Category: Season 2

Paul Sadowski

Paul Sadowski

Episode 8




So to introduce this: Cage would give performances where he was seated at a table with a desk lamp and he would read to the audience and there were different settings and things, procedures shall we say, or performances associated with it. One of them was a series of ninety stories which he read. And there were stories from his life. Some of them were mushroom stories, but, you know, there were all sorts of topics. Each of them, regardless of length, had to fill a one-minute interval. So the short stories would be very distended. And the wordier ones had to be very quickly read. And then in the background, David Tudor would be running around the studio, pounding on pianos, hitting gongs, using ratchets, all sorts of sounds that interrupted the reading that Cage was making. 

These are excerpts from John Cage’s writing about mushrooms. So when he’s in the first person, it’s John Cage, who’s addressing. 

# 1 

“Let me show you my recent text. It is called “Mushroom Book.” I had for many years wanted to write a mushroom book, and I found that when I concentrated on mushrooms, it was not interesting. So what I did was to list all the things that interested me. So: mushroom stories, excerpts from Thoreau’s ‘Journal’ about mushrooms, excerpts from Thoreau’s ‘Journal’ – anything, remarks about life and art, or art and life, life and art, life and light, life, or art and art. By that I mean life becoming art, and I think of Fuller.” 

# 2  

“I think that there must be found a kind of common denominator between those who, like Mao, rely on power and those, like Fuller, who have a faith in the goodness of material, of material having. You see, Fuller like Mao believes in the goodness of human nature, and he thinks that what makes people bad is the fact that they do not have what they need. If they had what they needed, they would be less selfish than they are when they do not have what they need.

“I have noticed too with our mushroom society in New York that when the weather is dry and there are few mushrooms, the people are very secretive and selfish and they do not let anyone know they have found anything, they hunt very quickly.

I noticed too with myself that as I have what I need, I look at our large stores in New York and I do not see anything that I want.”

# 3 

 “Lois Long (the Lois Long who designs textiles), Christian Wolff, and I climbed Slide Mountain along with Guy Nearing and the Flemings, including Willie. All the way up and down the mountain we found nothing but Collybia platyphylla, so that I began to itch to visit a cemetery in Millerton, New York, where, in my mind’s eye, Pluteus cervinus was growing. By the time we got back to the cars, our knees were shaking with fatigue and the sun had gone down. Nevertheless, I managed to persuade Lois Long and Christian Wolff to drive over to Millerton. It meant an extra hundred miles. We arrived at the cemetery at midnight. I took a flashlight out of the glove compartment, got out, and first hastily and then carefully examined all the stumps and the ground around them. There wasn’t a single mushroom growing. Going back to the car, I fully expected Lois Long and Christian Wolff to be exasperated. However, they were entranced. The aurora borealis, which neither of them had ever seen before, was playing in the northern sky.”

# 4 

“‘Elizabeth, it is a beautiful day. Let us take a walk. Perhaps we will find some mushrooms. If we do, we shall pluck them and eat them.’ Betsy Zogbaum asked Marian Powys Grey whether she knew the difference between mushrooms and toadstools. ‘I think I do. But consider, my dear, how dull life would be without a little uncertainty in it.'”


My name is Paul Sadowski. I am an amateur mycologist and my day job is a music publisher. That activity is what brought me into contact with John Cage. And then John Cage brought me to mushrooms.


In 2012, the New York Mycological Society was celebrating its 50-year anniversary, which was coincident with John Cage’s Centennary. So a committee was formed and I, Gary Lincoff and Pam Cray were members of this committee to plan an event that would appropriately celebrate the club and Cage. We came up with an idea to try to have a sort of mashup of mushroom and music. My thinking hinged on a project I had worked with as an undergraduate: a production of a piece that Cage wrote together with Lejaron Hiller at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana called HPSCHD, which is an abbreviation, if you will, of harpsichord. And this project, this piece, was composed of several sonic streams. There were four harpsichordists playing music from Mozart’s Dice Game pieces, which Cage had randomized in his way. There were films of NASA projects, all sorts of outer space stuff and rockets launching and stuff that basically covered every surface of the art gallery which held this project. There were I believe 64 channels of computer-generated sound that Lejaron Hiller had put together, literally beeps and bops and things. It was quite a cacophony. 32 slide projectors: these were projecting slides that Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg had put together. They’re sort of these fractal stained-glass things which were overlaid on all of the space footage from NASA. 

So all of this was going on simultaneously for about two hours or so. People were milling around in the middle of this whole circus of stuff going on. So we thought it would be interesting to do that, an interesting formula to try to approximate. We ended up in a more or less proscenium space, so we were at the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City.

We decided to, as the audio component or one of the audio components was to do a realization of a piece by John Cage called 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs. This piece had been commissioned by Jann Wenner upon the move of Rolling Stone from San Francisco to New York City. So several pieces were commissioned at that time, and this was one of them. As I mentioned, I had a long association with Cage. I was his music copyist and I walked in one day and there was a Hagstrom map on his kitchen table or his dining room table, which had all of these triangles and different colors drawn upon it. And these triangles were triangulated locations. There were addresses that were chosen by chance operations, the I Ching throwing and stuff. The instructions for the piece are you go to the location and record what’s happening there. And then it’s played back. Three of them linked up as these so-called Waltzes.

So anyway, we did a realization of that piece as a 90-minute backdrop for the rest of the performance, which consisted of five readers who had chosen texts from Cage’s mushroom writings—so, the Mushroom Book and certain mushrooms stories from Indeterminacy and other things that appeared in his voluminous writings that Gary Lincoff had actually gone through pre-internet, you know, you couldn’t just search for things. He actually went through the books and extracted all of these stories and compiled them. So that provided the live element. And then Pam put together three ninety-minute films comprised of still photography of mushrooms, film clips, and videos. Some were interviews with long-time society members and we had a clip from a documentary of Cage hunting in Rockland County. 

And so the evening went. Three of these films simultaneously happening. And behind the audience was the, the sounds that we had Emily Harris and I had collected. Instead of following the score that Cage had written, we put out the call to the society for people to give us specific locations where they have seen mushrooms growing within the five boroughs, letting that be the randomizing situation. And so for a couple of years, Emily and I went out and we’d record two minutes or something somewhere. Wonderful coincidences ensued, which was then mixed down and played behind the audience while the readers were reading and their eyes are filled with all of the images. So that was the piece, the 90-minute piece that we played before an audience of about 700 people.


Now, John Cage had studied music with Henry Cowell at the New School. I mean he studied previously with Arnold Schoenberg but in New York he took classes with Henry Cowell who was probably best remembered for applying the fist to the piano keys. Fistful chords on the piano. Anyway Cage had an association with the New School thereby, and was asked to teach a music class. And he said he would do so only if he could teach a class in mushrooms. He had some exposure to mycology and you know, he was the valedictorian of his high school class. He was a very, very studied, well-read person. He had the capacity for this kind of thing. And eventually he came to New York City, he was living downtown on the Lower East Side and then for one reason or another, he moved up to Stony Point where he lived for a time in a farmhouse that had a lot of people living there. It was a kind of an artist colony. He would go out and walk in the woods, the property as it’s known today adjoins Harriman State Park. So there were plentiful opportunities for wandering around the woods there and Cage found mushrooms. He came upon actually not a mushroom, but he either thought he found a Helebore, which is edible. And it turned out to be skunk cabbage or vice versa. I’m not sure, but everybody got sick and ended up in Nyack Hospital where the nurse told him, “If you’re going to fool around with this stuff. You should find somebody who knows what they’re doing.” And this woman knew about this person well-known in the area. He was actually himself a horticulturist. He had nurseries and so forth. He did a lot of work with rhododendrons. He did all kinds of grafting of exotic rhododendrons with native species and produced anyway, a lot of rhododendrons that were widely sought after and built himself a very good reputation in all things botanical. So she said, you should get to know this person, his name is Guy Nearing. So Guy Nearing and John formed an association. Guy Nearing was his teacher, in fact. 

So, um, what happened? So this brings us now back to the New School. So Cage and Nearing actually were teaching the class. Of course, John Cage is the famous one so he gets the lion’s share of the credit, but Guy Nearing was very much a prominent figure in this class. He was the first naturalist at a new Wildlife Conservancy that was put together in the Palisades called the Greenbrook Sanctuary. It was formed as part of the Interstate Palis ades Commission. He laid out most of the trails that are there today, and he also did a survey of the fungi of the property. So, he was probably the most accomplished mycologist outside of the New York Botanical Garden in this area. 

So Cage and Nearing taught this class and the class was basically a schedule, not unlike the New York Mycological Society is today, of field trips. For the most part, they were going out in the woods and collecting mushrooms and explaining them to people. So it turns out this class was an elective, and it was the least expensive class that the New School had to offer. So you had a lot of, let’s call them foul weather friends, you know, just people who took it so they could get a discount on trips to Europe and things like that. It’s like today, if you’re a student, you can get an Apple computer at a student rate. So that kind of held up in other commercial things. And so people took this class to get the commercial advantage of being a student officially enrolled. Anyway, this class was taught for a couple of years, I think. It became rather unwieldy as Cage put it in a letter to the society. He said it became rather like a parent with an adolescent. He said, you know, it was just too much responsibility for the leaders of the group and not enough responsibility taken by the members of the group. And so they decided to create a society with what they considered significant dues. You know, you had to have a little skin in the game. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, come and look for mushrooms with us.” And that’s how it started. And Laurette Shapiro was the first secretary. And in fact it was rather a threadbare administration. There were only two officers, one was a treasurer and one was the secretary. There was no president, no vice president. So it has always existed and still does to this day, exists as a kind of an anarchy in the best sense of the word. It is a group of people who look for mushrooms. That’s what it’s all about. It does do all things mushroomy and in terms of projects and directions and so forth, you basically volunteer to do something and the resources of the society are there to support the person in this project whenever it happens to be. And so it goes. It’s remained pretty decentralized, you know? And so it’s quite a marvelous group actually.


So, Cage and Nearing and three other people—I’m going to remember two of them, Esther Dam and Frank Ferrara and there’s a fifth one, but they were the founding members of the club. So they basically sustained the club. Eventually Cage, his career really took off at some point. And, probably around the time I started to work for him maybe a little before, he became very highly commissioned. And, so when I got out of college in 1973 is when I started working for him. I actually met him in during that HPSCHD program and then subsequently a year later, there was a production at BAM in what was then the Leperq space, which is now Joe’s Cafe. In the Leperq space, we did a production and cause I was in charge of these slides. Since I was involved with the slides, I was kind of shepherding those to his apartment and it was on the ride over the Brooklyn Bridge that we talked about my work at that point, which was working as what was known as an autographer. This is where my music career kind of took off. Autography is an artisanal practice of basically drawing music, rendering music to resemble printed music.

And so we discussed the work that lay ahead of him. He had a bunch of commissions, and that’s how we kinda got started as how I got started working for John. When you see printed sheet music— at least say prior to 1980—this music was engraved. There would be a metal plate and various dyes. So you’d have a dye with a note, an oval that would be the note. You would have an instrument of five tines, like a fork if you will, called a rostral–that would draw the staff’s lines. You would make an impression in the copper or bronze, I think copper sheets. And you would draw that rostral across those would be your staff lines, and then you would hammer the various notes into place. And then score the stems and the ligatures, and all of the other things that make up printed sheet music. So that’s how it was done way back when. But it also had been done by pen and ink. And that’s what I learned from an autographer by the name of Carlo Carnevale. His father worked for Verdi and his mother worked for Puccini. So, you know, it was a long line of this kind of fine handiwork. And I learned this craft from Carlo. That’s kind of how I came with that skill set to meet John Cage. And then I worked for him for about twenty years. And I worked till he died in 1992.


So this happened in probably 1975, I would say maybe August. We were working on one of his bicentennial commissions. It was called Apartment House 1776. And so this was a group of pieces that John would randomize some way or other, that would be performed by several ensembles that would represent the music that was extant in 1776. So there was a group of Moravian music. There was a string quartet. There was even music that featured Negro spirituals. There was American Indian. They were at the front of the stage and then behind them was the orchestra that was playing a whole other piece called Renga, which was derived from the drawings of Thoreau. So he kind of picked out little things and made visual scores of them. There were a lot of swoops and punctuations and, you know, kind of randomized music going on.

Anyway, that was the piece we were working on. So at the time I was living outside of Albany, which is where I grew up. And he came up to Albany to work on this piece. He was basically proofreading the material I had put together. It was a rainy rainy week for the most part. But Saturday came and the sun was out and he said, “we’re not going to work today. I want to go out.” He said, “take me someplace where there are old trees and lawns there aren’t too well mowed.” So I took him to a local cemetery, the Albany rural cemetery. And we drove around in the station wagon and we did some car foraging. So, you know, every now and then he’d stop and we’d get out of the car and we’d find mushrooms and put them in the basket. And so forth. By the end of the afternoon, we had gathered quite a lot and he basically focused on edible mushrooms. That afternoon it was not a mycological exploration. It was focusing on things that he was familiar with. And we went back to my apartment and he cooked everything up and we ate it all, each mushroom prepared a different way to accentuate its flavor. And then we washed down with some Montepulciano or something. Anyway. That was the big mycological adventure I had with Cage. 


What actually brought me to mushrooms had to do with his death, which came rather suddenly. He had had a couple of minor strokes that didn’t do that much damage. But the big one came on August 12th of 1992 as he was making his dinner. That was the end of the line for John. 

And so I was kind of left, bereaved. He was a friend at that point. He was a patron. So there was a big hole there and one of the little mushroomy things that did happen while he was alive, what came about… An incident: my father who likes mushrooms and decided he knew enough about mushrooms to go look without any experience or knowledge of it. And he did finally get sick from eating mushrooms and I decided I had to get him a field guide or something. Cause you know, he was just flying by the seat of the pants. He’d just see a mushroom and people often do this, they say, “Oh, that looks so good. Yeah, that looks delicious.” Which is foolhardy. You know, lots of people have made that mistake. So I asked John, “John, I want to get a book from my father.” And so, he made a couple of recommendations and one of them was the Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms which I bought. And I was reading through the preface and in that preface Gary Lincoff, the author, wrote about how he came to mushrooms and it was through John Cage! So there was this connection there.

And so August 12th, John died. And I, up to that point, I was starting to think about a hobby. Before that, as I mentioned it was a full-time job plus, and I was at a point I was working for John, but I also had other clients, and so I was working a lot. Too much and not getting out in the woods enough. And so I thought to have a hobby, which would get me out into the woods and also might, in the acquisition of Latin binomials, might keep my brain going in my dotage. And so a friend suggested I go to the New York Botanical Garden and take their beginning mushroom class up there in September, which was being taught by Gary Lincoff. 

So that’s how it happened. And it turned out that Gary, over the next twenty years, and I became very good friends and, in fact, after he died, again I was kind of bereft and you know upset, and realized—it hit me even harder than Cage’s did because it was Gary that actually helped heal me from Cage’s loss.



I guess the best way to talk about Gary is to talk about the club. So I joined the club. Now, this is in 1992. After the last day of class, Gary handed out an information sheet for people to introduce them to a way of going on with their mushroom activity. And the New York Mycological Society was listed as one of the resources. So, there was a phone number. There was no web page in 1992, very hard to find the New York Mycological Society. I have a feeling in a way that may have been a good thing because you had to be a hunter to find them, you know. I think that was a good thing! 

But in any case, it was rather easy for me. I had a phone number and I talked to Wilbur Williams, the treasurer, and paid my dues and began going on walks with them. And it was an interesting group of people. And it was at the end of the season when I joined up. So it wasn’t until the 1993 season that we really got rolling. It was a smaller group at that point. And so there were a number of personalities that we became acquainted with, but all of whom or most of whom at least were very friendly, very free with their information, very interested in telling you whatever they knew about mushrooms. It remains really the best way to learn about mushrooms is to join a mushroom club because it’s very much an in-your-hand experience, you know.  A mushroom in a photograph is really a two dimensional thing and you need to study mushrooms in really four dimensions or five dimensions. You need to know their length and width and depth three, their smell, and how they proceed in time, particularly with certain species. So it really is a much more complicated affair than looking at a photograph and comparing it to another photograph. That’s definitely not optimal. And that hands-on experience is something that you get, you know, on a trail with someone who knows about the mushroom. They’re going to tell you things that you aren’t likely to find in one place at any particular time. 

So one of the people who was the go-to person in the club was Gary Lincoff, and he just had an encyclopedic knowledge of mushrooms. And so you not only learned the basics, you learned some of the subtleties. You learned the aspects of the habitat, the ecology, you know, the whole nine yards was what Gary would bring.

So those walks were precious. And we were like his acolytes. I mean, we’d roll up to our lunch place and we’d eat our food and then lay out our mushrooms. And Gary would go through, who knows hundreds of mushrooms and, go through at least 20 or 30 of them and give you a complete descriptive, really encyclopedia-type essay on each one. So he was invaluable. He was funny. Eugenia Bone, who wrote a book called Mycophilia featured Gary in large part. And she called him the “borscht belt mycologist” because he had an impeccable sense of comedic timing, very very very entertaining. 

Over the years, one of the aspects of the New York Mycological Society that has been part of its structure is that we have our walks and then in the wintertime, there are lectures. So you have something to do during the so-called off-season. So Gary was the person who organized that and brought in people, but he always had at least one lecture, you know, when he would talk about things, always in a sort of off-beat way. It was never a dry lecture. There was just a little entertainment built into it, you know. That was his profession. He did mushrooms all the time. He taught botany as well. He was actually a first-rate botanist, in addition to a first-rate mycologist. He’s more well-known as a mycologist because that was his passion, but at the botanical garden, he educated thousands of botanists, you know, and he taught these intensive classes in botany.

I can tell you, he knew the botanical gardens so well, he could do it blind because he went through a period of blindness. He had hurt his back severely, and he was in so much pain, he was put on steroids. And the corticosteroids will cause a cataract to form on your eyes. And so he was telling me one night at dinner, he was like teaching these classes in botany. And he said, if it weren’t for the fact that I knew the garden so well, he said, I couldn’t see the tree, but he knew where it was and he could feel, and, you know, so he was a first-rate botanist. You don’t need me to testify to that, there are many people who have given that testimony. In any event, he was not just a good teacher and it wasn’t just his technical information he passed on, he was a real inspiration. He was one of those people who didn’t just talk the talk, he really walked the talk. I mean, he was very, very complete. It was a holistic kind of situation. So he inspired me to delve into microscopy and all of that.


Greenbrook is an interesting place. It sits out there on the top of the Palisades kind of across from Yonkers is about five miles North of the George Washington Bridge. If you look at a map of the Palisades Parkway, you see it do this curious little loop around and there’s brass plaque at the site sanctuary saying that this was founded by the New Jersey Ladies Garden Club, something like that. And you think of a bunch of Ms. Marples running around working on flowers and whatnot. This was probably a pretty powerful formidable group of women. And so it was built and there’s a fence around it. It’s a fenced in property and this made it very attractive for women to go to because you could feel safe there, and you still have to unlock a lock to get in, you know, your membership card is key.

So Lynn had been leading these walks and I had gone on a few with her. And was introduced to Lynn through the then-naturalist, a woman by the name of Nancy Slovic. Sadly Lynn left us in 2001. After her passing, Nancy asked me if I could take over the walks. I could not have even entertained the thought of doing that if I hadn’t hung out with Gary so much, because he not only taught you about mushrooms, but he taught you about teaching. I had always done a little bit of teaching, but I felt better prepared through my association with Gary. So I started doing these walks annually and after a time she said, “you know, Paul, there’s a project that I have in mind”. And I said, “what’s that?” She said, “well, there was Guy Nearing originally here and he had done a fungal survey. There’s a list.” And she said, “I had Gary go through the list so he’s updated the nomenclature, but I thought it might be interesting for us to do a new survey of the property to compare to the 1949 list.”

The scientific method if you will, of a mycologist is to make collections and to describe them. To classify them and kind of organize them. In the classification, you end up organizing them according to habitat and you know what plants they’re associated with. Mushrooms, probably everybody knows by now have relationships with plants through their root systems. So making a list is just like what mycologists and botanists do. It really is the scaffolding of the profession. It provides one with the information that one needs to come to a greater understanding of the place of fungi in the world, how they interact with our world, how we interact with them and so forth. So that’s how it works. 

And so Guy made a list of the mushrooms. I mean, that’s the first, most elemental part of it. What would grow out of that eventually would be a book with descriptions and, you know, supporting literature and photography and so forth. 


Nancy said, let’s do this project. And she finally nagged me enough and I said, okay. And we set off on this scientific adventure. Up to this point, I was basically pot hunting, meaning we were hunting for food. So I was kind of an itinerant, going to places where I would find morels in the spring and then there would usually be a break till the summer season started up. And then we would go looking for, you know, Lactarius in the hot months of July and the Black Trumpets and the Chanterelles. And you go to the places that are good habitats for those things. So, you know, you’re off to Vermont in August, you’re in Oak woods in July, you’re under beech trees in August. So you go where the trees are, where you’re likely to find the mushroom that you want to put into your dinner that night. And that’s kind of how mushrooming was for me. 

Now, there are a lot of other mushrooms. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of species, the fleshy mushrooms, you know. We’ll put them in the thousands of species in our area, most of which we ignore because we’re kind of laser-focused on Chanterelles. As soon as you see a Chanterelle, you go for it and you spend your time there to pick every last one. Then you go looking for another patch of yellow in the woods and ignore everything else in between, right? 

A survey is a whole other exploration. And so that’s really when I grew into whatever level of mycology I’ve found myself in today. So then I was no longer kicking Russulas. I was picking them and trying to figure out what they were, and in order to do that, you needed to get the microscope out. That’s when I was now confronted with the polypores, which are something we generally ignore unless they’re a Chicken of the Woods or a Hen of the Woods. We were largely ignoring those because I didn’t really have much use for them, but now there was a lot there to study. So in fact, I ended up going to Maine to study with Tom Volk at Eagle Hill, which is a wonderful summer school, if you will, that’s up in Steuben, Maine, a little North of Acadia. It’s a great place and beautiful, and it’s intensive every day you’re in the classroom and then in the field. It’s like eight hours a day and I would spend the evenings just kind of poring over things and trying to figure them out. Microscopes. You brought literature with you and you could just do a total zone in on polypores. 

Those are the years 2007/2008 that the New York Mycological Society and members of the Greenbrook Association — it’s called the Palisades Nature Association actually — would get together on weekends to make collections of fungi that we found in Greenbrook. One of the things I neglected to say was that I did say it was a conservancy. One of the rules that you must abide by is you don’t pick anything. So we were allowed to pick mushrooms to do this work. The project was advised basically by Nancy who was a first-rate naturalist who studied all things botanical and otherwise, very familiar with all the flora and fauna of the area. She set up the protocols that we followed. So, we accessioned everything. We had people following a protocol that included in situ photography. Then we would pick the collection. Then that would be brought to a staging place where we would then do studio photography as best we could. And then everything was labeled with its location and the surrounding trees and so forth. It was in itself for the people who participated, it was a great way to learn about how to do this kind of work. 

For me, I was then confronted with trying to identify these mushrooms that I had, many of which I had no idea what their names were. And so NYMS and those Monday night meetings were invaluable because we have some really very, very well informed people in the club who could look at something and say, Oh, that’s that. That’s that. That’s that. 


We did this work every Saturday or Sunday for two years. And in its broad outlines, it was quite interesting. Overall, we made 1,400 collections. The summer of 2007 was a rather thunderstormy summer. So you’d have these fronts coming through, deluge, then cool breezy air behind the front that would dry everything out. That summer, we found a little over 400 collections. The next year was filled with rain events, which are more like the one we’re having today and yesterday. These low pressure systems that would come through and you’d have a several-day rain event, not particularly deluge-full, but rainy, consistent rain. And that year we found over a thousand, so we more than doubled our collecting. On that point alone, it was instructive just to show how, what the interplay of hydration and fungi can result in. In between those two summers, I went up in the winter and that’s when I first started looking at mushrooms in the winter time and I was surprised by what I found. Particularly looking at the polypores, which are rather durable, but we find all sorts of things like the split-gill mushroom, the Schizophyllum commune, oysters, which grow all year round, and other species, which are very cold-tolerant, you know. The Enoki, for example. 

That is really where we kind of got our feet wet. Gary said, well, I think you should make a presentation to the society on the work that you do. You know, so I did this thing and it had everything but the kitchen sink in it but you know, you have to start somewhere. So Gary was in so many ways, he taught me about mushrooms, but he also led me into other activities, until eventually, you know, he kindly suggested that I take over his classes at the botanical gardens. So I’ve been doing that for the last couple of years since he left us. 


One of the things to illustrate what seemed anomalous to me at the time was this mushroom I found. It was a polypore. A polypore is a durable mushroom that we generally find growing on wood. And when I say durable mushroom to differentiate it from the more evanescent ones we find. So, your typical fleshy mushroom that you find — be it a Chanterelle or a Morel or whatever you find growing with a cap and a stem as a rule — are mushrooms that are destined to be basically rotten in a couple of weeks. So they come up, they produce spores, and then they demise one way or other. The polypores will grow more — they have a much more complicated cellular structure, which will ensure their continual presence over a short or even long period of time, say within a season or perennially, that will have periods of production of spores and senescence, where they’re basically not producing. So you have a period where they’re growing and producing spores then say it dries out. Then rain comes for a longer period of time during which time they then begin to grow more of these spore-producing cells and produce spores. And so they go back and forth between these two states. But they may be around for, as I said, a season, there are annuals. And then there are these polypores that grow for many years. Year after year, they add a new layer of spore-producing cells. So anyway, these are known as the polypores. 

I found these polypores in November. Some of them were just starting to form and other older ones had been out for awhile. I took them home and I keyed them out in a book I had on polypores. So when I say I keyed them out, I used a book that contains many descriptions of many fungi. You have this structure at the beginning of a chapter or the book, or both places that will lead you to a particular identification or a genus or a species. So it’s a stepwise list that you work your way through to lead you to a possible solution. So I did this, I went through the key with this mushroom that I had found, and it turned out it keyed out beautifully to a mushroom described in the book or named in the book as Polyporus elegans. The only problem with it: it was a southern species. It was not a northern species, and we’re technically speaking a northern species. So, I put the name on it because it seemed to fit and kind of left the mystery of “why is it here” for another day. 

The other day came, some years later when Gary was teaching a class for the Connecticut Westchester Mycological Association known as COMA, in a class that COMA ran called Mushroom University. Gary was teaching a series of classes, ten or something on Saturday mornings, on polypores. And so he came out and he named this mushroom and I said, Gary, I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s something else. And it turned out into a long exploration. We ended up consulting Tom Volk and others, and it turned out it was this southern species. And it’s all throughout the North now, from the Midwest where Tom is out there in Wisconsin all the way through. It’s now known as Tramedes gibosa. So that seems to indicate to me — I don’t think it’s good science to conclude that this is somehow indicating global warming or climate change, but it could be, you know. It might be a contribution to that point of view. 


But something else that’s happened. Greenbrook is situated on the Palisades escarpment. Now it’s an interesting bit of geology going on there. When lava flows into cracks in sedimentary rock, they form either sills or dikes. Dikes are vertical. Sills are horizontal. On my many rides between my home base, which was up around Albany in New York on the train, I would look across the Hudson and see these columns. There’s a colonnade of rocks, which are the Palisades and I always assumed they were dikes, because they’re vertical. But in fact, the Palisades are a very thick sill of diabase. That is, lava that has insinuated itself between layers of sandstone. And the columns that you see are actually like a honeycombed kind of crystallization of this sill. The sill kind of is at a very acute angle. So it’s maybe say 12 degrees, you know. So it’s almost horizontal, but it’s just a little bit off. But what you see at the Hudson River is like the shearing off of this sheet of lava that remains today. So kind of interesting. I have to say that in studying papers on certain mushrooms, you know, when you do this sort of thing, you spend your time in the library. There was one paper that really caught my attention by a Scottish mycologist working in England by the name of Roy Watling. And I think this might’ve been his master’s thesis, I’m not sure. But looking at the work, it talked about the mushrooms that he found in this locality, but he really introduced the whole thing with a study of its geology. So geology is a determinant factor in all kinds of habitat that grow there and you have to consider the various geological things that have happened. 

So you have Greenbrook, as I said, sitting on top of this diabase sill. And you have to remember that maybe 10,000 years ago, this had been a glacier. The glaciers receded and basically scraped this sill off clean. The sandstone that was on top of it — remember the sill is in interstices between two layers of sandstone, and I won’t go into the story of how the sand got there, because that’s a whole other lecture. But there we were, and the sandstone had been just wiped clean off of this diabase. And so whatever the succession of probably lichens and mosses and fungi, and then vascular plants, it is that the plants that have brought the organic soil to the top of the Palisades. And indeed, because of the structure of the Greenbook Sanctuary, you can see this very clearly. As you get to the East where the face of the Palisades is, it’s very exposed and rocky. It’s rather bowl-shaped. In the center of Greenbrook, there’s a pond. And one of the naturalists there who told me he was in the pond for some reason, doing something in his waders. And he said, it’s only about maybe two and a half feet deep of mud before you’re on rock again. It’s interesting to consider in terms of the fragility, if you will, almost the evanescence in geological terms of the organic stuff that is, we call soil that is now present there in Greenbrook and everywhere around here that has a rocky substrate. So this was, I thought, a very interesting aspect of it. And it was a consideration that I got from Roy Watling to look at the geological underpinnings of a situation.

In the geological scheme, you had the glaciation, then the recession of the glaciers, then you had the slow colonization of the rock face by the succession of organisms. Maybe three or 400 years ago, it was probably mostly Eastern hemlock. That was the dominant tree in our area that has receded northward over the last 25, 30 years. You had these beautiful stands of Eastern hemlock and then the lengthening winters and the milding of the winters has made the presence of the Woolly adelgid more possible. You see this out West with the oak borers that can now survive the winters because it’s warmer. These are insects that are just killing off vast stands of trees. You know, they’re like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, rather than a black and white sort of explanation. 


So that experience at Greenbrook really opened my eyes up a lot to not only different considerations of the mushroom species that we would be looking at, but also, you know, the geological underpinnings. We live in a really interesting geological area here in New York City area because we have that sill that is the sandstone bed. Across the Hudson, you have a tongue of the Appalachians that comes down. So it’s a completely different kind of rock. You have the mica schist and so forth. If you look at say Inwood Hill and Palisades, on the face of it, they look more or less the same. You have these sheer cliffs there basically, but they are different geological formations.

The mainland burroughs — so you have the Bronx is basically the mainland — is geologically very different from the islands. Manhattan for all intents and purposes is part of the mainland. But the other boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, are on Long Island. And Staten Island is by itself out there in the harbor. Long Island itself is a terminal moraine that delimits the progress of the glaciers and where the glaciers dropped a lot of sediment, which is the sand that forms the beaches and so forth of Long Island and up through Cape Cod, Nantucket, and so forth. So we see very similar conditions there but a very different geology. You know, if you’re in Inwood or you’re up in Van Cortlandt Park, the soils aren’t so sandy, as those that you find out in Staten Island where we spend a lot of time. Out there, we see sinkholes, kettle ponds, and then as you’re out towards the beach, it’s just a whole different kind of environment out there. And the mushrooms are very different and the trees are very different. Your adventures into the various parks bring different kinds of mushrooms that you wouldn’t be finding in the Catskills, for example, you know, just a whole different kind of mycological flora.

1:05:32  ENDING

As John Cage said, you know, the mushrooms are continually surprising.

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Lesley Green

Lesley Green

Episode 7

Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #7, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa.


[Green reading from her new book “Rock | Water | Life”]

Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Black eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Olive house
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Duikers. Steenbokkies.
Copper blue butterflies.

These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic.


I’m Lesley Green, I’m a professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and I’m also director of Environmental Humanities South, which is a collective of social scientists and humanists and troublemakers (laughs), who like to do research that matters and that matters politically. And a lot of what we do is tackle neoliberal assumptions about climate change and urban metabolism, urban ecologies. We are people who really try to work at the interstices, the mud between solid and liquid and the mist between liquid and gas. You know, those are the spaces that we really inhabit. And those are often the kinds of spaces that are not inhabited neatly or easily by environmental management sciences. Not that they’re not part of environmental sciences, but not part of environmental management sciences. And that’s a key distinction to make in the work that we do here. 

So, I was delighted recently when I was meeting with a city official and he said to me I was, “I was a little cautious of meeting with you.” I said, why is that? He said, “Well, your reputation in the city is feisty!” (laughs)

That left me roaring with laughter! But, uh, you know, I did read them seven paragraphs from the constitution the last time I met with them. All of which had to do with freedom of information. (laughs).


There’s two courses I teach that I absolutely love. 

The first is “Researching the Anthropocene”, which I’ve taught since 2015. And that’s been a project of thinking with, and introducing students from the global South, mainly Africa to what it means to think in and of, and with this era that some call the “Anthropocene” and that’s been absolutely fascinating. And it’s been a really interesting project to be teaching the theory, which largely comes from the global North. You know, most Anthropocene writing has come from the global North. And “What does that mean in Africa?” is the question that we’ve been thinking through and, you know, having taught this class now for six years in a row it’s been just fascinating because at this point, we have students in that class from fifteen different African countries.

And that’s been just wonderful and at the same time, really sobering, which is a light word to use. I could use a much stronger word to think about the effects of this Anthropocene in Africa, and what to do about it, and the short fallings of the kinds of climate sciences as environmental management sciences formulated within a neoliberal economy, and the kinds of difficulties that they make. So, all of our students are writing as if they would like to make some kind of policy intervention. That’s evolved, that wasn’t what we started out trying to do. 

The more we’ve done that, the more we began to realize that to do policy intervention work as a researcher is about paradigm shift—and what that paradigm shift is and what it might be is the core of what we do. It’s not easy-going because a lot of colleagues in the environmental management sciences are not willing to engage. I was told recently by one that my H-index was too low for him to speak to me about racism in the sciences (laughs). So, he sent back to me and said, “Your H-index is such and such, I’m not prepared to have this discussion with you.” So, the H index has become a big match in the family. We discuss everything, prior to any discussion, we interrogate our respective H-indexes! (laughs) So, yeah, you know, you’ve got to learn to laugh a lot, and paradigm shift work is not easy. But it is a whole lot of fun because we can laugh, and we don’t have to take seriously the language of neoliberal thinking in the environmental management sciences. And I think that’s what makes it a whole lot of fun. 

But at the same time, it’s really sobering to hear what our graduate students are experiencing and addressing in the areas where they, for the most part have grown up, and working in the languages, that for the most part, is their first languages and realizing the extents to which climate change is affecting Africa, not just as a climate event, but as an event of capitalism. That’s the key.  


The second is a graduate course called “Science, Nature, Democracy”, in which we work with students around case studies of policy change or situations where science is really important in governance. Now, you in the US are busy dealing with COVID and the science of COVID, in Kansas, you’re dealing with creation science. Well, you know, a couple of years ago, we dealt with a president who was not prepared to accept virus science, you know, virology, who argued that HIV was a syndrome, not a virus. And of course, we had all those struggles around HIV and AIDS treatments. So fortunately, that, through a huge political struggle, was defeated. But at the same time, there was a huge backlash because that introduction to science being questioned within parliament was really about a very poorly formulated intervention in the name of Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledge studies, which really saw and situated science as a matter of identity and while matters of identity might have a great deal to do with how you do your science and what questions you choose. Your identity doesn’t change, whether you’re dealing with a virus or a syndrome, you know, if there’s a virus you’re dealing with a virus, and it needs to be treated as such. But because indigenous knowledge got such a bad rep through that, it fomented this most extraordinary reaction from a very hardline hardcore science, what I would call a scientistic approach as opposed to a scientific approach, you know, where scientistic approaches, ironically, do precisely what they criticize the indigenous knowledge folks of doing, which is creating an identity-based politics. 

So, you know, scientism, by contrast to science, is what I would situate as a very authoritarian approach to doing science. The assumption that there is only one question that can only be answered in one way—and that is it, without understanding that the context of your questions determines the answers that you’re going to get. The objects that you look for determine the numbers that you get. And the question is always, are you looking for the right things, in what you’re looking at, and, you know, what might matter to one person and be the definitive concern, would not be that of much of a concern to another person. And so, you can get very different scientific pictures of the same situation. And when that’s not in discussion, you have a real problem in democracy because you end up having people accusing one another of doing facts versus values. Before you know it, you’re in the old land of objectivity versus subjectivity, which is an unwinnable argument on those terms. 

So, the course “Science, Nature, Democracy” is about teaching graduates to look at contests and conflicts over sciences in democratic spaces. And to begin to understand that the concerns shape the questions, and once you understand what the concerns are, you can understand why particular kinds of questions are being asked. And then you’ve got a hope of actually being able to mediate and understand that what matters to a fisher is not necessarily what matters to a scientist, and it can be that the most extraordinary range of things. What matters to a scientist, for example, might be a thirty- to fifty-year timeframe. What matters to the official might be spending their budget within a twelve-month cycle. The political masters might be thinking in a five-year electoral cycle. And, you know, they have these concerns, which are not tabled. And so, you often end up talking about very different things, using the same language. You might be talking about water or fish, but your concerns and your questions and your agenda is very, very different.  

The work of Isabelle Stengers and the work of Bruno Latour have been particularly important in that. But also, the work of Aimé Cesaire, postcolonial thinker, who was the high school teacher of Frantz Fanon, and the kind of work that had to be done to challenge a particular version of the real, that the early postcolonial thinkers had to do, and which in many senses we’re up against right now, because we have what I would call “colonialism mark two,” which is a global neoliberal discourse and the financialization of the natural world.

“Science, Nature, Democracy” is a course where students really have to address very particular challenges of science and decision-making in relation to science and to understand how conflicts come about in the name of science and how to try to resolve them without getting into the familiar terrain of I’m speaking the truth, and you’re not, or the alternative that, which is that your identity makes your version untrue, which is where things get stuck in the Indigenous knowledge versus science dichotomy.


In this particular historical moment, I think we have come full circle. In the 1650s, when the Dutch settled here in Cape Town to create a refreshment station. It was in the aftermath of many decades, if not a century of battles between seafarers and local people. You know, we have a history of battles going on and their first intervention…in fact, their first plan, which was drafted in the 1630s was to create a dam—a walled dam. That would be the place at which the barrels would be filled for the passing ships. But the issue with the dam is that when water is not being cleaned by the reeds and the natural ecosystem, when the water’s not filtering, when you take water out of its filtering system, what you have to replace that with is law and policing and soldiers. And in order to get the water out of a dam, unless you’ve got a very careful infrastructure, which they did not plan for, you have to be able to roll barrels up and down, in this case some stairs and who was going to roll those barrels. But the drawing that was created by the Dutch was that of a black body rolling a barrel up and down. So, in order to get water out of this structure that they were going to build from the very beginning, they were going to rely on law and labor and policing and cement, you know, creating this hard boundary between liquid and solid to govern the water that they wanted to extract, which of course was a shocking thing to the local people, the Kwe. 

South Africa is a very, very dry country. And the Western Cape, this place where I live, have got a number of rivers and a number of lakes. So, it’s a tiny corner of the country that’s very green and very wet. And so, to waste water is a shocking thing. In order to extract you needed a global company. So, the Dutch East India Company, so you had a global multinational acquiring water by building infrastructure to extract in a manner that was going to drive out local people. And indeed, what they had built was not in the end, that particular dam, what they built was a fort—and the fort was around a well. 

What we have here at the moment is a struggle with global multinational companies who are supposedly assisting the municipalities to design and manage utilities like water utilities. And you have a neoliberal government, which is very, you know, sometimes I feel like the Western Cape is run by the Republicans. It’s the equivalent kind of politics. There’s a willingness to cover over realities using anything from fake advertising, social media to spin doctoring companies because you’ve got an oligarchy that is driving up costs of water hugely. 

And so, since the drought, climate change—since our drought in 2018, where Cape Town was almost, the line went, the first major city in the world to run out of water. You know, there’ve been huge infrastructure bills taken up by international, multinational corporates, which means the costs of water have become prohibitive. And so, there’s this burgeoning struggle over the increasing costs of water. I know of — through the research that I’m doing — fourteen places in the city, and eleven of those, where communities have either led criminal charges against the city, or have got a court case, you know, civil suit for environmental damage. So, there’s the most extraordinary pollution of water bodies that comes from these wastewater treatment plants, where they discharge water into the rivers. So, they’re poisoning the rivers, which, at every level, is problematic, from the health to ecosystems, to ocean health, and algal blooms.                         

One of the places around which the struggle has really come to the fore is around the desalination plants, because desalination plants were brought in to produce water very, very quickly against the advice of the World Bank, which said, do not build small projects. So, the desalination plants were built against economic advice and against scientific advice because they were built on one side of the city, very close to a marine sewer outfall, which puts between forty and fifty megaliters of untreated sewage into the ocean every day. And on the other side of the ocean, you’ve got multiple wastewater treatment plants feeding into rivers, which then go into the ocean, causing gradual, but significant increase in algal blooms. So, you know, those projects pushed water prices up significantly. They were hugely expensive. And they didn’t actually succeed because there were so many periods where the desalination plants were not able to work, and they were closed at one point for two whole months in the summer because that was when the algal bloom was most intense. And so, if you look at the figures of the outputs, the actual figures of the output are quite low compared to what they were expected to output. So those were, um, the one that is subject to litigation, and the other two closed a month early, and a whole lot of spin doctoring went around that.  


This whole process is teaching me a huge amount about the relationship between capital, infrastructure, and climate change and the new forms of extractivism, which are very much in the ascent. And I think that, you know, much as the Dutch sent the Dutch East India company, an international company, to colonize the Cape to get its water, so we’re up against a whole lot of international companies of various descriptions that are involved in the water trade. And that water trade is now listed on the global stock exchange. And whereas for the previous couple of years, you’ve been able to invest in water funds, now as of September this year [2020] water is now listed as a commodity on the stock exchange. So, we’re entering a very, very different era. And a great deal of that has to do with disaster capitalism in relation to the Anthropocene. 

One of the major interventions that we are really trying to make in the research that we do is to put the case that climate change is not the only thing we need to be attending to. If we’re dealing with the Anthropocene, we need to be dealing with capitalism and extractivism, that is putting matter out of place of all kinds, not just carbon, but our nitrogen cycle is out of whack. You know, sewage is full of nitrogens, which are like fertilizers and they do extraordinary things to different species. I mean, the algal blooms are a case in point. Many of these algal blooms, not all of them, but many of them are fantastic little creatures that have the characteristics of both a plant and an animal, in the sense that they can both ingest microbes and make a meal of the bacteria and viruses that are around, and they can photosynthesize. So, they can do both in terms of securing nutrition. So, if you put them in a situation where there’s sewage, they go crazy because they’ve got all the microbes they could possibly want to eat, and you’re giving them the nitrogen, which comes from urine, which acts like a fertilizer. And they bloom. So, an algal bloom that should be quite small then can get completely out of hand. So, you know, in the last four or five decades, Cape Town has really been struggling with increased algal blooms. 

The scientific study of the oceans that is done in the area tends not to want to look at the circulation of nitrogens. You know, they want to look at social ecological systems, which is such a problematic concept, you know, empirically, where is the system? You know, there isn’t a social ecological system that you can work with. So, what the desalination situation has taught us is that climate change closes the loop in absolutely unexpected ways, because the idea that you can have a pipe going to sea, that’s going to carry the sewage, you know, the intestinal wastes and pharmaceutical wastes and factory wastes and shop floor wastes of billions of people. And that pipe goes to a place where it just disperses is ludicrous because we live on this planet and matter circulates, I mean, Lucretius spoke about this in ancient Rome, right?

We have a science that is attending to objects, not to relations. I mean, that’s a very broad statement, but the focus has been on what you can count. And so, the paradigm shift that we need to be making, and that I think really can and should come from much closer working relationship between the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences has to do with saying, hold on a minute, we’ve been so focused on counting objects, um, in the kind of work that we do, in the kinds of sciences that are, that have been done, we’ve been so focused on counting objects.  

What about the relationships?  


The idea that you can put a pipe in an ocean and disperse of sewage, and it’s not going to come back to you, or anyone is what I would call an extraterrestrial proposition. It is managing a city as if you’re an extraterrestrial. We’re not extraterrestrials. So, you know, along with Bruno Latour and others, you know, we need a paradigm shift that is about coming home onto this earth and living in this earth and part of its systems. And yet our cities for the most part have been designed as if we are extraterrestrials, that we can live and our wastes, whether they’re plastic wastes or intestinal wastes, are just going to go somewhere that won’t bother us. But, you know, the Anthropocene is about recognizing that that is not the case and recognizing that, “Oh my goodness, the plastic waste that I throw out, you know, the plastic straw that I use for three minutes to get liquid, twenty centimeters from a cup, to my mouth has got a geological lifespan of, you know, 10,000 years or more. I don’t know what it is, but you know, it’s going to be around for 10,000 years.” You know, we need to be thinking about these kinds of temporalities, these kinds of relationships. 


Thinking relationally means we start to introduce time and processes, geological processes in particular, to our thinking about policy and our thinking about society. Now, you know, I’ve spoken a lot about scientists, but I think social scientists for the most part are as guilty of this, you know, writing about society as if we have no need to think about water, as if we have no need to think about nitrogen or carbon. And you know, the exciting thing about working in the Environmental Humanities is there are so many wonderful scholars who are thinking about precisely those things. Let’s look at the flows. Let’s look at the circulations, let’s look at the material relations that arise from social interactions. And that changes the game completely.

And I had a wonderful conversation with a very dear colleague who’s a chemist. And we were talking about teaching science to first years. And he said, “Well, you know, when I teach science to first years, I show them, there’s a website where you have a sliding scale from the smallest known particle of the universe, right through to the scale of the known universe, right? And there’s a sliding thing and it starts with the figure of a human and that human of course is a man. So, it starts with the figure of a man. And then you can slide down one side into the tiniest particle, and you can slide up to the biggest scale of the known universe. And he presents that to his science students and says, “That’s what we study. We study anything from that scale to that scale, but nowhere in that is relations.”

And so, you know, right from the get go, science is not thinking about relationships and relationalities. And I think that’s where it becomes very, very exciting to start to work with Environmental Humanities and bring them into dialogue with some of the postcolonial thinkers like Aimé Cesaire, whose dictum was, “colonization is thingification.” You know, colonization is the absence of the relation. Everything becomes treated as an object and as an extractable. 


I think that governance and the beautiful literature on ontologies are really important to bring together. I think that’s one of the fields of really useful intervention that I can see environmental humanities graduates taking a lead, and as they graduate, and go into worlds of consultancy or professional research, to be able to show a scholar who is set in a particular way, that your way of thinking about pipes isn’t neutral and doesn’t come from nowhere. But it has a particular history to it. The pipe has a particular history, and it has a particular way of thinking about a world, you know, and to be able to show a governing official who believes that they are operating in the name of neutrality because they use the language of neoliberalism. To be able to show that official, that there’s, the ideas that they’re thinking with are not neutral, that they have a history and that they come from somewhere. That is critical and very, very generative because at the moment, at which you can equip somebody to recognize that this idea of neutrality, this idea of universal truth, is part of the problem. And that just empirically, what you see blocks your sight. You’re not able to see past what blinds, that’s the basis of the idea of occults and astronomy. When the moon occults Venus, you can’t see. So, to occult means that what you’re seeing prevents you quite literally from seeing what’s behind it. 

One of my greatest hopes is that the work of the environmental humanities, globally, will be able to shift the knowledge frames that governing officials bring, because those are political and cosmological in themselves, as Isabelle Stengers has written so beautifully about cosmopolitics. So, to be able to say to an engineer: Hold on a minute, you want to use cement, which has a 50-year lifespan to hold fracking liquids in one place and prevent them from mixing with an aquifer in perpetuity? Well, you know, that cement only is viable for 50 years before it needs to be replaced. And I know that, so what’s wrong with this picture? You know, can you see that you have an unreasonable faith in cement? And so, does an environmental regulator who’s making laws for regulating on the basis of, of thickness of cement or thickness of pipe or whatever, without thinking of, of the timeframe of permanence. 

And so to be able to point out to attorneys or, you know, through a drafting law, there’s a belief system at work here. There’s a cosmological fiction in your faith in cement. There’s a cosmological fiction in your assumption that the pipe goes nowhere. You know, these are moments I think of tremendous power because that’s when people can really stop in their tracks and think, and, you know, learning to think is key. The route to that is through the imagination and laughter.

I think that the risk with some of the ontological debates is that they risk becoming culture mark two. So, Derrida’s idea of hauntologies becomes interesting for that reason. You know, what, what histories haunt ideas, what histories haunt ways of thinking. It also introduces a temporal dimension and because the moment at which ontologies become culturalism mark two, we are in deep trouble. You know, then we’re back in all the old traps.  


Culturalism is something that in South Africa we had to really grapple with in the 1980s when I was a graduate student and 1990s, in my defense, I was actually still a graduate student in the 1990s, not only in the 80s! But anyway, in apartheid South Africa, the worldview that was given was that apartheid is benign. That it’s for the good of people. And that it’s godly, you know, this is the sort of stuff I grew up with as a white South African kid, it’s godly, it’s what God wants. You know, Noah’s sons, you know, Shem and Ham or however that story goes with, you know, that God wants whites to be separated from Blacks, you know, so that was kind of my early years. And then, encountering Newsweek at the dentist, you begin to realize that actually there’s another way to see the world! Why are these people so opposed to us? What have we done wrong? Can’t they see that we’re right? You know, and then, you know, slowly, through reading King Lear, beginning to realize that there’s political ways of seeing the world, there’s realities, there’s madness, there’s insanity, there’s sorcery.

I spent my first year at the University of Port Elizabeth, which was one of the bastions of apartheid. It was one of apartheid’s great universities. Remember the 20-story building in the middle of a nature reserve? You know, you were not allowed to talk politics if you spoke anything about even parliamentary politics, parliamentary opposition politics. Now, remember this was in the time when the ANC was banned. African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party. 

Anthropology per the Afrikaaner apartheid system was Volkskunde, which built on the German romantic culturalist, fascist idea of separate cultures, right? And, and so German-inspired Volkskunde anthropology was all about the study of cultures. And anthropology was central to the apartheid state. And so, it was justified scientifically, scientific racism. And the central idea of apartheid was that there were these different cultures: Casa, Zulu, Venda, Swazi, et cetera, et cetera. And that God’s mandate (laughs) to the Afrikaaner people was, and of course the English, went along for the ride was to keep the races and the cultures separate. 

Culturalism was at the core of apartheid. And a huge amount of the work of critical scholarship in South Africa in the 1980s was working with postmodernism to unmake the idea of bounded culture. So, in South Africa, we’re particularly sensitive to the idea of culturalism, coming back as, you know, separated ethnic groups as if they are meaningful concepts, which of course they’re not. You know, they have some use, but only a very limited kind of a use. I think one of the risks of some of the ontological debate is to recreate, reinvent culturalism by other means, because it’s such a deeply rooted idea.

The way that ontologies get appropriated is at times risky. And so, I think one has to guard against that. And so, it’s easier for me to think ontology in relation to neoliberalism and cosmopolitics. So, Bruno Latour’s idea, for example, he talks about the three goddess sisters of reason. Why must they be goddesses? I don’t know, but I called them the three gods of reason, which was technical efficiency, scientific objectivity, and economic profitability. You know, those are the three gods of reason in what he called the knowledge economy, which of course is the neoliberal moment. I think a huge part of the work that we can do very usefully, is to draw attention to that as a sorcery of its own. And so, in that sense, the language of ontology is very useful. So, you know, and I think that far too much of the environmental management science literature is encumbered and enamored of processes of governance, bureaucratic technoscientific governance, which of course, reduces everything to data objects enmeshed in algorithms. And one has lost the relational in politics. And I think that’s part of the backlash against the left. It’s not so much the politics of the left, but the brutalization of public life under technoscientific governance. And you know, I think this swing to the right is an attempt to recreate political relationships, which have been erased by technoscientific governance. 

For me as a South African, one of the fascinating things about post-apartheid South Africa is the ways in which neoliberal governance has made us all equally worthless. Post-apartheid governance does that. And the scale of corruption in South Africa is testimony to the lack of political discourse and debate and discussion and thought about what it means to have redistribution outside of modes of territory and property and the modes of capitalism that have destroyed, and which were central to racism. So, the need really, again, is for paradigm shifts everywhere. So, we’ve got a long multi-decade struggle ahead of us, all of us to build a better presence on this planet. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s really exciting to see so many graduates being able to work with these ideas productively.


There’s this fabulous field called Biogeochemistry. And I want to put the social into that. Could we do a biogeosociochemistry? Or how do we begin to link life and non-life and society, you know? I mean, Beth Povinelli beautifully brings together the, problematizes the life/non-life distinction in her book Geontologies. And Michel Serres brought together “Biogea” in one of his last books. You know, if I had no constraints at all, if I had a huge budget to create a research team, I would create it outside of any of the particular faculties not only for the disciplinary space, but also because universities are so stuck in financial systems that operate within the faculties. You know, these become impossible situations to try to operate outside of them. So, you know, to me, it has to operate outside of a faculty. Outside of humanities or outside of science, law, commerce, you know, it needs to stand as its own. I mean, Leeds University, for example, has got a wonderful Dean of interdisciplinary studies. You know, what a wonderful thing to do, to create a Dean of interdisciplinary studies whose brief is to imagine and think with scholars about how to address the challenges.  

I think looking at matter in its, across the spectrum of life and non-life is key. To have a team that can think politically, that can think with rigorous empirical science, asking questions with activists who are struggling around particular challenges, and to be able to be critical of the extractivist moment, and not just critical of, “Oh, they shouldn’t do this, mine here, or there,” but to actually, think globally in terms of global financial flows in the manner that, David Graeber did, in the manner that, Thomas Piketty does to criticize the global flows of capital where resources ended up in shell companies, in Panama Islands and stuff, and British Virgin islands, which then has a hurricane and gets no support from the people whose back it’s providing a tax haven for, to really be able to rethink economics.

So who would a dream team be? I would put in Kate Raworth with her Doughnut Economics. Beth Povinelli, who would compel people to think outside of life and non-life binaries. I would want to bring in environmental chemists who can think with us on toxic flows to bring in ecologists who are thoughtful about the ways in which ecologies are being changed by temperatures, changed by chemicals, by traumas, as you mentioned. So that we’re thinking not just in terms of matter, but we’re thinking in terms of relations and what does it take to support and enable local habitability?


I’ve been doing some work recently with the wonderful Steve Banwart at Leeds university, who is a critical zone theorist, soil scientist by training, but a critical zone theorist who’s also worked with Bruno and Bruno’s exhibition on critical zones. And, our question together is how do we link critical zone theory, which is a beautiful interdisciplinary space, but in the sciences? So, it brings together biology and geology, to put it crudely. It’s looking at what makes habitability in a particular area from bedrock to treetop. So, it’s looking at climate change in a local way, rather than at a global way. I think that’s wonderful because you’ve got a scale that is not colonial, but you’re not part of the globalizing climate movement that, it’s not beholden to those. I mean, obviously it’s in dialogue with those, but it’s agendas and research are not beholden to them. It’s looking at local issues, but it’s also looking in very, very thoughtful ways at the state of contemporary capitalism and things like tree cover. So, you know, what’s the relationship between economics and tree cover? What’s the relationship between tree cover and flows of water? Are the streams, have the streams stopped flowing because all the trees have been cut down? And so, you’re really looking in very thoughtful ways at the relationship between climate and capital and habitability. All of those things are engaging with the biological, the geological and the societal together and making very thoughtful policy interventions at multiple levels. And we could work for example, at an African Union level. You know, that also means that it’s decades before that is at the local level. So, to try to work at the local level is also key. But at the same time, if my city politics is anything to go by, that’s also very, very difficult terrain to work in, but we have to work in it. So, I’ve kind of gotten used to the idea that I’m going to be the witch, the bad girl, the fiesty one. (laughs)   

I think that a big part of this kind of a team would also include a very, very strong Paolo Freirian adult education person who can really ensure that in working with communities, whether it’s a geologist or a chemist or a social scientist that we’re learning together with the communities that are addressing the problems that they face. And there’s a very real temporal aspect to that. And that is that climate change has us all in situations that our models don’t prepare us for. The climate models don’t always work. Those yearly forecasts don’t always work because climate change is so real. So, it’s those that are really at the forefront of dealing with changes in an environment that are the people that have the most to say. 

So the locus of expertise of knowledge has shifted. And I think it’s really, really important to work with that. So, I think more and more, we academics are methodological specialists who can facilitate the creation of arguments that can persuade people in policy arenas by doing really solid, rigorous sciences, but our questions need to come from elsewhere. 

We need to be sure that we’re defining the questions that we’re posing, and are questions that local people understand. And, and it makes sense to them, because if it doesn’t make sense to local people, you know, it’s not necessary. It’s not going to be helpful. It’s going to be just another consultancy that ends up, lording it over people in this new feudalist situation we find ourselves in that calls itself neoliberalism. 


Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at 

You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.

This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Angelica Calabrese, Basil Soper, Rashida Kamal, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #8, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa. This is the second of two parts.



I came from a part of South Africa called the Eastern Cape, which is obviously on the other side of South Africa and come from settler stock, in the sense that on both sides, both my maternal and paternal lines, go back to the 1820s when the British settled the Eastern Cape and colonized the Eastern Cape. And somehow in the history of South Africa, there’s something about the Eastern Cape that it’s really always struggled. And I think part of the situation there is that it’s always trying to be a big city. So, it’s always trying to build itself to look like Los Angeles or, you know, it’s got a campus that at one point was the biggest campus area in the Southern hemisphere. In the middle of a nature reserve, you’ve got a 20-story block with four elevators going up and down at high speed because that’s what you do in a big city. My experience of growing up there was that we were never central to the country, we were always the parochial cousins. Coming to Cape town to study, it took me years to actually feel like I could actually understand from an inside way, what was being spoken about. 

Part of that was coming from Port Elizabeth. But part of that was also because a lot of the social theory that we were speaking of and engaging in again, came from the North. My experience of it, and I have many colleagues who may disagree with me: it becomes quite dogmatic because you read, you know, the big names of scholars in the North, and you must think like they do. And my experience of the way that social science was being spoken of was often that it became quite dogmatic. It wasn’t grounded. So people would be talking of things in ways that are about using words fashionably and sounding very erudite, but I couldn’t make the connection between them. 

Particularly come 2015, the year we launched Environmental Humanities, was also the year in which that was the beginning of the students’ decolonial struggles here in Cape Town. I had to rethink everything about who I am as a white South African, what it is to teach as a white academic, what it is to listen, and learning to listen to how people piece things together was really transformative. I learned slowly, I was taught in fact by my students quite slowly, how important it was to be able to tell stories. And that social theory is a way of putting the world together much as a story does.


My teaching became more and more confident in using a classroom space or seminar space as a space in which people could ground themselves and tell their stories. And one of the practices I would have was to say, okay, remember, when you walked in here, you walked in with your feet. Can you feel your feet? You’re sitting here in this class, feel your feet. You did not walk in here as a head and leave your body at the door. You know, you’re here as a whole person, you’ve come with experiences, you’ve come with knowledge. Let’s work with that. 

And one of the most astounding classroom discussions we had was with my very wonderful PhD student who is from Lesotho. We were reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007). She was reading all about the dogs. At one point she just roared with laughter and she said, you know in Lesotho, a dog is a dog. She said, I can’t cope with this. This is not where I come from. That was the funny part of things.

But then there was also the more serious thing, which is, you know, some of the students saying, you know, as a black person living in South Africa. I have another former PhD student who’s now teaching anthropology in Namibia—he said, you know, I’ve spent my whole life as a black man trying to prove that I am human. And now you want me to speak in the language of the posthuman. I can’t do that. 

So, we together had to learn to speak from our experiences and over time, teaching has become more and more a case of, of storytelling, much as we’re speaking now, telling stories about people. And it really has become a fundamental practice for me in teaching to say to students: I do not ever ask you to learn a theory for the sake of a theory. How does this connect with your world? How does it connect with what you’re studying in your dissertation? We enter into texts from the point of view of a person’s experience. What stories come up for you when you read this text, what does it connect to? Is there something, and, you know, somebody might have a vague piece of something that’s vaguely connecting, and then you work with that. And suddenly the work of theory has opened up something that they hadn’t seen before. The social theory, particularly in the environmental humanities is about learning to see differently. I mean, the arts of paying attention, as you and Anna and others have spoken about so wonderfully. Learning to tell stories, learning to speak about what you see, learning to name what you see. When you can do that, people begin to say, “Oh my goodness, I can actually speak about the world in my own way.”

Helping people find their own voice as a writer, writing a dissertation, has become fundamental to what we do. Some of my best moments have been working with students who come into the program having gone through some kind of social ecological systems training, and they’re full of economic theory, economic words, the language of neoliberalism, sustainability, development, you know, all the discourse and jargon that goes with that systems, et cetera. And I said to them, but where do you see that system empirically? Show me where you see that. So what are we talking about? So you get them to rethink the paradigm with which they’ve come in, and get them to start piecing together what they see—tack from the macro to the micro, you know, or the other way around, start with the micro and situate that. Situate, situate, you’re situating everything. And so it becomes this process of connecting. That’s incredibly empowering to see people begin to be able to do that in their own worlds and with our life experiences.


These are really powerful moments where African students, graduates, can engage with theory and both speak back to it and say this fits, no that doesn’t fit, but also fundamentally experience that the way that the environmental humanities work is often written in the storytelling mode. I’m thinking of Thom van Dooren’s work, for example, or Donna Haraway’s stories, you know tell stories that take you into the big picture that enable you to speak of the macro in relation to the micro. That’s fundamental. And then also that’s politically crucial because one of the ways in which neoliberal consultancies disempower people is to send out social science research consultants who ask them to speak of their perceptions of reality. Now, I can’t say that without wiggling my head in dismay! It’s so insulting! What is your perception of reality? The assumption there is that I have the truth, you know, I have the facts and you have the perceptions. And then what that consultant is able to do for a very large fee is enable the city council or whoever has commissioned them to tick a box to say, we’ve consulted the people whose experience of the world and its brutalities in this extractivist moment and this wasteful moment — I mean, the opposite of extraction is deposition and dumping. 

Many of the folks that we work with live either in one extractivist space or the other, and often the two connect. We need to say to social scientists who are involved in that kind of research: “This is deeply insulting what you’re doing and it’s disempowering,” and to teach a cohort of graduates to say, “help people to speak of their experiences.” Imagine you’re sitting at the table with the conservationist over there, the local people that you’ve worked with over there, you’re the only one who speaks a common language. Imagine that you are conveying what the one is experiencing to the other. The most extraordinary work is coming out of that. I mean, someone working in Mozambique has been working with a community that’s been the guardians of a mountain for decades and decades and decades since the Mozambican war. The mountain gets discovered by conservationists on Google Earth. And the next thing, there’s this whole huge suite of NGOs that gets created to protect this mountain from who? From local people, you know, not from the local plantations or from the GM seeds which come with the herbicides and pesticides, but from local people. And so the conversation there for an Environmental Humanities scholar, to me is to say: “Hey, conservationists, we really appreciate what you’re doing. We share your concern for this world, but can you see that the pesticides that come with these GM seeds are killing the butterflies, they’re killing the bees, they’re killing the ants. The frogs are disappearing. The fertilizers making algal blooms and the ponds and streams, you know. Can you see that there’s a wider picture here? 

11:18  ROCK | WATER | LIFE 

Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020) is a book that I started writing in 2012. And at the time, I was cycling a lot around the peninsula and I would cycle quite long distances around the peninsula whenever the weekend weather permitted. And the thing about a bicycle is, its wheels are going round and round. You know, every inch, the wheels are touching and there’s something very grounding about this. And I would cycle past the baboon monitors or cycle past the ocean breaking into the beach.

It was striking for me how integrated the experience was of cycling, being in place. As I cycled, I was so aware also that I was cycling through histories. You know, there would be the huts where there were forced removals, or there would be sites that I knew were archeological sites or historical sites. And that if we didn’t have a way of bringing into one conversation, those different temporalities, and we didn’t have a way of bringing into conversation, all those different experiences of place, which are typically spoken about as different disciplines. So, you know, even to think about a fence crossing a peninsula from one ocean to the other. You know, when you start to actually look, what is connected here? My question to myself was, could I write about the connections, the relations, that were not making it into contemporary political discourse or scholarly discourse or environmental management discourses? 

This is an extract that I’m about to read from my book, Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020). And the introduction is “Different questions, Different answers,” and it begins this way:

Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Black eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Olive house
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Duikers. Steenbokkies.
Copper blue butterflies.

These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic. A fence crosses from one ocean to the other, marking the edge of Cape Point Nature Reserve. The fence stops the eland, the bontebok, the rooibokke, the ostriches, and the law-abiding. To pass through the gate into the reserve, I need an annual Wild Card that costs me more than a ten-year U.S. visa, plus an extra card for my bicycle, and extra if I were snorkelling or fishing or staying overnight. When I applied for my Wild Card, I was also invited to marry a staffer of South African National Parks, since the online system had no variable for a solo parent with children. The staff member on the line from Pretoria suggested that I put in the identity number of the desk attendant under “spouse.” I declined the offer of nuptials, however generous, so according to South African National Parks records, I’m married to my sister.


She [Lesley’s sister] was horrified when she learned that that was in the book! That was really my tongue-in-cheek poke at those who really believe data to be true!


So the book has six chapters, each of which is a different case study. I divided those case studies into three different timeframes. And those timeframes are really about not just past, present and future because that would be ludicrous because I want you to think about the present past and the present futures. So I called Part One “Pasts Present” to try to think ecology, the everything-ness that I was cycling through in relation to histories. The second part I called “Present Futures” where I wanted to focus on emerging approaches to thinking, to scholarship, to political discourse that seem to me to have really something very important to contribute to how we form a better future, you know, ways of getting through this Anthropocene with its terrible histories of extractivism, as they have manifested here in the Cape of Storms, which is also the Western Cape. And the third part is “Futures Imperfect” where I’m really commenting on the environmental management sciences as I see them being played out in city policy. 

The first chapter was about baboon management. And the second chapter was about shifting from a management of the ocean as if it’s separate from humans and as if sewage goes nowhere into the ocean, to thinking about what does it mean to actually manage the ocean as an integrated space? What is an urban ocean when it’s receiving human waste, it’s alongside the city and you’ve got changes in ocean ecologies, algal blooms which are impacting lobsters and fish. How do we bring all of those together?

Each of the chapters is a chapter that tries to explore the work that you would find in every aspect of a university library. So for example, if I’m writing about water in Cape Town, I want not just the ecological literature or the historical literature, but I want to have known that I’ve consulted some of the engineering and infrastructure literature. There’s health there. There’s histories. There’s law. There’s contemporary commerce and business. So, you know, what would each faculty be bringing to each chapter in a way was my challenge to myself. How could I actually think about what I would call “extradisciplinary” in the sense of the knowledges that coloniality has completely passed by. So throughout, I sought to make a space in which there was a serious engagement with what might be described as Indigenous thought or African thought. So, I really tried to approach each question from multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, but also what would not be in the university library as well. 

So Cape Town’s water has a strong engagement with the Kwe. The second chapter “Fracking the Karoo,” I really wanted to go back to again, the Kwe and San, accounts of what it is to live in that semi-desert and what it might mean to frack that Karoo.  Because I was unhappy with the presentation of the Karoo by environmentalists as a pristine landscape, when it was clearly a dramatically disturbed landscape, disturbed by settler colonialism and disturbed by sheep farming which has overgrazed it. And so I felt that they were setting themselves up for rebuttal in their argument. It was an argument that might sound romantic, but at the end of the day, it was not going to be an argument that had succeeded. So, you know, in each case I’m trying to withdraw from the prevailing environmentalist dogmas, try to think outside of the prevailing views and offer a different perspective.


In Part Two, “Present Futures,” I thought about the struggle to think with Indigenous knowledges as a way of working towards what Bernard Stiegler would call the neg-Anthropocene, what negates the Anthropocene. Of course the problem was at the University of Cape Town, there was this huge conflagration around Indigenous knowledge as part of the decolonial student movement. And again, it was a failed argument. And so again, I wanted to try to understand what is so problematic about that argument, what is useful in it, but what was flawed in it? Where was it falling into a trap? And so how can students who are engaging with decoloniality and want to think with and about Indigenous knowledges, how can they do so without falling into the familiar traps of truth versus falsehood, Western versus Africa. That’s about shifting, changing the concern through which one addresses a particular situation.

Chapter Four is a chapter on struggles for land and farming. What puzzled me is that the ways in which land and farming is being addressed in South African political discourse, is through land as property and territory and ownership, and yet so much of that farmland that is now contested and needs restitutive responses nationally from government and individuals and corporates to resolve the fact that 90% of black South Africa was dispossessed of their land by 1913. You can’t go forward without some kind of restitution on that, and yet the restitution is being thought of territorially and those farms have got such severely damaged soil. So again, there’s a trap there. What is called in South Africa an “emerging farmer,” i.e., a Black farmer who has been able to get access to farmland on the basis of restitution, where that farmer is then going to be faced with degraded soils, emptied aquifers, and unable to farm. And then you’re left with a situation where the answer is: ah, black farmers can’t farm, which is, you know, frequently said. And so again, it was the question of, how do we turn this question? How do we turn this discussion around with, and a focus on soil working with some farm activists from the Cape Town farms and others who’ve fought court battles over soil and aquifers here in Cape Town. So, you know, learning with and from them about what it means to think as a person in and of the earth, rather than just as another potential owner of land.


Part Three, “Futures Imperfect,” was an attempt to really take issue with the current baboon management protocols in the city of Cape Town. Baboons are troublesome animals. They always have been, they always will be, but they’re also animals that do not have to live in enmity with humans. And there’s a strong history of them living in societies from the, you know, recorded as far ago as the Egyptian pyramids, where there’s some hieroglyphic images of baboons that are serving as police to stop a thief, stealing fruit from a market or something. And San rock paintings of baboons as part of society, and many San stories, which say be careful of a baboon, a baboon is a tricky fellow. But which offer guidance in terms of ways of thinking about living with and alongside baboons in lively, neighborly relationships with a troublesome being, much as one would do with a troublesome neighbor, right? And the city’s current policy has paid hardly any attention to human behavior, and they have this most absurd ludicrous system of creating a monthly inventory of baboon crimes. So, I called this zoo-criminology! Where they have this monthly sheet, and each baboon is assessed by the monitors on a daily basis, and gets a tick or a cross or a code on their daily performance sheet. Did they enter a car? Did they enter an occupied car? Did they break and enter into a home? Did they enter into an occupied home? So you’ve got these different baboon crimes, which have never been explained to the baboons, right? And, when it comes up against this conundrum of how do you persuade a baboon not to cross the road? I mean, as you know, if you’ve ever tried to explain to a chicken, why not to cross the road? Why does the baboon cross the road? The baboon can’t be told not to cross a road! A baboon doesn’t understand that a road is something that can’t be crossed, but, you know, so you’ve got this masculinist, militarist bunch of primatologists advising baboon management without having ever read Donna Haraway, or any of the other feminist primatologists. Despite decades of feminist primatology, you know, I don’t think they’ve ever exposed any of their students to any of that because it doesn’t come up in their primatology dissertations. That they’re advising the city on how to manage these baboons with paintballs along roads, because it’s easy for them to get along those roads with their vehicles rather than working in a more difficult terrain, which is keeping the baboons up in the mountain where they would have access to mountain food.

There’s no baboon crimes for humans. If you leave your trashcan full of lovely food and not locked, you know, a baboon is going to open it and then the baboon would get ticked off as a bad animal. You know, if a baboon gets three strikes, three crimes listed in a month, it’s then sent to a committee to assess whether or not it can be culled. So that is an assessment of baboon killability. And, you know, besides the masculinist patriarchal primatology behind us, it’s just ludicrous! It’s a joke. A couple of years ago I was in Kruger Park, which is a huge nature reserve up north in South Africa, and looking at the baboon troupes, I was astonished because they were so calm and it made me realize the extent to which these baboons are permanently traumatized with paintball guns and so on. Paint balls hurt as you know, anybody’s ever played paintball knows. So, you know, that was about questioning the reigning assumptions about baboon management, fire paintball guns, and where that came from.


What I tried to do in all of those chapters was think through what does this say about how we could do Environmental Management Sciences differently, how we could think of a human and humane ecological suite of relationships and practices. And so the conclusion is where I really sought to, I suppose, sketch a new book which was really sketching what I’d learned from across all of the different chapters. So the questions that I had about this paradigm of social ecological systems in which social de facto remains separate conceptually from ecological and through financialized ecologies, you get this economic logic mediating them. You know, I’ve offered a critique of that rethinking scientific authority. One of the things that struck me is the extent to which White power, White authority, White political authority in South Africa has regrouped itself around nature. So White authority, White political power is almost unassailable in the name of green for all the reasons that Bruno Latour talks about where he says, science stands outside of parliament and comes and tells parliament what is going on. And there are no questions asked. And so the absolute necessity in South Africa of democratizing how we do science, particularly environmental management, not because it’s a moral or ethical thing to do, but because science needs it, it’s good science to think through your situatedness. And it’s good science to be publicly accountable and to think with publics rather than over them. 


So much of environmentalism subsists in the little prefix “en-” which means what is around you. I want to say, ‘je suis terrain,’ you know, “I am earth.” From that perspective, it does not make sense to only consider environment to be that which exists behind a nature reserve fence. And “green” in South Africa overwhelmingly means nature reserves behind fences. 

I guess I got to a point where I just began to feel that I could never atone for the sins of the word “environment.” It wasn’t a redeemable word in any way. I needed to find something different. And “eco” sounds interesting because we’re thinking about ecological relations, I’ll come back to that. It’s always political. There is no environmentalism that is not political. It’s always a matter of political struggle to address these things. To say ecopolitics is to refuse to be the neutral environmentalist. As someone once said to me, a PhD that someone gave up on, she found herself measuring the bites of a certain bug on leaves, when she said, “why am I measuring the bites of this bug on leaves? I can’t do this anymore!” And she walked away. This is so ridiculous! I refuse to be the neutral environmentalist and to be the good girl that plays that game. So it’s always political. And particularly in South Africa, where land has always been a space of intense contestation. Let me just dispense with this word environmentalist, it’s too loaded.

There’s so much environmental struggle, ecopolitical struggle in South Africa that’s not even recognized by mainstream environmentalists as environmental. And that is the struggle of largely Black rural people, mostly women who are at the forefront of that, given the gender politics of the rural areas. And who are struggling against mining companies who want to come and destroy some of the only Black-owned farmland that’s left in South Africa to mine coal or to mine titanium. 

And when I say political struggles there, you know, there’ve been two assassinations, one of which was two weeks ago. A woman who’s just a grandma but who found herself fighting a coal mining company that wants to expand into her fields, leaving a gaping open cast pit where she has known fields and plants and cattle roaming and streams, you know, this dust pit. So she was assassinated in her home with five shots direct to the chest on a Thursday evening. Fikile Ntshangase.

I think that the inability of the South African Green Movement to recognize those as environmental struggles says everything I need to say as to why we need to dispense with the word “environmental,” you know. One more reason. And that is “eco” comes from this word oikos you know, the Greek word oikos, which many, including myself, have written about in quasi-romantic tones about how oikos means household, but I’m thinking more and more about this. I’ve finally come to realize — post-publication, darn, didn’t make it into the book! — but finally came to realize that the oikos for the Greeks was the opposite of the polis. The polis was the place of men in their togas laying on the stairs discoursing with Socrates. That was the polis. The oikos was the space of who? Of women, slaves, and animals. The excluded. And we still struggle with that, the legacy and inheritance of the distinction between oikos and polis. So we have to find a way to bring them together. And again, the word ecopolitics does that.


Possibly one of the most important scholars whose work assists me and many of our students here to think that through is Marisol de la Cadeña. Because I don’t think we’re going to be able to create a new world without binaries by imposing binaries. It’s this or it’s that. What Marisol does so beautifully in her engagement with Marilyn Strathern and Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers and others is to offer this idea of partial connections. And that also builds on Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s idea of equivocation that we can be talking about the same thing, apparently, water, but actually be talking about very different things. The one is talking about hydrology and megalitres, and the other is talking about what it’s like to be able to sit down and have a Sunday picnic in a nice place, right? They’re very different things. And yet, you know, sometimes you’re not aware that you’re talking about different things.

39:30  FIRE, MUD, MIST

Modernity has persuaded us that we live among solid, liquid, or gas, right? Perhaps the next book would be kind of, you know, fire, mud, and mist or something like that! Because those are all the apocalyptic imageries. Why? Because they’re so alien to modernity, you know, where we think we’ve got these states of matter controlled, but we don’t. 

[closing credits]

Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at or please subscribe.

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This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Thank you for listening!