Tag Archives: ecology

Reimagining Ecosystems through Science Fiction

Science fiction readers may be familiar with the giant sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or the pequeninos, small pig-like aliens from Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. These species and their surrounding ecosystems puzzle the human explorers that encounter them. In the article “Islands in the Aether Ocean: Speculative Ecosystems in Science Fiction” from Contemporary Literature, Elizabeth Callaway examines these two novels and their strange species, arguing that the authors propose a different way of relating to biodiversity. In this interview, Callaway explains how science fiction can help us question the conceptual frameworks that define our understanding of biodiversity on Earth.


How did you end up looking at science fiction through the lens of biodiversity?

Actually, the interest in biodiversity came first! I’m writing a book about representations of biodiversity, and a version of the article we’re discussing now appears as a chapter. When I was initially thinking about assembling a group of texts that tackle the challenge of representing species in their multitudes, science fiction seemed like a particularly fertile place to start. Within the genre are novels that describe entire planets of living variety. While other types of books mention hundreds of species (memoirs of competitive birders or the nonfiction of E. O. Wilson, for example) SF is really excellent at portraying entire planets of surprising and lively creatures. In addition, these planets can sometime feature what I call “speculative ecosystems,” or sets of interactions among living creatures that do not function the way Earth’s ecosystems do. They’re built on different, imaginative systems, and because they’re so unusual they model alternative stances toward biodiversity.

When it comes to depicting biodiversity, what makes these two novels different from other works of science fiction?

Their “speculative ecosystems” are a key part of what sets them apart. Unlike many worlds that are simple Earth analogues where the environment doesn’t make much of a difference to the story, and unlike novels which feature a planet seeded with Earth organisms (like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy), these are not systems that are analogous to Earth ecosystems or based on Earth species. They’re totally alien (if imagined) worlds. There are other examples that I would include as speculative ecosystems. The most well-known might be James Cameron’s Avatar. That world features ecosystems that work in ways that are very different from those on Earth. Animals can connect to each other with exposed nerve-type organs, there is a central tree that connects the entire planet in a type of neural net, and there’s abundant terrestrial bioluminescence. That said, Dune and Speaker for the Dead, unlike Avatar, do not make the speculative ecosystem into an object of worship or offer any old-school environmental readings having to do with rootedness, sense of place, or living on the land. Rather they explore the speculative variety of organisms on their planet in new ways.

You say that, while we are used to thinking about science fiction as a genre that shows us possible futures for our own planet, science fiction also works “by imagining things that could never be.” How can the “counterfactual” nature of science fiction help us to think about our own environmental challenges?

On one hand it seems like the science fiction texts that imagine Earth futures might be more useful for thinking through current environmental challenges. You think of stories that include biodiversity decline like Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and it’s clear how they’re interested in what animals mean to individual people and also to different human societies. They explore how these meanings might change as species decline. What is particularly interesting to me about science fiction that doesn’t imagine future Earths of declined species, however, is that they experiment with alternative ways to relate to biodiversity. In particular, I think it’s useful that Dune and Speaker for the Dead present a puzzled stance toward biodiversity where one is continually surprised by the way diverse nonhuman organisms interact with each other. I think the mechanics of science fiction itself—the way it explains how the fictional world works by casually throwing out hints rather than presenting sections of exposition—are fantastic for modeling a puzzled engagement that holds space open for recognizing the agency of nonhumans. In science fiction we’re always ready for that clue that changes what we had assumed to be true about the world, and this is especially true for the impossibly strange ecosystems of counterfactual worlds. If we’re curious about how the world works while aware that we can be surprised, then I think that can cultivate an attitude that more easily recognizes the liveliness of the material world including (but not limited to) nonhuman living creatures.

What are you reading right now? (For fun or for serious.)

Emily Dickinson has become my home quarantine inspiration. Whenever my socially-distanced world feels tiny and diminished, she makes me realize that my back yard is only as small as my mind. (Dickinson and I share the good fortune of having a yard.) After reading a few of her poems I see the details of the world as strange and new. In one of her more famous quotations she describes poetry as writing which makes her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” This is such a fabulously weird way of defining poetry, and it is how her poems make me feel except it is also as if my entire word has had a lid removed, and there’s more room to experience everything. I’m also reading How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, which is beautiful, lonely, and a playful mashup of science fiction and narrative theory.

If you had to pick a favorite species from Arrakis or Lusitania, what would it be?

Given our current pandemic, I am more and more fascinated by the descolada virus that “unglues” DNA and wreaks havoc on the human community of Lusitania in Speaker for the Dead. While I wouldn’t want to characterize the descolada as my “favorite,” it has captured my attention anew. This is the virus that sculpted life on Lusitania, initially creating the plant/animal paired species while driving the vast majority of life extinct. Its world-remaking capabilities certainly feel especially real right now as my own world is being remade in different but comparable ways. Also, the way the descolada simplifies the planet (to put it mildly) is more and more striking to me. I now look at my article’s visualization of the stark ecosystem of Lusitania and imagine a similarly simple social network made of my interactions during social distancing. The story of a virus reshaping a world certainly feels increasingly relevant.


Elizabeth Callaway is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Utah and affiliated faculty with the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program. She researches and teaches at the intersections of contemporary literature, environmental humanities, and digital humanities. Some of her most recent publications focus on climate change in Zadie Smith’s NW, diversity and inclusion in definitions digital humanities, and the speculative ecosystems of science fiction. Her current book project, titled Eden’s Endemics: Narratives of Biodiversity on Earth and Beyond, is forthcoming at the University of Virginia Press.

Restoring Wetlands

From “Experiences Establishing Native Wetland Plants in a Constructed Wetland,” by David Steinfeld, Native Plants Journal 2:1. Photo by David Steinfeld.

This week, the Press will be exhibiting at the annual Wetland Science Conference of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association in Elkhart Lake, WI. We’ve gathered a list of recommended readings on ecological restoration from our books and journals. The articles listed here are freely available to read until the end of February.


Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges: An Introduction to the Genus Carex (Cyperaceae), by Andrew L. Hipp

Field Guide to Wisconsin Streams: Plants, Fishes, Invertebrates, Amphibians, and Reptiles, by Michael A. Miller, Katie Songer, and Ron Dolen

Field Guide to Wisconsin Grasses, by Emmet J. Judziewicz, Robert W. Freckmann, Lynn G. Clark, and Merel R. Black

Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, by Brian DeVore

Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement, by Arthur Melville Pearson

A Lakeside Companion, by Ted J. Rulseh

“Restoration Outcomes and Reporting: An Assessment of Wetland Area Gains in Wisconsin, USA” by Rusty K. Griffin and Thomas E. Dahl, Ecological Restoration vol. 34.3 (2016)

“The Use of Sediment Removal to Reduce Phosphorus Levels in Wetland Soils” by Skye Fasching, Jack Norland, Tom DeSutter, Edward DeKeyser, Francis Casey, and Christina Hargiss, Ecological Restoration vol. 33.2 (2015)

“Experiences Establishing Native Wetland Plants in a Constructed Wetland” by David Steinfeld, Native Plants Journal vol. 2.1 (2001)

“Site-Scale Disturbance Best Predicts Moss, Vascular Plant, and Amphibian Indices in Ohio Wetlands” by Martin A. Stapanian, Mick Micacchion, Brian Gara, William Schumacher, and Jean V. Adams, Ecological Restoration vol. 36.2 (2018)

“Seed Dormancy Break and Germination for Restoration of Three Globally Important Wetland Bulrushes” by James E. Marty and Karin M. Kettenring, Ecological Restoration vol. 35.2 (2017)

“Observations on Seed Propagation of 5 Mississippi Wetland Species” by Janet M Grabowski, Native Plants Journal vol. 2.1 (2001)

“Effects of Selectively-targeted Imazapyr Applications on Typha angustifolia in a Species-rich Wetland (Wisconsin)” by Craig A. Annen, Jared A. Bland, Amanda J. Budyak, and Christopher D. Knief, Ecological Restoration vol. 37.1 (2019)

“Edaphic and Vegetative Responses to Forested Wetland Restoration with Created Microtopography in Arkansas” by Benjamin E. Sleeper and Robert L. Ficklin, Ecological Restoration vol. 34.2 (2016)

Call for Papers: Native Plants Journal

The editors of Native Plants Journal seek papers on topics related to North American (Canada, Mexico, and US) native plants used for conservation, pollinator habitat, urban landscaping, restoration, reforestation, landscaping, populating highway corridors, and so on. Published papers are potentially useful to practitioners of native plant sciences. Contributions from both scientists (summarizing rigorous research projects) and workers in the field (describing practical processes and germplasm releases) are welcome.

See the journal’s submission guidelines for more information. Questions may be directed to Stephen Love, Editor-in-Chief, at slove@uidaho.edu.

About the journal: Native Plants Journal began in January 2000 as a cooperative effort of the USDA Forest Service and the University of Idaho, with assistance from the USDA Agricultural Research Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The second issue of each year includes the Native Plant Materials Directory, which provides information about producers of native plant materials in the United States and Canada. 

To learn more, subscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Inhuman Ecology: A review and brief interview

The current issue of SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism includes a review by Paul Harris of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s book Stone: An Inhuman Ecology (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), which can be viewed on Project MUSE or Highwire. Subsequent to the review’s publication, Harris asked Cohen about his interest in stone and how he came to write Stone.

PAUL HARRIS At the end of your introduction, you cite the “Big Rock,” a glacial erratic on a hill in your neighborhood growing up, as a sort of original inspiration in your lifelong explorations in lithophilia, literary and otherwise.  Can you flesh out a bit more how you came to have a strong affective resonance with stone?  Are there other specific stones or sites that stand out in retrospect as exerting a particularly powerful influence on you?

JEFFREY COHEN I grew up just outside of Boston, not far from Lexington and Concord … and this geographic situation really matters since when I was a small child the USA was celebrating its national bicentennial. The colonial musketeering, parades and flags and tricorns and redcoats were just too much for me. I became obsessed with deeper pasts. I’m sure that’s why I was eventually drawn to medieval studies. But I was also fascinated by the temporality of stone, how erratics like the Big Rock bore witness to a narrative of swamps and dinosaurs indifferent to the small human histories that bubble and pop around them. The Big Rock (what a poetic name!) was close to home and yet a constant invitation to the faraway. What I did not reveal in the book is that I tricked other children in the neighborhood into believing that if you sat on that rock at the right time of day you would be transported into another dimension and likely not find your way back. Well, maybe there is some truth to that.

I should also note that Stone is a book that keeps beginning: I tell a variety of stories for how I started the project in it, of various landscapes and encounters that triggered the project. Although they contradict each other somewhat, all of them are true, in the same way that stone is process more than object.

PAUL HARRIS I like how the physical and narrative powers ascribed to The Big Rock make it become a portal—one might call it a “fantastic” stone….  Your answer broaches a question that often surfaces in relation to deep time or Big History: is a turn to this temporality informed or accompanied by a desire to escape history?  Or at least the politics of the present?

I enjoyed the recursive style and narrative form of Stone very much, and wondered about how such an intricately interwoven book came together, over the “long duration” you reference in the acknowledgements. When did you start working on the text, and what was your method?

JEFFREY COHEN Rather than a fantastic stone I’d call the Big Rock an adventurous one: full of futurity (advent, avenir) through its durability, its intimacy with a long past, its relentless suggestion of possibility. I’m not sure that what such adventurous objects offer is escape from the present exactly: more an unexpected widening of ambit than a flight from particular circumstance. Sitting on the Big Rock was always an essential component of the stories I told: that is, the narratives were always grounded in a time and a place, even if in lithic companionship they attempted to imagine larger prospects.

Stone took a lifetime to compose, since I have always been attracted to the substance. Or maybe the book took about six years to write, with the last three given over almost completely to its composition. It took me a long time to find the form the book wanted, so I discarded tens of thousands of words I’d composed and restructured the volume repeatedly. Once I understood though that the form of the book might perform its argument (because stone is always about recursivity within difference, circuits that open wider at each cycle and yet do come back in time) – and once I realized that I could not pretend that the scholarly and the personal are two disjunct realms — then Stone began to cohere. I was a little too obsessive with the project. Toward the end I injured my shoulder from poor posture at my laptop, a battle scar I still bear. Stone hurts! But I will never tire of its contemplation.

Paul A. Harris is co-editor of SubStance and professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. He served as president of the International Society for the Study of Time from 2004-2013 and edited the recent SubStance issue David Mitchell in the Labyrinth of Time.  His current project is The Petriverse of Pierre Jardin.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is professor of English and director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at the George Washington University. His recent work includes the edited collections Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (Minnesota, 2013) and, with Lowell Duckert, Elemental Ecocriticism. Recently he co-wrote a short book called Earth (forthcoming from Bloomsbury in early 2017) with planetary geologist Lindy Elkins-Tanton.