Glimpsing the new normal
On Kristen Gallagher’s ‘85% True/Minor Ecologies’
Writing that tends to take an anthropocentric consideration of the physical world — e.g., a traditional nature writing that privileges human observation — implies a certain hierarchical separation between subject and material. It is the same assumption that leads to the glaring dismissal of other actants, especially those considered to be alien (i.e., not human). When the fantasy of privileged human experience is dissolved, there is an equitable condition, where people and their environments are slipped, or perhaps coerced, into substance. In Kristen Gallagher’s book 85% True/Minor Ecologies, this synthesis is not a welcome regression into pastoral nostalgias, but rather a perpetual horror show.
The book takes place along the shores of modern-day Florida, which Gallagher encounters while on pilgrimage to Zora Neale Hurston. Although consisting of a hybrid structure that incorporates folklore, journalism, poetry, report data, and archival documentation, the core text consists of nine conspiracy-laden short narratives, each depicting a specific terror: raptured seabird populations, islands infested with cannibal snakes, poisonous supertoad invasions, sea stars tearing apart their own flesh, friendly birds pecking out the brains of their enemies. It’s the “85% true” that initially grabs your attention. Are these disturbing tales real?
Apparently gleaned from a Barry Levinson quote which appears as an epigraph, the number eighty-five is arbitrary, or at least it doesn’t appear to be based on an exact formula; rather, Gallagher uses it as a reference point within a mélange of possible facts and fictions oozing together and obscuring components. The information presented in 85% True/Minor Ecologies is unbelievable, whether it’s true or not; to that end, however, Gallagher provides clues, the most telling of which occur as early as the edition notice, where she references two articles with particularly sinister titles: “The Baffling Gruesome Plague that Is Causing Sea Stars to Tear Themselves to Pieces” and “Cannibal Snakes Deepen Cedar Key Island Mystery.” She also thanks several Floridians who helped her with her research. Some, if not all, of the monstrosities encountered here appear to be based on actual sources, but there is a catch. In the second narrative, “Disaster-by-Numbers,” which is presented as a monologue, Gallagher provides an insight that serves as a beacon for the rest of the text:
Some days I think the only thing real is the coming flood, that all the other stories are just distractions from that fact.
Stories, when taken as fictitious accounts, often times prevent us from realizing the potency of the subject matter; however, Gallagher uses stories — which feel personal even though she is never identified as the narrator — to expose very real danger. Gallagher’s “flood” refers to a sort of gnarled creation process whereby unpredictable evolutionary responses to untenable factors end up generating new, albeit terrifying, environments and organisms. In light of this news, the reader may clutch the possibility that the terrors found along the way are only fantasy, like a frightened child with a teddy bear, because as the form remains unclear, the reader can never know whether or not the narratives are fictional or direct reports. For example, the account of the mysterious disappearance of 20,000 birds from the Seahorse Key, an island nature conservancy off the coast of northwest Florida, takes place in a casual conversation between a scientist and a bartender. The exchange between these two ephemeral characters (we meet them once in the beginning of the book and never see them again, perhaps sucked up into an unknowable vortex like the seabirds) reveals alarming information that the reader may consider to be fictional, even though it’s most likely authentic:
“You know Seahorse, right over here?”
“Yeah, sure,” I nod, “All the birds.”
“Not anymore.” Takes a glug of beer. “What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?” Still not understanding.
“I mean that yesterday there were birds, today no birds.” (16)
The scientist admits that the cause is unknown, and the bartender’s response, which appears in italics below the scientist’s speech, reveals that there’s plenty of space in which to speculate agents:
We learned that it wasn’t any of the possible things
So now it’s the impossible things (17)
Gallagher doesn’t explicitly write about causes, only effects that are so heinous that they could result only from something impossible, and thus presumably alien. Via fiction, the possibility to pretend not to know that human activity is the likely culprit is left wide open. But truth stirs in the shadow of each characterization, as the reactions of the bartender and scientist are our reactions, namely confusion, helplessness, and fear — the way we might react when viewing an image of a starving polar bear floating off into oblivion, or hearing about an oil spill, or reading about the rampant abuses of factory farming, or finding a fish strangled in a six-pack ring.
Obscure explanations also feature in “Autodidact Toad Addict,” which describes invasive supertoads who, having escaped confinement through shady dealings gone awry, are now terrorizing South Florida. Gallagher details an episode where one of the toads enters a home through a toilet, and attacks and physically deforms the homeowner. Rumored to be a product of US Sugar’s pest control strategy (i.e., as protection against crop destroying grubs), the toads now threaten to invade the contiguous United States via the sewer system. Still, an authentic cause remains elusive, as we’re provided only with tales of conjecture. But regardless whether these creatures are the product of psychotic science experiments, we know for sure that they are echoes of anthropocentrism. They, too, are reflections of ourselves, suggestive of the fact/fiction dichotomy throughout Gallagher’s text. We, as readers, are never real or true, only hypothetical, but our effects on the other actually do occur. In line with the Georges Perec quote that appears in an epigraph, we are involved in a constant process of “writing” our environment, although the hand may be disembodied and ephemeral, like those of M. C. Escher’s Drawing Hands. The toads have come from elsewhere.
This is indicative of the ghosts that haunt the text: as much as we speculate that human activity has caused all this madness, it’s much too general. There’s an eerie quality to the causal sequence that precedes the advent of the biologically grotesque, as the narratives pose more questions than answers. How exactly did 20,000 seabirds vanish into thin air? What evil genius conspired to manufacture human-attacking supertoads? This sense of the unknown permeates the section titled “Death to Our Friends,” where the narrator’s Airbnb host, Mison Gora, describes a swarm of sea stars feeding on the corpse of another star. Having engaged in obsessive study of sea stars her entire life, Gora is essentially a zoolater, and believes that they wield divine powers. This makes her story even more disturbing, as she watches her sacred animals suffer the throes of a nameless affliction that not only inspires cannibalism but also causes the stars to dismember themselves. The fact that Gora believes in the spiritual properties of these creatures implies that there’s something much more vile occurring than anything that could be misconstrued as natural or human. It’s something that we can’t understand, something spectral and ghoulish flickering just beyond the body horror.
In a section titled “The Codes for Extinction,” Gallagher presents further evidence that this malevolence may be triggered by corporate mechanisms. The narrator has volunteered to assist in a scrub jay census at the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida. During a discussion in which the head scientist of the facility confesses his disdain for a Diane Ackerman article that portrays the scrub jay as friendly and loveable, he reveals personal feelings about the project:
[...] [the birds] aren’t nice, they are stupid and mean unless you have Planters peanuts on you. If you stand back, it’s just another moment in territory, another vector of earth’s story through one bird, and yes, of course it’s human activity that’s forcing them to die off, we all know that, now it’s just a matter of watching it happen and trying to learn everything we can from it. (40)
The head scientist justifies the inevitable extinction of the scrub jay by referring to the birds as “stupid” and “mean,” which are vacant anthropocentric expressions, but this is only to deter the truth of the matter: the birds’ displacement and murder results from the fact that their habitats are located on profitable land. The horror of everyday life is the sealing of various fates according to their economic worth. Here, the judge is big real estate, and the head scientist’s resignation comes from the belief that the reality painted by sociopathic capitalism is normal, which unfortunately, it is. There’s a malicious energy that constitutes the normality of corporatism, and in response, the eerie unknown that plagues Gallagher’s text becomes something like: how might we combat the mysterious force that allows corporations to render environments inhospitable to life as we know it? Appearing like some omnipotent fog or poltergeist, faceless corporate enterprises have inspired more environmental carnage than the worst possible human. Of course, the inability to pin down the specific source ensures that speculation occurs within an asymptotic mythology, a matryoshka-like condition that leads back into the fiction of the text.
Perhaps the most chilling part of the book occurs in the final section, which functions as a sort of epilogue. Formatted as an archival finding aid, it details the documentations of the “Archivist at Sepulcher Headquarters” at an undisclosed time in the future, although we know from the first artifact that it’s at least the year 3032. Describing materials spanning 2011 to 2020, the section suggests grim lingering scars from our present age. Descriptions of various audio, video, and textual artifacts present a mini-slideshow of incidents that echo the previous narratives of the book. We see beached human corpses covered in the bite marks of an unknown creature, people gulping down drug-infested drinking water, giant blood-sucking sea lice, and on and on. Despite the fact that these artifacts are from our own doomed era, Gallagher gives us one last glimpse of the old world by suggesting that someone or something is still present, perhaps even alive, to catalogue them. Of course, we never learn who might be perusing these materials, and the fact that the collection is housed at “Sepulcher Headquarters” is not very promising. We never find out what reality may look like post-3032; after describing a newspaper article about “mysterious lobster deaths,” the text cuts off abruptly, as if the archivist, too, had succumbed to some unspeakable horror.
Gallagher’s writing in 85% True/Minor Ecologies is neither fact nor fiction. It suggests something else as it swaps out the delusion of hierarchical disposition to reveal ecological cesspools and chemical sludges where the constituents are no longer recognizable or extractable. What Gallagher reveals is not any sort of alternate present or possibility, but rather where the shores of anthropocentrism apparently lead: to an ecological palimpsest constantly evolving nightmares. Still, while people manifest as the culprit, human activity appears to be pulled by malevolent forces, often triggered by corporate power, that people don’t necessarily understand or have the capacity to defend against. The terror becomes cliché. Of course, that doesn’t excuse the increasing frequency of environmental and biological catastrophes occurring right before our eyes. If seeing is no longer believing, perhaps the experience of being devoured alive by Gallagher’s mutants will supplant the role of faith.