Brenda Iijima: Wendy, your book, Tree Talks: Southern Arizona (Delete Press, 2016), is a compelling document of interspecies communication. It is encouraging how you were able to connect with the particular presences of trees and, by doing so, engage with the complex ecologies the trees inhabit, each shared by many interrelation beings. How did this exchange come about? In your introduction you offer a brief overview of the thought process that led you to interview trees; you state, “I came to this study as a way to consider ethics, environment, politics, communication, and failure to communicate.” I wonder if you would be willing to elaborate in more detail the underlying set of concerns you had going into this project and the approach you took of centering yourself, and also of making contact with trees.
Wendy Burk: Acoustic ecologist David Dunn gave a talk in October 2009 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, where he discussed his work with Pinyon pines and bark beetles. Dunn studies the sounds that trees make, and the sounds that bark beetles make as they chew on tree bark. This had led to his work with forestry researchers, disrupting sonic interactions between beetles and trees as a nontoxic way of discouraging bark beetle infestations. Dunn creates autonomous sound circuits that transmit sequences of sound that are based, in Dunn’s words, on “principles of biological autonomy.” When a tree is wired with one of the circuits, it appears that the sequences of sound disrupt the beetles’ activity and encourage the beetles to leave the tree.
I was in the audience for Dunn’s talk. During the question and answer session, he talked about balancing his intense need to intervene in ecological catastrophe with his fear that his bioacoustic methods, which seem to be nontoxic, might actually have unintended negative consequences for the trees somewhere down the line. Invoking Gregory Bateson’s concept of “interlocking circles of contingency,” he expressed his belief that the role of art is to bring us to a deeper understanding of interrelationships, of full circles, in situations where the rational mind can only see a partial arc.
A few days later I was thinking about Dunn’s remarks and how he can’t ask trees about their response to his bioacoustic interventions. The harm we’re not aware of, the harm we are, what we do with or in spite of that awareness; I’m very grateful to Dunn, because that’s when the idea for a series of interviews with trees came to me.
Brenda, how about your most recent book, Remembering Animals (Nightboat Books, 2016)? Is there a story about how it came to be?
BI: The impetus was the experience of watching Winter Soldier (1972), a documentary of harrowingly direct testimonials given by returning Vietnam Veterans, attesting to the atrocities they committed as young men, sent into Southeast Asia by the U.S. government. They were given commands to slaughter and raze. Throughout the war crimes hearing that the documentary chronicles, numerous soldiers related that “they had to become animals” in order to carry out their violent orders. Veterans remarked that they had to view the enemy as animal, and also view themselves as animal, in order to perpetuate violence. There was dissonance in the messaging and, recognizing the concerning language from these soldiers about “animal,” it affected me to the core. I started to think about how the marker “animal” is used as a weapon of disparagement, a categorical foil, a tool of war. Women and people of color are historically castigated as “animal.” Civilization is understood as operating above and outside the “animal.” “Animal” has come to mean many things through time within Western culture. I plunged deeply into these themes. Animality is tied up with colonial settler understandings of the body, the industrial-military-prison complex and heteronormative strictures—a legacy that continues from the Enlightenment into present day terms. Animals are cast as the deviant “other”—and made invisible—this was the starting point for my query. The ways animals are understood and presented symbolically is manifold. Remembering Animals is a study of the carrying capacity of the conceptualization of “animal” while all the while remembering humans are great apes, part of the extensive family tree that comprises animal, in order to breach the wall that has been built up around what it means to be “human” and, in so doing, find solidarity with all other animals. “Human” is a category that is upheld by cultural values. I’m interested in the re-emerge as animal in communal inter-sentient relationships that do away with human exclusivity and entitlement.
Reading Canadian scientist Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s thoughtful book, The Global Forest, gives insight into how, at a molecular level, trees and humans (indeed, all mammals) share important commonalities. In the opening chapter, she writes:
The two sister molecules, hemoglobin and chlorophyll, the red and the green, conduct the pattern of our lives…Both hemoglobin and chlorophyll are molecular machines. They work in a similar manner almost as if they were related to each other, which they are in a wider global sense. Their family kinship is built on the design they have in common, four aromatic rings that contain nitrogen…the nitrogens hold an atom of iron in the case of the hemoglobin molecule. The nitrogens hold an atom of magnesium at the center of the chloroplast. Both of these metals, the iron and the magnesium, present two faces to the world.
I can’t do justice to her nuanced thesis here. She has much to say about how humans and trees function together and how dependent on trees humans are. Thinking of Tree Talks and The Global Forest, I’m wondering how close you felt to flora, and trees in particular, before embarking on this intimate dialogue with trees? How did your affinity with trees begin?
WB: Maybe surprisingly, it was after the project was completed, rather than before, that I started articulating an awareness that humans (and all animals) and trees (and all plants) are connected through breath—that is, through the oxygen and carbon dioxide cycle. And there are many facets to the affinity that I feel I came to understand, slowly and incompletely, by doing the tree talks, rather than being aware of them before the project began. Now that the tree talks are published in a book, friends, family and readers have told me about other writers, artists and scientists whose works are involved with ideas of connectedness in relation to trees and plants: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Tim Knowles, Suzanne Simard, and others.
Before and during the tree talks, I think I would have expressed my affinity in terms of appreciation for the different ways that trees and humans experience scale (time and size, for example) and movement. A number of the questions I ask in Tree Talks are related to movement and to time. “What is your hope for the next hundred years?” is a question I ask the Ponderosa pine, and it’s a question that I find interesting to ask humans, too.
Living in Tucson also instills an appreciation for the physical protection offered by trees. During the summer monsoon season, I’m occasionally caught in the rain while biking to work. There aren’t a lot of options when you’re on a bike and the rain comes pouring down, but a tree along the roadside, even a small tree, offers shelter. Likewise, when the sun is high, I am always altering my path to walk under the shade of trees. Someone who lives in a bigger city, like you do in New York, could experience this type of shelter more from buildings than from trees. (Do you think this is true?)
But these are innocuous examples of shelter, because the levels of privilege that I experience in my life shield me from the most dangerous risks of exposure. They are life and death for a person lost in the desert, and hundreds of people die in the desert each year attempting to migrate into the United States along its southern border. Or, within the City of Tucson, if you are homeless, you experience lethal heat and, on a regular basis, the threat of floods during the summer. When I shelter under a tree in the rain or heat, I think about vulnerability and privilege, and about turning to trees for protection. Physical proximity encourages solidarity.
Let me ask a question about the title of your book, Brenda. Earlier, you said, “Remembering Animals is a study of the carrying capacity of the conceptualization of ‘animal’ while all the while remembering humans are great apes, part of the extensive family tree that comprises animal.” Is the title, Remembering Animals, in part a shorthand for “remembering that humans are animals too?” Are other kinds of remembering important to the work?
BI: Yes, the remembering I’m thinking of has to do with remembering that humans are animals, and as human animals, interdependency is critical to biocultural survival. Remembering contains latent meanings, “re” and “member”—which has to do with sociality—membership to social groups. The play on membership is crucial. Great populations of animals are going out of existence in a collective death event that is not taken into consideration by most humans—especially in the industrialized West. Teasing out the factors that delude us is part of the remembering. Remembering the disconnect and also re-remembering how to acquaint with all other animals.
Living in Brooklyn, NY in a veritable monocultural domain of humans and the “urban appropriate flora and fauna” that are able to survive alongside humans—rats, cats, dogs, water bugs, roaches, various birds, etc., anesthetized plantings of trees, bushes and plants, etc.—I’m grateful for the interspecies cohabitation that does exist, despite human density, urban planning, ideas of beauty and functionality that inhibit multispecies flourishing, etc. The situatedness of trees is a powerful metaphor for staying within a problem, not fleeing. Parks are temporary, makeshift sanctuaries for many people who don’t have a home—this reality is clear to me every time I take a walk. Trees provide shelter and privacy in a city where almost everything has been commodified.
The subtonal, barely registered frequencies—the ignored meanings of our world—are threads in your work. Most humans are probably unaware that trees make sound and that the sound they emit is a form of communication. Trees are active agents in our shared world. They experience familial life and sentient apperception. Consent and permission are core ethics. How did you negotiate consent and permission with trees? How did your connections with the local ecology change through this intimate engagement with trees? Did Dunn’s work cross a threshold of permission or do you think he interacted sensitively with the trees?
WB: What it means to approach and what it means to encroach are both on my mind a lot. How do I show respect? I ask myself more and more about how to show respect for all human beings, and indeed for all beings. Living in Southern Arizona for twenty years, I have spent a lot of time outside, and I know the ecological communities of my region reasonably well. That reasonable knowledge seems minute to me now, although that doesn’t mean it’s trivial.
I don’t read David Dunn as neglecting to ask permission, actually. His interest in using acoustics as an intervention with bark beetle infestations comes out of his desire to find alternatives to toxic interventions, such as insecticides or cutting affected trees, that are disruptive to trees and other systems as well as to beetles. His work embodies listening in many ways. He listens to trees and beetles; he makes recordings of their sounds that influence the acoustic interventions that he creates. The question you bring up about consent and agreement is so important and interesting, though. I did find a way to ask, but there is much I don’t know about what it means to receive an answer. I did find a way to practice listening, but I don’t think I found a way to recognize consent.
After completing Tree Talks, I feel I have more curiosity, sometimes more sadness, sometimes discomfort. Asking trees questions feels like enacting imperialism. This made me intensely uncomfortable, but it is one of the performances of my daily life, isn’t it? That frightens me. At the same time, I do enjoy being outside more than ever, and feel that I may be making slow progress in understanding my relationships or place within my local environment.
BI: Yes, the predicament of being human and exerting such a disproportionate impact on the ecological whole is daunting—I reckon with this personally on a daily basis. Why is it that the human animal is able and willing to manipulate social space to the detriment of all? And adding to this, the last 600+ years of continuous white colonial settler imperialism ratcheting up the suffering and demise—your point about posing questions to trees feeling like a gesture of imperialism beckons me to ask you how you negotiate this—to talk more about your stance vis-à-vis “other nature”—living, breathing entities you reached out to—or did they—reach out to you—there’s a strong mutual feeling within the book’s disclosures—it is at the crux of how we as human animals engage our surrounds. How one seeks to understand and engage others that are not ourselves (do not share the same body). The term “other” is already such ominous, restrictive language. Humans are late to give agency to anyone but themselves, and this too is hierarchical by race, class and gender, age, ability, etc. Who is recognized as “human” means who is permitted this designation. When questions are placed up against declarative statements, questions seem like a more open, engaged, sensitive approach to communication. I sometimes feel like questions are part of a dying tradition, that to put a concern to another in the form of a query is an act of generosity. Are you thinking about how a tree’s space is invaded in the gesture of asking a question? Also, when I engage with your book I feel the holism of myriad environmental presences making their energies known and palpable. Your book subtly shifts the focus of “human” to the teeming surround. “Human” importance recedes. Your modality breaks through a seemingly impenetrable human psychic space. Because, when do humans think outside human paradigms! Though your book is focused on individual trees, the exchanges that happen feel very much like you are also conversing with every living presence in the immediate environment. How did you decide to focus on trees, per se? Ok, many interlinking questions building up here…
WB: These questions give me a lot to think about. Learning how other people read Tree Talks gives me multiple ways to understand what I was doing, multiple frameworks that are necessary for me. And I’m deeply grateful that you share your reading with me. The idea about the openness of questions as opposed to declarative statements is one that surprises me when readers express it. When I was working on Tree Talks, I found myself focused on the connection between the interrogative and the interrogation in questioning (for example, “being detained for questioning”). Questions can exert dominance and be a form of othering. Many times, questions strike me as declarations slyly reframed to dodge accountability. Then I need to remind myself of other questions, such as the open and engaged questions that you and I are asking and answering now, and to remember that when I wrote the questions that appear in Tree Talks, I was trying to reach for the mutual feeling that you mentioned. I don’t think language is really the best route to that mutual feeling. It must have a place, but it feels one-sided to me. Perhaps sound more broadly, as well as touch, are better routes. If the ambient uses of language in Tree Talks can communicate sound and touch (or energy) to human readers, that’s another possible route. It makes me happy that you experience a conversation and exchange among living presences in the poems. Another interesting reading that has been shared with me is that the poems offer an opportunity to feel quiet and present. Both of those readings resonate with my field experience, when I was asking the questions and transcribing the soundscapes that show up in Tree Talks.
You also asked about how I decided to focus on trees. My response to David Dunn’s talk, which focused on trees, was the direct reason. A more amplified reason is because trees are so important to ecosystems.
BI: Tree Talks addresses presence generously and openly—an exciting model of consciousness—I had to bring this up again to appreciate how impactful this is as a guiding modality! Endeavoring to understand another (being) requires porosity—a willingness to give open access to all sensory channels between parties, to let down one’s guard and cast-off assumptions. You avoid projection, a problem of late-stage humans.Tree Talks shifts the ontological focus sensitively; though “you,” Wendy, “ask” questions to trees, there is the feeling that what is happening is reciprocal, mutual and abundant. Trees are not “other” or othered in these two-way communications—they are integral beings at once autonomous and symbiotic. The trees themselves, it seems, inspire the questions you pose, and a joint consciousness comes into being. I often wonder what multiple and varied effects fauna are exerting on other sentient beings. My somatic calibration, including thought and feeling, are affected by contact with plants and trees, inside of environments. The fluctuating input is telepathic and hormonal. Can you speak to this? Trees make sensory pathways underground as well as aboveground with their foliage, trunks, branches, crowns and leaves. Your text gives a sense of deeply rooted concerns as well as transitory feeling. The responsiveness of this exchange feels dimensional and beyond human. Was it a big switch for you to discuss earthliness with trees? Did your humanness get altered? If so, how so?
WB: Interconnectedness is something that I enjoyed representing on the page in Tree Talks. Your word “dimensional” seems key. I thought of the page as representing an unfolding of space horizontally, and time vertically; this allowed me to reference interconnection in a visual way. For example, if a bird flew across my field of vision and landed in a tree, I could show its moving path and its alighting within the space of the page. At the same time, I liked being aware of all of the sensory input I couldn’t register because my hand (and brain) couldn’t move that fast. There are missing sounds and sights hovering in the spaces of the tree talks. Reading is the immersive experience that seems to fill in the gaps.
At first, I thought my answer to your question, “Did your humanness get altered?” was, “No,” because enacting a human role and contemplating human speech, awareness, and choices were so central to the project. But then I was reminded that Tree Talks is also aspirational and seems to affect readers in that way—the book seems to open a space of gentle reaching out, even though that’s more of an aspiration than an achievement.
In 2012, Adela C. Licona and I did a video collaboration in homage to Cecilia Vicuña. Adela described our collaboration as “an effort to recover and reclaim our senses and to express the wisdom of other ways.” I’ve thought about Adela’s words a lot and the wisdom they express. I think Tree Talks may have altered my humanness by making me optimistic about the possibilities of engaging in the effort that Adela has laid out.
I do feel connection to other beings, including trees, in my five senses, in my physical body, and also in the context of caring. Rather than being a big switch for me, Tree Talks was the development of a method to embody ongoing concerns and curiosities. I’m interested in how different kinds of artistic practice or performance call out different expressions and foreground different layers of experience, as well as how they create knowledge.
Brenda, I want to ask, do you think of the poems in Remembering Animals as connected all the way through? Were they written as a sequence, or in several sequences?
BI: Remembering Animals is a tangled web, a circulatory system, a nervous system. The brain-blood barrier, hormonal pathways, oxygenation of cells—meanings related to corporeality. I was thinking in terms of reuptake and resurgence—what lies dormant and reawakens, is rejected and reenters. What does bellowing tissue sound like—scarred, scared, scorned, rebellious surging undercurrents of life force—and to consider what is in our midst but occluded, submerged, suppressed (basically all that is not capital- “M” man: white, heteronormative men, the tiny fraction that imposes universalizing tendencies). It is an attempt at the conceptual underpinnings that derive from this legacy, noting that the fallout of disaster (in this case, the emergency of animal) is dispersal—wide-ranging and local, and both simultaneously. Animals are extralegal—are granted virtually no agency, have no “voice,” are not protected (except retroactively), have no rights. I was interested in how animals move through environments, the motions outside of human consideration, how history moves and disperses within these currents. The poems aren’t discrete or quarantined from one another—they interact. Poems take the form of phases, phase changes, atmospheric conditions, ecological forecast. The phase is a duration focused on how bodies perceive, with multiple registers: audible-vocal, tactile, visible, etc. (I have to say et cetera because we hardly understand how complex perception is). Polyphonous, all-encompassing soundings, I wrote the text (or score) over a long period, revisiting questions and prompts of the body.
WB: We were talking earlier about ways of reading a book like Tree Talks and I’d like to pose a similar question about Remembering Animals. Your speaking of the book as a tangled web or as nerve pathways resonates with me, as well as the word “dispersal.” How do you think a reader reads dispersal, as embodied in this book or in other texts? Also, do you think of the poems in Remembering Animals as having agency, and if so, would you describe that agency?
BI: Poetry creates a choreography for how to engage our total body, outside the grid, beyond prescriptive movement. Reading is roaming around through lingual markers that spark attention, influence meaning-making, and inspire connective thinking—signposts that have interlinking social-historical resonances. Remembering Animals can be read from an aerial perspective as well as in clusters of text—thick underbrush, and also more conventionally, scrolling from the upper left and following lines to the right margin on down the page until the field gives way to space around the book, to the body of the human animal holding the book within an immersive internal/external ecology. I like the idea of books participating in worlding, the tentacular approach to worlding, and also books as part of an ecological immersive inclusivity (thinking of Donna Haraway and Lynn Margulis here). Specifics and commonalities, the macro and micro details, frequencies, energies, forcefields, impulses, dispositions, where words and bacteria share certain qualities. Words (and components of words—phonemes and the micro-particles of sounds) foment the total body experience of thinking (involving multiple processes of the body in relation to the ecological whole). So, Remembering Animals strives to awaken and induce divergent momentums along pathways of consciousness, to observe signs and signifiers in actual material form (breathing and living), to attend to the intersections of organic and inorganic networks, asking what is at the basis of our conceptual framework. It’s a mouthful, but as Eduardo Kohn writes, “meaning, broadly defined, is part and parcel of the living world beyond the human” (How Forests Think p. 20). I think of words as living entities. All living entities have agency. A reading is an encounter and a mutation. A multi-tiered opportunity to climb into a sense-oriented conundrum. Some of the work performs a more obvious political critique, while some of the text is thick, cyclonic matter swirling in a suspended mass around the subject of “animal.” Taking up the subject, animal, is to consciously deal with post-traumatic stress, deep cultural wounding and present stressors—ignoring this content is impossible and dangerous. Turning toward this pain brings about confrontation and possible amelioration/reparation in our present moment—this is the challenge.
Thanks to Jared Schickling for his editorial feedback on this exchange and for publishing TREE TALKS with Delete Press.
Wendy Burk is the author of Tree Talks: Southern Arizona (Delete Press), a book of poetry. She is the translator of two poetry collections by Tedi López Mills, Against the Current (Phoneme Media) and While Light Is Built (Kore Press). Wendy is the recipient of a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Projects Fellowship. Her co-translation, with M.J. Fièvre, of Magela Baudoin’s story collection Sleeping Dragons will be published by Schaffner Press in 2018.
Photo credit: Hannah Ensor.