blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology
Clinton Crockett Peters
University of Georgia Press, 2018

spacer  Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology (University of Georgia Press, 2018)

In 1954 Gojira debuted Godzilla, raining down fire on Tokyo. Nine years had passed since the end of World War II, and few horrors seemed too great or implausible.

Less than a century later our stories about monsters and men look much the same, if more visually compelling. It’s these stories—about outsiders and invaders among people, in film and literature, and, most centrally, in the natural world—that ground Clinton Crockett Peters’s debut essay collection, Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology. In segmented, often narrative essays, he lays out the untold histories of natural predators, invasive species, and ecological “misfits” of all sorts, humans included. He examines how cultural traditions and stories, like Godzilla’s, reflect and inform those histories. Interrogating what it means to be invasive, monstrous, natural, and pure, his essays beg the question: how does any species fit in? How have our stories about who “belongs” shaped reality?

A professed misfit himself, Peters connects our language of invasive species to how people treat those considered “other.” In his essays, macaques and undocumented immigrants in Texas receive similarly hostile treatment. Rabbits in colonial Australia become analogues of Stolen Generation runaways. “The plights of the Europeans and rabbits in Australia mirror each other,” Peters writes, “in that they point up the myths that we Westerners are trapped by and tell ourselves as we hop about and wander the Earth.” A less deliberate writer might have pushed these comparisons too far, but Peters takes care to explore their every angle and limitation, so that his essays lean—never lapse—into anthropomorphizing.

With a light touch and critical eye, he brings into harmony a diverse chorus, from David Quammen to William Hazlitt, and reaches the conclusion, “Maybe the gulf between Edenic creation and mass slaughter is formed by how we view other animals as things and ourselves as not-animals.” “Human vs. animal,” “native vs. foreign,” “us vs. them,” and especially “nature vs. intervention” crumble under his careful scrutiny and research.

In this ecological moment, characterized by “mass slaughter,” climate change, and an ever-lengthening list of endangered plants and animals, Peters traces critical problems back to that false divide: the line between nature and intervention. Training his gaze on the full “complexity of the human-animal drama,” he asks how descriptors like “natural” and “foreign” might flatten the species to whom they’ve been attached. He builds a case for reassessing all these definitions in part by describing less controversial misnomers and misinterpretations in ecology.

The essay “Wildlife of Unknown Status,” for example, finds a mise en abyme–style series of misunderstandings in the Florida panther. “Not long ago,” the essay begins, “the largest cat in eastern America, the Florida panther, was categorized by ecologists as ‘wildlife of unknown status,’ a label given to ivory-billed woodpeckers, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster.” When Florida panthers leapt from the realm of myth to the scientifically verifiable, Peters explains, they became as hard to classify as they were to track down. First, the Florida panther was labeled distinct from other cougars. Second, it was named after its unicolor coat. But the Florida panther wasn’t genetically different from other cougars. And its coat is duotone. Peters reveals that in reality, every feature that would come to distinguish the Florida panther from other cougars was, in fact, the result of human intervention. Without that intervention, Peters suggests Florida panthers wouldn’t be in the midst of a population crisis. But without it, “Florida panthers,” as we call them, wouldn’t exist.

About humans’ role in the human-animal drama, then, Peters calls himself “agnostic.” “There are no pure choices,” he writes: everything affects everything else, and so nothing can be purely good or bad. Consistently throughout the collection, Peters repeats this pattern. He turns simple ideas on their heads, revealing their true complexity in straightforward, lyrical language. Then he complicates the complication, and so on. Here he reasons that if humans are animal and therefore natural, it follows that human action is as natural, as connected to nature—and as inevitable—as it is interventionist. More than judge nature or intervention as good or bad, he urges readers to accept each as fact, and to consider future courses of action with all the facts in mind.

That includes learning from our mistakes when intervention goes awry. In the essay “The Carp Experience,” Peters presents a notable human intervention worthy of indictment. Of a government attempt to eradicate non–native silverfin in Chicago, he writes:

Officials poured the poison from jugs into a six-mile stretch of the Chicago Shipping Canal. Two hundred thousand pounds of native fish rose to the water’s surface: red, white, and blue and asphyxiated. A single silverfin floated with them.

Besides the loaded, dazzling image (Pandora’s Garden has no shortage of these), Peters leaves readers with a caveat. As unavoidable as some sort of intervention is, one of its forms cannot be abided: that which imposes unnatural boundaries in our fundamentally interconnected world. That which quests after imagined, unnatural—and indeed, unreachable—forms of isolation.

Yet, as with everything else that falls under Peters’s magnifying glass, interconnectedness has its limits. He writes that the reality of hierarchies should factor into ecological decisions too: without it, “every creature comes raining down.” Peters suggests that to acknowledge hierarchy as essential is to confront our vulnerability, our precarious and debatable position atop the pyramid. It is also, paradoxically, to acknowledge the profound power and bestial potential within us. Pandora’s Garden urges us to claim those animalistic parts of ourselves with the utmost care. When we embrace them unconsciously, we lose “a lesson learned by necessity, that to be human means frailty”; when we deny them, we deny ourselves, and we surrender any power we have to manage them. Peters suggests our secret animal selves—like our creations—only become monstrous because “we turn away.”

Perhaps we’ve turned against “invasive” species, Peters speculates, to keep our worldview intact. To manufacture the necessary monsters. In more elegant terms, he explains that to cast invasive species as antagonists in the human-animal drama is also, on some level, to help preserve an idealized, biblical view of nature. “I see it,” he writes, “as reflecting a Puritan streak, a desire to get back to a mythical flawless existence. . . . If only we could return to that treasured beginning that is not bound within the covers of any history.”

As focused, then, as Pandora’s Garden is on dissolving the human-nature divide and on charting species’ interconnected histories, the end of the book shifts considerable focus to storytelling itself. Unlike any other species, Peters responds to his father’s death—in multiple essays—by telling stories and searching for their significance. Unlike any other species, he explains, humans extract meaning from the world through narrative. And those narratives shape reality.

In Pandora’s Garden Peters proves himself a masterful storyteller, collapsing millennia and expanding single moments in a way that makes ecological and sociological phenomena feel immediate, inseparable, and deeply important. Like Japanese-native macaques in Texas, which “learned to speak the language of their new home,” Peters’s essays provide a model for adapting our language, our stories, and our subjective ecologies to the world as it is now. It’s in this spirit that he holds one notable invasive species accountable: “The monster, which was us, how we’ve made the world.” It’s also in this spirit that he suggests human stories offer possibilities we’ve never needed to imagine, and that we’ve seen in everything on Earth.  end

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology (University of Georgia Press, 2018). His work has appeared in DIAGRAM, Hotel Amerika, Orion, and Southwest Review, among others. He is the recipient of literary prizes from Crab Orchard Review, Columbia Journal, North American Review, Shenandoah, and the Society for Professional Journalists. Peters is the nonfiction editor at Pleiades and a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Berry College.

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