This is the eighth post in Fire Stories, a 12 part series of pieces edited by Mica Jorgenson and written by environmental historians and their disciplinary neighbours about encountering fire in the archives and on the land.
“My garden is dead: my plants, my chickens, my bees. I put my hand out and I closed my eyes, nothing could be done.” These were the words of my 52-year-old friend Aliye Çınarlı who wept down on her garden in the village of Osmaniye, Marmaris which is set against a backdrop of pine clad hills along the historic and ancient Aegean coast of Turkey. On 29 July, 2021, I sat down to listen to my friend lament her lost home and companion species. Even as I tried to comprehend the gravity of her tragedy, I watched smoke drifting over the mountains and a hotel complex from nearby fires in Manavgat. Under a brown rust sky, everything and everywhere suddenly became ashes.
Turkey witnessed the country’s worst-ever wildfire season in July and August 2021, when 1,700 square kilometres of forests in the Mediterranean region turned into ashes due to a series of more than two hundred wildfires. The fires represented the culmination of development in interface areas, extensive grazing and industrialisation, timber harvesting and urban sprawl on the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts of Turkey, which have altered the native vegetation and modified fire regimes since the 1930s.
Turkey is just a single front within a wider story of environmental trauma, with severe effects for humans, environment, and climate. In the summer of 2021 while Turkey was devastated by wildfires, fires also burned in southern Greece, forcing evacuations of villages outside the western port city of Patras. Blazes were also reported in Bulgaria and Albania. High temperature warnings had been issued in North Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria and parts of Romania and Serbia.
Looking at these catastrophes more closely and considering the way we bear witness to wildfires and forest fires calls for a new understanding of the politics and poetics of witnessing, for everyday life, for survival, and for healthy psychological responses to both present and future scenarios of loss. In a time of suffering, I ask: First, how can witnessing shift from a straightforward observance of catastrophe to a more nuanced attendance to the entangled wounding and shared vulnerability of nonhuman and nonhuman communities? Second, what can affective encounters with the more-than-human-world teach us, by attracting our attention to the entangled process of witnessing in its spiritual, natural, material communal modes?
In answer, I suggest that “slow witnessing,” a slow-paced, environmentally just and environmentally inclusive concept usefully challenges the human figure as the sole witness in the age of the Anthropocene.
Of Ashes and Slowness
In her moving poem “Ashes,” contemporary poet Jorie Graham writes:
Loam sits quietly, beneath me, waiting to make of us what it can, also smoke, waiting to ever more entry (…) me thinning but almost still here in spirit, far in, far back, behind, privy to insect, bird, fish- are there nothing but victims. A universe can die (..) Now listen for the pines, the bloom, its littering, the wild hacking of sea, bend in each stream…1
My concept of “slow witnessing” is inspired by Graham’s words. These lines trouble the established understanding of the boundary lines between the self and the other. Graham suggests that our boundaries are time-and space bound, not eternal. Human suffering in “Ashes” is boundaried, and I would argue a “slow” human and nonhuman enmeshment. Our edges only touch for a moment and in that moment, we slow down and pause: we smell the smoke, we smell the dying earth and we become ashes. We listen for the pines, we keep an ear out for the bloom, for the wild hacking of sea.
Graham’s lines inspire me to pause here and focus on “slowness”2 to rediscover the bases for reciprocal affection that produce different relationship to the world, from the act of breathing and witnessing to the creation of distinct worldviews. In this way, “Ashes” opposes acceleration of the modern world, which, for Hartmut Rosa, entails a new form of authoritarianism.3 Rosa argues that with increasing pace of life, time seems to flow ever faster, making our relationships to each other and the world problematic. We can read Graham’s “Ashes” through Rosa’s perspective and understand how the poem functions as a corrective to the poetics and politics of acceleration. This reading enables slow time and space to emerge for rethinking witnessing from the angle of the Earth as a whole.
How might “Ashes” apply to the moment I stood under a brown rust sky in the summer of 2021 in Manavgat? It tempts us to slow down and pay attention to the entanglement of material, affective, and nonhuman communal worlds as we witness wildfires. The very moment of becoming an ash-bounded self on the Mediterranean coast exceeds the capacity of the traditional approach to witnessing as a homogenous and linear human capacity, often imagined as a verbal act of narrativisation of violence.4 On the contrary, the ash-bounded self moves beyond the idea of historicity solely designated to the agency of human language, or culture. It is poised to question the monolithic formulations of how we bear witness to a catastrophe, shifting our established understanding of accountability and responsibility from a pure focus on the idealised image of the human to an entangled arena of the multispecies belonging.
I observed how my friend Atiye linked human and nonhuman beings as well as their stories of harm, suffering, and vulnerability in an expanded multispecies frame during the massive wildfires in Turkey. Atiye’s grieving rejects the well-established assumption that it is only humans who are receptive and responsive in times of wildfires. “Slow witnessing” then is an invitation for interpreting the world as a part of an ethics of response-ability (an ethical capacity to be able to respond to the varied need of ecological others), rather than as a fast-paced human-centric agency. In times of massive forest fires all around the globe, “slow witnessing” disrupts the dominance of human bodies as the only mournable subjects and thus offers an expanded vision for coping with environmental harms and nonhuman losses entailed in wildfires.
- Jorie Graham, Fast, (Harper Collins, 2017).
- Conceptually, I depart here from the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers’s conceptualisation of “slow science” as a reaction to the hegemony of fast science which refers not so much to a question of speed but to the imperative not to slow down, not to waste time or else. See Isabelle Stengers, Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science, (Polity Press, 2017).
- Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World, translated by James Wagner (Polity Press, 2020).
- Through the word “attest,” traditional concept of witnessing signifies perception through sight or apprehension and denotes an action of providing or serving as clear evidence of something. According to trauma and memory scholar Shoshana Felman, the word highlights the “irreplaceable performance of the act of seeing,” as a matter of public duty. This entails an imaginary of the witness as a historical subject category while prioritising the association between witnessing and human verbal articulation; witnessing and the supremacy of the sight or the human “eye.” See Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (Routledge, 1992).