A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Planting the Anthropocene: Rhetorics of Natureculture

Shannon Kelly, Michigan State University

Published April 5, 2022

The timeliness of Jennifer Clary-Lemon’s Planting the Anthropocene (2019) is evident as climate change effects become more and more apparent. 2020, for example, was tied with 2019 as the hottest years on record; over five million acres burned in California, Oregon, and Washington last summer; Arctic glaciers are yearly losing more ice than can be found in the European Alps; 2020 saw so many big storms in the Atlantic Ocean that the World Meteorological Organization exhausted the English alphabet and had to switch to Greek; honeybee populations are further being decimated by Asian giant hornets in North America; and a historically severe drought is affecting much of the western half of the US, with the US Drought Monitor map showing large areas in either “severe” or “exceptional” categories. These examples will be dated within months, if not weeks, as 2021 continues to eclipse 2020’s crises. With humans as the primary cause of planetary change, it’s both difficult to grasp the scale of human impact and hard to imagine that one’s individual actions can do much to change planetary ruin. Yet in what trauma worker Laura van Dernoot Lipsky aptly names “the age of overwhelm,” Clary-Lemon provides one possible “line of flight” by reconceptualizing the Anthropocene (Deleuze and Guattari 9).

To plant the Anthropocene, as the title proposes, means to create the epoch through constant acts of invention that could be otherwise. Put differently, the Anthropocene isn’t the only option. Clary-Lemon illustrates these inventive acts by blurring the boundaries between nature and culture, offering readers a way of approaching enormous environmental issues through the human relations that make up Canadian industrial tree planting. Industrial tree planting, she argues, is a “window” through which to view the Anthropocene as something in process rather than a foregone conclusion. Approaching the Anthropocene as one option among many is how rhetoricians can “thin” the Anthropocene while contributing to different possible futures (6). For rhetorical studies in particular, Clary-Lemon’s work is generative in that she forwards a methodological approach for rethinking human-nature relations beyond Anthropogenic ruin or redemption.

“What does it mean to plant a tree?” Clary-Lemon asks, a seemingly simple question about a positive action, but industrial tree planting on clear-cuts visible from space complicates things (6). That is, the scale at which hundreds of thousands of trees are razed and replanted in a single season asks readers to grapple with a relationship to nature that doesn’t align with either environmentalist or developmentalist ideals. Rather, industrial tree-planting exemplifies human-nonhuman entanglements, demonstrating the ambivalence of Anthropocenic living and its “million protagonists: pines, shovels, nation-states, muscles, resignation” (6). Clary-Lemon’s setting is Canada’s forested “public” land, making up 56% of the country. While US readers may be less familiar with seasonal tree planting, increased logging and reforestation in the last thirty years has resulted in nearly every Canadian being connected or adjacent to silviculture work. Silviculture, the science of forest management and composition, combined with tree-planters’ interviews, compose Clary-Lemon’s sketch of the Anthropocene as “patchy,” with various disruptions and fissures (qtd. in Clary-Lemon 55).

As a project on the discourses that compose both the Anthropocene and human-nonhuman relations, Clary-Lemon shares intellectual space with Amy Propen’s visual-material posthuman conservation as well as Nathan Stormer and Bridie McGreavey’s ecological approach to rhetorical ontology, which works to forward vulnerable entanglements. These projects draw from a wide range of interdisciplinary methods to move rhetorical studies further toward an entangled with rather than a separate around, or, worse, above of humans and non-humans. While Clary-Lemon doesn’t position her project as posthumanism, noting that “obviously, interviews with humans are not interviews with trees or crows or trucks,” I see in her work a compelling case for the efficacy of posthumanism in working through and imagining beyond the Anthropocene (15). After all, the critical posthumanism project is to decenter the human as the primary rhetorical agent while moving away from individualistic, liberal humanism—logics that sustain the Anthropocene. And posthumanism addresses tensions within the term anthropo-, how “the human” is understood, and who is understood to be human in the first place. These priorities align with Clary-Lemon’s new materialist environmental rhetoric that blends material ecocriticism and critical affect studies to story environmental data as an entangled natureculture.

Storying data, what Clary-Lemon calls critical description, resists two dominant ways of approaching climate change. First, entangling natureculture disrupts contemporary environmental rhetoric’s separation of humans from nature, which allows humans to either consume or save nature (9). And second, storying data dovetails effectively with critical affect studies and critiques of climate science’s “information deficit.” “Information deficit” refers to the idea that people just need more information and evidence to believe in climate change so that they will start to do what they can to stave off planetary ruin. However, work from emotion studies and sociology such as Kari Norgaard’s Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (2011) and social psychology like Per Espen Stoknes’s What We Think About When We Try Not to Think about Global Warming (2015) suggest otherwise. Rather than more dire data, it’s important to story data, something rhetorical studies has long known and practiced. Clary-Lemon’s data stories multi-species relations that make up Anthropocenic living, offering a way to rethink these relations via a new materialist environmental rhetoric.

To define her new materialist environmental rhetoric (NMER), Clary-Lemon explains its three basic premises: NMER 1) approaches the rhetorical human without easy distinctions between rational and nonrational and communicative and linguistic; 2) accepts Diane Davis’s “underivable rhetoricity” to consider nonhumans as both rhetorical and relational; and 3) understands the human as only one affective body among many whose actions make up and make meaningful the work of tree-planting (59–60). Clary-Lemon uses NMER as a heuristic to read her interview data in ways that trouble efficiency and self-determination. For example, all the interviews describe experiences of pain and pleasure, interactions with animals and different terrain that affected individual decision making, and plants as rhetorical agents. Such descriptions fall outside the logos of efficiency and humanism, demonstrating the need for a methodological approach that helps readers approach humans and nature as mutually constitutive.

To understand tree-planting and its many relations within a NMER, Clary-Lemon names her project an “effort of chorography” (14). Chōra, for Clary-Lemon, is the “act of inventing place using associational and analogic thinking” (14). To distinguish chōra, Clary-Lemon’s NMER contrasts it with topos. A topos is a commonplace that orders thinking and discourse, something fixed in understanding. Chōra, on the other hand, is indeterminate and aleatory. In this framing of chōra in contradistinction to topos, Clary-Lemon highlights the often ambiguous, or contradictory, aspects of tree-planter interviews, showing through their relational associations how the Anthropocene is a state of constant invention. For example, tree planters are communicative bodies amid many assemblages and voices, from the saplings they plant, to the black flies and dive-bombing owls they encounter, the rain that pours on their backs, and the dreams of continuous tree-planting that inhabit their sleep. To make sense of these numerous relations, we should, Clary-Lemon asserts, be willing to listen to the chōra—to the voices that speak to and through us. It is the choric through and with of human-nonhuman assemblages that demonstrate how such relations can disrupt the discursive Anthropocene and remake it.

Herein lies Clary-Lemon’s primary contribution to rhetorical studies: she centers choragraphy within her new materialist environmental rhetoric as a grounding methodology for a research study. Clary-Lemon notes that chōra is often relegated to the “realm of the unbounded, aleatory generativity,” something seemingly random (17). Yet, approached differently, the shifting ground of the chōra is emergent and sustained by change, something that can help rhetoricians better listen to the specificities of place and the ways in which humans remain only ever one part of complex assemblages composing natureculture. It might sound simple, albeit not easy, but this attention to perpetual becoming can thin the Anthropocene and work to better represent it as transitory. While language wielding humans are an important part of this thinning, humans alone cannot re-story and reinvent the Anthropocene without or outside of one’s relations. For Clary-Lemon, these affective entanglements can “allow glimpses of what it might look like to argue nature’s other as ourselves, to grieve the un-grievable, to imagine trees and other bodies as beings beyond resource capital, and to imagine ourselves as part of how the forest thinks” (106). This rethinking of relations is a “messier rhetoric” that is both human and nonhuman, working from an entangled with (100). 

Chapters three and four help concretize something as slippery as chōra by demonstrating the possibilities of a choric methodology. Chapter three focuses on intensity, which tree-planters described as bodily experiences of motion and emotion on the landscape (101). For Clary-Lemon, intensity is a kind of affect that functions through the repetitive motion of tree-planting. In this affective entanglement, the human is not the only one affecting the environment, as suggested in human-oriented environmentalism. Rather, the capacity to “affect and be affected” works between all parts of the human-tree-shovel-land entanglement (102). In terms of the chōra, affect is part of the associational thinking that invents place. So, approaching the choric place of the forest as a “place of being” means it is not stable or fixed in understanding like topoi (112). Instead, being is made up of movements, actions, and feelings of many bodies. Chapter four extends this focus on intense rhetorics to thing-bodies that co-invent and contribute to persuasive movements in the choric landscape. Roads, trucks, and helicopters allow for and disrupt ways that human and tree bodies can be or not in the environment. This rhetoricity of things, in addition to animal-, human-, tree- bodies, is an important aspect of a NMER. Specifically, thing-bodies help demonstrate how distributed human agency is, adding another layer to what invents the tree-planting chōra—there is no tree-planting without roads and machinery. A choric landscape is both in-process and liminal, a for-now place of change from which entangled relations can remake the Anthropocene, perhaps into what Clary-Lemon names the “Choracene, a new-where-things-take-place” (176).

While the Choracene offers inventive possibilities, the relations that make up the chōra are not disconnected from what geographer Kathryn Yusoff describes as the “color line of the Anthropocene” (2015). Yusoff reminds readers that “imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialism have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence” (par. 3). At her 2018 Cultural Rhetorics Conference talk, I listened to Clary-Lemon discuss the need for new materialist researchers to grapple with the “ambient whiteness” that pervades this theoretical position. Part of upholding relationality also entails awareness of the relations one does not have, or the bodies a theoretical position can exclude and erase. In this regard, Clary-Lemon’s call for understanding a place, or an event such as the Anthropocene, “through its connections and meanings'' also gives rhetoricians a method for noticing and accounting for who and what we are not connected to (qtd. in Clary-Lemon 18). Beyond simple awareness of methodological exclusion, attending to such exclusion also calls for white scholars who may be less immediately threatened by Anthropogenic ruin to listen to and act in the best interest of those who are—to respond to who is excluded from the anthropos in planting—and inventing—the Anthropocene.

Works Cited

Clary-Lemon, Jennifer. Planting the Anthropocene: Rhetorics of Natureculture. UP of Colorado, 2019.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. U of Minnesota P, 2nd ed., 1987.

Lipsky, Laura van Dernoot. The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Longhaul. Berrett-Koehler, 2018.

Norgaard, Kari. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. MIT Press, 2011.

Propen, Amy. Visualizing Posthuman Conservation in the Age of the Anthropocene. Ohio State UP, 2018.

Stoknes, Per Espen. What We Think about When We Try Not to Think about Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action. Chelsea Green, 2015.

Stormer, Nathan and Bridie McGreavy. “Thinking Ecologically about Rhetoric’s Ontology: Capacity, Vulnerability, and Resilience.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 50, no. 1, 2017, pp. 125.

Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. U of Minnesota P, 2018. https://manifold.umn.edu/read/untitled-5f0c83c1-5748-4091-8d8e-72bebca5b94b/section/b17181bd-c615-4a1b-8cb1-5c0fa03afd74