Invasive species are everywhere: rabbits infest the Australian outback, kudzu vines entangle the southern United States, Asian carp clog the Chicago canal system. Often, these non-native species have been introduced to new ecosystems by humans, and they can cause massive damage. But in Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology, Clinton Crockett Peters asks us to think about them in different ways. How does our treatment of these species reflect our treatment of other humans? What does it say about our psychology? What do we owe them, and how can we live with them? After all, they’re here to stay, despite our best (and worst) efforts to eradicate them.
Most chapters of Pandora’s Garden—many of which have previously been published as essays—focus on particular organisms. Not all of the species are invasive. Peters’s interest is broader: he writes about “misfits of ecology.” He visits a wildlife preserve in Florida, where he observes endangered Florida panthers and talks to their handlers. Outside of Lubbock, Texas, he rides along with Lynda Watson, who “recycles” prairie dogs, catching them in places where they are unwanted and relocating them to a state park. He writes a short history of Godzilla, and asks why humans are attracted to monsters. Other chapters relate stories about snow monkeys in Texas, rattlesnakes in the World’s Largest Rattlesnake Roundup, and cockroaches everywhere.
But Peters is just as interested in humans, and the lives we lead alongside other species. He writes vividly of the people who wrangle, handle, rescue, move, and kill animals. And a parallel tale is woven through the book: Peters’s own struggle to understand his father’s slow death from cancer.
I recently spoke with Peters over Skype.
The Rumpus: The subtitle your book is “Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology.” Can you talk about how you think about misfits?
Clinton Crockett Peters: A lot of people identify with misfits. As a kid, I always felt like a misfit, didn’t really get along with kids in my school. And looking back as an adult, I can understand why—insecurities, blah blah blah, and that dual perspective I decided to put on these other creatures that seemed to get a lot of hate. Is that hate deserved? I don’t like cockroaches. But I want to analyze why. Why do I not like cockroaches? Cockroaches can cause asthma in kids, and they look gross. But why they look gross has more to do with us and what we consider normal. Something is only a misfit because something is pushing it out of the system or the community, right? The community is deciding what the misfit is. In this case, the community of humanity. What’s more fascinating is we are giving rise to these things. Cockroaches only exist because of people. We’ve had cockroaches since we lived in caves. They have found fossilized cockroaches in cave dwellings.
That connectedness between humanity and these misfits I find really interesting. There’s been a lot of talk about humans as the most invasive species, and I want to move away from the guilt trip that I think that brings, because I don’t think guilt trips lead very far. I’m thinking of self-reflection, looking at a cockroach as a mirror, looking at something like a rattlesnake as a mirror to understand our own psychology and our place in the global ecological system. Mass extinctions have existed way before us and they give rise to new life forms. Not to say that it’s okay that we’re causing one, but what does it lead to? What does it mean about who we are? Can mass extinction be conscious? Those are questions and threads I was interested in exploring.
Rumpus: The book is really effective at doing that, picking up one strand and examining it. Like the chapter on rattlesnakes, for example, and the way we see them as serious threats, and then treat them in such an inhumane way.
There’s a deep tension between the idea of a set ecological system and the idea of mutability. And it can be a hard space to be in, to think about how we deal with the problems without retreating into what you call puritanism.
Peters: Let me just give the circle-of-lifers some credit. I think like having the idea of a stable tapestry to return to, or having a goal to get to, is helpful for restoration. Part of my background is in environmental stuff as an undergraduate. I was part of this group that started an environmental group at Texas Tech, and then I was an outdoor guy for a while, so I’ve been steeped in environmentalism and environmental theory. I have a lot sympathy for people who want to fight the good fight and stop destruction and preserve life. One of the ways they do that is having this blueprint for what we can get back to. And understanding that, I still agree with the scientists that the blueprint is inadequate. So, how can we move forward? What can we do with what we have now?
A big example for me is kudzu. Kudzu is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. Kudzu is part of the South, it’s part of Gothic literature, it shades things, it darkens things, it’s taking over. I think it’s part of who we are and our ecosystems at this point. So how can we go forward as far as thinking about kudzu in our blueprints? And how is the world going to continue to change? Because we’re not going to go back to 1491 and European arrival. Even if we want to go back to 1900, that’s not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean that life isn’t still worth helping out. I don’t think I have an answer for exactly how that’s going to work. Considering these other life forms and how they actually are on their own merits is a start.
Rumpus: So, you wrote about Godzilla. I wanted to ask, where’d that come from?
Peters: I’ve been into Godzilla since I was a kid. I watched Godzilla when I was young, like five or six, and it left an impression. It was my first monster film. And, you know, he’s the ultimate invasive species. In an earlier draft I spent a lot more time on a natural history of Godzilla, which didn’t end up making the final cut because it was kind of boring. This is not a real creature. But I liked how this gigantic monster shows how we project onto the world.
A big book I was influenced by, in terms of monsters, is David Quammen’s Monster of God. His idea is that we still see ourselves as prey. So there’s maybe a part of our psychology that still thinks it’s in monster-avoidance training, and we watch monsters because the idea of having something wanting to eat us is still there. I think that’s what Godzilla shows us. We still see ourselves as prey. I think that it impacts how we think, how we look at the world, right? As a danger, when clearly, that’s not the case. Clearly, we are the Godzilla. E. O. Wilson has argued ants are still the dominant species. I guess that’s perhaps true—who am I to argue with E. O. Wilson? But when you have mega cities and lines stretched across the ocean and satellites, it’s hard to argue that we’re not the mega-monster. But it’s interesting how we see ourselves as still vulnerable to the world. And I think that impacts how we treat other creatures.
Rumpus: There’s definitely a sense on an individual level that we are vulnerable. A natural disaster can affect anyone, or even a large subset of the population. But in aggregate, it’s pretty clear that we are invulnerable.
Peters: I’m really glad you said that. I think I was being a bit too reductive. Quammen talks about this in Monster of God. Some people are still threatened by predators, like people who live near crocodiles and lions. I should limit that to first-world people.
Rumpus: I was just thinking in terms of the individual body. Anyone’s body is kind of vulnerable still, so that attraction to monsters is a reminder that we are vulnerable.
Peters: And monsters are fun. Let me just speak personally here instead of speaking for all humanity, because who am I to do that? I find big predators, big animals really cool. I think it’s an awe, it’s a gut instinct, it’s an almost reverence that I don’t think is justified, but it’s there. I think it connects to Godzilla very implicitly.
The stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who played Godzilla, boned up for his role by going to the Ueno Zoo to watch bears. So when you’re watching Godzilla, you’re watching a guy acting like a bear.
The animality there is very on the surface.
A big picture thing with the book is the animality of humanity. That is not like I’m saying, “Oh, we’re animals.” I’m saying no, we are still part of ecological processes and evolution. And, you know, our DNA is ninety-eight percent chimpanzee, so we’re still close to our cousins.
Rumpus: You also address the divide between ourselves and animals.
Peters: I’m sympathetic. People have a lot on their plates. People have kids and jobs and taxes and family members and illnesses of their own, so to add on top of that creatures who don’t speak their language, who don’t have the same pheromones, I understand that’s a lot to do. And the other thing is, in an ecological system, I’m not sure how much sympathy or empathy other creatures have for each other. A lion, when it’s eating a gazelle, is it thinking about the gazelle’s feelings?
Life has kept us around for a very long time, and that’s just maybe how we have to survive on our own. But what makes us human is that we can project our emotions onto others and reciprocate that with empathy. We still are fundamentally animalistic, and we need to—if we can—try to be better than ourselves.
Rumpus: You referenced Donna Haraway a couple times in the book. Has she been a big influence on the way you think?
Peters: Time and time again. I read When Species Meet and I was like, “Oh my god, this is great, this blew me away,” and then I saw her talk at the ASLE conference a couple years ago, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. She was one of the keynotes, and again she blew me away. The way she was talking about species made me rethink how I was thinking about cockroaches.
Another person is Doreen Massey. Massey wrote this book called For Space. Her idea is that there are no stable systems, there are no stable communities, there are no stable ecologies. For her, everything is like a tube station—she’s British—and so everything is a tube that’s going to go somewhere else. So, right now, I’m in my bedroom. My laptop’s going to go somewhere else, the air is going to go somewhere, I’m going to go somewhere, all my cells are going to break down and go other places. Everything is only in the station for a specific period of time and is soon going to move off. That’s just what everything is. That’s what space is. When I read it, I think I was still steeped in, this place is stable, that place is stable, this ecology is stable, and reading her work and listening to paleobotanists and paleontologists really influenced how I think about stability and ecology.
Rumpus: When you were working on these essays, did you think of them as a book or did you eventually decide to collect them together?
Peters: This started off as my MFA thesis. I was taking an elective in biogeography, which is the study of why things live where they do, and why don’t other things. We watched this documentary about invasive species. There was this image of rabbits carpeting the Australian outback, and it was incredible. And then the next image was this mountain of dead rabbits they’d hunted. It was three stories tall. Hundreds and hundreds of rabbits that they had killed. I was just fascinated. How did this happen?
The thesis started off talking about assisted species migration, when humans have moved species and how that’s resulted, which usually hasn’t been good. But maybe it can be. Like in the stinking cedar essay. Some people are trying to do this. Can we do it well? The answer is maybe. Maybe we should. So the thesis was about assisted species migrations, but I realized that I didn’t really have a book with that. It was too narrow. So I broadened it to think about misfits. Then I added in cockroaches and carp, and then Godzilla came later. And the last essay I wrote was the prairie dog one, because I felt like I needed something that was softer. I don’t think I’d had a rodent, and I wanted to do a rodent.
And it’s my hometown, it’s Lubbock, so I get to talk about Lubbock a little bit, and profile somebody who I deeply admire. Lynda is a really fun character. I think what she’s doing is really interesting, and maybe something to look at and emulate.
Rumpus: One of the things that struck me about this book is that you have really great characters. I feel like there are a lot of people who are outsized characters in environmental studies and ecology. Do you see a link there?
Peters: I wonder if it’s the whole misfit thing. I think people who get interested in animals and ecological systems, we probably were the misfits in schools. And so are writers, right? So maybe that’s part of it. We tend to not be the most socially well-adjusted. Maybe with ecological-minded people, environmental-type people, something drives them out.
Rumpus: You write very personally about your father, and your experiences growing up, and I wondered what it was like for you to braid your personal experiences into more objective reflections on the environment and our changing ecosystems.
Peters: My impulse with this book wasn’t to get too personal. I was trying to look outside of the self. But I found that some of these other things that I had written that were personal had a place in the book. For one, it revealed who I was, revealed my angle, in case the reader was wondering, as I sometimes wonder when I read a book that’s super objective.
But also, I feel it does connect. The last essay, “The Genealogy of Extinction,” went through a lot of edifications to get it right. Mass extinctions are something I was really interested in, and then slow death by cancer is another kind of mass extinction. Getting to this idea of humans as the ultimate invasive species, which I talk about when I talk about the mass extinction that we’re a part of, is an interesting thing to discuss in terms of loss and personal tragedy. It also makes that interspecies loss feel more personal, or at least it makes it more interesting. How can we understand these things that are going on when we’re a part of them? That was my answer.