Rebecca Tamás’ essay collection, Strangers, is an ambitious, moving exploration of the human place in the natural world.
Much of my childhood was spent in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The moment I was able to string somewhat coherent sentences in English – not the first language I spoke, but a language that has become as intimately bound to my identity as the skin on my flesh – I would pen fervent, longing prose about mountains unscaled, seas unseen. This imagination froze at the age of 14, where I found that my yearning had come to a screeching halt. Rebecca Tamás, in an impassioned essay from Strangers titled ‘On Panpsychism’, has potentially filled the gap in my understanding of why this was the case. Tamás argues that in this world, ‘the human is only a part, and perhaps without the agency and indifference of the nonhuman, the capacity for thought curdles and gets sick.’
In Kuala Lumpur the concept of ecological consciousness, as known in the dominant Euro-American framework, is not at the forefront of most people’s minds. In fact, much of my own formative understanding of nature was based on idyllic landscapes from Enid Blyton books. Colonial literature was, in fact, my gateway into a world I longed to enter; a world that was inaccessible to me or anyone whose background resembled mine. I would come to learn that such a world of pastoral perfection barely exists. There was little to no greenery in my upbringing, no gardens, lakes, pastures – only the spectre of a former rubber plantation, controlled to offer the impression of greenery, appeasing a gentrifying class of residents. Is it possible that my capacity for restorative thought died without the nonhuman landscape, only to be revived upon moving away? Tamás would say so, and contends that ‘the natural world is part of an intimate web of life that we share, but it is also part of our mental web of existence, one that we ignore again and again.’ It is an articulation of emotions I resonate with.
Panpsychism is the belief that everything in nature has a mind, or ‘mind-like qualities’, as seen above. Tamás explains that, ‘we can’t describe or rationally prove other minds in the mud, other ‘desires’ to live or to continue to be, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.’ We cannot prove that such a relationship between human and nonhuman entities exists – where the soil of the earth and nature bears a symbiotic connection to the human – but that does not negate the existence of such a relationship. Over the course of reading Strangers, I felt that specific notion running in my mind. Much of what Tamás writes on, however moving, cannot necessarily be proven, and the ideas themselves are not universal. In ongoing conversations with friends I grew up with in Kuala Lumpur, an overwhelming majority do not feel an affinity towards the environment. Many do not understand the stagnant mind I described at the very start –some even express comfort at the thought of never venturing out beyond the confines of cafes. To quote one of my closest friends, ‘do I look like I like nature?’
The fact that humans respond in these gradations to the nonhuman means that although I understand how Tamás’ reading of a novel ‘in summer heat, looking out onto a deep Mediterranean blue bay, hornets and butterflies licking honey from the wooden terrace floor, changes [her] reading’, I wonder how much of Tamás’ more abstract writings about the human and the nonhuman could possibly extend to most of the world. I suspect the human here is not a reference to all humans, but rather, the collective ‘we’ Tamás views herself as part of, in other essays such as ‘On Watermelon’. By this, I mean a primarily Eurocentric or Euro-American audience.
To her credit, Tamás is acutely conscious of her position. Throughout Strangers, she acknowledges repeatedly ideas that have made the rounds in contemporary climate change scholarship, especially the rapacity of ‘Western’ capitalism (or rather, to put it more bluntly, of colonizers) and its effects on the Global South. She cites an excerpt from Camille Dungy’s seminal anthology on 400 years of nature writing by African-American poets, Black Nature, recognising that these writers were ‘keenly aware of the land as beloved earth, and as a space of oppression and erasure’, and there are multiple instances where she moves away from mainstream points of reference in Eurocentric climate change discourse. Nonetheless, I found myself chuckling momentarily when I saw that one of the essays was titled ‘On Greenness’, for I fully expected Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to make an appearance. And Gawain did, in fact, appear. For a reader with no familiarity on the subject matter, the collection would make for a good introduction to Euro-American ecological thought. On many occasions, however, I felt I was reading a primer peppered with sprinklings of personal musings, rather than anything illuminating and fresh.
These essays attempt to straddle the scholarly alongside the personal, but I believe they would have been more convincing with fewer citations and more of the first-person personal (FPP) voice. Although Richard Smyth has challenged the FPP voice in new nature writing – decrying it as ‘declamatory, portentous, puffed-up’ at its worst – the FPP has far more power in bringing forward marginalised voices in nature writing than does a scholarly viewpoint. Of course, there is the pitfall of self-indulgence. Fortunately, Tamás avoids this for the most part, nourishing the reader with an introspection one could potentially empathize with.
As such, Strangers drew me in at certain points. I relished in finding out about Ana Mendieta’s ‘earth art’. In ‘On Grief’, arguably the most deftly structured essay in the collection, Tamás considers the concept of ‘ecological grief’, redefining it as ‘climate despair’ – where melancholia, rather than action, follows. That is to say, ‘grief’ moves from mourning into action, whereas ‘despair’ sees individuals ‘thrown into a darkness that makes us revolt against our very sense of being in the world’.
The first time I came across the concepts of ‘solastalgia’ – emotional distress caused by climate change – and ‘ecological grief’ while researching for an essay on climate change, I could not help but wonder how one could possibly feel such visceral emotions around the climate. This is, again, a result of my upbringing, and I am still unable to connect to these concepts, which made this essay an interesting read, especially since it goes beyond the explanations I had been previously offered in Guardian or VICE articles. Tamás is right in forming distinctions within ‘ecological grief’ itself, offering nuance to the subject matter. For instance, she describes the situation in Nunatsiavut – where ‘the land is foundational to mental health’ and ‘disruptions to an Inuit sense of place was accompanied by strong emotional reactions, including grief, anger, sadness, frustration and despair’ – as an urgent loss. At the same time, she recognises that, ‘For [most Westerners], ‘climate grief’ is a kind of luxury, suffering without losing our means of survival, yet’. There are pronounced differences between the ‘grief’ as seen from a Euro-American lens, versus that of the Inuit and Australian farmers from the Western Australian Wheatbelt suffering through drought conditions, the latter ‘at the sharp end of ecological loss and destruction’. For those of us in the West, this despair will, Tamás says, ‘excuse…responsibilities to the global South, and the suffering they are experiencing because of the actions of our nations’. A fair statement, except, none of the essay seeks to engage with this suffering as seen in the Global South. I was left wanting more, even at the very pinnacle of the collection.
Strangers is an ambitious project that does achieve some of its aim of considering human and nonhuman interactions multitudinously, but ultimately, falls short in certain respects. The essays often vary in quality, ranging from occasionally stunning to sometimes lacking in depth. Where Tamás shines is in the personal voice. I found myself wishing to hear a more present personal voice, which was oftentimes overshadowed by what another scholar thinks about the state of the environment.
Feature image is a detail of a work by Jahar Dasgupta.