Death by Landscape

- by Elvia Wilk Soft Skull Press, ®¯$16.95 (softcover)

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 di‰erent, though no less entangled, categorica­l trio: bodies, language and stories. Bodies leak, language surrenders to the ine‰able; 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.

Alice Bucknell

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