What a Strange Fellow! Monstrous Mushrooms in the Greenhouse

by Sam Le Butt, PhD student in the Department of English

sam.lebutt@bristol.ac.uk

 

Meeting the locals – mushrooms around Stavanger

As a researcher in ecocriticism, I have sometimes felt out of place in the monolithic world of my ‘single honours’ English Literature PhD programme. My research looks at the role of monsters and monstrosity in contemporary environmental fiction, asking how and why authors use representations of monstrosity when talking about environmental pollution and toxicity. However, it can often provoke larger questions about the viability, or propriety, of literary study in service to something, those old disagreements about the ‘instrumentalisation’ of art. On the one hand, that literature and art more generally have the power (and therefore a certain duty?) to synthesise and emote an issue, giving it a tangible and relatable form that allows readers or viewers to feel empathy for others or sympathy for a cause. On the other hand, the idea that any didacticism robs a work of that ineffable artistry that moves us so, indeed qualifies something as art. Perhaps the very contemporary nature of my texts also occasionally provokes scepticism: these are texts that have yet to stand the tests of time, to prove their inventive potential within a culture (according to Derek Attridge’s qualification of literature). There are many fault lines of opinion to be navigated here, but these may be a few reasons why I have always felt more at home in the field of environmental humanities. 

At Bristol, the Centre for Environmental Humanities has proved to be a vital research community for me during my PhD, because although our materials and lines of inquiry are vastly different, those working in the environmental humanities all agree on one thing: that our current moment is undergoing such vast and unprecedented environmental (read also social, political, and cultural) changes, that their intersections with the arts and humanities demands attention. Though I obviously work within the paradigms of literary criticism, my research on monstrosity in fiction is always prismed through an environmental lens: what makes the monster such a popular, effective, or seductive storyteller of environmental disturbance? What draws in so many writers to its narratorial and representative powers? In the monster’s concerns with the self and other, the body, and material being, how does it speak to key environmental concepts such as relationality, entanglement, and epistemological rupture?  

It was questions such as these that I was given the opportunity to explore on my recent University of Stavanger Greenhouse Fellowship on environmental storytelling in November 2023. More specifically, I used the time to start my research on ‘monstrous mycelium’, hoping to unpack some of the fissures and continuities across the recent explosion of fungal representations in contemporary culture. Many with even a passing interest in that third strange taxonomical kingdom will be aware of the stunning visual representations in recent years, perhaps most notably HBO’s The Last of Us, but a quick Google search throws up endless blog posts and media articles about the recent trend of ‘mushroom horror’ and its historical forebears; lists of contemporary fiction that feature fungal representations in horrific or disturbing ways; and a growing number of academic book chapters and scholarly articles appearing on the subject. For me, fungi encapsulate that precise intersection between the ecological and the monstrous, as beings that are hard to categorise and contain, with unfamiliar ways of being and knowing, that can be interpreted both as a threat and a radical alternative to Anthropocentric subjectivity, control, and dominance. Beyond that, I was curious see if any of these contemporary fungal narratives were exploring themes of environmental damage or ecodegradation specifically, alongside the more familiar tale of psycho-corporeal invasion.  

Several of the Greenhouse colleagues I met in Stavanger said it was a shame my visit hadn’t coincided with Norway’s mushroom picking season; there had been trips only a few weeks prior out to the forests and hilltops of the surrounding Jæren region (known in the tourist literature as the Edge of Norway). Instead, I would have to make do with the Fungi board game kept in the Greenhouse library, quipped Finn Arne Jørgensen, Professor of Environmental History at Stavanger and co-director of the Greenhouse centre with Professor Dolly Jørgensen, the brilliant environmental historian and extinction scholar. Both Dolly and Finn Arne were incredibly hospitable during my stay, and I did, in fact, get the opportunity to sample their vast board game collection, notably the fantastically complicated ecologically themed card game called Forest Shuffle, at which I was roundly beaten by everyone involved. 

This is just one example of the warm and welcoming community I encountered in the Greenhouse. When I first arrived at the department (the environmental humanities department, a whole department), Dolly led me around and introduced me to the whole team, the professors and the well-paid post docs, the interns and the PhDs. When asked about my research here, my answer prompted further questions, but ones directed by understanding and familiarity with the topic: “Will you be incorporating much Anna Tsing into your talk?” “Have you read Gaia Giuliani’s Anthropocene monster book?” “If you’re thinking of Mexican Gothic, we have Rocio Gomez’s book on silver mining in Mexico in the Greenhouse library.” Even if their interest in monsters was minimal, there was an implicit understanding of why monstrosity might be important for ecocriticism and were keen to listen to my thoughts on the topic either way. This is not to suggest that good research comes from surrounding yourself with sympathetic listeners or affirming assumptions (although finding the evaluative and critical arguments to support these is also important), but more that to feel that you are in an environment of sympathetic support, that those around you might share an understanding of the broader implications of thinking through narratives and metaphors and what they may betray about how we relate to the world around us, is enormously stimulating. It’s the same feeling I get at the Bristol CEH, but with the added bonus of that community having a physical space in which to come together, share ideas, and pursue ongoing conversations.  

 

A cross-section of the Greenhouse library

The nucleus of that space is the small (but mighty!) library, which collects together an impressive number of resources the centre has built up over the past few years. Although I was familiar with lots of the books already, this was the result of painstaking bibliography-building over the past two years – and here they all were! In one place! More importantly, the library offers free coffee, providing essential caffeine and water-cooler vibes, at times a welcome reprieve from the solitude (but also, oh so peaceful and distraction-free environment) of my very own office – a considerable luxury for a PhD student. Having my own space to think and write meant I got more done in just under four weeks than I would in thrice the time at home, but the regular roster of events also gave me plenty of opportunities to get to know my colleagues: an online book talk every Monday, a research seminar on Wednesday afternoons, the ‘official’ department lunch every Thursday. There was also a loose arrangement that whoever was hungry at 12pm (rarely me, considering the three-course hotel breakfast I forced down each morning – who could resist such a resplendent feast, at no additional cost, in a country where a loaf of bread could set you back £3.50??) would find an assortment of other envirohums colleagues in the department canteen, happily munching their sandwiches.  

All of this culminated in a real atmosphere of collegiality. This is no doubt down to the talents and dedication of Dolly and Finn Arne, who must spend hours tracking down  authors for their book talks, hosting and recording them, organising research talks, fellowships, projects, syllabi; but it is also due to a sense of commitment in the wider team, to make time, to show up, to share progresses, opportunities, frustrations. The result is an ability to have ongoing dialogue about the broader concern that unites them all together: the mediations and conceptualisations of the environment – natural, built, societal, bodily – in the humanities. It allows for organic connections, mutual investment, and genuine intellectual and emotional connection. This is especially important for still-emerging disciplines, but it’s a feeling all academics know from conferences and symposia, where you can skip the explanations and get down to the nitty gritty of your research area. All in all, it gives you a much better sense of ‘what is known’ in the community, what questions are being asked, what conversations are being had.  

This is not, for a moment, to suggest that my colleagues at Bristol – nor those at other British universities – are less dedicated. Far from it. However, I suspect it is a question of resources: fiscal, which inevitably correlates with temporal and emotional. I know the postgraduates are paid a much better wage – and this may certainly translate into higher event attendance. For what it has to work with, the Bristol CEH does very well, and it is keen to learn from more established communities like those in Stavanger. Last term, the CEH began offering a version of the Greenhouse Thursday Lunch – a Wednesday coffee social held in the arts complex staff common room, 11am-12pm, where colleagues can come together for a regular catch up, to try and strengthen that sense community that I – and certainly many other ‘strange fellows’ of the interdisciplinary type – have already benefitted from at the Bristol CEH. I would encourage those who have time to come along and help us build a strong communal atmosphere that will see the research centre continue to flourish.  

When it came time to give my research talk on ‘Monstrous Mycelium’ at the end of the month, I was buoyed to be speaking to a crowd (I say crowd: we’re talking departmental research seminar, it was hardly Wembley) of friendly and familiar faces. Faces I’d eaten lunch with many times over the 28-day period. Faces who I’d join in drinking £10 pints with later that week, to celebrate what, I think, was a successful talk. New faces, including that of the renowned monster scholar Ingvil Hellstrand, who made the time to come and listen to my monstrous ramblings – what a humbling treat. For the talk itself, far from the extensive critique of a contemporary mycelial genre I’d pictured, I ended up doing a kind of open-ended comparison of mushroom imagery in Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and Anna Tsing’s ‘Testimony of a Spore’, asking how fungal characteristics are made to do different theoretical and affective work in each. Although I ended up probing Tsing’s, and other envirohums scholars’, valorisation of the fungus as a theoretical and sociopolitical tool for the ongoing deAnthropocentering project, I can certainly understand its allure. When environments of collaboration and spaces of ongoing networking are supported, stunning Greenhouses can grow.  

Wintry hike up Dalsnuten, across the fjord from Stavanger

Working with Artists

One of our Centre for Environmental Humanities speakers last academic year was Eben Kirksey, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford. Among the themes he addressed in his talk was the value of integrating art and artists into environmental humanities research. Many of the members of our Centre already do this, and some members are artists themselves. For those of us who don’t already work with artists, it can be a little daunting to know where to start. Putting these two things together – the benefits of working with artists and the practical challenges of getting started – was the motivation behind inviting Georgia Hall to lead a day-long workshop on working with artists for the CEH in October 2023. Georgia is a curator from Bristol currently working in Switzerland who has extensive experience in supporting the facilitation of artist-academic collaborations.

 

The workshop aimed to share experiences of artist / academic projects & collaborations discuss learning and ways of working with artists and discover new ways of working with artists through sharing tips and considerations. The workshop began in the morning in the humanities research space at the University of Bristol. Georgia began by providing an overview of three different artistic collaborations she has been involved with, including Linda Brothwell’s Tools for Tea project in Knowle West, Earth Art Gallery, Earth Sciences Department at the University of Bristol and Art of the Anthropocene project at LSE. We then spent some time exploring the nature of these collaborations. There are broadly three types of collaboration between artists and academics.

  • The first is where an academic approaches an artist to commission a piece of work based on a scholarship that has already been done.
  • The second is where an artist seeks information from an academic about a particular topic to inform their practice.
  • The third is a genuine partnership between an artist and an academic on a common project where the output is uncertain at the start and where the potential exists for real collaborative creativity.

None of these types of collaboration is fundamentally ‘better’ than the others, but Georgia stressed that it is important to be honest about the nature of the relationship from the beginning of a project. We then did a short exercise based on academic collaboration to explore these different forms of collaboration.

 

As part of this exercise, we considered the importance of all parties having a clear set of expectations about what they want to achieve through the collaboration and aligning these as far as possible. This process of alignment can be challenging, as different ‘outputs’ or results can be valued differently in different professional contexts, but it’s important to take time to ensure that all parties feel a sense of ownership over the process and its results. These differences in approach can also be a productive source of new ideas and creative thinking. For instance, one potential collaboration in the morning exercise explored how theoretical academic discussions about the representation or ‘figuration’ of alternative ecological futures could be reshaped by engaging with artistic representations of these futures.

 

In the afternoon we walked to Spike Island art gallery where we were given a short introduction to the Ofelia Rodríguez Talking in Dreams exhibition displaying a selection of over 70 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures made over the past five decades. Displaying a combination of found objects and images rich in symbolism to construct humorous yet critical works that examine cultural identity and gender stereotypes, influenced by memories of Rodríguez’s native Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The group then discussed their impressions and reflections on the work.

We then continued the workshop in the associate’s research space. As Georgia suggested, it was a powerful experience to be taken out of our academic surroundings and spend the afternoon surrounded by working artists, demonstrating that collaborating with artists is not the same as collaborating with other academics.

We spent some time discussing some of the practical elements of these kinds of collaboration: It is important to pay artists for their time in the initial design phase of a joint project; an artist may not always be the best person to ‘tell the story’ of their artistic practice so hiring somebody to focus on outreach can be beneficial. Questions were raised about how academics might approach an artist and how they could verify the quality and impact of their work without prior knowledge of their work. This led to a conversation around being continually engaged in the arts as well as working with a trained curator or producer who would advise on contemporary art practice.

An important point that ran throughout the day is that the work of artists is itself research, and to get the most out of collaborations research must be given space to flourish.

 

Adrian Howkins, Milo Newman, Paul Merchant & Georgia Hall

 

Remembering Rockpools

Ursula Glendinning, MA student in English

What do rockpools mean to us? How do we remember them? How might the act of looking into tidal pools help us to engage mindfully with the non-human world? These are just a few of the questions raised by Suzannah V. Evans’s workshop on rockpool poetry held in early November. 

Byssus: Amazon.co.uk: Jen Hadfield: 9781447241102: Books

 

We are sat in a small room in the Folkhouse, just off Park Street in Bristol, surrounded by various volumes of poetry that focus on coastal environments and, in particular, rockpools. Next to each seat is a shell: razor clams, scallops, dog whelks, even an Iceland cyprine, are dotted along the perimeter of the table. 

I have come here to learn more about how to write the strange creatures of tidal pools – an interest recently discovered whilst reading for an introductory seminar earlier this year. The works of Isabel Galleymore, Mary Oliver, Jen Hadfield, and many others, have inspired a bit of an obsession and, encouraged by my lecturers, I have found and am now attending a rockpool poetry workshop.  

Each of us holds a shell in our hand and, closing our eyes, we see with our fingers – exploring the tactile pleasure of running our thumbs over smooth indentations and jagged edges. Suzannah asks us to construct our own rockpool, and in a large bowl intended to hold planted flowers, we ritualistically scatter sand, and place, within the nest of stone, the shells we have been cradling. Each of us pours in a bit of water, chanting the words we have chosen to describe the shells – smooth, winged, serrated, meditative. We laugh and regret the placement of a tinfoil sardine: the concoction admittedly looks a bit like a fish stew.  

 

Ostensibly, the rockpool is a site of extraction. Most of us have childhood memories of picking through the residents of these watery worlds. Which one is the biggest? The shiniest? The most colourful? But the workshop, and my subsequent studies, helped me to see the ethics of rockpooling beyond this perspective. Careful attention to rockpools changes our physical positionality as observers. Rather than looking up at a mountain, gearing for an excursion and eventual conquest, the participant must stoop until they are almost level with the water’s surface. The practice invites a meditative state, a quietness; we sit and observe, asking for nothing in return. 

However, rockpooling is an increasingly endangered pastime. Throughout the workshop, I, and the other attendees, were uncomfortably aware of the emerging threat to rockpools and coastal life in general. We spoke of rising sea levels, loss of species, and shorelines used, abused, and neglected until they become places of rot and pollution. The poems we produced contained an aroma of nostalgia as well as barely stifled anger for these increasingly depleted habitats.  

My current project involves a study of the liveliness of dead crabs in modern and contemporary poetry, looking at May Swenson, Mark Doty and more. I intend to explore how these poets represent the animacies of decay through the speakers’ exploration of intertidal regions. The poems I have chosen are achingly sensual and balance both profound sadness and wonder. Suzannah V. Evan’s workshop provided a vital foundation for this exploration, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity by Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities to further my new obsession with rockpools alongside her and the other participants.