Research

Sketching with More-Than-Humans: Making the Pluriverse Visible on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula

      Humans make sense of their surroundings through the construct of ‘landscape’: the notion of a slice of the world that unifies all entities that inhabit it into a human-focused assemblage. But are humans the only authors or artistic creators of landscape? We may create stories and represent our world through writing, photography, painting, weaving, sculpting, music – but are all the other beings, or more-than-humans, not involved in the artistic co-creation of our world? More-than-humans have creative responses to their worlds – birds chirp from the treetops, fungi rhythmically digest their food in their chosen surfaces, water can mold the landscape in strange and unanticipated ways, and ants and bees practice complex forms of architecture. So much creativity happens without human intervention. Merlin Sheldrake recorded the sound of his own book being devoured by a fungus and found that, in the process, the fungus produced a pleasing rhythm (https://youtu.be/6KAnGAtSSgE). Fungi can make ‘music’. When an artist represents the natural world in their work, our modern human society attributes authorship to the human. But what the birds, the fungi, the water and other more-than-humans have given to the artist’s process and final outcome should be acknowledged too. Their work in making that world with the artist matters. In this sense, there is no ‘universal’ creator or knower in the act of world-making. It is very much a pluralistic practice.

     In this life I embrace multiple roles and straddle multiple worlds. As a student, a geographer and emerging scholar, I am committed to using my privilege to produce research and outputs that will disrupt colonial ways of knowing, facilitate inclusive knowledge sharing and produce new knowledge in the form of writing about the Earth (earth writing = geography). As an artist, I have experienced the power of visual expression to investigate unconventional topics, encourage dialogue and open minds. And as a woman and mother, I feel a responsibility to develop my gifts and abilities and use them to make the Earth a better place for my son and for the generations to come. Many of my academic and professional endeavours have been situated in southwestern Ontario, more specifically in the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Toronto. But the most formative and meaningful relationship I have had with the land materialized on the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula during my childhood. More recently, I have re-established that relationship with the peninsula as a seasonal resident.

     In designing my doctoral research, I feel like I have finally ‘come home’ in learning about creative geography, a sub-discipline that allows for an integration of the roles that constitute me so that I can deliver not only an original but an authentic contribution to Canadian scholarship. Geography’s long relationship with art has recently blossomed in the creation of this sub-discipline of creative geography, which links contemporary visual arts practice (or practice-led research) with ethnography to learn new stories and knowledge about the human-land relationship. Using visual art and multispecies ethnography, I am investigating how humans and more-than-humans alike are world-makers, and I will tell the stories of their multiple worlds as a pluriverse. As a student, geographer, artist, woman, mother and seasonal resident, I recognize that humans and more-than-humans are entangled in multiple relations and narratives within the broader ecology of the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula. And I know I am not alone. If one looks at the art being produced by white settler artists and Indigenous artists (First Nations and Metis) alike, one can also see these entanglements.

     The dominant regime of modern economics, science and society has bred a form of human exceptionalism, a way of seeing and knowing that prioritizes the stories and intellectual manifestations of humans over the life-expressions of other species. This has also prioritized a ‘One-World World’ (Law 2011), and either marginalized or erased other worlds. Even post-humanist geographies are prone to variations of this privileging approach (Sundberg 2014). In a way, the dominant culture of neoliberal globalization, in its insistence on a universal worldview, forces humans to put up walls between themselves and other species, to categorize knowledge according to these walls, to compartmentalize, abstract and thereby limit what can be known. To counter this unnecessary limitation, I propose to study humans and more-than-humans as co-entities and so overcome an uncomfortable dualism that clearly does not seem to work for the benefit of the Earth anyway. What if we practiced ‘earth writing’ with the understanding that humans and more-than-humans are a culture-sharing group? What if culture-sharing groups were inclusive of multiple entities that shared the same geographic locations? And why not use art as a form of ‘earth writing’ and as a way to investigate these possibilities? This praxis has been shared by Indigenous cultures across the Earth for millennia. In other words, these sentiments are immeasurably older than the dominant modern regime. It is hard to comprehend this, though, when have bounded ourselves by walls. My research is designed to cross these boundaries, resist human exceptionalism, and challenge the dominant universal worldview. I want to show how we are entangled with more-than-humans in the co-creation of multiple worlds and how we can respectfully co-exist in those worlds – just like countless Indigenous worldviews have posited for a very long time.

     The Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula is a place of special meaning to me and other visual artists who also reside there, either seasonally or full-time. Since the early 1900s, this unique landscape has been celebrated by settler artists in visual materials like paintings and photographs. Only recently has the landscape been the subject of more conceptual artistic treatment (Davey, https://m9contemporary.ca/bruce-trail-intervention). The arts community on the peninsula now includes both Indigenous and settler artists. Visual artists are an interesting culture-sharing group on the peninsula, who tend to subjectify more-than-humans in the course of their work. Working in the field, I will be in dialogue with a selection of artists who engage with the landscape and more-than-humans, interviewing and making observations of their ‘entanglements’ as well as my own, and collecting my fieldnotes in an artist’s sketchbook. This will inform the creation of a series of site-specific artworks representing the findings of my field work. This research seeks to answer the following questions:

  • How are artists and more-than-humans entangled in world-making on the peninsula?

  • What conditions and affinities do visual artists share with more-than-humans?

  • How are these geographically specific narratives constructed and what can we learn from them?

In witnessing the process of worlds coming into being, or artists “becoming with” (Haraway 2008) other species through “dialogues and doings” (Hawkins 2011), I am investigating how the idea of the pluriverse can be constituted in artwork.

     I have designed a post-humanist framework to investigate our entanglement with more-than-humans through visual arts practices, to learn more about the creative acts that visually constitute the worlds of more-than-humans living in a specific geographic location, and to explore ontological pluralism as way to make sense of our position in the natural world.

Why the Saugeen Peninsula?

Since my childhood, the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula has been the source of fond memories of morning walks, learning about the plants from my aunt and Nan, and spending entire afternoons at the beach. At the end of the day, we would walk back to the cottage, sunburnt, waterlogged, happily exhausted, and settle into a lazy dinner having understood a little bit more about the shorelines of Lake Huron. 

 

With these simple experiences of weekends at the cottage, I developed a very special relationship with the surrounding environment. This in turn has translated into a PhD where I can use my scholarly and artistic skills to study the peninsula and the many ways we (humans and non-humans) have related to it, manipulated it, impacted it, and loved it. For aren’t we inspired to protect that which we love?

To this endeavour, I bring an interdisciplinary background in history and the humanities, with a specialization in public history.

Since 2009, I’ve established a professional artistic practice where I develop bodies of work based in themes like ecofeminism. My publication record includes guest columns in local newspapers, in-depth reports for organizations and municipalities, as well as articles in publications like Alternatives Journal (Judge, 2016). I’ve been fortunate to have a wide-ranging career – as an online librarian, arts administrator, artist, office manager, editor, knowledge mobilizer, consultant, event planner – that has allowed me to flex my intellectual muscles. But as I begin a PhD I look forward to a research experience that will contribute to the wealth of Canadian environmental scholarship and appeal to the sensibilities of the beholders of landscape to do what they can to protect it.

I applied to the Geography program at Wilfrid Laurier University for the reputation of its faculty members; its partnership with UW; its excellent archives; and especially to work with Dr. Michael Imort, who has the excellent reputation as both a scholar and a mentor. 

References

Haraway, D.J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hawkins, H. (2011). “Dialogues and Doings: Sketching the Relationships Between Geography and Art.” Geography Compass, 5(7): 464-478.

Law, J. (2011, September 25). “What’s Wrong with a One-World World?” heterogeneities. http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2011WhatsWrongWithAOneWorldWorld.pdf

Sheldrake, M. (2020). “The sound of the book, Entangled Life, being devoured by a fungus – with a piano accompaniment.” YouTube video: https://youtu.be/6KAnGAtSSgE Last accessed March 19, 2021.

Sundberg, Juanita. (2014). “Decolonizing Posthumanist Geographies.” Cultural Geographies, 21(1): 33-47.