World-making through unintended collaborations

A poplar forest is growing on Lierlou

14 – 04 – 2020

When I stepped onto Lierlou for the first time last summer, I remember the overwhelming welcome of a million of thorny brambles. Initially it was impossible to walk there without being covered in bites and scratches. It took two weeks until I made the way through the dense vegetation at the end of the terrain which falls majestically into the river Lot.

Lierlou had been farmed by a man who was born in this village until eight years ago. He grew melons, corn, beans and buckwheat in a quiet classical fashion, regularly opening the soil and turning the earth. Meters of plastic foil in the ground are witnesses of this time period. It had been used to prevent weeds from competing with the cultivated vegetables and fruits. The foliage that once covered the soil is now covered by soil: mosses, weeds, grass and hummus formed a thick substantial layer over the brittle rags. I don’t know exactly why the farmer stopped cultivating, but when he stopped, eight years ago, trees and other plants began to grow. The land rewildened and made a world of its own: On the edges of the terrain brambles began growing, providing shade and protection for little tree saplings to grow in between.

Right at the riverside of the land stands a wrinkly and old poplar tree. Taken by the wind of the Lot, millions of seeds spread over Lierlou and anchored in the void of no more melons to come: within eight years a dense poplar forest grew up to two meters height – in a funny squared area which shows exactly where the melons had been grown. I like to look at this growing poplar forest as a trace of the past lifes taking place on this land. Unknowingly the farmer and the old poplar became collaborators in world-making and shaped a landscape that otherwise would not have come into being. The cultivation of melons created the conditions for poplar seeds rooting and growing. In that sense, the farmer „prepared the ground“ for the poplars to take over, since his way of farming inhibited the natural growth and competition of a forest with many diverse species. Even though the poplar forest appears wilder than a field of melons, eventually the monoculture forest is a child of its monoculture past. The farmers footprints carried on long after his absence on the land – the traces of his farming are present until today and will ongoingly shape the land he once inhabited. As Anna Tsing (2017, 2) says: „Every landscape is haunted by past ways of life.“

I wonder if the farmer has seen this poplar forest growing and connected its appearance to his farming practice? Is he aware that his influence on the land was not ending once his action stopped? Being on land leaves traces, long traces which are creating the very conditions in which other world-makers shape further. In this case, the exposed soil that the farmer left behind became a welcoming ground for the seeds of the mother poplar. Seeing it that way, the distinction between human and non-human world making disolves or at least becomes more blurry: The farmer’s dwelling and working as well as the poplar’s seeding and the winds carrying shaped land together and created a forest – that will eventually evolve further. The forest will not ‚stay‘ like it is, it will be again shaped by our presence, by its own growth and (…). It becoming is an ongoing formation; a complex interplay of forces and material (Ingold, 2013).

Landscapes of the Anthropocene

I recently participated in a conversation around the weediness of the anthropocene. In fact, I even gave the conversation its title and had to realize on the day that I was struggling to say what I ment with anthropocene. A scene came to my mind of a history tour in our village last summer. One of our neighbors who was born here, told how he saw the landscape of this valley changing. He began telling that before World War I, before he was born, the hills of the Lot valley were shaped in terracces, accomodating vine on the top of the hills, followed by rustling wheat fields and cows grazing in the flat land – a rich landscape shaped by traditional sustenance. As a whole generation of men disappeared towards war fronts, vine dried off, wheat wasn’t planted anymore and cows disappeared. The agrarian landscape changed as man didn’t take care of it anymore. Since the terrace ecology was human made, it disappeared as the humans who year by year re-established it, were no longer there. Forest came back. Little oaks that dug their roots deep into the stony ground of the Causse. Juniper, protecting its berries with prickly thorns and pine, slightly abashed by the missing moisture of the soil. I imagine a flip book of the changes of the valley with pictures from the last century. Forest disappearing, vines growing, vines disappearing, forest recovering – this ongoing movement is what I imagine to be an expression of the anthropocene: landscapes being shaped by happenings as well as reshaped by their absence. Landscapes that live with agricultural will, political conflicts, migration and abandonenment. Landscapes that come together as traces of humans and non human beings dwelling together in a space.

What connects the appearance of the poplar forest and the story of the changing valley for me is that both grew through uncoordinated collaboration of millions of beings. I wonder how I am participating in this ongoing shaping of landscape – maybe even without noticing?

Ingold, T. (2013). Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. London: Routledge.

Tsing, A.L., Bubandt, N., Gan, E., & Swanson, H.A. (2017). Arts of Living on a Damaged PlanetGhosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

(Anna Lena)

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