Meandering Transect: a methodological experiment in environmental humanities

by Jesse Peterson

Behind Linköping University, a stand of pine and oak emerge from the pastures and agricultural architectures of building and lands that hold goats, chickens, and horses. The boundary between this forest (if I can call it that) and fenced in pasturelands blurs. It speaks of transgressions and congregations, as ecology reminds us, of diverse species and landforms. But it is not a hybrid; instead, the porous line embodies “imploded entities, dense material semiotic ‘things’—articulated string figures of ontologically heterogenous, historically situated, materially rich, virally proliferating relatings of particular sorts, not all the time everywhere, but here, there, and in between, with consequences.” It is in this spirit that I have attempted, as part of a course on methods and methodologies in the Environmental Humanities, to “stay with the trouble of complex worlding” from a short strip of landscape in order to see what might come out of my methods of walking, direct sensing, photography, reflection, and creative writing. In this sense, my exercise is a type of meandering transect that activates these methods to try and understand traces of interaction in this boundary caught up amidst being and knowing.


A ditch with water runs straight along the line. Butterflies, orange and black, flap their wings and perambulate above the water. One settles down in the rim of a white plastic cup and spreads its wings. I scare it away. I can’t hear the water today. The water is still and choked with leaf litter. Spiders strafe upon its surface and some insect I can’t identify hops upon it. Water must be familiar ground for those who walk upon it. What might insects tell us about walking on water? This late in the season, that is something I do not dare, even where the water is frozen. Here, at the pond, the outer rim has melted. Water is shrinking from solid into liquid form, condensing in shape. The traces on its surface will soon disappear. I satisfy myself with breaking apart the molasses-colored flowering spikes of cattails.


Time is written in wood. A tree’s body swells and marks time’s passage. It is an internal record, for them, untilbroken, each tree reveals its histories. The entire population records itself along the line. New trees emerge into sunny spaces of the clearing, scraping into the fenceline with pliable green needles. They grow up alongside the wooden posts of hewn oak—geometric fractures of trees past. It’s as if time brings them together to make allies
once again with the old, outer fence in disuse—the trees reclaiming their kin—and to bugle their determination to settle in with the new fence just yards away. Standing in rows, the saplings brave the pruning saw. They invite it. Fresh cut tree stumps that refused to stop growing in their youth contest the spaces ordered by living trees planed into posts, garbed with wire, and left to rot and weather. Wood breaks down by habit and becomes habitat. Lichens attach to fence posts. Spongey toadstools of white snow cling to stumps. Beetles, eggs, bacteria, and molds hide inside the trees on the ground. You can break the wood apart with your bare hands, uncover a new world, and seed it upon the leaf-covered ground.


Plastic bags and cups and broken pieces of Styrofoam spot the divide. A long distance relative of the trees, a cardboard box emblazoned with the word “Ecophon” rests on the grass. It is easy for me to displace these things from this place. Never perceived as authentic residents of the landscape, the trash settles down or sometimes is caught. The land says that these things are not to be released so easily. Do not go!


Two possible shelters—I find the first in branches placed around a tree’s trunk. A makeshift thing, about as ready to be lived in as dashed to the ground. It is a small, precarious thing—lovely and inviting but the ceiling is certainly not tall enough for me to stand inside unhindered. A second shelter arrives. An uprooted tree uplifts the soil and excavates the earth with its roots. It tears open a cavity and exposes the rocks and soil. I jump down in and test the floor. Here is privacy, or at least, from some angles. This is a good place, I think, to urinate.


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