‘Flight Ways’ by Thom van Dooren reviewed

Flight WaysBen Garlick and I were asked to review Thom van Dooren‘s lovely book, Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction, for Progress in Human Geography. Here’s the uncorrected, pre-proof text.

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We live in an era of great loss. A growing number of creatures and species hover between life and oblivion, and if trends continue the world will soon grow quieter in their absence. Van Dooren situates his work in the ‘shadow’ of this period of great loss. Taking his cue from Donna Haraway and Deborah Bird Rose, he understands species as storied ‘life ways’ unfolding amid embodied, situated ‘ways of life’, rather than as natural kinds. Creatures, he argues, are less representatives of than participants in their species story. Flight Ways keeps one eye on deep, evolutionary time, and the other on the work of the living, whose labour holds together the long chains of intergenerational species being. Since species are knotted ways of life, it follows that extinction is not some singular event but the slow unravelling of a particular geographically assembled ecology, as the work and relationships necessary to continue the species become harder to sustain. This is established in chapter one, where we learn how consumer plastics floating in the Pacific garbage patch clog up albatross digestive systems. These plastics – along with DDT, PCBs and the toll of death levied by fishing by-catch – disrupt the vital work of rearing the next generation of birds. This is Flight Ways’ central thesis: extinction is far from an acute event (the asteroid sealing the fate of the dinosaurs); extinction is more often a drawn-out process, a ‘slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life’ (p. 12).

The book contains five extinction stories of varied length and depth. Each draws on field visits, natural history, ethology, and biophilosophy. We meet crows that mourn their partner’s passing with an ‘inconsolable moaning’ (p. 125). We meet Sydney’s urban penguins: little birds so faithful to their remembered breeding grounds that, stubbornly, they return each year to brave roads, dogs and concrete sprawl, even as their colony dwindles towards local extinction. The longest and (as the empirically richest) most successful chapter tells the story of North America’s whooping cranes. Van Dooren exposes the violence inherent in conservation efforts to ‘hold space open’ for this endangered species: the violence of imprinting, artificial insemination, the sacrifices made by conservationists, and the violence of birds reduced to sperm and egg factories. We see how acting to ‘dull the edge’ of extinction for some usually entails harm for others.

The author stresses that ‘flight ways’ do not denote a generalised, holistic web of life, but historically and geographically situated knots of relating. This comes through most forcefully in the chapter on vultures. India has lost 97% of its Gyps vultures, largely due to the vulture-toxic antibiotic (diclofenac) used in rural areas to prolong the productivity of cattle, which is ingested by scavengers feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. The resulting disease and increase in rabid dog populations is felt hardest by the poorest in society, who become drawn into ‘amplified patterns of death and suffering’ (p. 58). Not all are bound up equally with other species, and this chapter proposes that we might think politically about just who is most at risk when life ways begin to unravel.

Yet at the same time as being grounded in specific lives, Flight Ways – like much work in the environmental humanities and ecocriticism – often invokes an abstract, universal ‘we’: extinction ‘remakes us’ (p. 5); if ‘we’ learn more about nonhuman place-making it might provide more space for ‘species’ (p. 85); ‘our responsibility for a shared world’ (p. 147); crows can remind us that if ‘we’ mourn we do not so alone (p. 143). The ‘we’ here seems not to refer to a pre-existing human community, but to want to call into existence a new form of Anthropocene species being. While many geographers remain skeptical of invocations of the universal human for the way they efface political difference, there might yet be some use for a human ‘we’ that emerges out of an epoch defined by great loss.

But if so then there needs to be much greater clarity about how this community comes about and how it relates to particular knots of humans and other creatures. Is a new ‘we’ formed among all those who read Flight Ways or similar books? By those who are caught up in painful, unravelling ways of life? Are conservationists involved, or do they cleave to the old stories of wild Nature? Such questions require detailed empirical investigation as well as artful eco-writing; too much is hidden, we fear, by tacking quickly between particular human knottings and a universal ‘we’.

Flight Ways parallels work in animal and more-than-human geographies (we say ‘parallels’ because the book doesn’t really engage with any of the rich geographic scholarship on nonhumans). This is unsurprising since the environmental humanities and covalent parts of geography both ply the winds of post-naturalism. Geographers will not be surprised by the book’s familiar conceptual arguments: overlapping circuits of care and violence, the entanglement of human and nonhuman lives, the idea that animals ‘story’ the earth. But the overlap shows the exciting potential for geographers working at the entangled fringes of the human to draw from the interdisciplinary project of environmental humanities, and vice versa.

Van Dooren writes appealing and uncluttered prose; we found Flight Ways both moving and profound. The book’s argument – that extinction is a slow unravelling of entangled lives – is compelling, novel, and important. Academic studies of the nonhuman too often get caught up by their own cleverness. Van Dooren, by contrast, has written a book that appeals to the heart as well as the mind and, we might hope, to the soul of the human to come.

Ben Garlick & Franklin Ginn, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh

 

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