Death by Landscape
Elvia Wilk’s new essay collection is a series of reflections on the meaning of ecological storytelling in an age of mass extinction – by way of medieval mysticism, solarpunk, vegetal sentience and the limits of language, the pleasures of (self-)annihilation and possible futures for this shared compost heap we call Earth. Expanding across three porous sections – ‘Plants’, ‘Planets’ and ‘Bleed’ – these essays draw the molecular and cosmic into focus as they stitch together an unruly batch of subjects.
In a nimble first text that’s indicative of the kaleidoscopic inversions to come, Wilk makes a case for the transformative capacities of storytelling. It references a story – one of Margaret Atwood’s weirdest, and the titular inspiration for this collection – about a girl who dissolves into a landscape, but continues to speak from it. Unearthing other literary examples of becomingplant, Wilk outlines an ‘ecosystems fiction’ wherein the human body and the ecosystem meld, blurring binaries of known-unknown, inside-outside and person-planet.
Other essays from the first section of the book make it the strongest. In ‘This Compost’, Wilk speculates on a world where contamination, copenetration and compost seed new forms of interspecies life. ‘The Plants Are Watching’ opens with ²³´-conducted plant telepathy research and unfurls into a dizzying web of plant–human communication that ranges from Victorian-era colonists’ phobias of nature taking its revenge, to a vegetal consciousness hypothesised by artificial intelligence. At the root of these findings is Wilk’s critique of the anthropocentric assumption that plants communicate in a language system like ours – or that they’d even want to talk to us anyway.
In part two Wilk toggles to a macro lens. ‘Future Looks’ examines the politics and aesthetics of solar technologies, from the internet-born ‘solarpunk’ movement to the colonial-era invention of the greenhouse. Here, Wilk asks who green technology serves, and what kind of worlds speculative design and fiction are capable of building without being co-opted. She argues for a kind of ‘dislocation, rather than utopianism’ – where both the technologies we invent and the stories we tell refuse a top-down solutionism and instead nurture new forms of collaborative survival.
‘Bleed’, the book’s final section, is named after the roleplaying phenomenon where boundaries between player and character dissolve. In ‘Ask Before You Bite’, Wilk attends a vampire µ´¶· in Berlin and gets slapped in the face by another character. The slap triggers a realisation that ‘roleplay can be a testing ground for new forms of intimacy outside of prescribed social rules’; it can reshape social life long after the game is over.
Many of Wilk’s fixations – from medieval mysticism to nonhuman communication systems and body-led trauma therapy – focus on experiences and relationships that occur beyond language. My favourite essays in the collection – ‘The Word Made Fresh’ and ‘Extinction Burst’ – integrate ecosystems fiction with reflections on illness, spirituality, alien intelligence and love. In the latter, Wilk dives into her own immunological condition, which causes inexplicable episodes of ‘crossing over’, or unpredictably passing out. She returns with a reparative reading of this phenomenon, which eschews the cool finitude of a medical diagnosis in favour of ‘seeking unexpected possibilities rather than preventing them’; an opening up to the unknowable, where ‘illness can be a methodology for making sense of the world’ – not through language, but with feeling.
You could also read these essays through a dierent, though no less entangled, categorical trio: bodies, language and stories. Bodies leak, language surrenders to the ineable; stories are both the technology that ties these things together and the compost for sowing new worlds when things fall apart. Death by Landscape is less a book than a portal into seeing our weird future in a more open-ended way. Whether you come back is up to you.