I am participating in a writing retreat on Phillip Island, a beachside location popular with tourists weekending from Melbourne, on the Australian southeast coast. Summer is on the horizon and the days are growing steadily longer and warmer. I wake early in the morning to perform a simple ritual. I run down the gravel track to the beach, losing myself in the half-formed thoughts of the lucent dawn; losing myself in the unfamiliar meanders of the coastal trails. I spot five elegant grey geese. I stop to chat with two dogs and their human. I hear the laugh of a kookaburra high in a great gumtree. I startle a pair of hooded plovers. I silently observe some small crabs in the intertidal rocky outcrop on the beach. I return to my bleary-eyed colleagues with their coffees and their notebooks and list the morning’s animal encounters.
Lounging on the balcony overlooking the water, I am struck by the spontaneity of it all. Had I turned left at that intersection, I would have missed my chat with Madge the French bulldog. Had I jogged west along the beach rather than east, I would have missed the lava blister and its exoskeletal inhabitants. Equally, in taking these random pathways and plotting this sporadic route, did I miss out on interactions with other beings? Was there a cat or a kangaroo just around the corner whom I never visited? “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”, etc.
Librarians’, archivists’, and museum curators’ principal modes of collating, archiving, and siloing routinely render the more-than-human invisible at worst, and hard-to-find at best.
This morning’s observations draw an important parallel with my work in the archive. Librarians’, archivists’, and museum curators’ principal modes of collating, archiving, and siloing routinely render the more-than-human invisible at worst, and hard-to-find at best. As a result, researchers’ locating of historical evidence of the more-than-human is often incidental. That is, historians usually happen upon them spontaneously. We do not get to greet them in the same pre-planned manner in which we are introduced to the archived humans; we bump into them suddenly, unexpectedly.
Of course, any researcher across history’s many sub-disciplines working in an archive long enough will tell of a surprising and unexpected find. Documents that contradict existing evidence, or that are catalogued incorrectly, can lead to exciting new side projects and endless rabbit warrens. But in the case of more-than-human histories, these primary source surprises are not rare; they are the principal mode of operating.
This essay attempts to articulate the peculiarities of this kind of research, and tease out what this means for our writings. I suggest that, rather than “discovering” or even “encountering” animals in the archive, historical researchers “bump into” them.1 These ways of bumping into archival animals have resonances with real-world human–non-human interactions. Resonances that historians’ reflections on their methodologies sometimes omit. Researching the more-than-human of the past is an often unplanned, spontaneous, random, affair. The archival animal rarely shows up on databases—rarely calls out. Here, I want to ask, “what changes in our writing when we acknowledge the accident of our encounters with the archival animal?” I want to propose that these actions might be better characterised as “bumpings into.”
Researching the more-than-human of the past is an often unplanned, spontaneous, random, affair.
Once, historians referred to early colonists’ encounters with First Peoples as “discoveries.” Waking to the imbalance in this framing, scholars today prefer “encounters”.2 This introduces the agentiveness that both historical parties possessed. More-than-human histories, with their interests in human–non-human relations, might consider how these relations are uncovered in archival collections. I propose “bumping into” as a method of archival research. Historians of the more-than-human do not always discover useful sources, nor encounter them. These verbs obscure the often unexpectedness of the meetings; imply a deliberateness that is not always so. “Bumping into” does three things: It conveys the suddenness with which these findings occur—it maintains honesty. It presents the archival animal as a once-alive being, capable of thought and action—it maintains agency. And it demonstrates the challenge of scouring databases and planning visits to the archive—it maintains affect.
When I write about “bumping into” non-humans, I acknowledge the randomness. In Traces of the Animal Past, this kind of archival work is indexed under “animals, looking for.”3 In her chapter in that same book, J. Keri Cronin calls it “hidden in plain sight,”4 and offers an anecdote about locating non-human animals as they related to Ontario’s Welland Canal archives. “Bumping into” also implies the impossibility of preparing to greet these records. Because they spring up randomly, it is difficult to plan for a visit to the archives. This difficulty can manifest in many ways. It can be hard to know how much time to allocate to a particular folder. It can be hard to grieve for the animals killed (for it is in death that many animals present themselves archivally).5 And it can be hard to sift through great haystacks of unrelated material to get to the unpromised needle hopefully buried deep inside. This necessarily changes our relationship with the materials in ways that historians only occasionally acknowledge. Writing about these introductions as “bumpings into” expresses an intellectual honesty and a vulnerability that I want to keep front and centre in my work.
Writing about these introductions as “bumpings into” expresses an intellectual honesty and a vulnerability that I want to keep front and centre in my work.
Preparatory to my most recent visit to the National Archives of Australia (hereafter “NAA”), in Canberra, Australia, I had requested access to a document purporting to relate to Birrarung (Yarra River). According to the NAA’s online database, the document was a series of photographs taken near Birrarung in 1945.6 When I arrived to see for myself, I was greeted by hundreds of monochrome prints that—aside from the mid-century river—also included lyrebirds, koalas, horses, kangaroos, and swans. Plants were also abundant in the collection: there was barley, wheat, and eucalyptus. I entered the archive that morning expecting views of the river. It was a great shock to bump into dozens of non-humans along the way. I was ill-prepared for the abundance of life. It would have taken hours—far more time than my schedule had allowed—to properly investigate and introduce myself to the subjects of these photographs. Instead, I had to be satisfied with scribbling a few notes in my diary and taking photographs to study closer back at the office. It is important to note that in this case, there was no mention of “animals” anywhere in the record’s description. I bumped into these archived creatures just as I had bumped into those on my morning jog on Phillip Island the following weekend.
When writing about the methods used for researching more-than-human histories, the concept of “bumping into” retains the organic, unplanned spontaneity of these encounters. The incidental nature of “bumping into” also suggests that, had things gone differently, those archived animals could easily have remained unfound. Had different search terms been used, other results—better or worse—might have shown up.“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”, etc.
- For more on methodology, affect, and terminology in the archive, see, for example: Lynette Russell, “Affect in the Archive: Trauma, Grief, Delight, and Texts. Some Personal Reflections”, Archives and Manuscripts 46, no. 2 (2018), 200–207; Amanda Lourie, “Affect and the Archive”, Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria 19 (2021), 71–77; Marika Cifor and Anne J. Gilliland, “Affect and the Archive, Archives and their Affects: An Introduction to the Special Issue”, Archival Science 16 (2016), 1–6; Marc J. Ventresca and John W. Mohr, “Archival Research Methods”, in Joel A. C. Baum, ed., The Blackwell Companion to Organizations: Organizational Epistemology and Research Methods (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002), 805–828; Alexis E. Ramsey, et al., eds., Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 2010). ↩︎
- See, for example: “About the Project”, Global Encounters & First Nations Peoples: 1000 Years of Australian History [website], accessed 14 Nov. 2023, <https://www.monash.edu/arts/monash-indigenous-studies/global-encounters-and-first-nations-peoples/about-the-project>. ↩︎
- Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj, eds., Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2022), 410. ↩︎
- J. Keri Cronin, “Hidden in Plain Sight: How Art and Visual Culture Can Help Us Think about Animal Histories”, in Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj, eds., Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2022), 346. ↩︎
- See, for example: Andrew Robichaud, “Visualising the Animal City: Digital Experiments in Animal History”, in Jennifer Bonnell and Sean Kheraj, eds., Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2022), 310–311. ↩︎
- NAA: A8139/L812 [Yarra River and Alexandra Gardens (Vol. 1, page 25, L812)]. ↩︎
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