Landscape digests Darwin

Decomp is nature’s translation scientific literature

In the latest joint effort from Canadian poets Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott the two are standing on the shoulders of giants. In this case the perch is evolutionary father Charles Darwin and his view of nature as a source for intellectual revelation.

In 2009 Scott and Collis trekked deep into B.C. forests to begin research for their book Decomp (Coach House Books) bringing Darwin with them in the form of On the Origin of Species which spawned modern biology.

“If On the Origin of Species is Charles Darwin’s reading of nature” say the authors “ Decomp is nature’s reading of Darwin.”

What do they mean by that? The reason for bringing the book along on their nature walks (by which I mean five copies in five distinct ecosystems) wasn’t to use it as you might expect as handbook or guide for scientific observation but instead to leave it behind in the ground so that nature could “observe” it.

A year of letting nature do its thing and the resulting wet bricks of words foraged from the forests became the authors’ prized field notes. Here the idea of “reading” as sifting through digesting or metabolizing material is demonstrated physically by the landscape.

As a result the intellectual self is naturalized as a consumer of code whether linguistic or biochemical in form. Words reordered deleted and mashed up by nesting birds earthworms and searching roots — these rotted overgrown shredded and transported living objects take on the significance of an illuminated manuscript handed down from an invisible author.

Decomp enacts a cyclical translation (nature’s reading of man’s reading of nature) in a plethora of forms: full-colour documentary photographs of the hikes and rediscovered books interpretive poetry observatory notes and transcriptions of the de- (or re-)composed books. These latter are the most poignant and succinct components of Decomp and the transcriptions appear throughout in highlighted boxes called “The Readable.” Ruins of Darwin’s voice remain if extremely truncated in a brave move that repositions poetry beyond semantic meaning such as: “during the period great piles of or life had erritory hardly.” This release from meaning echoes postmodern author Jean-François Lyotard’s warning that “To arrest the meanings of words once and for all that is what Terror wants.”

Linguistic deconstruction is apprehended here through the lens of speculative realism which posits a reality beyond human thinking. We are not just asking ourselves to review the meanings of words we’re asking a generative operation — which frees us from our imbedded perceptions — to do it for us. But this is more than appealing to random chance operations. Decomp proposes a new subjectivity or “mind” in nature itself — that doesn’t merely generate these words but authors them according to its own context and purpose. It is William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch meets Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass .

Students of Derek Beaulieu’s English 315 class at the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) are recognizing a new subjectivity found in nature too. Under Beaulieu’s assignment they’re responding to Decomp in their own audio visual and performative works. Student Mathew Lindenberg created a computer program that “goes through Darwin’s On the Origin of Species sentence by sentence and uses the words and characters in each sentence to make visuals and manipulate sound waves.” Another student Sarah Kelly whose piece remixes primal screams recorded in one of ACAD’s stairwells recognizes that “In our quest for individual identities we let our own ‘taxonomies’ create distance between us and forget that human beings are all part of the same Being….”

In a world accelerating to the point where technology takes over it is refreshing and heartening to see artists and poets letting nature do the talking instead.

ACAD students will celebrate the sound art created in response to Decomp at a public event on December 5 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Room 595 with Scott in attendance. Scott will also read at Pages Books on Kensington the following night December 6 with Calgary poet Aaron Giovannone ( The Loneliness Machine ).