthropocene (Bloomsbury, December 2019). He is also co-editor of the Object Lessons series.

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