Friday, December 23, 2016

Terrain


Forthcoming in Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, edited by Anand Pandian and Cymene Howe (2017, Punctum).

           The wind was strong and steady, regularly shaking up the wooden structure of Martín’s home while we were inside talking and occasionally pausing to feel the power of that unruly atmosphere. Gushes of air and dust occasionally got inside, for the house’s door-less entrance was covered by a tarp that every now and then relented to the air’s pressure. That opening also let us see clouds of dust churning wildly outside. Those swarms of dust briefly receded to reveal some of Martín’s cattle fifty meters away, only to form again constellations of particles blurring most objects and their forms in a haze.

            I was in Salta Forestal, a rural area located 80 kilometers east of the town of Las Lajitas and one of the hotspots of the soy frontier in northern Argentina. This was once a heavily forested part of the western Gran Chaco —the tropical lowlands that encompass much of northern Argentina, western Paraguay, and southeast Bolivia. But when the price of soy rose dramatically in the early 2000s and led to the Argentine soy boom, businessmen and officials saw those forests inhabited by campesinos as available space to be turned into soy fields. Bulldozers, often supported with armed civilians and the police, began pushing forth against the forest and its human and non-human inhabitants. As the wind raged outside, Martín and Ana, his wife, described how a decade earlier they had confronted and stopped eighteen bulldozers that were crushing a forest two kilometers from their home. With the help of over 200 other residents from a wide area, they set up barricades and forced the drivers to abandon the machines. After a long legal dispute, a sympathetic judge eventually ruled in their favor, for Martin’s family was able to prove that despite lacking legal titles they had been living there since the 1930s —which under Argentine law gives families ownership rights. Their struggle managed to save 5,000 hectares of forests where they raise 200 head of cattle. But this was a localized victory that could not stop the deforestation of surrounding areas. The forests that Martín and Ana’s family saved from destruction, in this regard, are now surrounded by fields planted with genetically-modified soy and regularly sprayed with herbicides.
            As I was listening to Martín and Ana’s accounts, our conversation kept returning to the power of the wind. “This wind is unbelievable!” Ana exclaimed, raising her voice as the noise of things battered outside by the wind increased. “It’s because of the fields,” Ana said again. Martín nodded. They explained that winds like that did not exist when the area was covered with forests. With most of the forests gone, they said, powerful winds appear out of nowhere, blowing through those open fields and scattering huge amounts of soil into the air. On windy days, blue skies acquire a brownish tone. Without the forests, as a woman in another town put it, people now have to brave “tierrales horribles,” “horrible dust clouds.” The air is so full of microscopic particles that residents suffer epidemics of allergies previously unknown in the region. Everybody agrees that the air is drier and hotter, rains are scarcer, and droughts are longer and more intense. Scientists have confirmed this perception, for the destruction of forests meant the disappearance of the moisture that forests absorb and release into the atmosphere.
             Local people’s perception that the very texture of space has changed makes apparent that the soy boom has created much more than political, cultural, and territorial transformations. Those socio-political transformations have, indeed, been profound. What once was peasant territory formed by families sharing the forest as a commons has become a largely deforested, depopulated, privatized constellation of mechanized farms that produce for the world market. As a result, the sensibilities of residents forced to resettle in towns are now under the influence of urbanized patterns of consumption and new class inequalities. But something else has changed in the region: the ambient texture, forms, and rhythms of terrain. The tactile materiality of terrain, in particular, has adopted new levels of ambient thickness: that is, of palpable intensities that in the form of wind gushes, heat waves, or dust affect people’s mobility, visibility, and sensory experience. This ambient density has been made all the more intense by the impact of climate change, of which deforestation by industrial agriculture is one of the most important contributors. 
            Global warming challenges human-centered views of places, landscapes, and territories as socially configured spatial fields for a simple reason: it confronts us with the vast, uncontrollable physicality of terrain. I propose “terrain” for our lexicon of the future because only this term admits that all actually-existing places have volumes, forms, and textures that are irreducible and indifferent to human practice, and whose dynamism becomes most apparent in the elusive physicality of the wind. And the air moves because we live in a planet in motion that rhythmically exposes the ocean and the atmosphere to the heat of the sun, creating temperature imbalances, flows, and currents in a state of flux.
            In the most materialist sense of the term, “climate change” names the atmospheric process whereby the planetary terrain is thickening: that is, increasing the intensity of the physical pressures it imposes on human bodies and on all life forms through more intense heat, droughts, storms, or rising sea levels. Terrain, like the deforested terrains of the western Argentine Chaco, is thereby not a rigid “thing” but a figure of multiplicity and becoming: a processual, turbulent field of trajectories, objects, and pressure points that are atmospheric in nature. Atmospheric events, so-often reified as “the weather” or “nature,” are thereby nothing but part of the ever-shifting physicality of terrain. And this is a bodily materiality crucial to understanding what global warming entails for life on Earth. “The era of humans,” or “the Anthropocene,” might be the era, ironically, when modern humans learn to appreciate, and fear, the power of terrain.



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