Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Environmental Humanities
Bloomsbury | 2019 | 224 pages
Among the unassuming pine needles and fiddle ferns of the Michigan woods, Christopher Schaberg spots it—a lockblade pocket knife from his childhood, bought for five or ten bucks from the souvenir shop. Yet the knife—long forgotten in the 25 years since its drop—is not the discovery. Rather, it’s the ecosystem the knife suggests, one so widespread it constitutes an entire geologic age: it’s the Anthropocene.
Today, when human debris contaminates even the most secluded areas, we’ve grown relatively immune to its infection. Schaberg uncovers what we have built up a resistance to ignore. Interwoven with personal narrative, pop-culture references, and ecological thought, Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Environmental Humanities builds a path for us to follow through this period we have both defined and rejected.
In Homesick, the first half of the book, Schaberg returns to his childhood home of Michigan where he opens with the legend of the Sleeping Bear. In the tale, a mother bear and her cubs swim across shore to escape a fire. Too exhausted to continue, the mother stops to wait for her cubs who also face fatigue, and their bodies merge with the land—the mother transforming into the Sleeping Bear Dune, and her cubs, the North and South Manitou Islands. The mother bear is said to still be waiting for her cubs, a wait which—with glacial timescales—Schaberg reminds us will someday be answered. He titles this passage “Sleeping Bear, Still Moving.”
Regardless of this forecast, the Michigan described early in this section seduces with its possibility for escape. In the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore where Schaberg grew up, we find a retreat from industry that Schaberg longs to pass on to his children. Alas, this retreat exists today only in the realm of nostalgia, and when Schaberg attempts to locate it elsewhere, he is met with interruption after interruption: chainsaws cut down white ash and red oak trees, war planes fly overhead for an air show, a drone—that Schaberg admits he later cannot resist buying his own son—whirs above us. Like a case of technological whiplash, every time we reminisce for life as it was, we are snapped back with a manmade reminder of why it no longer is.
Not only do we find such developments reshaping how we experience nature, we see how they’ve made past experiences dangerous to retry. When Schaberg introduces his children to foraging, it opens as a metaphor for sustainability: if the plants go out of season, you must wait for their return; if you want the plants to stick around this season, you must walk delicately on their ground; if you want to differentiate between ripe and unripe, you must pay close attention to your landscape. But such rules expire in the Anthropocene. Now, to forage in the once removed pockets of Michigan means risking pesticides and the ticks that blossom under our warming weathers. Or, in Schaberg’s current home of New Orleans, to forage means searching “under the surface of fecund-looking clovers, sour flowers, and nasturtiums [where] lie amalgams of asphalt shingles, wires in knots, wrought iron rusting clusters, ceramic fragments, brick caked in lead pain… all of this jam-packed into what passes as soil, the layer of earth under our home.” When Homesick ends, and Schaberg reflects on what his children’s relationship will be to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, it feels as though the dunes have already shifted, their lifespan somehow shorter now than it appeared less than a hundred pages before. A lifespan that continues to shrink, Schaberg fears, as humans progress precariously ahead.
Without any safety to be had in the past, what option do we have but to look ahead? In the second half, Jet Lag, we lurch forward to the advance of technology, particularly that of flight, a topic that informs many of Schaberg’s writings. But as the section title suggests, we cannot jump ahead without leaving something behind.
After several comparisons of airports in media—from Home Alone 2 to Inception—we relocate to a setting best appreciated for its ability to ship us off somewhere else, fast. As a text message from Delta Airlines reminds us: “LIFE’S TOO//SHORT//TO WAIT.//Get Started.” Yet, when we enter the New Orleans airport, we find the space in transition itself, undergoing construction that the location’s high susceptibility to hurricanes and coastal erosion will likely demand again. This airport lacks certain amenities—like a drinking fountain for Schaberg’s son—but an employee reassures us the new airport will have everything we need. As Schaberg says, “We’ll die of thirst while imagining future flights to paradise.”
With the support of writers like Bruno Latour, Anna Tsing, and Ian Bogost, Searching for the Anthropocene challenges capitalist notions of progress through a militarized description of consumerism. From Dodge ads with paramilitary helicopters to the slingshots bought at his souvenir “Totem shop” so long ago, the parallel is ever present: the more technology we develop to protect ourselves, the more we need protecting. And while Schaberg provides no definitive answers or alternatives, near the end of the text he does mention he now flies only when necessary and has not returned to Michigan in years, actions that suggest a scaling back contrary to—and less commercially profitable—than Elon Musk’s or Jeff Bezos’s push for glamorous new means of escape.
In Searching for the Anthropocene, we find the residue of our past wants—whether they’re souvenir shop gifts or flights abroad—lingering in obsolescence, living on as discarded plastics and fumes from our fuel exhaust. They persist in our landfills and oceans, collect and hover above us in the atmosphere, everywhere we turn an overflowing reminder that the Anthropocene is “something that humans will take with them wherever they go.”
Sam Risak is a Florida transplant in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University, where she completed her MA in English. She writes across genres with work published or forthcoming in Lit Hub, The Writer’s Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Entropy, and Crab Orchard Review.
Header photo by Mercury Green, courtesy Shutterstock.