Benjamin Bateman “Thalia Field’s Unbuilt Fields, or, The Anthropocene’s Slippery (Textual) Surfaces”

Abstract: Thinking with Thalia Field’s Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010), this essay argues that the practice of “surface reading” (advocated by Stephen Best, Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, Rita Felski, and others) should be articulated in closer conversation with the emerging awareness of the Anthropocene’s increasingly unstable environmental surfaces. Field’s collection of prose experiments performs a variety of surface readings of itself at the same time that it documents how the ecological surfaces it visits are both poorly understood and precariously connected to deeper histories that render them fragile and mushy. This essay thus delineates a unique role for the aesthetic–and for both “surface” and “suspicious” interpretive practices–in understanding the historically and physically uneven terrain upon which contemporary populations tread.


In the following essay, I attempt to interface two recent developments in literary theory and studies. Thinking with Thalia Field’s genre-bending Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010), I consider how the increasing recognition of the Anthropocene as an apt appellation for humanity’s emergence as a geological force bears on and yields productive tensions with the call for reading practices driven more by description than by suspicious and critically-engaged interpretation. As I draw inspiration from the gathering consensus that a traditional hermeneutics of suspicion, known for trying to restore to texts the sociohistorical dimensions their operative ideologies conceal, pays insufficient attention to the variety and complexity of textual surfaces, I simultaneously warn that so-called “surface reading” risks sharing with its deep counterparts the faulty assumption that there exists in the first place something like a stable textual surface to either describe or distrust.

Such an assumption, I argue, is particularly misplaced when considering creative works, such as Field’s, that in both content and form work to communicate the difficulty of perceiving and apprehending a surface amidst rapidly changing environmental conditions like those induced by anthropogenic carbon production; and that, moreover, continually connect these oscillating conditions to deep histories of human activity and ecological intervention. In the place of surface analysis, which largely presupposes an (historically) inert surface to be analyzed, Bird Lovers, Backyard demands attention to the manifold ways in which literary texts transitively surface and suppress new meanings as part of a dynamic compositional process whose fluctuations both reflect and bring attention to the Anthropocene’s increasingly unstable geology. As it hews closely to natural and artificial surfaces in prose that concomitantly denies the deepening of human protagonists, Field’s text performs practices of physical and affective flattening that paradoxically arrive at deeper, though surely not perfected, associations with distant histories and invisible environmental inputs. And through these leveling practices the text not only reimagines what literary surfaces can do and undo—including the critic’s exclusive claim to ideological and historical revelation—but also intervenes in salient political and philosophical debates about whether humans can respond to climate change without reasserting the very human exceptionalism, and value of human productivity, that generate planetary peril in the first place.


In their introduction to the special issue of Representations entitled “The Way We Read Now,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus contrast the “surface reading” they advocate with symptomatic readings that, in purporting to uncover the latent truths of a text (truths occluded in part by dominant ideologies rendering class inequality, for example, invisible), endow the critic with special powers of perception and imbue the task of criticism with revolutionary fervor and import. Literary criticism has overestimated its importance, they argue, by acting as if a Marxist reading of a novel or a postcolonial reading of a poem can make a dent in the resilient armatures of capitalism and neocolonialism. Further arguing, “what lies in plain sight is worthy of attention but often alludes observation,” (18) Best and Marcus point to contemporary atrocities, such as Abu Ghraib and Hurricane Katrina, which vividly manifest their brutality and therefore render superfluous the unmasking and demystifying operations of suspicious hermeneutics. Although it is far from clear to me that Hurricane Katrina “showed in ways that required little explication the state’s abandonment of its African American citizens” (2)—as if this abandonment were a done deed rather than an ongoing and centuries-long practice of dispossession coincident with large-scale destruction of natural environments—I take the point that documents of “civilization” often wear their barbarism on their sleeves.

A similar interest in description and surfaces animates Heather Love’s recent ruminations on reading that is “close but not deep.” Love takes her “cue from observation-based social sciences including ethology, kinesics, ethnomethodology and microsociology” in calling for “practices of close attention” that do not “engage the metaphysical and humanist concerns of hermeneutics” (Love 375). Post-humanist criticism, Love avers, contradicts itself from within by exceptionalizing a brilliant individual, the critic, whose ethical insight, powers of witness, and interpretive virtuosity, all of which promise a refuge from the fray if not also the possibility of the fray’s salvation, smuggle humanism in through the backdoor of the master narrative’s supposedly dilapidated house. Like Best and Marcus, Love delivers a reality check to the ethical and political grandiosity of literary studies even as she argues, in language I will later invoke, that the renunciation of depth—of warm feelings, experience, voice, agency, and interiority—might curiously bring us closer, as literary documentarians rather than charismatic critics, to the scenes and situations we seek to understand. The dramatic deflation necessary for this kind of literary study will be difficult, though, because as Rita Felski demonstrates, suspicious reading is every bit as affective as it is analytic (Felski 232) and brings distinctive pleasures to the critic who gets, a la Sherlock Holmes, to don his detective cap and solve the mysteries of a text’s contradictions (Felski 225). If seeking “a latent meaning behind a manifest one,” (Jameson 60) the charge of interpretation according to Fredric Jameson, is not merely a matter of political responsibility but also a source of critical adrenaline and professional self-worth, then returning to the surface threatens to be deflationary in more ways than one.


But perhaps surfaces are not as thin, stationary, and superficial as some of these accounts, including Jameson’s, imply. To be sure, Best and Marcus acknowledge, citing the “New Formalism,” that a textual surface can contain “linguistic density” and “verbal complexity” (in which case surface does not imply simplicity), but for them these qualities do not conduce to depth: “we take surface to mean what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through” (9-10). Putting aside the example of hyperdimensional space, which outstrips my expertise but which also problematizes the idea that surface is necessarily apprehensible and comprehensible, I find it interesting that Best and Marcus, in an introduction one might expect to be exploratory and provisional, “take” so much for granted about textual surfaces, including what they absolutely cannot have and even “insist” upon not having. Their personifying formulation is nonetheless important for suggesting, sort of in the vein of New Criticism, that a text’s surface might provide directions for its interpretation—directions that might very well carry the reader both “through” and around the text to deeper contexts and histories. Love undervalues such internal instructions by hawking the interpretive wares of other disciplines, such as animal behavior, from whose observations Love conveniently removes, lest they imply depth or suspicion, the subtending hypotheses considered to be a hallmark of scientific investigation. If a textual surface can guide a reader’s observations, and if this surface proves a slippery substance with unexpected sinkholes into the past, then its navigation might prove every bit as interesting as the suspicious critic’s detective story.

My point is not to dismiss surface reading nor to contend with all of its methodological manifestations (which are highly varied) in recent criticism but instead to ask how we might apprehend surfaces differently if we emphasize their active properties; that is, if we treat surface as a verb rather than as a noun or an adjective. Just as Bruno Latour, a major influence on theorists of surface reading, argues against adjectival deployments of “social” for their insinuation that the social is a kind of material whose constituent parts we already understand, I suggest that “surface” placed adjectivally in front of “reading” takes “surface” for granted and underemphasizes the fact that different readings, and different styles of reading, “surface” different textual features and characteristics. A textual surface is unstable because of the many interpretive moves that perpetually resurface it but also because it perpetually resurfaces itself as it summons histories, materials, and meanings that bubble up but that also trickle down. Because objects and ideas are continually surfacing, surfaces always contain former depths and depths always contain former surfaces, and the exchange of matter between them is never settled once and for all. It might be better, then, to compare textual surfaces to the spongy texture of quicksand, which can appear solid but which can also quickly give way due not only to standing water—as in puddles formed from precipitation applied to the surface—but also to upwards flowing water from springs concealed below. I like this example, because although we can all grasp the topographical accuracy of saying that the springs lie below, we can also instantly appreciate the difficulty of stabilizing this topography given the presence of the springs’ water on the surface. Surfaces can be porous, and their layers and admixtures of substances and sediments combine multiple geographies and temporalities calling both for close attention—for micro-practices of inspection and observation—and for deep, even suspicious, understanding. What the quicksand metaphor teaches is that even the thinnest surface reading, one that barely seeks traction, can easily slip and sink and become mired in the depths’ unbearably sticky weight.

And what climate change keeps reminding us, or should keep reminding us, is that the ground beneath our feet is less certain than ever, threatened increasingly by droughts, fires, floods, erosion, and various forms of contamination whose animating forces—greenhouse gases—are anything but apparent to the naked eye and only indirectly associated with the havoc they wreak. Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that climate change folds natural history into human history, making the environment no longer a stable (nor even stably rhythmic or stably cyclical) backdrop for human activity but instead an unpredictable phenomenon responsive to and contingent upon that very same activity (Chakrabarty 205). Conceived in terms of surfaces, Chakrabarty’s insights ramify in a number of provocative directions. Disrupted and destabilized (think acidifying oceans, rising sea levels, stalled pressure systems, massive rains unleashed on parched ground, etc.), the environment becomes, at least in a worst-case scenario, pure surface—indecipherable, unmanageable, beyond anticipation and adaptation, a force to be reckoned with in purely reactive and improvisational moves. And yet the ammunition for this violent variability emanates from beneath the surface of things, since the wild weather of the present cannot be immediately attributed to recent carbon output but may instead owe to outputs from yesteryears; in other words, the deforestation of the 19th century might fuel today’s Category 5 hurricane, though not in any straightforward or causal manner. Human history, which has hijacked natural history, cracks through the precarious surfaces of the contemporary moment in part due to the many surfaces it depleted and destroyed as part of agricultural and industrial development. Those previous surfaces, whose integrity was perceived as trivial compared to the promised fecundity of civilizational expansion, turn out to have gone quite deep, in that they were intimately connected to complicated and misunderstood ecological networks of their own time and in that they turned out to bear heavily on futures for which they were cleared to make room. If climate change compels a reconsideration of periodicity, as Tobias Menely has written (479), it also compels a reexamination of what counts as a surface and what can be counted, and with what risks, as merely superficial.


Thalia Field’s prose merits inquiry for its assiduous attention to natural surfaces but also its constant reminders that this attention does not necessarily yield understanding—in no small part because such surfaces are increasingly unsteady. Bird Lovers, Backyard—less a novel than a series of environmentally-focused prose experiments—begins with two questions etched in a journal of sorts, “What is it exactly to perform philosophy?” and “Instead of narrative build-up, what if we have Icarus crawling right into the water—wings on, indifferent to flight—skipping past the story-part to lie down in the ending?” (1). Whether these questions emanate from something like a third-person narrator or instead from the “we” on which this opening chapter centers, a group of people gathered to brainstorm solutions to their unnamed city’s pigeon problem, is unclear, but they intertwine in the dual suggestions that responses to environmental crises should be as philosophical as they are practical and that genuine contemplation of ecological distress might require not the soaring heights of human heroics but rather the relinquishment of ascendant activity in exchange for surface intimacy. Of course this opening gambit doubles as a narrative dilemma, for how can the story itself get off the ground if its animating ethos encourages it to settle down and acquiesce to its conclusion. Jan Baetens and Eric Trudel read Field’s book as a quintessential “metanarrative”—a story about how stories are told, particularly stories about animals—but they fail to account adequately for this frontally foregrounded challenge to storytelling in the first place. To wit, to what degree is the act of storytelling, particularly as it partakes of a novelistic genre known for building its characters and dramatizing its plotlines, complicit with the logics and priorities of growth, of rapid inflation and development, driving environmental destruction and threatening human and non-human animals alike with eventual extinction?

Field’s answer will not be a fictionalized polemic in the vein of Barbara Kingsolver nor a tragicomedy of human error in the vein of Jonathan Franzen, but instead something less swaggering and confident—a series of provisional observations, perceptual modes, and marginalized perspectives whose attention to neglected surfaces and whose muted affect answer and anticipate Heather Love’s call for “close” readings that abjure rich subjective interiors and yet also allow them access, precisely because of their interpretive restraint and critical humility, to these same surfaces in their deepest dimensions. Field’s use of prose poetry, journal entries (some very brief), and choppy chapters only loosely related to one another connects her to a modernist tradition of formal experimentation but uniquely ties a key feature of modernist and postmodernist stylistics, fragmentation, to the semi-expression of both fragmented ecosystems and fragmented publics no longer capable of apprehending themselves as collected and collective agencies. This sense of fragmentation partners in Field’s work with an attenuated affect deployed less to register the “waning of affect” considered a symptom of postmodern fatigue and commercial exhaustion than to mitigate the inflationary melodramatics of personhood that separate human creatures from their built and unbuilt environments. With flat affects working to render them flatter with their worlds, Field’s minimal protagonists enable her to bypass individual human distinctions and instead to treat—in much the same way that urban developers treat pesky pigeons—“a whole species like a character” (Field 16).

The group convened to propose solutions to their city’s pigeon invasion comes with no biographical information, physical description, or clear motive apart from perhaps scoring a few bucks (in the form of an advertised “prize”) off of whatever unidentified agency has invited them to put their heads together. A nameless ensemble, their unfamiliarity to the reader is redoubled in their unfamiliarity with the urban environment they have tasked themselves with rehabilitating. They cannot become sleuths in a pigeon potboiler because they do not even grasp the conditions of their cryptic assembly. They “arrive at the food court ready to think,” but immediately their attention is diverted to a mysterious “someone” who, perhaps in preparation for their gathering, “polished buildings all night, sandblasted metal, washed the billboards,” in service to an equally mysterious “they” who are said to be “using prisoners for the labor” (Field 1). Not even sure, due to an overhanging tent, whether they are indoors or out—confident only that they are “sweating in the cushiony diffusion of weather” (Field 7) that evokes global warming without naming it—they name as “fragments” the “rumors” they have heard about “vulnerable populations quietly wiped from the edges,” further suggesting a merely fragmentary knowledge not only of pigeons but also of the precarious human populations from which the food court’s prison-laborers are presumably drawn. Even as these prisoners supposedly spend their working hours washing the city’s commercial surfaces clean, they themselves are wiped clean from the city’s façade, as the assembled group struggles to see “where…people gather” and notes the proliferation of ‘No Loitering’ signs (Field 4). In other words, the group finds itself collectivizing a performative contradiction, assembling and thinking in public spaces that have been privatized and reconstructed to exclude the possibility of critical assembly and expression. And yet the group cannot claim total distance from neoliberal arrangement, because it is participating in a do-it-yourself scheme in which “clearly someone would like the problem to become our problem” (Field 4).

But in this alienated terrain where various industrial complexes hold court, an empowered “our” is catachrestic, if not also anachronistic, demanding a level of depth these power-washed surfaces cannot readily permit. As their focus moves from “distant figures polishing counters” to “scattered umbrellas, non-native plants, trash stations,” and then to “old, oily pigeons, and pearly ones with a bright look…many with one red foot clubbed or dismembered—by car accidents?,” the group’s purpose comes to seem dismembered and hobbled as well (Field 2). Their attenuated agency appears to them not as an epiphany but rather as a “feel” that they are “removed from the subject of our consideration”—the pigeons as well as the material situation in which pigeons appear as the primary problem. In the place of this estranging environment, “the old environment of the dovecote appears for contemplation, and the mind prepares to think abstractly about past places, in the place of this place which gunks up the senses” (Field 10). This gunk conjures the pigeon excrement the city wants to eliminate, but in fact the pigeon poop is not the real problem, which lies instead in polished exteriors that, somewhat paradoxically, gum up the works of apprehension by failing to display (which isn’t the same things as covering up) the manifold relations (between inner and outer, human and human, human and pigeon, past and present) subtending and enabling them. To the extent that these surfaces repel their observer—demanding that neither he nor his attention loiter—and encourage him to keep moving (“there aren’t places to walk here without using elevators or moving side-walks”) along their gleaming terrain, they simultaneously infuse him, with a force proportional to their repulsion, with incredible potential; in this case, “the potential to fall into thought and out of time” (Field 10).

In other words, the sheer surface-ness of a surface—the sense that it cannot or will not hold you—becomes the stuff of depth and of deep exploration. Field’s prose creatively describes this surface potential but it also performs it by passing so gingerly and unrevealingly over its objects of consideration that they cannot help but become removes to other and maybe deeper phenomena. Unlike Icarus, whose potential was spent in a fall to earth following an expenditure of technological innovation that brought him scorchingly close to the sun (a myth whose lesson our ozone-depleted, technocratic society still has not learned), the group will realize its potential by falling into thought rather than action and by falling not into a future it failed to anticipate but into a past it has not yet taken seriously. This ostensibly inactive—which is to say, philosophical—move (un)builds on the opening’s provocative question about “skipping past the story part” to “lie awhile in the ending” (Field 1-2), but the point is not to bypass time entirely but rather to get out of a teleological time where the present seems inevitable and inevitably connected to a future to which it lays ambitious and cocky claim. Here nature’s surface, as it does so many times in this chapter, appears unexpectedly and awkwardly on the surface of the text in the form of “pay dirt” that names, at least for “professional thinkers,” this “potential to fall into thought and out of time.”

Where pay dirt usually designates earth that yields profit, the profit here, if there is any, is to be found not in extracting something from the earth but in inserting oneself into it to contemplate a fall that both will happen and that need not have happened had it been placed before pride. If pigeon poop constitutes payback for unchecked human growth, then dwelling presently with and in it tenders the possibility of paying the past forward. And the pigeon’s past—a la Chakrabarty’s point about natural history becoming human history—has everything to do with humans, as today’s pigeons are the “work of thousands of breeders” (Field 11) spread across millennia; of aristocrats who “pampered” (Field 9) and domesticated them; of revolutionaries who overthrew aristocrats and “brutally attacked [pigeons] in their dovecotes,” returning them, now semi-feral, to the wild; of military and other institutions that used pigeons (Field 17) as messengers; of scientists like Charles Darwin, who raised pigeons to “model the hand of evolution” (Field 10); of American hunters who drove the related passenger pigeon to extinction (Field 13); and of the swelling urban populations whose swelling waste attracts and feeds swelling numbers of contemporary pigeons that find themselves “making the most of their people problem” (Field 12). Which is to say, the pigeon shit requiring constant scrubbing and cleaning is also the excremental history of an intrusive and invasive humanity that in contending with proliferating pigeons simultaneously contends with itself—a humanity that, as it were, cannot stop treading the squishy surfaces of its deeply disruptive past.


The text, however, does not present this historical information in a tightly packed summary; instead, it scatters it across the various journal entries whose timestamps give it the feel of both a labor log and a scientific notebook. Fragmentary in its formal presentation and fragmented in its intrusions upon contemporary landscapes, history in Bird Lovers, Backyard comes with an edge and at the edge of manmade surfaces that disrupt and disturb established ecosystems. My mention of concealed prison labor and whitewashed exteriors might imply a profound sense of paranoia in the text, but the group does not have sufficient information or even sense of the future to traffic in such heightened apprehension; instead, their affect is best described as edgy, as they are slightly frustrated both with their lack of brainstorming progress and with the absence of free food and coffee they had hoped might nourish their searching intellects (their hunger and under-caffeination associate them weakly with the precarious populations they struggle to grasp). If the group is affectively on edge, it is in no small part because they are liminally positioned at the edge of various surfaces—of inside and out, present and past, the food court and the adjacent field, the artificial and the natural, the philosophical and the practical, the pigeon and the human. When people say colloquially they are feeling edgy—and let’s not forget that edgy can also imply unconventional and creative—they are, at some level, communicating a sense of being “on edge” that implies not so much an impending fall (though it might—there can be surfaces below and above) as a lack of certainty over where one surface ends and another begins, and this “one surface” may very well be the surface of one’s own skin, which under conditions of environmental upheaval finds itself, despite the many privatizing protections of neoliberalism, coming increasingly into contact, sometimes even at sharp edges that compromise the skin’s integrity, with foreign substances and agencies (think tropical viruses moving north and glass shattering in steroidal tornadoes). No wonder, then, the group’s discursive digression into “edge species (Field 6),” a vague term from ecology and environmental science denoting species that live at the edges and intersections of ecosystems because they benefit from doing so or because they have to, often detrimentally, as the result of human development and deforestation. Cars, a major producer of both greenhouse gases and eco-edges due to the roads they require, are described as “edging up,” (and hasn’t climate change sort of snuck up on us?), and the few people assembling to address the pigeon problem are characterized as “edge-specializers (Field 7),” implying both an affinity between humans and other non-human animals (pigeons thrive at edges) and that humans are simultaneously edge-generating, edge-capitalizing (getting the edge on other species) and, less auspiciously, edge-occupying, which is to say reaping the repercussions and beginning to feel edgy about their auto-inducement of planetary precarity.

If Bird Lovers, Backyard is an idiosyncratic experiment in “edge-ucation,” in defamiliarizing surfaces by mapping their sinkholes and diaphanous edges with other surfaces, its edges include not merely pigeons and skunks but also human organisms cast out of conventional normativity. Scientific research into pesky pigeon populations demonstrates that one of the best approaches to reducing their numbers is to, quite simply, get humans to stop feeding them. Although human castoffs and detritus supply pigeons with ongoing nutrition, it is the intentional and profligate feeding by a small subset of humans that allows pigeon populations to preserve their considerable size. The group refers to a “few ‘crazy’ people [who] carry and redistribute crumbs” and even acknowledges possible familiarity with some of these “pigeon people,” but it excludes such knowledge from its inquiry because “like good citizens, we keep to ourselves” (Field 7). Their forbearance might insinuate liberal tolerance of kooky conduct, but the fact that they define their successful citizenship in terms of their people-avoidance means that they work with a very attenuated notion of civic communication and responsibility and, moreover, that they have fundamentally lost contact with an edge sub-species of their own kind.


In a riveting and sometimes humorous account of a Los Angeles neighborhood’s efforts to crack down on pigeon feeders, Jon Mooallem consults with prominent pigeon researchers and finds that “the most relentless [pigeon feeders] have no family and few interpersonal relationships. They adopt pigeons as surrogate children. [One researcher] described women—older women—who worked as phone-sex operators and prostitutes to pay for birdseed. This may be the pigeon’s co-evolutionary triumph: the black magic whereby these grubbing little birds have sought out their depredated, human counterparts and transformed them into senseless disciples.” Reporting further that some of these social outcasts dispense enough feed to individually sustain thousands of pigeons every year, Mooallem deftly captures how the developers and agents of gentrification who track these feeders in hopes of shaming and curtailing their behavior end up treating them as if they are pigeons. They refer to a “Bird Lady’s regular feeding” and even refer to themselves as “hawks” keeping an eye on the feeders. The effect of this language is in part to blur the boundaries between humans and pigeons and also to question what is at stake politically, not just ecologically, in pigeon removal schemes ranging from poisoning to egg-stealing.

As Mooallem notes, the scandal of pigeons is that, unlike the countless other forms of wildlife that have been forced out of cities like Los Angeles as they have sprawled and metastasized, pigeons have capitalized on this destruction and encroachment and have become a very particular type of indicator species, a pollution indicator, marking the unhealthiness of human ecosystems. In other words, pigeons ruffle feathers not only because they demonstrate the losing game of keeping nature out—and in this way, they are the avian analogues of climate change and other natural forces that come home to roost (Field at one point calls pigeons an “echo of wild nature,” and it might be worthwhile to consider surface echoes that sound previous surfaces)—but also because they function as constant reminders of the crowded and polluted world of which they are more symptom than cause. And while it is of course reasonable to discourage individuals from profligately distributing hundreds of pounds of seed, it is also worth tarrying with the fact that the disregard these feeders have for the curb appeal of planned condos and corporate high-rises makes them every bit the environmental stewards that they are environmental disasters. If they are the “senseless disciples” of pigeons, a characterization continuing a long tradition of depicting women as pathetic dupes and smothering overfeeders, then their hawkish hunters are equally senseless disciples of economic growth dressed up in a language of urban renewal insensitive to both the precarious human populations residing there, often homeless, and to natural lives and resources that find themselves more removed than renewed.

When the group concludes, “if pigeons are exerting wills that cannot be controlled, the only thing left is to control the willing benefactors,” they seem to be siding with the developers (Field 15). But because they are thinking rather than acting, they quickly realize that the prosecution of feeders might lead to “special police” (Field 15) and to the closing of public spaces; that is, to the further expansion of a neoliberal security state with even fewer occasions for the sort of critical assembly they are attempting, with scant instruction or public resources, to embody. Securitization necessitates new edges, “but edges are tiring, and all the gate codes, power lines, security checkpoints, unbuilt fields—tiring” (Field 7). I will soon return to this “unbuilt field,” a recurring site and motif in the text, but I first want to register this pervasive sense of fatigue in the world described here, a sort of ambient exhaustion born of economic and ecological instability and reflected in the group’s unproductive ennui: “We don’t talk about thinking, don’t think up good questions, don’t think for a living, don’t even really like it” (Field 7). The asyndeton of these two quoted lines conveys the lack of connective material for making this world make sense and for attaching oneself to it in a non-desultory fashion. And although the precariousness of inhabiting these edges attaches most poignantly to the socially vulnerable, it also structures the lived experiences of the privileged, who find themselves tasked with maintaining these edges and beset with the edginess that comes from knowing the likelihood of failure and dysfunction. Bird Lovers, Backyard does not delineate a programmatic solution to the enervating problem of edge-living, but it glimpses a respite from the problem with its repeated invitations to lie down, to familiarize oneself with the surface, and to forego the cruel temptations of doing something productive. Returning to the fact that “the dirt is still where we grow our food, build our houses, [and] sleep,” the group ultimately decides, as part of a denouement that is not one, that in order “to skip the story part, to forget and to rest, to fade—we lie down” (Field 22). Of course thinking can be a kind of fading, and so we aren’t here necessarily supposed to think that the group actually gets prostrate or goes to sleep, though it might, but the emphasis made pointed by the dash is surely on diminution and attenuation, on a sort of surface acquaintance and surface thinking that comes with relaxing the will and desire to make of one’s (in)activity a compelling and generative story. Just “don’t” do it could well serve as this group’s unmotivating motto.


The ultimate symbol of this ungenerative impulse is the “unbuilt” field lying adjacent to the group’s uncertain enclosure. This unbuilt field is mentioned nearly a dozen times, and it functions in the text as a sort of exception: “But just to the left, in fact between where we are sitting and the rest of the horizon (not the parking garage ramp or the highway entrance), sprawls exactly the sort of unbuilt field that appears and we haven’t much clue what to make of—the sort that seems to fall outside all planning whatsoever” (Field 5). The text’s stammering repetition—made physical by the confession that the group “stumbled across it”—of this field preserves its heterotopic dimension: “We walked across it this morning, but we don’t know anything about that field. Not even how to see it—what to see in it—any idea. It’s impossible to tell if something is going to happen there, or if something recently came down. How do we tell which way the unbuilt field is headed—to the forest or to the city” (Field 10)? The group “can’t stop staring at the rubble of the unbuilt field” in part because “it wasn’t there last night, or at least it escaped notice” (Field 10). A symbol and example of the complexity of surfaces, the field’s visible simplicity does not translate to obviousness. Is it unbuilt because it marks a space of removal and destruction or because it was never developed in the first place? Does it continue, as a field rather than a forest, the encroachment of urban space into non-urban space, or does it constitute instead a kind of challenge or rebuke to such invasiveness? Is there really a difference between “how to see it” (surface reading) and “what to see in it” (a deeper or suspicious reading), or are the two intimately interrelated and equally difficult within a world of evanescent ecosystems and unstable geologies? The group’s stumbling suggests an uneven terrain, a subtler version of the quicksand earlier mentioned, but it also suggests a literal inability to move felicitously across a surface unpaved by “elevators” and “moving sidewalks.” This struggle might be taken to prioritize the surface—as in, we had better learn how to navigate this surface before we understand how it got here—and yet its current and precarious presentation, which is presented precariously through the text’s many tentative and undeveloped approaches, has everything to do with the larger social, historical, economic, and environmental forces that render it as illegible and distant-seeming as the prisoners conscripted to keep its real and imagined threats at bay.

The group wonders “what to make of” the field, but in truth the field unmakes such a productive pursuit by interrupting both narrative build-up and the conceptual management of the physical environment. Because it “seems to fall outside all planning whatsoever,” it shares an affinity with the role earlier assigned to thought—to vacate the teleological progression of conventional temporality and to pause the blinker-eyed obsession with going further, higher, longer, bigger. In other words, the unbuilt field performs the space of thought in the text without necessarily laying the ground for it, if what is traditionally meant by the latter is that thinking is about building and developing. Urban “planning,” the text speculates, might take a lesson from Icarus and benefit from imagining the city not from its vertical reaches—“We don’t live in the sky or build in the air”—but from the “dirt” where food is grown. Far from being mere surface, this dirt contains “worlds of living things” that “might be nested in other big things, which themselves are nested in bigger things, higher things, farther away things” (Field 22). These proliferating things include history, whose unpredictable power and unplanned intrusions (e.g. carbon history) make the present a fragile nest and continued upward growth a fool’s errand every bit as futile and wasteful as power-washing pigeon shit. And so the group’s at times paralyzing quandary is how to think the pigeon problem, in which countless ecological crises are nested like matryoshka dolls, without thinking about it, where about implies a degree of removal or bird’s eye perspective that has gotten both birds and humans into considerable trouble. What thoughts might surface, that is, if surfaces were thought with rather than about—intimately but not passionately, insofar as the latter risks the sort of affective ascension that leads straight back to anthropocentrism?

Making such cognitive rewiring an aesthetic experiment, Thalia Field performs this lateral thinking by flattening herself into the text. Casting off the properness and possessiveness of her last name, she appears in the text as a surface—a field, a field of investigation—as she concomitantly surfaces to confound clean distinctions between author and text. Her manifestation teases the intentional fallacy without succumbing to it by taking the form not of a masterful presence but of an “unbuilt” and mostly indecipherable identity resistant to capitalizing ideas. She no more knows what to “make” of the field than does the group she assembles—a group that stumbles across her and for which her intentions, to the extent there are any, remain opaque. A foundational but also unbuilt field for the text, Field contributes precisely the kind of superficial depth required for thinking with—with the land, with the group, with the pigeons—rather than thinking about or from a hierarchical remove. Leveling herself with the dirt, she enacts the death of the author without burying her altogether. More dispossessed than dead, the author finds herself beside herself and next to the group, the land, the pigeons, and the readers in a common endeavor to think the fragmented commons that already exist, rather than the commons that must be built, and to sense the world—its visible surfaces and unseen influences—rather than make sense of it. This dispossession finds further expression in the book’s title, where the backyard is rendered not as the property of the bird watchers via an apostrophe but instead as an agent given equal weight by the comma. Far from suggesting an estrangement between the two, this separation provides space for each and avoids the dangerous conflation of community and identity. The bird lovers are proximate with the backyard but not in control of it; in fact, their personhood is gone to the birds, confirming that their separateness is anything but a sharp cleavage. Getting to know these bird lovers will require getting to know the birds and the backyards whose edges they occupy, meaning all these agents must be regarded as edge species and at their edges with another—zones of contact whose possibilities for interanimate exchange will be leeched if forced through, or cordoned off by, “security checkpoints” and “gate codes” like those that have left the group exhausted and unprepared to engage the human and non-human agencies near them.


Field’s divestment of human distinction and exceptionalism—her totally non-dramatic transmutation into an unbuilt field—is redoubled in a later section entitled “This Crime Has a Name,” in which the nominally human narrator of the earlier sections morphs into a bird. Not just any bird, not even a living bird, but a (presumed) dead dusky seaside sparrow whose species was declared extinct in 1990 following an unsuccessful breeding program for which there were no surviving females, in which females of closely related species were hastily excluded due to a vaguely eugenicist obsession with species “purity,” and from which one male named “Green,” the section’s narrator, was omitted because of the conservationists’ failure to locate him in the wild. By way of concluding, I want to show how the impossible narratorial position of this sparrow explicitly connects the text’s aesthetic ambiguation of surface and depth with manmade environmental interventions that have rendered and continue to render natural surfaces turbulent and precarious. An avian Addie Bundren, the bird speaks from beyond the grave, voicing the past in the present and thus refusing the present’s sense of temporal supersession. But where perished Addie belongs to a kind whose survivors can at least give a sense of her and of the sorts of things she might say and do, Green enjoys no such associations. His is a doubly impossible voice—the voice not only of a dead individual but of a dead kind through which individuals become legible as particular types of individuals. So Green might be seen as both radically individual, since there is no other, and as absolutely nothing at all—a mirage, a hallucination, or perhaps a feint echo. A void that speaks through a historical void, Green is pure surface and yet also pure past—a past that insists upon telling its story despite the absence of a generic platform for doing so.

But this missing generic platform, the extinct avian autobiography, is also the tale of the loss of a different physical surface—the marshland whose cordgrass had sustained the dusky seaside sparrow but whose intentional flooding to reduce the mosquito population near the developing Kennedy Space Center altered the sparrow’s natural habitat and dwindled its numbers by, among other things, exposing it to predators. Getting to space, a contemporary Icarus project, may have been one small step for mankind but for other creatures—including still extant species that suffer from the carbon and chemical juggernaut known as NASA—it constituted several steps back. Green reports that the dusky seaside sparrow was also an “indicator species,” in this case an indicator of the marshland’s declining health due to pesticides and other patriotic disturbances (Field 36). He also reports that “when a marsh becomes unsubmerged”—yet another instance of surfaces yielding depths and depths becoming surfaces—“woody plants invade” and “predators increase” (Field 37). But the telling of this habitat destruction is every bit as uncertain as the altered habitat itself, as evidenced by Green asking, “What parts of the story carry the themes and symbolisms? Which parts are merely backgrounds?” To put it differently, how can we tell the tale of the dusky seaside sparrow, how can we set the scene of its earlier activity and later disappearance, when the carefully balanced conditions under which it thrived, and under which its voice produced a distinctive song, no longer exist? Can any background be considered “mere” given the emerging awareness of human history’s heavy weight on an increasingly unstable and chaotic ecological present? And does it anymore make sense to speak of a story’s “parts” (like one character’s saga or another’s history) given the dawning realization of animate and inanimate life’s transtemporal, transspecies, and transcategorical imbrication?  Green’s story does not answer these questions but it enacts them as part of an inquiry into what aesthetic forms might begin to convey environmental precariousness and interconnectedness in all of its unknowable alterity.

I end with alterity because, at least in Levinasian terms, it bears out the muddy and muddled distinction between surface and depth on which this essay, thinking with Field’s book, has meditated. Although Levinas is known for philosophizing and advocating deep ethical commitments toward the other, the catalyst of these commitments is of course a “face” that Levinas also describes as a “voice.” In other words, it is a “mere” surface that provokes and cultivates a deep response in part through its inaudible but foundational plea to be done no harm. Green’s plea, for a multitude of reasons, cannot be heard, and yet he appears on and as the sur-face of Field’s book in the form of what he himself describes as a text: “Maybe [mine] is one of those ‘letter from the grave’ cases which have recently been admitted in jurisprudence, and which can be present in the same sense a ghost can” (Field 34). To the extent that Green makes a claim upon us, he does so as a spectral, textual sur-face of a history—including a place—that we must answer and attend but can never access. Art, Field’s book suggests, may very well be the means by which the inscrutable faces of non-human creatures can make an ethical claim, even as animal science continues to surprise us with the news that other species, including the pigeons with which Field begins, can recognize human faces. But if this ethical claim demanding recognition of human violence is something like a purloined letter—staring us right in the face and yet concealed from view in part due to ideologies that make precarious life invisible—it is also a message in a bottle that keeps surfacing and surfacing a past on which it and we (Field’s nebulous “we” naming a plastic community of creatures edging closer to cataclysm) are only barely staying afloat.


Works Cited

Baetens, Jan and Eric Trudel. “Backward/Forward: Thalia Field’s Metanarratives.” Modern Fiction Studies 60:3 (Fall 2014): 599-615.

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Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108:1 (Fall 2009): 1-21.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): 197-222.

Felski, Rita. “Suspicious Minds.” Poetics Today 32:2 (Summer 2011): 215-234.

Field, Thalia. Bird Lovers, Backyard. New York: New Directions, 2010.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Alterity and Transcendence. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.

Love, Heather. “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn.” New Literary History 41 (2010): 371-391.

Menely, Tobias. “The Present Obfuscation: Cowper’s Task and the Time of Climate Change.” PMLA 127:3 (May 2012): 477-492.

Mooallem, Jon. “Pigeon Wars.” New York Times. October 15, 2006. Accessed on June 17, 2015.

Stephan, Claudia, Anna Wilkinson, and Ludwig Huber. “Have We Met Before? Pigeons Recognize Familiar Human Faces.” Avian Biology Research 5:2 (2012): 75-80.


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