This is the second of a three part post about the politics and philosophic aspects of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. If you missed the first part you can find it here. These posts are all part of a rough draft I wrote for a conference and any comments or feedback would really helpful in moving forward.
Thinking like a Swamp Thing: Developing a Plant Politics and Ethics
With Swamp Thing’s human foundation removed by Alan Moore the character becomes, as Colin Beinke notes, an example of the Green Man literary trope. The Green Man is a folklore character that represents the struggle of the natural world against the destructive tide of civilization. Examples of the Green Man are: Dionysus, Pan, Jack-in-the-green, the Green Knight and most recently, the Jolly Green Giant. As Beinke states, “…the Green Man is ‘adopted’ by the cultural imagination of each subsequent ‘society and time’ as need” and because of that “…is possible to make assumptions about the way in which humanity viewed its relationship with nature (Beinke 2010).”
While I think Bienke is correct and we should view Swamp Thing through the Green Man lens, we can do much more with the character and the series. Swamp Thing not only helps us understand our own flawed and anxious relationship with nature, it also provides a lens to explore what plant politics, ethics, and relationships mean. Swamp Thing, in this regard, can be used as an example of “uncivilized” writing promoted by The Dark Mountains Project, a group of radical eco-writers who have begun to create a counter literature free from human centered narratives. In the Dark Mountains Project Manifesto they state that uncivilized writing:
…sets out to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own — a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare — might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation — and us — into perspective. Writing that comes not, as most writing still does, from the self-absorbed and self-congratulatory metropolitan centres of civilisation but from somewhere on its wilder fringes. Somewhere woody and weedy and largely avoided, from where insistent, uncomfortable truths about ourselves drift in; truths which we’re not keen on hearing. Writing which unflinchingly stares us down, however uncomfortable this may prove.
Swamp Thing, as we shall see, is an early example of this sort of story and even though Swamp Thing exists as nature anthropomorphized, the character allows a unique lens to explore the possibility of plant politics, ethics, and agency.
The foundation of Alan Moore’s understanding of plant social and political dynamics is the idea of “the green.” The green represents the interconnectedness of all green life on the planet and is shown as a means for plants to communicate and interrelate. The green represents the “town hall” or public agora for the chlorphillic world. Through the green Swamp Thing is able to hear and experience what all plant life on the planet experiences. He can sense the violence of deforestation in the rain forest and can feel the intimate relationship that exists between roots and mycorrhizal fungi.
Central to the green are the Parliament of Trees, a group of former environmental avatars (like Swamp Thing) that in their retirement have become the organizing political council of the green. The Parliament makes their appearance in issue 47. Here he learns the ways of the plant world and gets his first insight into how his humanity has harmed his ability to understand this reality. Unlike in a human conversation the majority of the exchange between Swamp Thing and the council happens within their consciousness, as only one of the trees remembers the words that humans use. The consciousness level of the conversation is explained as existing because, “Flesh….speaks…wood….listens.” The parliament informs Swamp Thing that if he wishes to learn he needs to stop speaking, to rest, be still, and listen. In planting his roots in the soil he communicates, and he gains access to much of their shared knowledge—this is the first time he fully taps into the green. While tapped into the green he learns about the power he could have if he fully shed his human ego and embraced the mind of the plant; he would be able to manipulate his size, reanimate dead wood, control insects through altering his pheromones, and possibly even travel through time. Before Swamp Thing can gain too much knowledge, the Parliament pushes him out of their consciousness; to them his mind is still too human and the human ego and desire for power, in their mind, is a threat to the green.
In response Swamp Thing pleads to the Parliament to teach him how to control his power, so that he may save the planet, and they collectively respond (speaking with one voice):
Power? Power is not the thing. To be calm within oneself, that is the way of the wood. Power tempts anger, and anger is like wildfire. Avoid it…Flesh doubts. Wood knows. If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bark, the roots, the worms of the earth that is the wisdom of an erl-king. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds on soil…is aphid evil? Is Ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil in all the wood? (Swamp Thing #47)
The discussion Moore provides here offers a unique view into a possible social and political politics of the plants. There seems to be a fundamentally ontological difference, in this account, between, in their words, the worldview of the flesh and that of the wood. The plant world seems to follow a slower, more intentional understanding of time, seen by the slow cadence of Swamp Thing’s dialogue and reminiscent of Tree Beard and the Ents in the Lord of the Rings book series. The slow cadence is often contrasted with the frantic, almost anxious speaking style of the humans within the series. The slowness represents not only a more deliberate use of language but also a means to allow for the dominance of silence and nonverbal communication to serve as the basis of communication—remember “Flesh..speaks…plants….listen.” The message from the Parliament of Tree is that to hear the plant one must listen, not to their words, but to the space between words, to the silence and cracks of the forest. In fact, as the Parliament discusses, only one of their members remembers the human tongue, and the rest have grown mute—to wait for them to speak is to wait for an eternity. To hear them, one must listen for communication that transcends words.
This conception of communication among plants has, not without controversy, become a topic of debate within biology. In recent years, biologists have begun exploring the ways in which plants communicate—as it is now assumed that there is some form of communication within the plant kingdom. It has been shown that plants apparently communicate among each other about insect outbreaks and that this communication allows for plants, not just infected by pests, to ramp up their protections. What is not known is how plants communicate; some have argued that it is through the release of pheromones (the smell when you cut your grass is a signal warning other plants of the danger) while others argue that it is through a network of rhizomes, fungi, and roots (similar to the Green). The fact is the existence of plant communication requires questioning of the idea of sentience and, even more importantly, an altering of our understanding of communication and language.
Connected to the plants’ seasonal understanding of time comes their complex and distanced understanding of ethics. During their dialogue with Swamp Thing they ask him “where is evil in the wood?” They highlight the idea that the concept of good and evil are rooted in a human consciousness and that, from the point of view of the bark, the interconnected nature of all existence means that there can be no good or evil. As they say “Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds on soil…is aphid evil? Is Ladybug evil? Is soil evil?” Instead of a moral politics centered on evil, the plant world here understands the real danger to be power and anger—things they expressly view as emotions of the flesh. They view power as a form of “wild fire”, as a purging element and (since they live in the rainforest) as a danger to the health and well-being of the plant world. In a way, the views expressed by the Parliament of Trees develops a complex ethical world view that seems to echo the words of Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, while at the same time critiquing his fetishization of power. Nietzsche writes:
That the lambs are upset about the great predatory birds is not a strange thing, and the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey. And if the lambs say among themselves, “These predatory birds are evil, and whoever is least like a predatory bird, especially anyone who is like its opposite, a lamb— shouldn’t that animal be good?” there is nothing to find fault with in this setting up of an ideal, except for the fact that the birds of prey might look down on them with a little mockery and perhaps say to themselves, “We are not at all annoyed with these good lambs. We even love them. Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.” To demand from strength that it does not express itself as strength, that it does not consist of a will to overpower, a will to throw down, a will to rule, a thirst for enemies and opposition and triumph, is just as unreasonable as to demand from weakness that it express itself as strength.
To the plants, this narrative is altered and while they agree with the critique of “good” and “evil” expressed here, they argue that Nietzsche does not completely move beyond the simplistic human fascination with power. This is, in their words, the politics of the Flesh. Instead of replacing good and evil with a quest for endless power, the plants call for a rejection of good, evil, and the desire of power. Instead of a “will to power” a nascent “will to disengage.” The alternative conceptions of power and agency here are partially tied, in my estimates, to the differing understanding of time and communication. The plant world, in Swamp Thing, understands time in a cyclical way—such that all space-time is connected to the present—and understands change in a geologic sense. So while, to the leaf, the aphid can be viewed as evil, that evilness becomes inconsequential when, in the cosmic unfolding of seasons, that aphid is eaten by the ladybug that becomes food for the soil. If everything is connected then the leaf, aphid, ladybug, and soil are already one. As such, it is not good and evil that need to be avoided but the power—power serves as a vehicle to concentrate and centralize, destroying the delicate balance of life, and as such is the closest there is a to a concept of evil.
The difference between the plant ethic and the human ethic is most clearly articulated in the two-issue series arch found in issues 23 and 24. In these issues, Dr. Woodrue, the Floronic Man, consumes a tuber that he stole from Swamp Thing while performing his botanical autopsy. The Floronic Man, due to a failed lab experiment, is already partially a plant and has the power to communicate and slightly control plant life. The tuber amplifies his power greatly and he can now control plants at a planetary level. In these issues, the Floronic Man decides that humanity has caused too much destruction to the environment and that humanity as a whole needs to suffer for the sins of civilization. In order to punish the flesh he orchestrates a plan to amplify plant life throughout the world, having trees, flowers, and grasses grow exponentially. His goal is to over oxygenate the atmosphere, in effect killing all human and nonhuman life on the planet. In his mind, after the flesh of the world are dead a new epoch will arise, the rule of the green.
Woodrue launches his plan in rural Louisiana, which becomes the epicenter to the growing and sprawling plant invasion of earth. When first confronted, by a woman in the town who cries “no more!” to him he responds:
Did you say ‘no more’ when you and your fellow hamburgers were stripping the land bare? When they dipped their chainsaws into the tender flesh of my people? Did you say “no more” then? There will be more. Lots more. For I am Wood-rue. I am the pain the bitterness of the woods. I am come to announce the green millennium! I am one with the wilderness…its will works through me. For I asked of it, saying ‘what should you have me do?’ and it is said ‘purify’ and it said ‘destroy.’ ‘Destroy the creatures that would destroy us, that would destroy the ecosphere with their poisons and bulldozers! Cut them down, like blighted wood. Let us have another green world…Another green world, as there was at the beginning, before the beasts crawled up out of the oceans…those long green centuries…where no birds sang…where no dogs barked…where there was NO NOISE! WHERE THERE WAS NO SCREAMING MEAT!! For I am the anger and regret of the forest.
In this encounter, as Beinke and others have noted the Floronic represents the most destructive, misanthropic and angry aspects of the deep ecological tradition. In this narrative, that response is defined as counter to the way of the plant. In the story, he represents the “burning rage of the dying planet” but he does so in a deeply human way. In this way, a critique of deep ecology emerges, in which it is shown that humans place their emotions and desires on the world at large even though the natural world does not share human emotions like anger, rage, and revenge.
The human desires of Woodrue are instantly noticed by Swamp Thing because a red (fleshy) growth appears within the green, infecting the plant world with an alien anger and rage. He says, “There is another mind in the green. It crawls like a cancer…painting everything with the sticky darkness of old blood…” The human desires of Woodue become a cancerous and dangerous growth to the green since the desires and emptions of humans are categorically different from the plant. Swamp Thing confronts Woodrue and in the battle that ensues, he breaks Woodrue’s arm (highlighting how very human he is). In response, confused, Woodrue asks, “why do you keep hurting me” and Swamp Thing responds “Because…you…are hurting… the green.” The dialogue and panels that follow, masterfully highlight the tension between the plant and human understanding of the world (as understood and expressed by Alan Moore). In these images (side) Swamp Thing highlights the human violence of Woodrue’s, asserting that the death and destruction that he seeks to inflict on the world, the abuse of and acquisition of power, are human desires not plant desires. By speaking for the plants and infecting their message with anger and rage, he is not only harming human life but also plant life. As Swamp Thing says, “Look! Look at…all…this! This…is not…the way …of the wilderness. This…is the way…of man. Your way, Woodrue…The green…did not do this. You did. This…is what…you wanted. You are ill…Woodrue… …and you poison…the green…with your desires…” What flows from this conversation is an understanding that plants do not have anger, or desire revenge but instead seek balance and harmony. Of course, what emerges from this that is never fully explored, is then why does the green need a superhero defender? If time and cycles maintain some sort of karmic harmony and, as an avatar of the green he must forgo the desire for power, then why have a powerful avatar in the first place?
Some form of answer appears in Swamp Thing #32 an issue titled “pog.” The issue, which is an homage to Walt Kelly’s series Pogo, tells the story of an alien race fleeing the environmental destruction of their planet. The Pog are shocked and depressed to see that humankind is doing exactly what they did, and the entire issue stands as a pretty straightforward critique of human consumption and environmental destruction. What emerges form this story is a realization that Swamp Thing’s job is not to acquire power but to be a check on power, to wield power but not to take power. In doing this job he is tasked to protect the overgrowth of the green when need be, to limit his own power when it gets too great, and to stop the destruction of humans from getting out of hand. His role is that of a balance maker and not as a warrior for the Green—as Woodrue thought himself to be.
Coming up on Friday is Part 3: Love in the form of chlorophyll: Can Plants love?