It is a snow-covered February day and we drove 4 hours to get here. When we arrive, I feel more anxious than I did on the way over. We walk in and I am immediately struck by the bright overhead lighting, the heavy dominance of the equipment, the metallic surfaces, and a faint smell of brine that only I seem to notice. We are in a basement lab in Mystic, Connecticut to meet the center’s head biologist Jim. The room is small, cramped, and unpretentious, yet I feel nervous about where to sit or stand, what I can or can not touch, and which words to speak. I assume there are the right ones, but then I think about all the words that will spotlight just how new I am to all this. Guess there’s no hiding the fact: Ohan and I are not scientists; we are here researching for an art project.
Jim recently published an article in the journal Science on the 2011 tsunami, which originated off the coast of Japan, focusing on how the debris that was cast out into the open ocean led to a major marine migration that is still going on today, over a decade later. This was a big deal in the ocean studies community, because until then there had been no direct observations of coastal marine life crossing long distances, continent to continent, on floating objects. His article highlighted plastic objects in the Pacific Ocean: crates, buoys, boats, long-lasting durable materials that can survive the harsh conditions.
The article caught our attention too, because we are researching the psychic and political aftermath of oceanic hazards, and specifically working with Ohan’s family member, Mineko, who survived a tsunami. At its heart, the project is a meditation of the intimacies and affective residues of environmental disaster. Now we have come to Mystic—the seeker of truth beyond the intellect—to learn about other life-forms that struggle and thrive largely outside the frame of our human-centered worlds. The undercurrent of this project is the grappling with loss and recovery at varying temporalities and scales. Our differing experiences of personal and familial loss circle around the project: the slow-intimacy of losing a father to cancer, the sudden rupture of a mother’s fatal accident, the search for a husband amidst mass catastrophe. It’s our way of blanketing this work with a self-reflective vulnerability, so we can approach the task of engaging with another’s distinct and incommensurate grief without enacting further harm. Loss has led us to accumulation and movement—object after object drifting along tidal pathways, then scattering across beaches; marine life traversing distances and timespans; the telling and re-telling of the same memory not as a means to reach resolution, but as a way to create a new world with words.
When we initially reached out to Jim, he was on his way to Chile, his research leading him to the Coquimbo area, then Isla Robinson Crusoe, then to Rapa Nui. Now, he’s here in Mystic. He enters the room and immediately warms up the place. Being from Berkeley, he has a west coast casualness to his demeanor that is refreshing in this New England context. He jumps right into summarizing his recent findings, interweaving it with frequent jokes and tangential anecdotes. He laughs about the challenge of taking his undergraduate students on sailing trips for research, and recounts heartwarming email exchanges with his close network of peer biologists and beachcombers. He informs us that his tsunami research forced him to unlearn and take back a lot of what he taught his students over the last thirty years. That’s science, he says. When we can, Ohan or I interject with questions. Yet each time we do, before we can punctuate our words with a question mark, Jim picks up on the topic and leads us down a long improvisational thread of scientific names, tidal routes, geographical markers—it’s hard to keep up, so we ask him to repeat himself again and again. The see-sawing rhythm of our conversation animates the room, fusing it with a slight chaos that makes me feel at ease. With Jim’s encouragement, I get up and explore. I peek into plastic bags of collected artifacts, unlatch container boxes, and gently pick up specimens wrapped in ziplock bags and mason jars full of Formalin liquid.
The concept of rafting—a thing drifting across the ocean with a living being on it—is central to the field of marine biology. Jim explains this to us by way of an elaborate mind-twister. He asks: “Before humans existed, how do you think a land-snail was able to get to a hilltop on an island in Hawai’i?” Birds can fly there, but a land-snail drops dead just thinking of saltwater. So, he explains, you would need a major monsoon that tears away part of a forest, which then floats across the ocean. Usually trees sink, but let’s say these don’t. The snails would have to be way up on the branches to survive exposure. Let’s say this happens, and you drift into the most isolated archipelago in the world; where do you land? Likely a coral reef, but no snail would crawl across a coral reef. So, at the exact moment when you arrive, you need another major monsoon to pick up the forest and deposit it inland. There are endemic Indo-Pacific land-snails in Hawai’i, so we assume this happened. Rafting is one of the key assumptions in marine biology—we don’t see it happen, we never have, but we believe it did because we have no other explanation.
The majority of the post-tsunami rafting species that arrived throughout the West Coast were immediately bleached or burned on site, except for those that were shipped to museums and labs like this one. They were non-native, deemed invasive and a threat to local ecosystems. While the destruction of habitats is a real threat, the terms—non-native, invasive, alien and fouling (all commonly used in the natural sciences)—connote negative value-judgements about managing species based on geographic origin, and are often deployed in alarmist language with xenophobic undertones around the theme of nature conservation. I probe Jim on the terminology, but I can tell that he is not interested in entering a meta-conversation on semiotics nor geopolitics. He responds, “One day, over a beer,” a signal to move on.
But March 2011 is timestamped into my thoughts. The March 11 tsunami impacted an incalculable number of lives in Japan and across the globe. A few days later and 5,000 miles away, yet closer to home for me, March 15 marked the official start of the Syrian Civil War, which led to mass migrations, including my extended family on my father’s side. The explosion of “the refugee crisis”—as a term in media and politics—constructed a political “other” and symbolically shape-shifted the reality of humans fleeing violence in search of a decent life into a justification for reinforcing nation-state borders. For both humans and non-humans, the dualism of native/non-native tighten the exclusionary boundaries of national and planetary belonging. Ecologically, this dualism imagines a “pure” state of nature, where everything native is in its right place, and creates a management ethos through which humans regulate, dominate, and extract the earth. Set within and alongside bodies of water, these events are manipulated to normalize restrictive measures on land in order to control the flow of movement and change—in other words, life. My thoughts jump around, colliding stories and contexts, but I know that these are not unrelated. There is a place in which these events and their reverberations touch each other.
The British ecologist Charles Elton was the first to focus on invasive species with his book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (1958). The first chapter, titled “The Invaders,” begins with war metaphors and a discussion on the likelihood of attack:
“Nowadays we live in a very explosive world, and while we may not know where or when the next outburst will be, we might hope to find ways of stopping it or at any rate damping down its forces. It is not just nuclear bombs and wars that threaten us, though these rank very high on the list on the moment: there are other sorts of explosions, and this book is about ecological explosions. I use the word “explosion” deliberately, because it means the bursting out from control of forces that were previously held in restraint by other forces.”1
Using the concept of invasion as a foundational thesis, Elton’s book created a sudden rupture in the theory of environmental change. He veered away from the concept of succession, which assumes that species and habitat unavoidably and continuously change over time, that had previously dominated the field. Instead, Elton’s emphasis on invasion asserted that the mixing of specific kinds of organisms from distant parts of the world led to significant “dislocations in nature.”2 The North American muskrat, Ondatra zibethica, spreading throughout Europe; the fungus, Endothia parasitica, infecting chestnut trees in the eastern U.S.; the Chinese mitten crab, Eriocheir sinensis, with bristly claws that look like fur mittens, moving west. The ecologist’s role, according to Elton, is to be present during these decisive battles and to intervene when necessary in order to maintain the status quo.
Elton was likely influenced by his experiences of World War II. I imagine he was afraid but also rejuvenated with a purpose. He had the opportunity to apply his scientific knowledge to the war effort, focusing on developing prevention methods for the spread of European rodents in the U.K. Attack by Germany was a vivid and wide-sweeping fear, as well as a common occurrence during the war years, so the theme of invasions became central to his writing.3 When Elton published his book, it contributed to an existing discourse that was engaged with the question of what to do about a shifting social climate. Britain’s immigrant population had increased due to post-war labor needs, while extremist policies based on “keeping Britain white” had gained traction in government and popular culture. Across the Atlantic in the U.S., the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 had just reaffirmed “national origin” as the basis of a quota system (limiting the number of entries) and granted the president with the authority to “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants,”4 based on his personal assessment of whether an entry was considered harmful or beyond the interests of the U.S.
After a long meeting with many detours, Ohan and I need a walk so we head across the street to the Mystic Seaport, a massive yard that exhibits and restores large ships, “the holy grail”5 of wooden shipbuilding knowledge. We enter to find vessel after vessel in varying conditions, docked all along the unending pier. We wander around and tune into the slow-building creak and squeak of tightening ropes and the billowing whoosh of wind against sails. At the distance, I notice a construction area with massive stacks of chopped lumber and a metal tent-like structure surrounding a partially disassembled ship. Underneath, they are reconstructing the Mayflower II, a full-scale reproduction of the original. The plan is to dismantle the rotting oak planks and tethered hemp roping, eliminate the infestation of wood-boring beetles that are ever so steadily chewing away at the structure, and then start repairs with wood from harvested oak trees, as well as salvaged wood coming from storm-damaged trees in Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Laura. After almost 4 years of labor and a cost of $11.2 million, the Mayflower II will embark back to Plymouth, and permanently dock at the State Pier. There it will serve as an experiential heritage site, an educational destination for school field trips, and a monument to the nation’s origin story, enacting the eternal return of settler colonial fantasy. As I watch laborers dismantle its joints and haul away decay and pestilence, I wonder if this overhaul is not yet another attempt to stave off Indigenous presence and futurity. It was not so long ago when members of the American Indian Movement stormed this very ship in protest. Perhaps the cracking and crumbling of oak grains is the lingering material manifestation of that rebellion’s spirit.
The project of restraining nature via categorization started with Aristotle, who organized animals into hierarchies according to traits. Later in Poetics, he theorized a way to transgress fixed identifications via language. “The greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor”6… “The metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species…”7—it’s back-and-forth, it’s all over the place. But these categories and their definitions are always changing. The concept of species acquired its scientific meaning in the late eighteenth century natural sciences, with many subsequent revisions.8 While early definitions relied on physical differences to distinguish between distinct groups (species), later (and still-prevailing) theories define species as a distinct group that can breed and produce fertile kin. Scientists have utilized both definitions, in varying ways and to varying intensities, against racial and sexual others—from justifying chattel slavery, to denouncing miscegenation, to criticizing homosexuality. In essence, it’s a fight over setting the parameters that define the Homo sapiens species. In 1758, the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus coined the name Homo sapiens and his own body is still used as the type specimen; he is the reference point for the nomenclature Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man”).
The prefix eco- in ecology is now attached to progressive terms such as eco-feminism, eco-centrism, eco-criticism. However, ecology did not have these connotations in most of the twentieth century. The field was unapologetically geared toward the manipulation of animals, plants, and landscapes to serve human needs. Early twentieth century ecologists prioritized human interests over the interests of other species, and what they meant by “human interests” was the interests of the British Empire.9 Elton developed and demonstrated an aptitude for efficient data organization during his various trips with the Hudson’s Bay Company, where he studied the fluctuating populations of animals that were of interest to the fur trade. Ecology was entangled with empire. The growth of the field wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the foreign expeditions to study natural resources as potential sources of profit for Britain’s stakeholders, as well as regular access to airplanes and travel funds. The aerial view was critical to major scientific advances, allowing ecologists to visualize natural history into charts and maps of interrelations and elevating a gaze that could once reach only as high as the top of a sand dune or a mountain peak.
The writer Ocean Vuong defines metaphor through Tibetan Buddhism’s belief in non-duality and impermanence. If we first understand that all things, even concepts, are subject to constant change, he states, “the metaphor, then, is more like a chemical, whose elements (like hydrogen and oxygen), placed side by side, becomes water.”10 It’s a play of proximity and distance, placing things that seem far apart closer together. After the Mayflower II, we walk to the other end of the lot to visit the replica of the Amistad, a name that now stands in for the slave rebellion that took place on the original ship. By entering this yard, I believe we have crossed a portal into a preserved history, one that offers an alternative vision of interconnectedness across histories, from the settler colonial dispossession of land to the capture of slave labor. Placed together here, these ships, as esteemed models of maritime craftsmanship, narrate a scripted story of national heroism and liberal progress, but they also map out the inseparability of Indigenous and Black struggle and resistance, inextricably wrapped up in the ways the human species is conceived against the non-human. That which is defined as non-human is that which so quickly becomes defined as property, as the extractible resource.
While Elton initiated the focus of invasion ecology, its rhetoric became more and more complicit with politics as its influence grew. There is a telling image of George W. Bush standing in a Florida bog, wearing blue jeans, a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and shoes covered in dirt. Headline reads, “Digging Up Alien Species.”11 Feminist evolutionary biologist Banu Subramaniam lists other similarly evocative headlines that displace anti-immigrant anxieties onto the environment: “Biological Invaders Threaten U.S. Ecology,” “Alien Threat,” “U.S. Can’t Handle Today’s Tide of Immigrants”—all of which exclude the fact that these articles are about plants and animals, not humans. Like the earlier hygiene and germ panic surrounding migrants, xenophobic rhetoric accused migrants of spreading disease, crowding out native inhabitants, over-populating due to a higher reproduction rate, and ultimately costing the government and taxpayers money. “Invasive” as a label is most often determined by commercial interests, conflating economic loss with environmental concerns.
There is also the question of what and who gets to be called “native,” especially given that the majority of U.S. Americans are immigrants and settlers themselves.12 What is considered native or invasive is based on an arbitrary—but not politically innocent—date, set within a colonial timeline that enacts the systematic erasure of Indigenous peoples and their diverse understandings of an always-changing world.13 For example, some Anishnaabe communities regard plants as an assemblage, as nations rather than species. They view the arrival of new plant nations as a natural result of the migration of non-human nations. The human response, and responsibility, is to pay attention to animal- and plant-kin, in order to understand the purpose of their arrival. The problem does not lie in the arrival itself, but in an ideology of “invasiveness” that dictates how we engage with environmental change. One cultural educator from the Sault Ste Marie tribe asks: “I wonder if anyone has bothered to ask the Asian carp or the hybrid cattail why they are here? Another proposes: “has anyone ever gone and laid their tobacco down and asked this [emerald ashborer] bug to leave?”14
An anthropocentric profit-anxious response to ecological threat deploys the Feds.15 I pull up the Executive Order 13112, which established the National Invasive Species Council to classify and manage invasive species. It was signed by President Clinton on Feb 3, 1999, just three years after he signed two major immigration bills that laid the groundwork for today’s mass deportations and made it harder for people to attain legal status.16 Section 1 of the document consists of key terms. To understand better, I delete the official definitions and read the list out loud, like a poem.
(a) “Alien species” means,—
(b) “Control” means,—
(c) “Ecosystem” means—
(d) “Federal agency” means—
(e) “Introduction” means—
(f) “Invasive species” means—
(g) “Native species” means,—
(h) “Species” means—
(i) “Stakeholders” means,—
(j) “United States” means—
I pace my words out to the imagined beat of an EKG monitor. Means … means … means … peaks like a mountain-top each time. With the introduction of each new term, the prior one takes on a different meaning. “Alien species” is followed by “Control”; the intention becomes clear. “Introduction” qualifies and nestles into “Invasive Species,” which is then defined in opposition to “Native Species.” I let the imagination do the work of deciphering why or how a species is introduced and which actors and forces are implicated in its movement. From (a) to (b) to (c), meanings shift in succession, building power, until my gaze arrives at the final “United States,” a proper name that is built on the assumed stability of its literal and metaphorical ground. Ohan says, “write in the moon.” They are referencing the writing of the marine biologist Rachel Carson, who theorized that the Pacific Ocean is part of the moon, that its basin is a scar left by the same tidal disruptions that formed the moon. Carson’s hypothesis is her way of narrating the entanglement of oceanic and celestial forces, marked at the moment of their disjuncture. If the earth’s relationship to the moon determines tidal patterns, how objects and lifeforms move across its pathways, where they arrive, when they arrive, then the ocean is the moon, and what is here is also there. So I write in the moon—(k) “Moon”—to see the meanings change and appear, because everything comes as close as the length of a word.
1 Charles S. Elton, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants (The University of Chicago Press, 1958), 15.
2 Ibid., 18.
3 Mark A. Davis, Ken Thompson and J. Philip Grime, “Charles S. Elton and the Dissociation of Invasion Ecology from the Rest of Ecology,” Diversity and Distributions, volume 7, no. 1/2 (January-March, 2001): 97-102.
4 Immigration and Nationality Act, Public Law 414 (June 27, 1952), 188.
5 “Journey to Restoration: Mayflower II at Mystic Seaport,” Mystic Seaport, https://stories.mysticseaport.org/journey-to-restoration/.
6 Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S.H. Butcher (Cosimo Classics, 2008), 47.
7 Ibid., 41.
8 Ladelle McWhorter, “Enemy of the Species,” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Indiana University Press, 2010), 73-101.
9 Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945 (Harvard University Press, 2001).
10 “A Short Essay on Metaphor by Ocean Vuong,” poesie (blog), December 29. 2021, https://poesie17283909.wordpress.com/2021/12/29/161/.
11 Betsy Hartmann, Banu Subramaniam, Charles Zerner, “Introduction,” Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 7.
12 Banu Subramaniam, “The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions,” Meridians , 2001, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2001), 36.
13 Hartmann, Subramaniam, Zerner, 8.
14 Nicholas J. Reo, Laura A. Ogden, “Anishnaabe Aki: an indigenous perspective on the global threat of invasive species,” Sustainability Science Vol. 13 (2018), 1447.
15 Executive Office of the President, “Executive Order 13112 – Invasive Species,” Federal Register, Vol. 64, No. 25 (February 8, 1999), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/1999/02/08/99-3184/invasive-species.
16 I am referring to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Together, these laws increased penalties on immigrants who had violated U.S. law or who were accused of terrorism, and increased the number of immigrants held in detention, making it substantially harder to get legal representation.
Buoy images, Full Moon and Crescent Moon, are courtesy of Ohan Breiding, 2022.
About the Contributors
Ohan Breiding (formerly Johanna) works in photography, video and varying forms of collaboration to depict the importance of kinship via active listening, historical events, and the landscape as witness. They employ a queer-feminist lens to the discussion of ecological care and invite viewers to feel how resistance might move our bodies and to pay attention to the material and landscapes that hold us as we persist. They have received numerous awards including the DAAD, the Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Award, the Powers Fund Grant and the SIFF Award for The Rebel Body, a short film made with Shoghig Halajian, with the participation of Silvia Federici (author of Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation), and with town residents of Glarus, Switzerland. They were a 2021 Research Fellow at Ocean Space–TBA 21 in Venice, Italy and are represented by Ochi Projects in Los Angeles. They have exhibited widely and their work has been written about in Artforum, Art in America, Huffington Post, Hyperallergic and Whitewall. Breiding is an Assistant Professor in the Art and Art History Department at Williams College, MA and the 2022-2023 Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College, MA.
Shoghig Halajian is a curator and and writer who serves on the Board of Directors at Human Resources LA, and previously was Assistant Director at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). She is co-editor of the online journal Georgia, in collaboration with Anthony Carfello and Suzy Halajian, which is supported by a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. She has presented projects at the Hammer Museum and the ONE Archives at USC Libraries in Los Angeles; Le Magasin–National Center for Contemporary Art in Grenoble; Al Ma’mal Foundation for Art in Jerusalem, UKS in Oslo, among others. She was a 2021 Research Fellow at Ocean Space–TBA 21 in Venice. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Art History, Theory and Criticism with a Critical Gender Studies emphasis at University of California, San Diego, where her research explores contemporary queer aesthetics and performance through a critical race lens, focusing on artistic experiments with collaboration.