The Problem with the Baseline:
Postcolonial Identity, Endemic Ecology, and Environmental Activism in T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done
Set on the Channel Islands off of California, T. C. Boyle’s novel When the Killing’s Done conflates invasive species ecology and postcolonial ideas of invasion and belonging using the device of shipwreck that has so often played a role in island colonization. Using Boyle’s conflation I argue for a new way of establishing belonging that moves away from the idea of a temporal baseline and toward a valuation of diversity/biodiversity and positive engagement with the broader environment. This idea of belonging is represented in the non-human and human characters of When the Killing’s Done who are best able to make a home within the broader system on the Channel Islands.
Keywords: post-colonialism, invasion, invasive species, endemicism, ecocriticism, ecology.
T.C. Boyle’s novel When the Killing’s Done (2011) is a novel that takes shape around a number of shipwrecks, as the author has himself noted. The book opens with “The Wreck of the Beverly B.” in 1946 off California’s Channel Islands—the locale where the novel’s central conflicts play out. Onboard the Beverly B. is protagonist Alma Boyd Takesue’s grandmother, Beverly. When the ship goes down (along with her husband) in a storm, the unknowingly pregnant Beverly is left adrift on an ice chest until she washes ashore on Anacapa, the smallest of the Channel Islands. As the novel unfolds, this moment of shipwreck on Anacapa is revealed to have forged an inextricable link between her, her family, and the islands (When the Killing’s Done 3-19).
The story of Beverly’s survival and rescue on Anacapa is followed immediately by the stage-setting narrative of another shipwreck, this time a historically accurate and environmentally significant one, the 1853 wreck of the SS Winfield Scott—a steamship out of San Francisco. This ship too, runs aground near Anacapa, and her passengers are forced to make a landing on the island and await rescue. However, as the novel describes, those human passengers remained on the inhospitable island for only a short time, but the Rattus rattus (black rats) that also escaped the Winfield Scott remained and proliferated on Anacapa. These are far from the only shipwrecks that occur within When the Killing’s Done’s pages, and that organizing principle is clearly used with intent by Boyle, as the wrecks drive most of the major plot points, environmental dilemmas, and character arcs of the novel (43-47).
I’ve begun by highlighting this event of shipwreck in the novel, because it serves as a common trope in the two fields of thought that, I believe, Boyle joins in an original manner within this novel—eco- and postcolonial criticism. In combining them, Boyle juxtaposes our consideration of the problematic relationship between invasive and endemic species with that of endemic and post-colonial peoples. This is a bold and a useful conflation, one that I feel can lead to a functional and inclusive idea of belonging in postcolonial and post-ecological invasion landscapes. Reviewers of this novel tend to fall into two categories, those who address the human characters and those who discuss the non-human, environmental elements of the novel. Missing has been any discussion of how these two angles of vision work upon one another. This concurrent development of the two subjects allows Boyle to examine both the idea of ecological and postcolonial baselines—ways of thinking that work to pass judgment on who and what “belong” to a place. His recognition of the problematic nature of these baselines serves as an important development in furthering (and drawing useful parallels between) post-post-colonial and ecocritical thought, and might allow us to understand belonging in a less-exclusionary fashion that champions diversity and connection.
II. The Castaways: Human and Non-Human
The conflation of human and ecological migration that is so important to Boyle’s examination of this concept of baseline belonging is highlighted not only through the narrative structure’s emphasis on the two aforementioned initial shipwrecks as necessary for conveying both the human and non-human migrants to the Channel Islands, but also through the scenic description of their first interaction in the novel. After a long ordeal adrift at sea, when Beverly Boyd has been cast upon Anacapa and after she has made her way to the shelter of an abandoned camp, she quickly realizes that she is not alone in the cabin. As her eyes adjust she sees “the shapes manifesting themselves all at once—furred, quick-footed, tails naked and indolently switching, a host of darkly shining eyes fastening on her without alarm or haste” because, as she recognizes, “she was the interloper here, the beggar, she was the one naked and washed up like so much trash” (When the Killing’s Done 32). These are the descendants of the rats once cast up by the SS Winfield Scott, much as she has been by the wreck of the Beverly B, now at home on Anacapa.
Even the language used to describe these shipwrecked rats depicts their experience as similar to Beverly’s. When she wakes in the morning and sees that she still shares the shelter of a shack with the rats, they are “leisurely, content, taking their ease, draped over the chair pulled up to the counter…” (35). I’ll forgive Boyle this heavy bit of anthropomorphizing, because it so clearly illustrates his conflation at this early point in the novel. The rats belong; they are at home, as much if not more than the scene’s human character, despite their similar method of arrival and fundamental ecological invasiveness. This gives pause to the easy identification of both the rats and Beverly as invaders, though, as they react with perturbation at her incursion. Looking through her eyes, the reader is led to empathize with these rats who were also unwillingly cast up and have since made a home.
Despite this clear parallel experience of the human and non-human, thus far, the discussion and reviews of When the Killing’s Done have, as noted, been limited to one of two categories: either turning their focus to the human characters and their arcs with regards to their connections to the Channel Islands or to the environmental issue of invasive species which is centered on the impacts of castaways like the rats on the endemic, or “native,” species (sea birds, island foxes, etc.) that are so classified due to their presence in the ecologist-established baseline ecosystem of the islands. Interestingly, though perhaps expectedly, these focuses have been influenced by the respective reviewers’ intended audience–in some instances literary readers, in others members of the scientific community.
In one review of the former sort that is aimed at the general readership of popular literature, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell initially does note Boyle’s interest in the “urgent subject” of the “disastrous effects of human encroachment upon the natural world,” but quickly shifts her focus to the main human characters and Boyle’s techniques in complicating our feelings for them, largely through their respective relationships with and actions toward the Channel Islands. As with many other reviewers of the novel, she notes how the characters fit into recognizable types, such as the passionate environmentalist (Alma Boyd Takesue) and the “bleeding-heart” card-carrying PETA member and lover of all animals great and small (Dave LaJoy). But rather than focusing on the character’s connections to their non-human fellow actors in the novel’s plot, her final words on the novel emphasize that it is “faithfully portraying the obsessions of our era, but also [serving] as a timeless reminder of the flaws and frailties that have characterized human beings from the beginning of our history” (O’Donnell 31). In this reading of the novel’s emphasis, the turn is to a solace providing affirmation of humanity’s quirks and away from the novel’s deliberations regarding the ethics and efficacy of exterminating invasive species.
Reviews focused on the novel’s animal characters and its engagement with invasive species remediation, in contrast, have thus far largely come from the scientific community. In one such review, Daniel Simberloff (an ecologist writing for the Nature sponsored periodical Biological Invasions—which has a clear non-human bias in its coverage) not surprisingly reads the novel through the lens of invasive species studies and discusses the treatment of the non-human When the Killing’s Done characters and Channel Island denizens. Simberloff tracks Boyle’s interest in non-native species and their impacts through his other works and notes that in this novel as opposed to in his previous works Boyle presents these species in a way that is “generally not metaphoric” but rather where “their impacts and management are the explicit context of action in the novel” (369). Importantly, Simberloff notes that this action is effectively a roman a clef though not of the author’s milieu, but of the actual actions and history of the changing cast of Channel Islands flora and fauna—a diverse cast that includes the aforementioned rats and other “invasives” including sheep, pigs, sweet fennel, and golden eagles, to name a few; and “endemic” species such as bald eagles, various marine birds, the island fox, the island spotted skunk, and various rare and threatened plants. But again, Simberloff’s reading seems to lose sight of one-half of the novel—that of the human element—when he deems the characters mere types meant to serve to illuminate the ecologically relevant debate regarding the response to invasive species.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the reviewer who gestures the most toward both the human and nonhuman threads is Barbara Kingsolver, who in her own fiction frequently grapples with the intertwined destinies of humans and non-humans. Indeed, novels such as her The Bean Trees (1988) and Animal Dreams (1990) do just that, though not with the same focus (on invasive and immigrant dilemmas) that Boyle has, and they are worth further discussion in the growing field that combines the work of postcolonial and ecocritical theory (“Once on this Island”). But while Kingsolver notes the connectedness of the human and non-human plots in the novel, she does not examine in detail the import of this connectedness, which, I argue, lies in Boyle’s effort to grapple with the idea of belonging that is often valued for both groups through a line drawn in the sand—a baseline before which species and groups belong, and after which they are deemed invaders.
The first of those fields, ecocritical thought, is, as one group of reviewers has pointed out, focused by Boyle on non-human environmental issues—in this case those of invasive species and the manner in which they act and are dealt with. Shipwreck as a vehicle for ecological invasion and as a catalyst for the numerous threats to endemic species and ecosystem health is a recognized reality of environmental thought, especially in island ecology. One needs look no further than the castaway rats left on Anacapa whose plight Boyle describes in When the Killing’s Done’s opening chapters.
And even when the mode of invasion is not explicitly a shipwreck, that language still works as metaphor in its reliance on both human activities and some element of chance or mishap, as in the case of many well-researched and often discussed North American examples of biological invasion. For example, the zebra (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga (Dreissena rostriformus) mussels that now plague lake and river ecosystems across the country, were initially carried in larval planktonic form into the St. Lawrence Seaway and eventually the Great Lakes by ballast-water dumped by cargo ships making their way from across the Atlantic. And these mollusks were then likely spread by recreational boat traffic until the problem was pervasive (Brown, Stepien). In another similar example, a number of other invasive aquatic species were initially brought over to be aqua-farmed or raised for decorative purposes in contained ponds before likely being unintentionally released by flooding. So, much of what we consider ecological invasions, have resulted from passive action and subsequent outcompetition and opportunism–a fact that might give pause to those whose goal is extermination of these invaders, as it does to a number of characters in the novel.
Other ecological invasions have been much more intentional, such as the well-known introduction of the European or common starling (Sturnis vulgaris) which was initially released in Central Park in 1890 in the hopes of their establishing every species of bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. But whether initial invasions were the product of accidental or intentional release, the incursive species were indeed shipwrecked in their new environs, incapable of a voluntary departure from their new homes, acting with the similar species serving opportunism displayed where they are considered native, and potentially as deserving of inclusion and empathy, as Beverly noted with the rats so early in When the Killing’s Done.
Similarly, the image of shipwreck is common to postcolonial discourse. Nobel prize winning poet Derek Walcott, in seeking to establish and advocate for a unified post-postcolonial Caribbean identity, frames his arguments using the metaphor of shipwreck to represent the shared experience of the Caribbean people—whether they be descendants of European colonists, forcefully transported African slaves, or the relatively-late arriving East Asian immigrants who were pressed into an often brutal and oppressive indentured service upon their arrival. As he says of these varied groups in his essay “The Muse of History” (1974), “their degraded arrival must be seen as the beginning, not the end, of our history” (41). Walcott’s use of the recurring image of shipwreck as a means of conflating this “degraded arrival” is particularly useful when looking at Boyle’s own use of the image because the Caribbean’s history of migration and colonization is fraught and complex in much the same manner as that of the Channel Islands. Both these forward focused works ask us to reconsider how we navigate this complexity in order to understand who and what can claim to belong to these spaces.
My argument stems from this focus on shipwreck and its utility in encapsulating the complicated ambiguity of forward progress in the face of postcolonial circumstances, along with a similar ambiguity in the idea of progress for post-invasive/invasion ecosystems. When the Killing’s Done calls into question the idea of being native/endemic versus immigrant/invasive/exotic, and is interested in dealing with the complex and often cited policy of looking to how the immigration/invasion occurred in order to establish how the species (or race, class, ethnicity, or wave of migration) should be considered and valued. This movement beyond a reliance on a temporal baseline as a means of justifying a species, culture, or race’s place in the identity of a space and toward an understanding of arrival and current contribution is an important step forward, and one that can incorporate both human and non-humans in its definition of belonging
Here, I conflate this human and non-human vocabulary very intentionally, because, again, I believe it to be a conflation Boyle himself makes in the novel. Indeed, for Boyle’s characters, the challenge always turns toward passing judgment on who and what belong to a place or ecosystem, and what the requirements are for belonging. By setting these problematic topics in conversation with one another, T.C. Boyle presents a compelling commentary that adds to the existing theories, rather than merely reflecting them. His triumph in When the Killing’s Done comes from his daring to conflate the discussion regarding invasive species and immigration to argue for a means of establishing connectedness to place that considers all living things.
III. Invasion and Immigration and Colonization
Part II of When the Killing’s Done is focused on Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands, and set initially on Scorpion Ranch in 1979, the location of an incursion that is useful in understanding the connection between human immigration and nonhuman invasion. The scene also serves as an excellent example of a proposal for assessing belonging by means other than the baseline concept. The main characters of this set-piece (human and non-human) are Rita (the eventual mother to Anise, the girlfriend, and co-conspirator in a PETA-esque extremist group, of Dave LaJoy) and a large flock of free roaming sheep. The section opens with Rita, listless on the mainland, migrating to the island to take a position as camp-cook at Scorpion Ranch, her young daughter in tow. The sheep assume the role of a classic human introduced invasive species, as they are yet another attempt by humans to derive some profit from the island.
It is notable how localized Boyle’s ecological perspective is in this section of the novel. Elsewhere he is naturally somewhat limited by island biogeography, but here he is even more focused on just the ecosystem of Scorpion Ranch and its surrounds. I should note that in recent trends in eco-criticism in particular, this local-only focus on sense-of-place as a means for conservation has largely fallen out of style. As Ursula K. Heise points out in the introduction to her book Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, this “rootedness in place” has been of particular importance in the history of the American environmentalist movement (9). The connotation here and elsewhere in both Heise and numerous other ecocritical works is that overemphasis on local place can be dangerous in that it allows for an obliviousness to larger global level environmental issues.
But Heise provides a useful counterpoint to her own argument against overemphasis on “rootedness in place” in her metaphor of environmental thought needing a Google Earth like perspective where the frame can rapidly shift from the broad “spaceship earth” level thoughts to the “street-view” local perspective (10-11). This ability to transition seamlessly between levels of discourse regarding the environment, is something I believe Boyle engages with, but for now I merely hope to display a continued value in the local rootedness that Boyle depicts, particularly on the part of Rita, but also in the simple small scale ecosystems presented by the Channel Islands.
Upon Rita’s arrival the plot moves quickly and draws a parallel between the sheep’s rapid impact on the island and Rita’s own near-immediate connection to the island. Both are explicitly shown shaping their world. In the case of the sheep it is effects such as overgrazing that allows for both massive mudslides and soil run-off during the short rainy season and the proliferation of the also-invasive weed, sweet fennel that grows where the grass and soil have been eaten-away. For Rita it is depicted in her competent work in every facet of camp life when the ranch-boss, Bax, is laid up with a broken leg. The section is too long and nuanced to quote in enough detail, but in short it displays a day of work for Rita in which her every action seems both unconscious and crucial in furthering their inhabitance in Scorpion Bay, while also making use of all of the tools, foods, and geographies around her (146-151). Boyle does not at all shy away from depicting the massive negative impact that these two conspiratorial invaders are having upon the island, while also depicting the previously argued rootedness they have with regards to their new island home. In a moment of omniscient intrusion he considers the presence of the sheep: “If rats are the single most devastating invasive species when introduced to a closed ecosystem, then goats and sheep, with their ability to seek out even the most inaccessible niches and their capacity to consume and digest practically anything short of the dirt itself, are a close second” (167). In the same way that he does not shy from depicting the negatives associated with human colonization on the islands (really, even the introduction of the sheep is a facet of this) he also does not tip-toe around the destructive nature of many of the “invading” non-humans–again drawing together these incursions that are so often considered independently.
It is still potentially easy when viewing the massive impact the sheep are having on the island with their grazing to see them as the only true invasive in this local scenario, but the interconnectedness between the sheep and Santa Cruz’s humans is driven home by a particularly violent scene—one that stands out in the novel. Not only is the connection dramatized in this scene, but Boyle seems to set forward an alternative to baseline ecology in which use-of space and behavior might be a better gauge, if still tenuous, for belonging.
While Bax is still laid up, Rita—her teenage daughter Anise in tow and with the help of a sheep-dog and one old, Gaucho ranch-hand—is left to tend to the flock during the lambing season. The looming danger is another invader—this time a transient species, the raven, that, carrying the conflation forward, might take on the role of an opportunistic temporary invader looking to exploit some postcolonial space. During the birthing of the lambs, a trio of poachers on ATV’s chase a boar (another human facilitated invasive) through the ranch and fire shots wildly, spooking the ewes from the nearby lambs. What happens next is easily the most chilling moment in the novel, and is worth presenting in Boyle’s words.
The first of them careened into a lamb, going for the head, always the head. Bewildered, abandoned, unsteady, on its neophyte’s legs, the lamb went down as if it had been struck with a club. And then the bird, implanted, rose up to stabilize itself on the cross trees of its wings and strike out the eyes, even as the next arrived to rip open the breast where the thin new tegument of skin was as yielding and soft as a vat of cream cheese (163).
The slaughter continues as the mob of ravens rushes from one kill to the next, trying to bring down as many lambs as possible, and waiting to glut themselves on the carcasses later. Unsurprisingly, Rita, and particularly the young Anise, are scarred by this experience, but Boyle seems to be using the grim event as more than a mere moment of character development that will drive Anise to her later activism and Rita to leave the island where she had made a home and had felt she belonged for the first time (163-164).
The transience of the perpetrator’s of this slaughter, the ravens, seems somehow important for Boyle, and he highlights it in a number of places. It seems that in this scene he values species and individuals who identify closely with the islands. More than anything else, this seems to be Boyle’s proposal for a way out of baseline belonging. The ravens travel to the Channel Islands with the intent to use the island’s resources and then depart. This new assessment of belonging fits well with the post-colonial frame that I am arguing is conflated with the ecological, and takes a step back from universal inclusion that seems suggested by the general critique of baseline belonging. His stance here is tentative, but sets forward the mode and intent of arrival and use of place as means of judgment of belonging.
I would argue, the scene also serves to inextricably tie and powerfully equate the incursions of the ranchers and the sheep that they have brought. Indeed, one cannot exist without the other. Without the sheep, Rita and the ranchers would have no means of support on the island, as explained by the number of failed previous incursions that are briefly mentioned in the novel. And clearly, without the ranchers to cull the herd and prevent them from grazing out the entire island and to protect the ewes and lambs when at their most vulnerable from the opportunistic ravens, the sheep would stand little chance of survival on the island. And indeed, they are not one of the “problematic” invasives that remain in the contemporary plotline of the novel.
To further support my argument regarding the similitude Boyle creates between invasion and immigration and this way out of baseline belonging that Boyle suggests, I’ll next look at the three main characters of the contemporary plotline, and how their degree of connectedness to the island affects the manner in which Boyle depicts them.
Dave LaJoy, perhaps surprisingly, is the novel’s stand-out villain, despite also being its most fervent activist for animal rights—an attribute that most conservation-minded novelists might raise up. LaJoy is essentially a sociopath, and over the course of the book his moral high ground is constantly shrinking and his point of view is satirized relentlessly. Boyle highlights LaJoy’s hypocrisy and ineptitude until he is eventually destroyed in the novel’s final shipwreck, with no one to mourn his passing. Even the seemingly altruistic aspects of his activism are increasingly satirized. His early actions, an attempt to save the black rats from a death by mass poison, seem somewhat valiant and justified, but his methods and reasoning unravel to the point where he is trapping raccoons and rattlesnakes on the mainland with the intent to further introduce species to the Channel Islands out of little more than vindictiveness. Here, we see that Boyle places importance on both the means and motivation of the incursion. He establishes LaJoy, through these actions and his demise, as thoroughly an outsider and a negative influence on the entire ecosystem of the islands at the novel’s center. There is a clear critique of this character’s lack of connection to the place that is at stake. His interest is entirely abstract, entirely on the scope of Heise’s global scope where all that matters is the principle of preventing global harm. Indeed, Boyle goes out of his way to highlight the tourist-nature of LaJoy’s interaction with the island when he describes LaJoy’s well-stocked, comfortable trips to the island aboard his yacht, The Paladin (i.e. 73-77).
In a second example, Alma Boyd Takesue represents the other end of the spectrum from LaJoy, both in terms of environmentalist perspective and degree of connection to the islands. Takesue is a biologist with a very localized focus on the island ecosystems, and it is simply the health and biodiversity of that ecosystem that provides her environmentalist impetus. She is also the granddaughter of Beverly Boyd, who was washed up on Anacapa at the beginning of the novel, so her degree of connection is derived from a substantial legacy that is further rooted by her frequent time spent on the island conducting research and her investment in the islands’ welfare.
Still, Takesue is far from innocent in the novel’s eyes. She believes deeply in her idea of a baseline ecosystem whose welfare justifies extreme and intrusive measures such as mass poison of the Anacapa rats, systematic hunting of the Santa Cruz pigs, and the risky trapping and removal of golden eagles that had been over-preying upon the endemic island foxes. But, as I have described earlier, the novel problematizes the idea of invasion by conflating it with human immigration and depicting it as a shipwreck or a forced relocation, with the result of problematizing many of Takesue’s baseline influenced exterminations. It is far too easy, it seems, to deem a group or species invaders when using a temporal baseline, and the results have clear ethical consequences, as Takesue begins to realize over the course of the novel and as history has born out in postcolonial spaces.
Somewhere in between the extremes presented by LaJoy and Takesue is LaJoy’s co-activist and girlfriend Anis, who has a much more substantial connection to the islands than either of the other characters as a result of having migrated to them with Rita, her mother and of making a home on them in her developmental years. Anis, while inexplicably connected to the truly horrible LaJoy (and this is more than just my reading, nearly every reviewer made some mention of his offensiveness as a character), seems to be a bit more thoughtful in her activism (if it is still problematic at times, really no character gets out of the novel unscathed), and, importantly, she refuses to accompany LaJoy on his ill-conceived and ill-fated attempt to sabotage and document the Parks Service’s efforts at systematically eliminating the invasive wild-pig population from Santa Cruz. It is on this trip that LaJoy’s efforts result in the death of a young fellow-activist who is washed away by a flooded river and horribly drowned in a scene that rivals the death of the lambs in its chilling nature (276-278). Grounding her connection to the islands despite being a recent arrival well after any baseline of culture had been drawn, Anis too meets her end in the wreck of the Paladin along with Dave LaJoy, but her death is handled very differently. Her body is the only one recovered from the shipwreck, and in a moment of symbolic importance to Boyle’s treatment of Anis, her mother, Rita, is able to return to the island with her daughter’s ashes. During the return, Rita is left with “the songs. The sun. The island. And she won’t scatter the ashes till dark, till they’re [the more transient researchers and park service employees, including Alma Boyd Takesue] all on the boat and gone away, and the only sounds are the sounds of the night” (368). This moment reaffirms the connection between Rita and Anis and the island that comes from their isolation upon it with the other permanent, but non-human, colonists. In the background of this scattering of ashes, Boyle pointedly includes another shipwrecked species that was cast adrift by the wreck of the Paladin, at least one surviving rattlesnake that LaJoy had intended to turn loose on the island before the wreck (369). The rattlesnake is deemed as belonging in this scene, I believe because it was cast up on the island through no will of its own. A conflation here could be drawn, again using Walcott, to something like the unknowing and unwilling voyage of African slaves to the Caribbean. It is not their endemism to the place that is important in a postcolonial and post invasive world, as suggested by the use of baselines. Instead it is the mode of their arrival and their investment in the ecosystem (or nation or culture)’s future.
This question of who belongs to a place, who can call it home, is raised again and again, and Boyle intentionally resists easy answers, such as that provided by a temporal baseline (or, in the realm of postcolonial studies, often a historical moment such as independence). Indeed, Boyle entirely calls into question the appropriateness of the term invasive species to describe passive victims of shipwreck such as Anacapa’s rats. This has important implications when read along with recent moves in both environmental and post-colonial thought.
IV. Post-nature, Post-wilderness, Post-postcolonial
These three terms provide an important context for my ultimate reading of When the Killing’s Done. I have argued throughout that T.C. Boyle is refuting the focus on the idea of a baseline in evaluating belonging. He problematizes any attempts to return a place to its “pristine state” by those means. He himself employs the term baseline in an interview he conducted for Mother Jones regarding When the Killing’s Done. When the interviewer explains how readers first side with Takesue in her efforts to rid the island’s of invasives, but eventually become unsure of whether this idea of restoration is the right one, Boyle responds:
The environmental term is the “baseline.” When do you bring it back to? What is restoration? What does it matter? A more simple level with what happened on Santa Cruz, however, the restoration was simply to remove animals that are numerous elsewhere in the world, like rats, and pigs, and sheep, and so on, in order for the unique life forms there, that exist nowhere else, to continue to be able to survive. I often parallel this with the California condor. Here’s this gigantic vulture, which is in decline because of us. It used to feed on buffalo carcasses, animal carcasses out in the woods. Well there isn’t anything like that anymore. And we took them all out of nature, and we keep putting them back, and we’re encountering various problems with that. And it’s cost a lot of money, whereas, members of our own species—one-third of the people alive today don’t have enough to eat or are starving to death, and die. But personally, and selfishly, standing here, with food in my mouth, I’m happy that there are condors out there. And I’m happy that there are native dwarf foxes on the island. And I’m sad that there no more mysterious places in the world (Butler).
I quote this response at length because it so closely approaches my understanding and evaluation of the current state of affairs with regards to our environmental and post-colonial identity. Any attempt at definitively delineating natives versus invaders is bound to be overly simple and not in the best interest of these places moving forward. As this novel argues, we are beyond a moment when any true “natural” baseline for belonging can be established, and this makes our concepts of who and what belong and don’t belong to any given place extremely ambiguous and problematic. We value diversity and biodiversity, but we attempt to control and pass judgment on who and what belong in both at risk ecosystems and nations attempting to establish a forward moving post-post-colonial identity—such as the one Derek Walcott espouses, where all the cast-up living things left in these places contribute to their identity and can rightly call them home.
I’ll begin by discussing the environmental/ecocritical precedent for this, because it is likely the more noticeable and documented shift, and it is very useful in supporting Boyle’s point-of-view in this novel. Numerous well-researched works have called into question our ability to establish any sort of pre-human incursion baseline for the natural world. Rachel Carson’s seminal environmentalist work Silent Spring (1962) introduced and provided extensive evidence for the pervasive impact human produced pollution (largely through chemicals) has had on the natural world. Some of the books major findings resulted in important and sweeping overhauls of environmental policy in large portions of the world. The best studied and most successful of these was the banning of DDT, a chemical pollutant that once had a number of species such as the bald eagle and California condor on the brink of extinction.
Subsequently, when the research regarding human-caused climate change and ozone damage/depletion grew too significant to utterly ignore, Bill McKibben in 1989 published his book The End of Nature. This work is crucial to my understanding of the obsoleteness of the idea of baseline ecology. Essentially, McKibben argues that because we have fundamentally altered the environment through pollutants and our monkey-wrenching the carbon cycle, the world ecosystem has become an artificial or synthetic thing that due to its alteration, can no longer be referred to as “natural.” I would agree, that based on these conclusions, the idea of a natural baseline is utterly obsolete, and we must look to methods that prize diversity and contribution to better understand belonging.
Building on Carson and McKibben’s findings and our increased understanding of the ease and magnitude of human impact on the natural world, William Cronon, in 1996 published the essay “the Trouble with Wilderness that suggested our sublime connotations attached to that term had no place in modern environmentalism. All of this is one of the major reasons for the value of Heise’s Google Earth view, and speaks to her argument in the chapter of her book titled “Toxic Bodies, Corporate Poisons.” In this chapter, she uses close readings of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Richard Powers’ Gain to highlight the legacy of Silent Spring in fundamentally changing our environmental fears and awareness. Due to the far-reaching consequences of the sort of risk scenarios described in these novels (and in the aforementioned nonfiction works), Heise argues for the importance of transnational thought in regards to environmentalism. In his previous environmental novel A Friend of the Earth, Boyle took on a number of these subjects in depicting a novel of a broad scope that spanned 20th century environmental activism and brought those characters forward into a post-environmental apocalypse world where the climate had been irrevocably changed to deadly effect.
While the environmental movement was undergoing the described changes, the field of postcolonial studies, in this paper as earlier represented by the work of Derek Walcott, was looking to move beyond the post-colonial phase, and by proxy the enduring negative legacy of colonization. Walcott’s description in “The Muse of History,” that colonial history need not be forgotten or obliterated from the national or global memory, but should cease to be a burden, captures, for me, the post-post colonial move. He states “This is not the jaded cynicism which sees nothing new under the sun, it is an elation which sees everything as renewed” (“The Muse of History” 38). It is a move toward inclusion, much as the rejection of ecological baseline is, and while for Walcott and others it has inherent a degree of regional or national identity, it similarly moves away from the idea of a need to return to some former stage or identity. And much like eco-critical thought, any push toward some baseline past must ignore the idea that human and/or historic colonial impact is pervasive in these contemporary fields and that any attempt to justify inclusion or exclusion based upon some established baseline will necessarily whitewash the legacy or history of the prior human impact.
V. Biodiversity and Diversity
It is my argument that T.C. Boyle’s willingness to treat in one breath the problematic nature inherent in immigration and invasion has resulted in a step forward in post-colonial and ecocritical thought, at a time when those fields have been increasingly commingled by theorists and scholars such as Laura Wright, Neal Ahuja, and the previously discussed Ursula K. Heise, who are doing important work at the boundary of these fields where they are establishing the mutual relationship between them, particularly with ideas of home and the resulting connections between place (particularly with regards to nature) and identity.
However, it is important that, finally, I point out some important differences between Boyle’s treatment of biological invasion and human colonization. The main difference lies in ecology’s ability to focus on and champion biodiversity. This speaks directly to the earlier Boyle quote from his interview for Mother Jones. Clearly, even when made problematic, there is a degree of justification for Takesue’s work in When the Killing’s Done, much as it is understandable that Boyle would hope for the preservation of the island pygmy fox or the California condor. Many environmentalists would happily champion the cause of biodiversity, and I think Boyle would agree with that impulse, if he would caution our methods in obtaining it.
There is no direct and absolute parallel for biodiversity in the realm of postcolonial studies. Instead, I would argue that diversity is something worth championing, though again, with a critical eye toward any advocacy of a return to a contrived baseline. This critical eye is represented well in Derek Walcott’s work. As he often laments in his poetry, in the Caribbean much of the endemic people were killed off. Asking for a return of the Caribbean to the Caribs is clearly a fanciful goal. It would be like asking for a return of the pygmy mammoth, unearthed in the Channel Islands fossil record, to that ecosystem. But what can and should be undertaken is an effort to preserve biodiversity and diversity respectively.
When the Killing’s Done ends with the image of a rattlesnake, brand new to Santa Cruz, cast adrift and washed ashore, moving through the island night. The message is clear: Change is pervasive and perpetual–from broad species evolution to single shipwrecked species, from revolution to an individual’s migration. Any attempt to return to some baseline identity-of-place is little more than the creation of a fleeting and nostalgic fiction. We must move towards a new and more inclusive means of valuing belonging in which investment in and ability to fill a role within diverse and complicated systems are championed, because human immigration and biological invasion will continue—by shipwreck if nothing else.
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