Last summer, ‘Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman’ by the poet Rebecca Tamás had a swarm of anticipation around it. Her poetry collection ‘WITCH’ (2019) and her co-editorial role in ‘Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry’ (2018) had already established the York St John University lecturer as a critically acclaimed writer, crafting a world of linguistic ritual and transformation around her. With these successes behind her, people were buzzing to read Tamás’ five new short prose essays. Through literary strangeness and its many mystic references, the book presents alternative modes of thinking—ways for us to feel reconnected with each other and the plains, wildflowers, seas and forests around us. While this book does, to some extent, hold a place in my heart specifically connected to the hotly political and momentous summer of 2020, it also marks a new standard for arts, literature and contemporary thought, which promotes a more inclusive future.
‘Strangers’ begins with the essay ‘On Watermelon’ and traces back to the short-lived establishment of the True Levellers in 1649: a small community of radical co-operative land owners in Surrey also called the ‘Diggers’. Sifting through different periods of time, Tamás discusses the justice and ethics behind social and political acts of commodifying areas of land. Many of these have long been negatively effecting indigenous peoples of the Amazon and indigenous and First Nations peoples in North America, but will soon be effecting even more people in sub-Saharan Africa as expressed by Black Lives Matter UK protests in 2016. Referring to the way in which 19th century colonial attitudes toward natural resources and the exploitation of other people through slavery and other systems of oppression have shaped how the majority of us living in the West exist in the world, Tamás seeks to unify readers by examining a past where other, more levelled and just relationships between humans and nonhumans were considered somewhat plausible. It is this revelation of radically different histories which, for me, captures the sensation of life in the summer of 2020, when countries like the USA, UK and Belarus faced so much political upheaval during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It does all this, while still encouraging a future in which we can continue to seriously reflect and learn from our past and current actions. But implementing this change would require a new perspective regarding how we identify ourselves and others, a perspective that sees everyone and everything as part of and necessary to our ecosystem.
Tamás’ narratives and the very way in which they are crafted propose more ecologically-minded and intersectional ways of thinking. The author is present in her creative choices, but also through the glimpses into her personal background and experiences, which never overwhelm the ecosystem she is trying to preserve. Rather, she presents an environmental practice where humanity, or a single human specifically, is not central. Tamás simply coexists with the histories, mythologies and the nonhuman world woven through the book. In ‘On Panpsychism’, her own thoughts and the essay’s structure are interrupted by a series of single-line paragraphs:
The sheeny, various, prickling thought of fields of wildflowers.
The bellowing, vast indelibly blue and subtle thought of storms out at sea.
The slicing, nervous, fruitful, bright thought of a primal forest.
The layered, smooth, tingling, rich thought of humid wetlands.
The cold, to the point, attentive, virulent thought of a moor in winter.
Tamás, in researching the theory that in nature everything has a mind, admits that she does not want to live in a world where human cognition is seen as higher up the hierarchy than the rest of the world. Instead she wants to keep a multiplicity: “One mind is never going to be enough for me. Never should be enough.” Conservation can only do so much until we (mainly those of us in the Global North) change how we position ourselves in relationship to Earth’s other human and nonhuman inhabitants. One way of doing this is to consider the medium of thought itself and change its very parameters. As demonstrated by her syntax and approach to writing, Tamás brings us closer to this state of coexistence, founded on deep-rooted and mutual respect.
The essay ‘On Greenness’ validates one of the ways coexistence can be encouraged within contemporary art practices. In Tamás’ consideration of the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta’s ‘earth-body works’ and the cross-cultural Pagan figure of the Green Man, the shape-shifting boundaries between us, art and language begin to take hold. As with Mendieta’s work, which is beautifully formed through Tamás’ descriptions through her exploration of the gaps and spaces Mendieta’s body leaves in the group. Building around the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, Tamás explores how artists cannot see themselves as outside or separate from nature, and the stories we have built around it. Mendieta’s work is an example of this as it shows the body as part of earth’s geological past. In addition, folklores like that of the Green Man have almost always promoted the conservation of the environment, so a very valid way of preserving the environment is to keep oral and visual histories as part of our lives and art practices.
The final chapter, ‘On Mystery’, flutters to the author’s memories of her paternal family’s Romanian and later Hungarian roots to unfold folkloric references as mysticism and mythology that have surrounded our lives. The text preserves many of these modes of holiness, at times manmade and at others deeply earth-bound, despite our more-than-rocky history with nature. Tamás demonstrates that folklore and mythology exist because of us and our ancestors. But as with conserving our ecosystems, we must now act to keep it—and by extension ourselves—alive.
I want to say ‘Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman’ is a transformative book, but rather it is a book of reformation. It digs through constructs and history to break down harmful systems of belief and decolonise environmental activism, demystifying the interrelation between human behaviour and the environment. Like the Diggers of 17th century Surrey, the book ploughs forward to a future in which everyone can exist. Having felt the first rays of spring 2021, albeit unusually and unsettlingly early this year, ‘Strangers’ is an insightful book to read during the season of rebirth, reconstruction and change.