Christina Louise Turner Reviews Non-Fiction for EVENT 51/1
Christina Louise Turner Reviews:
Andrew Potter, On Decline, Biblioasis, 2021
Helen Humphreys, Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium, ECW Press, 2021
At first glance, Andrew Potter’s On Decline and Helen Humphreys’s Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium have very little in common: the former is a brief survey of the ‘current problems and likely future of Western civilization,’ while the latter is a study in plants and contemplation, tracking a poet’s journey to her local herbarium over the course of a year. And yet both authors are keenly interested in exploring the past as a way of understanding a present moment of crisis.
For Potter, a former journalist and professor at McGill University, that response takes the form of diagnosing the problem: namely, that Western civilization is in a state of decline. Potter’s proof for this claim begins in the year 2016, which opened with the death of David Bowie, unfolded as the hottest year on record, and ended with the election of Donald Trump. For Potter 2020, which began with the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in Iran and catastrophic Australian wildfires before the pandemic took over the world—and the news cycle—is merely a continuation of an overarching trend wherein life is getting worse for everyone on the planet. Potter has little time for protests against racial injustice, the rapid pace of COVID-19 vaccine development, or any other event that might suggest people are trying—and sometimes succeeding—in tackling our most pressing human problems. Instead, he concludes the book by offering a stark vision of the future, where ‘Life will simply get more and more difficult every year as Earth’s remaining humans retreat ever further into their various tribes.’
To explain why civilization is in decline, Potter turns to three benchmarks of human progress: ‘economic growth, technological innovation, and political emancipation.’ These were all on the upswing from the period known as the Enlightenment in Europe in the late 18th century—until recently. And so a failure of progress is, for Potter, actually a failure of enlightenment. Indeed, the title seems like a response (or riposte?) to Immanuel Kant’s canonical essay ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ Each of the book’s chapters explores a particular contour of this failure. ‘On Stagnation’ looks at how technological progress has stalled in the West thanks to ‘decaying infrastructure, politics, bureaucracy, and regulation.’ ‘On Reason’ turns to social psychology to argue that the human predisposition toward ‘biases and snap judgments’—whose ‘proper domain’ is the ‘African savannah’—is maladapted for life in modern liberal democracies. ‘On Politics’ argues that the current resurgence of populist politics is based in nostalgia for a ‘lost golden age’ fueled by popular culture and amplified by social media. The penultimate chapter, ‘On the Pandemic,’ frames the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘case study in these trends at work: The detachment of science from politics, innovation strangled by a lethargic and ineffectual bureaucratic state, a population increasingly under the sway of magical delusions,’ all ‘exacerbated by the catalyzing hot house of social media.’
On Decline is the third book in Biblioasis’s Field Notes series, a suite of essay-length studies about current events (earlier titles include Mark Kingwell’s On Risk and Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property). As with the other Field Notes titles, Potter’s volume is a very short book about a very large topic, so one might expect the sacrifice of some nuance or detail for the sake of brevity. That said, there are inconsistencies to Potter’s argument so glaring I can’t be convinced. First of these is his method of measuring progress. His singular use of the term implies a gradual upward climb for humanity, but his three benchmarks of progress—economic growth, political emancipation and technological innovation—have not unfolded in tandem over the last few centuries. The cotton gin was surely an example of technological progress, but just as surely not an example of political emancipation, given that it greatly expanded plantation slavery in the American South. The fact that large-scale pipelines can’t get built in Canada might stall economic progress, but it is a result of political emancipation—namely greater respect for and advocacy on behalf of Indigenous rights—even if those unbuilt pipelines risk stalling Canada’s economy. To make his argument about progress, Potter must ‘deliberately ignore certain aspects of the past and deliberately foreground other elements’—which is exactly what he accuses nostalgia-based populist movements of doing. As a result, On Decline sometimes reads like a nostalgic salvo to an intellectual era where Eurocentric Enlightenment thinking was taken as an unequivocal good.
The word ‘decline’ also appears on the opening pages of Field Study, which begins with Humphreys walking in a pine wood near her house in Kingston, Ontario, one she alternately calls ‘Carnage Alley’ (for its traces of hunted and devoured animals) and ‘My paradise.’ The wood has changed in recent years, with some species (bobolinks, meadowlarks) disappearing and other, invasive ones (toxic wild parsnip, deer ticks) proliferating. All of this is a microcosmic example of ‘decline and changes to ecosystems. Much of the damage is irreversible, and the prognosis for the future is grim.’ Like Potter, then, Humphreys begins by naming crisis, and like Potter, she turns to the past to work through this moment of crisis. Yet Humphreys, a writer of poetry and fiction, chooses a somewhat unlikely historical site to study: she decides to visit her local herbarium, the Fowler Herbarium at Queen’s University, and work through all 140,000 of the plants collected there over the course of a year.
She chooses the herbarium because it offers a way of understanding what the world used to be like: an herbarium is ‘an exquisite kind of time travel,’ and ‘by learning more about the intersection of people and nature in the past,’ Humphreys hopes ‘to gain some understanding of where we can go from here.’ An herbarium is a catalogue of the natural world, a storehouse of preserved nature that harkens back to a period before the unprecedented habitat loss and species extinction that marks our own time (although ecological crisis is by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon). Herbaria also speak to a now-inaccessible period of scientific democracy because many specimens housed in these institutions were collected by amateur botanists with no formal scientific training.
Field Study has a paradoxical relationship to time. Humphreys has organized the book by season—not by the season at which different plants in the herbarium would normally grow or flower, but by the seasons in which she visited them. So winter is devoted to lichens and ferns, spring to trees and roses. Humphreys notes how the world around her changes—plants blooming and dying in Carnage Alley—even as the contents of the herbarium stay the same, the plants themselves simultaneously representing both life and death because when a specimen is selected for preservation, its life cycle is arrested at precisely the moment it is most alive. Since the herbarium shows how ‘the dead and the living not only share the same space but are, in fact, equal,’ it also has something to teach us about how the past and present are always intermingled, always informing one another.
That said, Humphreys does not valorize the past she accesses through the herbarium. She explores the personalities of individual collectors without lionizing them. She celebrates the positive aspects of botany, like the fact that it could be practised by anyone; that many of the most effective botanists were women; that many botanists developed deep knowledge of their local environments. But she is also critical of botany as a field. There were many female collectors, yes, but they are rarely documented with their full names, and one notable female botanist (Sara Plummer Lemmon) is given the anonymous designation of ‘wife’ to her less prolific husband.
Humphreys also names botany as a ‘settler science’ that did not, overall, acknowledge Indigenous perspectives or ecological knowledge. There are only a few examples of such acknowledgement in the Fowler’s vast collection, including a notation in Ojibwe describing a specimen of flowered wild garlic. Humphreys is deeply aware that her ‘decision to use the herbarium as a wilderness is my particular path’ and that ‘another researcher or writer would choose a different direction…. It is a matter of choices made and the interest and intent that informs those choices.’ While I initially appreciated this reflexivity, I wish the author had taken it further. Humphreys repeatedly notes botany’s settler origins, but she never makes it to the other side, never enquires about Indigenous relationships to the plants she sees on walks through her local woods nor asks how the Anishinaabeg or Haudenosaunee—in whose territories she authored this book—approach the study of botany. In this sense, Humphreys’s book pales in comparison to works like Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which combines Indigenous plant knowledge with perspectives garnered from Western science.
While Humphreys and Potter begin their essays pursuing similar questions, they end quite differently: Potter with a stark vision of impending decline, Humphreys with a hopeful story about the past. She turns to the Coliseum: a building that, at the height of its use in Ancient Rome, witnessed the slaughter of thousands of animals from North Africa. And yet this place of death paradoxically became a place of life because the animals transported there also brought on their bodies seeds and flowers that took root and grew and can still be found in Italy today. One could say that Potter is a realist and Humphreys naïve. But I like Humphreys’s view better, if only because, rather than assuming the sweeping view of humanity’s past and future like Potter does, she chooses to stay down on the ground with the plants, connecting with where we have come from and looking up, with wonder and humility, to where we might go.
—Christina Louise Turner