‘In absentia’: Anachronism, Errors and Recollective Ecology

By Mick Smith, Queen’s University

I seem to remember (and can visualise a filmic image as I write) that the common shrew (Sorex araneus), having created circuitous habitual paths around obstacles like logs and stones, will, for a while at least, continue to follow these same routes even if obstacles to its progress are removed. It continues to scurry around now non-existent rocks, sometimes leading its offspring, each attached behind, nose to tail, nose to tail, along inefficient and anachronistic paths. The present landscape the shrew inhabits is still, in part, constituted by embodied memories, a kinaesthetics of past involvements and environmental encounters.

Initially, one might be tempted to use the shrew’s strange behaviour as a metaphor for our time – perhaps of the environmentally ‘blind’ leading the ‘blind’ as, set in our ways, we struggle to come to terms with an ecological and political reality now changing beyond all recognition. Alternatively, those ‘new dialecticians’[1] prophets of the Anthropocene, like Žižek, Swyngedouw, Morton, et al, might suggest that such an image perfectly suits those environmentalists who continue to act as if something called ‘nature’ exists. Be that as it may, such allegorical appropriations clearly force the shrew to play a dismissive role in a scenario that is none of its making. Yet the shrew is actually rather well adapted to its environs, with an exquisite sense of smell and excellent hearing, and also a rare, and quite recently discovered, ability to echolocate.[2] Its sensory world is certainly not lacking, although, by contrast, many social theorists seem to be missing an ecological sensitivity.

So, resisting this analogy, we might rather, as Haraway suggests,[3] strive to recognise more profound and much stranger kinships with the shrew. For instance, it seems odd, given the informatic reach of google, that I can find no immediate reference to such behaviour. Yet, despite this lack of evidence, I cannot just decide not to trust my memory. I cannot simply erase it, nor place it in cognitive quarantine to ensure it plays no epistemic role. Indeed, (to paraphrase Derrida) here I am at this very moment, in this work, writing about it. It seems then, that at least in this instance, I am as beholden as the shrew to things ‘remembered’, perhaps even misremembered; still diverted by the after-effects of what has now, apparently, gone missing – the silent or absent testimony of the things themselves.

water shrew portrait while on ground beside water reflection.Perhaps, like the shrew, I am (a) being somewhat short-sighted, oblivious to what appears obvious to other onlookers? Perhaps, just as the ethologist experimentally manipulates the shrew’s environment, memory (or google) might be playing tricks with me? If I searched in different ways would I find memory corroborated, or surreally transformed (here it is – but not where, what or how, I remember it) or even flatly contradicted – (am I simply mistaken)? Memories can, after all, be erroneous, and they are always, by definition, anachronistic in one sense or another. That is to say, there is an inevitable difference between the world as remembered and the world as it now is. It is important, though, that we do not confuse anachronism with error, despite their often being complicit. Rather, as Tribble and Sutton suggest, ‘in certain respects, anachronism is intrinsic to human [and as the shrew evidences, more-than-just-human] experience in time. […We are] animated by plural temporalities and by rhythms other than those of linear succession’.[4]

Well then, my recollection of the shrew’s behaviour, whether accurate or not, might still serve as a timely reminder that every ecology – grassland or urban, human or shrew, is always also a recollective ecology. The reality of the world, its ontology, semiosis and phenomenology, is never just a matter of what is obviously present and materially evident in the here and now. Rather, every instant(ce) of the world’s appearance is shot through with events, beings, thoughts, (re)actions, relations, experiences and so on, that re-emerge in strange and often unpredictable combinations from an otherwise irrecoupable past. These re-collections influence and orchestrate life in ways that may seem, like the shrew’s behaviour, bizarre to an external empirics, but which nonetheless pervade our experience of the world. As the shrew’s activities also remind us, a re-collective ecology presents itself in many overlapping registers – embodied, behavioural, evolutionary, ecological, and not just in mental images. What is anachronistically re-collected is never just in one’s head.

Indeed, life itself, we might say, is anachronistically composed. Here I am not just referring to species like the coelacanth, that have survived ‘unaltered’ from the distant past to suddenly present themselves in trawler’s nets, but rather to ‘haunting’ absences and their after-effects. Extinction, for example, often leaves a ‘gap in nature’,[5] a void never again to be filled. And yet other species, even if only influenced at several removes, remain shaped, sometimes quite literally, by a shared co-evolutionary past. No doubt an extinction (like the removal of a stone) changes the contours of the world, eventually altering the trajectories of species that once wound their ways around each other. It changes forever the evolutionary and ecological affordances of places. Yet a species’ past presence may still be re-collected, both ecologically and, if we care enough, thoughtfully, in absentia. This is what an ecological ethics does: it attends to beings and places now irretrievably lost whose absence would otherwise remain unnoticed, be deemed inconsequential, or perhaps even celebrated by those set on removing all barriers to efficiency, profit and production, on capitalism’s linear, but still rocky, road. Such an ethics recollects missing aspects of more-than-just-human nature, thereby revealing past, present, and potential intricacies of the landscapes through which we, and other species, might wend our diverse ways. Attending to what is missing and to paths once walked might even divert us from a telos toward a topocidal world, although an answer to such issues is not to be found on google.

And don’t we continue to walk, even if only in memory, old or childhood paths, where the places themselves have been transformed or obliterated in the name of progress? The recollection of lost species, beings, places, is not pointless. It is what gives the present world and our life, our presence in the world, meaning, for what appears now only has meaning in relation to a past that continues to inform the present in absentia. If environmentalists are chided for continuing to inhabit the past, for not being alert to present circumstances, for holding on for dear life to ‘nature’, then this is because we care. Our anachronism is not an error, it is a recognition of the influence of plural and diverse temporalities and rhythms, a denial of the metaphysics of presence and presentism, a concern for a future informed by more than just efficiency, profit and resource management. Perhaps, like the shrew, our short-sightedness is only apparent.

Mick Smith is a jointly appointed Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University, Canada. His research seeks to develop theoretical understandings of the complex intersections of nature and culture as they affect evaluations and experiences of environments, and his current work is concerned with posthumanist notions of ecological community. He was Founding Editor of the journal, Emotion, Space and Society.


[1] Neil Castree, Nature (London: Routledge, 2005), p.232.

[2] K. A. Forsman & M. G. Malmquist, M. G., ‘Evidence for Echolocation in the Common Shrew Sorex araneusJournal of the Zoological Society of London 216 (1988): 655–62.

[3] Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)

[4] E. B. Tribble and J. Sutton, ‘Minds In and Out of Time: Memory, Embodied Skill, Anachronism, and Performance’, Textual Practice 26.4 (2012), p.588.

[5] Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten, A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001).

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