Making amidst extinction: a call for creative practices

Centre for Environmental Humanities, University of Bristol & online, November 2, 2023

How to engage in world making across species? How to work toward world making that enhances the lives of others? And how to do all this in the time of extinctions, knowing, as we must, that we are living amidst the ruination of others?

—Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (2011)

Growing awareness of massive biotic diminishment and the accompanying large-scale loss of biological and cultural diversity has led to a surge in academic interest into what has become known as the sixth mass extinction. Centred around the emergent field of critical extinction studies, this concern seeks to establish ‘an interdisciplinary, biocultural approach that can attend to the plural phenomena and entangled significance of extinction’.[i] Broadly speaking, this field comprises humanities and social sciences (including but certainly not limited to the academic fields of ecocriticism, human geography, environmental history and philosophy, cultural studies, and multispecies anthropology) and researches the ways in which the sixth extinction is perceived, experienced, and narrated among different communities and individuals. Defining an expressive mode for this work, Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren write that storytelling ‘is one of the great arts of witness, and in these difficult times telling lively stories is a deeply committed project, one of engaging with the multitudes of others in their noisy, fleshy living and dying’.[ii] Stories, in their most generous interpretation, Rose writes, ‘have the potential to promote understandings of embodied, relational, contingent ethics’ and can ‘pull readers into ethical proximity’.[iii] This raises the following questions: who is able to join this deeply committed project of telling stories, and what kind of stories are told? Dealing with unprecedented loss, the stories currently told are often driven by a strong elegiac impulse.[iv] As the Australian poet John Kinsella writes in response to the extinction of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle: ‘What family / will post your obituary — trapped / in descriptors and comparatives, analogies / and desperate metaphors?’[v] But there are many ways to tell stories, and these are certainly not limited to the spoken and written word.

Auk eggs installation at the Kelp Store, Papa Westray. Photograph is copyright Milo Newman, 2022
Auk eggs installation, Kelp Store, Papa Westray. Photograph © Milo Newman, 2022

In this light, this call for creative practices aims to gather together myriad other modes of expression concerned with extinction and the ways in which biocultural loss affects more-than-human communities. In doing so it seeks to explore alternate modes of telling these extinction stories beyond the elegiac, and beyond the confines of the academic journal or book. Our interest in creative practices here is a broad one, encompassing a range of different mediums, approaches, and forms of creativity. It is about art-making as a process, not just as an outcome; a way for practitioners, researchers, or academics to explore different ways of knowing. Our concern is therefore with the doings of art. We want to explore what ‘“work” art does in the world’ in context of extinction, what it can set in motion.[vi] We think that art does far more here than simply help promote understanding, foster engagement or raise awareness. Instead, we want to explore how (or if!) a plurality of individual creative responses expressing personal emotional, ethical, poetic, critical, and many other reactions to biocultural loss are quietly (or even loudly) involved in the production of new worlds, knowledges, and subjectivities.[vii] To help us explore these ideas we invite contributions from artists, writers, activists, and academics (both individuals and collectives) that seek to make connections between creative practices and biotic diminishment, biodiversity loss, or extinction. While the symposium itself focuses on creative practice, other reflections on extinction are also welcome. We hope to publish some of the work resulting from this event at a later stage. Proposals may include:

  • Written texts, both fiction and nonfiction (4500–5000 words)
  • Poetry (up to five poems)
  • Artworks
  • Film
  • Performance
  • Artistic interventions/reflections/provocations (3500-4000 words)

The symposium will be hybrid. Registration is free; lunch (vegan only) will be provided. Please let us know if you have any allergies.

Please submit abstracts and/or short proposals (300 words, with accompanying images—max. 3—as necessary) to and by 31 August, 2023. While work is welcome in any language, we ask that the presentations and abstracts are in English. Please include a short bio for each contributor. Selected contributors will be notified by September 15, 2023.

This event is generously supported by the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities.

[i] Matthew Chrulew and Rick De Vos, ‘Extinction: Stories of Unravelling and Reworlding’, Cultural Studies Review 25.1 (2019): 23–28, 24.

[ii] Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Lively Ethography: Storying Animist Worlds’, Environmental Humanities 8.1 (2016): 77–94, 91.

[iii] Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Slowly ~ Writing into the Anthropocene’, TEXT 20 (2013): 1–14.

[iv] Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[v] John Kinsella, ‘Not the Postage Stamp of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle!’, Red Room Poetry (2020).

[vi] Harriet Hawkins, For Creative Geographies: Geography, Visual Arts and the Making of Worlds (Milton Park & New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 6.

[vii] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought beyond Representation (London: Palgrave, 2009).

Workshop CFP // Exploring an Urban Blue Humanities

Bristol Marina - Celuici, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Bristol Marina – Celuici, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

12-13 October 2023

In-person and online

Although they take up only about three percent of the earth’s surface, cities are now home to the majority of humanity. Many of these cities sit on coasts; 24 of the 37 megacities, for example, are coastal. While many of them have storied ports and some in the post-industrial west have undergone redevelopment of old docks and waterfronts into new residential, business and entertainment districts, there is much less appreciation of their nearshore and subtidal environments as necessarily and intimately part of their histories and cultures.

Urban communities imagine and use their nearshore environments in many ways. They see a dumping site for sewage and wastes, a reservoir for their household and industrial effluents. They enjoy beaches, rock pools, scenic cliffs, vistas, and dunes. They enjoy the presence and benefits of seagrass meadows, mangroves, wetlands, and other swampy areas. They delight in non-human animals, birds, seals, dolphins, and others. They contend with dynamic mudflats and tidal flats. They ‘reclaim’ land, moving earth and rock for new homes and infrastructure. They engineer the coast to prevent disaster and damage. They build massive ports and dredge the seabed to channel the movement of commodities and enlarge their economies.

This workshop aims to bring together scholars, artists, and practitioners working on ‘the urban’ and marine/coastal themes within environmental humanities and blue humanities frameworks. We hope to generate an interdisciplinary discussion about the relationships and imaginaries that urban residents and communities develop with their nearshore marine environments. The city is a key site of environmental impacts and climate risks, but can it also be a site for solutions and sustainable futures? How does the marine environment fit into what are often terra-centric visions of city futures and the urban condition? Are ‘smart’ cities and ‘big data’ attentive to the marine world?

We invite papers which address the broad theme of ‘urban blue humanities’ from any place, time, and disciplinary or methodological vantage point within the environmental humanities.


Dr Alessandro Antonello, Flinders University

Dr Paul Merchant, University of Bristol


To propose a paper, please send an abstract of 200-300 words and a brief biography to Alessandro Antonello ( by 9th July 2023. We expect most papers will be 20-minute presentations, but we are also eager to encourage and encounter presentations in other modes and forms.

Organisation details

The workshop will take place both in-person at the University of Bristol and through Zoom.


This symposium is made possible by a British Academy Visiting Fellowship and support from the University of Bristol and Flinders University. We hope to be able to provide a financial contribution towards travel and accommodation for up to 15 participants from outside Bristol.


Dr Alessandro Antonello

Ancient writings on trees and their relevance today – Jim Pratt

New on The Pen and the Plough, Dr Pippa Marland’s (English, University of Bristol) blog, Jim Pratt considers ancient writings on trees and their contemporary relevance.

East Coker elm, 2
Elm tree, Ulmus minor subspecies at East Coker, UK, 2008. Ptelea @ Wikimedia Commons

Imagine yourself a squaddie in the Roman Army of occupation of Scotland around 170 AD, stationed at Trimontium, adjacent to the River Tweed. You have been ordered out of the fort to collect firewood: a crucial resource in a Border’s winter for the five hundred or so auxiliaries from central or eastern Europe or Asia Minor. Your horse-drawn two-wheeled cart (carrus) with a safe working load of half a tonne is very overloaded. As you turn into the gate, the cart jumps out of the groove worn in the stones at the entrance, there is a very loud crack and one of the wheels buckles. The cart collapses, spreading the logs onto the frozen ground. The load is more valuable than the cart, so the broken wheels are removed and (because the carpenter is away) are thrown into a pit, covered with soil to hide them, and forgotten. That is, until about 1910 when they were  excavated, still in an extraordinary state of preservation, by an Edinburgh solicitor still in an extraordinary state of preservation. [1]

Read the full post on the Pen and the Plough.

A vegetal world? Exploring ‘The Work That Plants Do’

James Palmer (School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol) introduces a new collection of essays, The Work That Plants Do: Life, Labour and the Future of Vegetal Economies (Transcript, 2021).

Are we living in a vegetal world? Plants are increasingly recognised as sensate, communicative, world-making beings. At the same time, more hope than ever is being pinned on them to address environmental, social and economic challenges – whether through rising interest in nature-based climate solutions, plant-based diets, biotechnological innovations, or beyond. What kinds of connections exist between these philosophical and instrumental views of plant agency? And what relations do they bear to the crisis of capitalism?

In a new collection co-edited by Marion Ernwein (The Open University) and two Bristol geographers – Franklin Ginn and James Palmer – environmental humanities scholars from the UK, US, France and Australia shine a critical light on evolving understandings of the nature and potentials of vegetal life under contemporary capitalism. Drawing on diverse case studies, The Work That Plants Do asks what kinds of work plants do in capitalist economies today. Contributors to the book investigate the fraught processes through which plants are turned into commodities, put to work, or enrolled in projects of social and environmental reproduction. Specific chapters delve into cases ranging from the craft horticultural practices undergirding annual ‘Wisteria Festivals’ in Japan through to laboratory-based succulent conservation in the US, and from the metabolic activities of grape vines in the capitalist viticulture through to the ‘shady work’ performed by urban trees in the increasingly overheated urban environments of north Australia.

If a core ambition of the book is to explore the theoretical and political implications of diverse recognitions of plant agency in contemporary capitalism, an equally central concern is to insist that plants’ alterity – their difference – makes a difference. To attend critically to the capacities of plants is, the book aims to show, not simply a case of extending the existing tools of critical political economy or multispecies studies to a new empirical domain. Rather, the book suggests that plants require new concepts and ways of thinking – about work and labour, about the driving purpose of economies themselves, and indeed about the relationships that should operate between productivity and vitality, growth and life.

Ultimately, the book argues that a closer attention to the heterogenous agencies of plants might serve not only to enrich understandings of capitalism itself, but potentially also to catalyse new forms of resistance to its logics.

The Work That Plants Do: Life, Labour and the Future of Vegetal Economies is published by transcript Verlag and can be purchased directly from the publisher or via their US distributor, Columbia University Press.


Mosslands: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bog

Aneurin Merrill-Glover, a second-year PhD student at the University of Manchester, introduces his research on the peat mosses of early modern Lancashire. Aneurin’s research is funded by the ESRC North West Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership. You can follow him on twitter @AMerrillGlover

My PhD focusses on the mossland landscapes of early modern Lancashire; in particular on the mossland Complex around Chat Moss, to the west of Manchester. I’m supervised by Prof. Sasha Handley of the University of Manchester, Dr John Morgan of the University of Bristol, and Mike Longden of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust.

Cadishead Moss. Photo: Aneurin Merrill-Glover

A mossland, or moss, is the name given to a peat bog in the north of England, so named for the distinctive Sphagum genus of mosses which populate the mossland surface. These landscapes underwent transformative change through drainage and ‘improvement’ at the end of the eighteenth century. Approximately two percent of the lowland raised peat bogs of historic Lancashire survive in a salvageable condition. This was devastating for the plant and animal life which inhabited the mosslands, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust are dedicated to rehabilitating the mosslands and their wildlife. The most recent example of this was the Manchester Argus (large heath) butterfly, locally extinct for one hundred and fifty years, which was reintroduced in May of 2020. Such tales of ecological calamity are common sights in the histories of English wetlands. The significantly larger East Anglian Fens and Somerset Levels underwent comparable transformations; and have engendered significantly more scholarly attention. This study thus provides timely regional reservations to narratives of national environmental change. Although the mosslands have been characterised as ‘wasteland’, my thesis is demonstrating that they were productive landscapes for those that lived on them. For instance, the peat which makes up the substance of a bog has been used for millenia as a source of fuel.

The unique wetland landscape fostered unique management practices in the communities which lived on them. A manor court was a local court which resolved small-scale agricultural disputes, and their records are central to my understanding of the historical mossland. Like much of the ‘wasteland’ in early modern England, the mosslands were held in common by the locals. This meant that though they were nominally owned by the Lord of the Manor, the locals retained certain use rights. These rights included the digging of peat, and the pasturing of animals on the mosses, and were regulated by the manor courts. The courts also appointed specialised officers to ensure that the mossland landscape was being properly maintained, known as ‘moss reeves’. The large amount of standing water on the mosslands acted as a spur to cooperative action, and much of the moss reeves’ time was spent ensuring that peat diggings were filled back in, and drainage ditches were maintained. The majority of literature on historical commons has been preoccupied with their role in gating access to a resource, or determining the level of that access. This finding thus demonstrates the power of adding an environmental dimension to historical inquiry.

Lancashire Archives, Lancashire County Council, DDTr/Box 91 Barton-upon-Irwell Court Book, 15 January 1718

These manorial court records make up the main body of my source base for this doctorate, and they provide a useful insight into the lowest level of legal dispute resolution in early modern England. Occasionally, they even offer slightly amusing narratives of flagrant illegality. A William Cheetham found himself before a Worsley court in 1688 for unlicensed construction of a shippon [cattle shed] on an area of common land. This was a crime in and of itself, however a family member, Richard Cheetham was also presented in front of that court. Richard’s crime was ‘pulinge downe a shippon & Selling the wood onto William Cheetham & haveing noe License or Leave soe to doe’. This family scheme to steal an entire shed would be appalling were it not so deliciously ambitious. Protecting the integrity of common land from unauthorised encroachments was a key component of the court’s role, and symptomatic of its role in ensuring that the collective interest was prioritised over the individual.

A bog is an anathema to our classificatory order ‘predicated on a […] distinction between land and sea’

My PhD is the fruit of a partnership between the University of Manchester and the modern-day custodians of the mosslands, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. As the modern-day custodians of the mosslands, the Lancashire Wildlife Trust want to use the historical dimension to engage local communities with the importance and fragility of the mossland landscape. The LWT face vandalism on many of their sites, for instance through destruction of fencing, illegal off-roading, illicit agriculture, and arson. Putting these issues into historical context may help to ameliorate these strained relationships. Further, in order to reintroduce a species to the mosslands, the LWT are often required to provide evidence that the species inhabited the landscape historically. An environmental history of the mossland landscape is uniquely positioned to assist with this. The partnership also gives me unique opportunities to go out and work on the mosses myself. This gave me access to the extensive knowledge and experience of the LWT staff and volunteers, which has been invaluable in developing my understandings of the historical mossland. Finally, first-hand experience of the mosses has also helped me to develop my understanding of the unintuitive mechanics of a wetland. A bog is an anathema to our classificatory order ‘predicated on a […] distinction between land and sea’, in Rod Giblett’s irresistible phrase.[i] Being out on the mosses helped me to begin to subvert this dichotomy, which is a key step in imagining any wetland, historical or otherwise.

[i] Rod Giblett, Postmodern wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996), p. 4.

When Canton Met London: A Botanical Bridge in the Work of John Bradby Blake, 1766-1773

Josepha Richards’ postdoctoral research explores the archives of an 18thcentury British botanist – John Bradby Blake – whose personal project was to make Chinese plants better known in Britain and its colonies. She explains this early attempt to compile a Chinese “flora”, how he relied on the help of Chinese to gather information and what were the wider consequences of his work (notably on the environment of British American colonies). 

In the 1770s, the English trader John Bradby Blake made one of the earliest systematic attempts to document the diversity of Chinese plants, based on careful observations of the material he was able to access while based in China. His time there coincided with the operation of the Canton System (1757-1842), when Guangzhou (Canton), along with nearby Macao, was the only harbour open to Westernerswanting to trade with China.

John Bradby Blake appears to have been a self-taught botanist prior to becoming   a trader with the British East India Company in 1766. He put this expertise to work shortly after he began his duties in Guangzhou as ‘supercargo’. From the start, Blake’s goal was to use his spare time in the off-trade season to collect the plants that he encountered, many of which were little known in Europe at that time. Before embarking for China, Blake had met with eminent naturalists such as Daniel Solander and John Ellis in London, who advised on using the recently created Linnaean system to classify previously unknown Chinese plants.

Painting of the Tallow tree in the Blake collection, Oak Spring Garden Foundation

Around 1771, Blake started to produce drawings and notes for his Chinese “flora”. He chose the plants he wished to include based on the material to which he had access in Guangzhou, and by comparing those plants with others described in several Western botanical books that he had brought with him. Much information also came from the translation of Chinese botanical books such as the classic Chinese book of medicinal plants, the Bencao Gangmu(Compendium of Materia Medica). Whenever he could, he also obtained seeds of certain plants of particular interest and planted them, following advice from local Chinese garden owners and gardeners. Blake also commissioned and worked closely with a Chinese artist named Mak Sau to produce realistic, scientifically accurate, drawings of the plants, often including different stages of their growth, for example both flowers and fruits. 

Blake regularly sent seeds to England to his father, a retired East India Company ship’s captain. Blake senior then distributed the seeds to recipients across Britain: not only to major institutions, such as the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, but also to commercial plant nurseries in London. Among those who received seeds were also several correspondents in the developing British American colonies.[i]The plants that Blake was interested in were diverse, and included several ornamentals such as the sought-after Camellia, but Blake seems to have been especially focused on plants with practical uses such as Chinese medicinal plants, or plants with economic uses (dye, food crops, wax).

The British American and Caribbean colonies were particularly eager for any new economic crops. It is no surprise then that the plant which among all of Blake’s findings had the widest environmental impact, was one sent to the American South and Caribbean: the Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera sebiferaL.), used by the Chinese to produce a form of vegetable wax. Not only did Blake take lengthy notes on how the Chinese grew the plant and processed it in order to produce wax; but he also commissioned a series of detailed paintings and sent them with seeds, via London, all the way to South Carolina, Georgia, and the St. Johns River in Florida in the American colonies, as well as St. Vincent in the Caribbean. The tallow tree did very well in the American colonies, and Blake is therefore indirectly responsible for encouraging further exploration of its use in the 19thcentury. Unfortunately, the species turned out to be pernicious invasive with negative environmental impacts.

Blake’s contributions – had they come to full fruition – would have been a major contribution to Western knowledge of Chinese plants. Also, by taking Chinese books as references he clearly took Chinese botanical knowledge seriously. His papers allow for a rare insight into the dynamic between Chinese go-betweens and Western botanists in the 18thand even 19thcentury. Indeed,  without the help of Chinese translators, gardeners, gatherers and wealthy garden owners, no Western botanist could have undertaken the kind of project that Blake was attempting. 

Blake’s project was cut short by his early death in 1773. Around 1775, Whang Ah Tong, a trade intermediary who knew English and who appears to have helped Blake with translations while he was in Canton, returned Blake’s papers and paintings back to his father in England. Some of the drawings were also either acquired by, or given to, Sir Joseph Banks (now in the Natural History Museum, London) and these were used by Banks used to assist the plant collectors he sent to China in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Unfortunately, the 19thcentury saw intensified xenophobia and prejudice in Western relations with China, which led them to discount local Chinese knowledge and proved an impediment to more open Sino-Western botanical exchange. Although forgotten after his death, the reappearance of John Bradby Blake’s work in the twenty first century offers a rare glimpse of an earlier more positive dynamic in early Sino-Western cultural and scientific exchanges.