This is the third 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 while the second posting can be found 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.
Love in the form of chlorophyll: Can either Plants or humans actually love?
In addition to exploring the political and ethical world of the plants, Alan Moore uses the pages of Swamp Thing to also explore the intimate and loving relationships between humans and the natural world and in doing so he questions much about our understanding of intimacy. The relationship between Swamp Thing and Abbey Cage (the niece of Anton Arcane, his Lex Luther) transcends much of our culture’s understanding of both love and sex. The boundary blurring relationship between the two is consummated in the issue “Rites of Spring” (issue 34) when Swamp Thing and Abby share a psychedelic tuber (which grows from where his heart would be). The tuber allows for him and Abbey to fuse their consciousness and reach an unparalleled intimacy (image 3). While linked together, she thinks:
Through him, I sprawl with the swamp, sopping, steaming, dragonflies stitching neon threads through the damp air surrounds me…Beyond him I wrestle the planet, sunk in loam to my elbows as it arches beneath me, tumbling endlessly through endless ink. …we…are…one creature…together we know the light, exploding upward in a bird cloud, fragmenting into whirling feathered shrapnel, dancers in the glare…for life is not all that we comprehend. We are the world…there is no contradiction…only the pulse. The Pulse within the world. Within us. Within me.
This “libidinal Ecology,” between Abby and Swamp Thing provides an example of a radical, queer, and ecofeminist understanding of love and relationships. Their relationship prefigures the ecological utopian vision of a non-domineering and holistic relationship between humans and the natural world and asserts that it is only through accepting our emotional and physical vulnerability that the human mind can finally grasp the oneness of the ecological system. By relinquishing control and intimately relating to the world around us, Abbey’s characters shows that we can have a respectful and caring relationship that connects us to the greater world and not isolate us in the ways that patriarchal relationships do.
The caring and loving relationship between Abby and Swamp Thing is seen as a threat to mainstream society. After reporters sneak some pictures of the two in an embrace, and print the photos in the media, Abby is arrested and charged with “crimes against nature” for her intimate and transpecies sexual relationship with Swamp Thing. Fearing the punishment of a vengeful society Abby flees from custody to Gotham, in hopes of hiding within the big city. When she is caught and sent to trial. What follows is the three issue series “the greening of Gotham” in which Swamp Things love of Abby makes him enact green vengeance on the city of Gotham.
In this story arch, Swamp Thing goes to Gotham and holds the city hostage, making all plants in the city grow and take over the streets and buildings. He enters Gotham by connecting to the Green and emerging in the courtroom from a rose that Abby wears on her shirt. Upon forming in the courtroom he declares:
You…are…warning….me? Do…you warn…a hurricane? Do you warn…the earthquake? You have taken …that which I love…away from me…I have come…to reclaim it… … I have tolerated…your species…for long enough. Your cruelty…and your greed….and your insufferable arrogance…you blight the soil…you poison the rivers. You raze the vegetation…till you cannot…even feed…your own kind.…and then you boast…of man’s triumph…over nature. Fools. If nature were to shrug…or raise an eyebrow…then you would all be gone… (Swamp Thing #52)
From there he holds Gotham hostage, filling the streets and buildings with overgrown plants. This effort shuts down the city, clogging the streets, and stopping industrial production. With the streets overrun with the green, children start playing in the newly found forests, people flock to the city to commune with nature, and thieves and the homeless treat the new green spaces as “commons” and build their own spaces. While many folks see the new green Gotham as an uncivilized paradise (the news reports that over 45% of Gotham are either sympathetic or strongly supportive of the green overgrowth) the protectors of civilization see it as a powerful threat. Commissioner Gordon of the Gotham police department says, “You see, he’s given Gotham a taste of some sort of savage Eden. What if the city likes it? Some people out there are acting as if it’s a natural born paradise. But all I see is a green hell (Swamp Thing #53). Even earlier he laments the fact that “This is unbelievable. Two hundred years of civilization reduced to jungle in as many minutes (Swamp Thing #53). This narrative is shown as a common struggle between civilization and nature, in which the dualism between the two is reinforced. The city—the defining aspect of civilization—is made to realize that it has not conquered nature, but if anything, nature has patiently accepted the rise of human power.Yet the vengeance that Swamp Thing forces on the city of Gotham is described as an abuse of his power as an avatar of the green and he is reminded of the Parliament’s warning on taking and abusing power; the story highlights that his love for Abby fuels a rage in him that leads to his downfall. Even though Swamp Thing defeats Batman with no problems, his abuse of power has brought the wrath of the US military on him, who use their power to kill him, right as he gets Abby back from the authorities.
The general reading of this story is that the love Swamp Thing has for Abby might be a remnant of his human consciousness, and therefore the love is not a plant emotion but a human one, and because of that his love corrupted the green in much the same way the hatred of Woodrue did. I find this reading, while potentially consistent with the story, unconvincing. Firstly, love in the story is shown as not being consistent with civilization and in fact a threat to the prevailing order. In a conversation between Batman and Commissioner Gordon, Batman states that “My city is dying because it insists on the letter of the law over love and justice? My city, Jim…dying where it stands.” In this quote, Batman highlights the cold, calculating, and emotionless state of human civilization. If love does not exist with plants or within civilization what is the role and place of love in the world?
Instead, I think its worth exploring what it means to think of love as a natural emotion—as a concept that transcends species—in much the way that Rousseau understands the idea of compassion. Under this understanding, it was not the love of Swamp Thing that made his actions counter the values of the green, but, as I would argue, his concept of ownership. In this narrative, Swamp Thing talks about his love being stolen from him and wanting it back. This language, more than the language of love, seems to me to be counter the values of the green. The green has no conception of ownership or of separation—the entire world is connected into a global consciousness. To view his love as not a part of him, simply because she is in jail, is to missunderstand the connection of the green.
If anything, I would argue that it is the concept of love in Swamp Thing that serves as the mediating emotion between the world of flesh and the world of bark. It is the love between Swamp Thing and Abby, the queer transpecies love that forges intimacy and not isolation that provides the only example of a healthy, peaceful, relationship between humans and the more-than-human world. So what does the plant love entail? Apparently it is a respect and admiration for interconnectedness. To be interconnected in the world is to love the world.
The enormity of the global crisis facing the planet requires humanity to alter its behavior. This requires not only a cognitive change in our relationship with the world around us but material changes to the social, political, and economic structures of our society. In order to really start understanding what it means to live in a healthy relationship with the world around us, to realize that we are, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “members of a community of interdependent parts,” we need to rethink our understanding of politics, economics, agency, and community. We need to creatively imagine what it would mean to actually include the nonhuman world into our political frameworks. To do this we need to learn how to listen to the world around us, we need to imagine the way the world around us thinks and understands itself and we need to, primarily, question our own self-inflated sense of importance.
Works of fiction provide us the best lens in actually thinking through these ideas and concepts. Unlike philosophy, biology, or other mediums, fiction provides a space to creatively explore the limits of the human mind. Swamp Thing serves as one of the most provocative and powerful examples of “uncivilized” writing and as such provides a window into a decentered human politics. By centering the story, not on a human turned plant monster but on a sentient plant, we are able to explore some of the ways in which plant thought differs from that of human thought. While we might not ever be able to know what and how plants think, we still need speculative and creative thinking to push the boundaries of human ideas and to fundamentally question the categories and concepts that have calcified into “common sense” and hegemonic ideas.