Environmental Humanities

A howling lamentation

This text, co-authored with Isabelle Stengers, is a preface for the forthcoming French translation of Deborah Bird Rose’s Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. This is an incredible book and I am delighted to have played a small role in sharing it with a new group of readers. Debbie passed away in late 2018. You can read more about her and her work on her blog.


“It was talking to those dingo dreaming guys, [talking] with Old Tim, that I realised, he has been through slaughter and he’s a survivor of genocide. He’s a survivor in a really particular and peculiar way, and he is sitting here witnessing the war against dingoes. He is seeing another round of extinctions. He knows the white guys would just like to get rid of dingoes forever more, so he is seeing it happen now to his nonhuman kin. That, I think, was what drove me to the understanding that you can’t sit and listen to this stuff in an innocent way, you can’t be detached from it, you can’t be over involved with it either (it’s not your story); and so you have to listen in a really different, attentive, way.”

~ Deborah Bird Rose, interview[i]

Wild Dog Dreaming is a howling lamentation in the face of the ongoing death-work of our times. But it is also a cry of love, passion, and outrage, an effort to imagine, honour, and enact other possibilities for living and dying well. These are the issues that animated the life and writing of Deborah Bird Rose. Working within a time of extinctions, she sought to understand and intervene in the entwined processes of colonisation and environmental destruction, of genocide and ecocide, that characterise our present.

In this book Deborah offers a particular take on these topics. Put simply, it is a book in which dogs guide the way. Amongst many other canine presences, we encounter Bobby, the dog that adopted Emmanuel Levinas and others during their internment in a Nazi prison camp; the fictitious Youngfella of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace; the black dogs that guard King Solomon’s tomb; as well as countless dingoes and wild dogs of outback Australia, variously cherished as kin and marked for extermination as vermin. In weaving together these diverse stories, this book is an invitation into a world of connectivities, a world of beauty and mystery that exceeds us in every way, and yet one that we find ourselves inescapably bound to, accountable for, and at stake in.

Deborah Bird Rose (1946-2018) was a foundational figure in the emergence of the environmental humanities, both in Australia and internationally. Initially trained as an anthropologist, her writing and thinking were characterized by a profoundly dialogical approach. Her great art and skill was to bring disparate stories, ideas, and concepts into generative conversation. Not to create harmony or synergy, but rather to stretch them beyond their comfort zones, rubbing them together to see what sparks might be produced—an approach that she names “firestick wisdom” in this book (Chapter One). In this way she drew on philosophy, literature, theology, ecology, and the broader natural sciences. While all of her work retained a strong grounding in the ethnographic methods of her anthropological training, she powerfully contributed to freeing the environmental humanities as a field from the methodological strictures which ensure the dictatorship of faits accomplis. In order for the contemporary unravelling of so many living environments to be felt, her work shows us that thought and emotion must join and vibrate together, facts must be unfolded, empowered to touch us and to haunt us.

However, the sparks might well reach the whole arrogant edifice of our certainties, of the way we inherit modes of thinking, be they narrative, existential, or scientific. The voice of Deborah Bird Rose comes from far away; drawing on the insights of her Indigenous teachers, she offers a challenge to those who glorify themselves for their understanding that they are alone in the world, this world that they have brought to the very brink of the sixth mass extinction. And her response to the call of the threatened others she relays has nothing exotic about it. Nor is it meant to activate guilt, which can only deepen our feelings of separation from our victims. She speaks to what still lingers in the interstices of our experiences, and of the traditions which shaped them. She does not denounce but connects, connects us with what has been muted by our claims to be the ones who know.  

Today’s biologists tell us about the constitutive interdependency between living beings, they discover, in the words of Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, a network of cross-kingdom alliances that “help keep the entire planetary surface brimming with life.”[ii] But as long as this knowledge is kept separate, as a new conquest of science, it cannot challenge other claims: like them it imposes itself as a fait accompli.

Ecofeminists of the eighties, opposing the fait accompli of male domination, chose to invoke the past, when God was a Goddess: “Souviens-toi. Fais un effort pour te souvenir. Ou, à défaut, invente”.[iii] They knew that there is no contradiction between inventing and remembering, that what mattered was the strength, vitality, and laughter which the conjoined powers of remembering and inventing made them capable of. Deborah tells us about Aboriginal dancers in a ceremony she attends: “For the dancer there is the flip between the feet on the ground and the ground on the feet: Who is the dancer, and who is the danced? If we focus on motion, it is clear that both are dancer and danced, and that the significance of this mutuality is located in the flip back and forth between us.”[iv] As this book flips back and forth between heterogeneous voices—the tortured or recalcitrant ones stemming from their contestations of our traditions of thought, from Job claiming justice, to the Aboriginal “holy fools”—readers may feel this motion, or emotion, which arises from the very interstices of their own experience and awakens them to the call of the living world.  

Born and raised in the USA, Rose came to Australia in 1980 to carry out her PhD fieldwork. She began her academic career living and learning with the Aboriginal communities of Yarralin and Lingarra in the Northern Territory. During her first few years in Australia, Deborah spent a great deal of time on country with these communities as well as with natural scientists working and learning together. She recounted her initial amazement as the same knowledgeable Aboriginal elders worked with botanists, geologists, hydrologists, and other specialised scientists, possessing a depth of knowledge across each of these (for some people separable) domains. This knowledge arose out of kinship relations, interactions of attention and care.

Deborah’s first major monograph, Dingo Makes Us Human (1992), was, in a sense, her most conventional ethnographic piece of writing—an effort to give an account of the way of life of the communities of Yarralin and Lingarra. Other books followed, like Nourishing Terrains (1996) and Country of the Heart (2002), both efforts to articulate relationships with “country”—a term that has a specific meaning in Aboriginal English, one connected to Dreaming stories and relationships of nourishment, knowledge, and responsibility (see Chapter Two).

This was to be a lifelong relationship. Over the next 40 years, she continued to visit the communities of Yarralin and Lingarra and work and think with them. In addition to being her friends and adopted family, Deborah worked with the community at Yarralin—as she did with numerous others around the country—on their claims to have the lands stolen through colonisation returned to them. In 2016, just a couple of years before Deborah’s death, the Traditional Owners were finally awarded an Aboriginal Freehold title on the Yarralin lands.    

Again and again throughout her life Deborah returned in her writing to the stories and insights shared with her by her Indigenous teachers, people like the clever man Old Tim Yilngayarri, Daly Pulkara, Hobbles Danaiyarri, and Jessie Wirrpa. As these elders passed away, one by one, she continued their conversations, working to keep them moving in the world. As she put it in an interview shortly before her death:

“When I go back to my notebooks, or to stories that I’ve told in one context that I want to return to in another context, they just keep unfolding. It hasn’t reached bottom; it never would reach bottom—there just isn’t a bottom.”[v]

These are stories that describe and perform a world of kinship, of intimate connectivities, reciprocities and responsibilities. But their unfolding has transformed the one who writes them. Deborah had come to Australia with the same kinds of environmental sensibilities as many people of her generation, in Yarralin she learnt to see a world in which the social and cultural did not stop at the edges of the human, in which “the environment” took on a whole different set of meanings and significances. Also she realised that to really understand this world, she needed to look beyond the conventional approaches of anthropology. As she put it:

“In a kin-based society, where what’s happening is in your country, to and with your nonhuman kin, anthropology just isn’t going to take you there. You really have to have a different suite of skills, of questions, and a different paradigm as to what counts as society.”[vi]

It was this insight that drew Deborah into the space of environmental anthropology, and eventually into the environmental humanities.

Reports from a Wild Country (2004) focused on histories and ongoing realities of colonisation in Australia, working to imagine possibilities for decolonisation and reconciliation. As she explained: “Aboriginal people over the millennia have developed many ways of enhancing both their own lives and the lives of other beings and life support systems. This knowledge is not ‘lost’: Aboriginal people keep offering to share their knowledge for the mutual good of country and people.”[vii] But it was also one of the first books to wonder about the possibility of a Levinasian ethics of responsibility, with the primary duty to answer the “call of others”, in the context of the challenges of life for contemporary Indigenous communities. It was at this time that Deborah really turned to the work of scholars of genocide—especially of the Shoah—to think through the difficulties and obligations she points to in the epigraph to this preface. Levinas was foremost amongst these scholars, but so too was the work of James Hatley, Lev Shestov, Emil Fackenheim, Edith Wyschogrod, and others.

Wild Dog Dreaming (2011), the last book Deborah published before her death, continues in this vein and gives it a wrenching intensity. The stories that animate this book are, for the most part, stories with dogs, dogs we learn to listen to and with. They are in most other ways a disparate, mongrel, collection. In the pages of this book we encounter dog stories from some of Deborah’s Indigenous teachers, especially Old Tim, Daly Pulkara, and Hobbles Danaiyarri. And they are here brought into conversation with Biblical stories like that of Job, the Exodus, and King Solomon. These are, as Deborah puts it, “some of the great stories of my own Western tradition.”[viii] We also encounter novels and poems from J.M. Coetzee, Peter Boyle, and others. Alongside them but also echoing them in a deeply provocative manner, are the insights of the natural sciences, from chemistry to biology and ecology and biosemiotics; as well as those of the Western philosophical canon, from Jacques Derrida and Hannah Arendt, to the (eco)feminist writings of Val Plumwood and Donna Haraway, with a particular emphasis again on the work of philosophers and writers of the Shoah.

Wild Dog Dreaming beautifully embodies Deborah’s generative and imaginative philosophical style. There is a deliberate generosity in her scholarship as she invites diverse thinkers, understandings, and stories, into company with each other. Sometimes these encounters are staged by her in the text, perhaps as a gathering around a camp fire. At other times they take place less explicitly. Always, however, she is interested to see what sparks of creativity and possibility might be struck here. In this way, her writing is an effort to both tell and dwell with stories in a way that works against closure, “keeping the wisdom rolling, allowing it to accumulate, and refraining from declaring final meanings.”[ix]

Those conversations and encounters are testing ones. They are not a show of tolerant relativism, in which each speaks in the name of his or her conviction and others listen politely, keeping nonetheless their specific position. In order for wisdom to roll the invited participants must see some of their cherished abstractions gently opened to what they meant to exclude, or blown by a poetic wind which knows no frontiers. And all the time, unrelentingly, dogs listen; and also, occasionally, Donna Haraway, who was taught by her dog Cayenne and has no indulgence for beautiful words and all too grand stories.

Those who are invited by Deborah are not allies she would passer en revue and ask to testify, each in his or her selected repertoire. Rather, she induces what Haraway calls “contact zones”, drawing on the work of Mary Louise Pratt. For Haraway: “Contact zones are where the action is, and current interactions change interactions to follow. Probabilities alter; topologies morph; development is canalized by the fruits of reciprocal induction. Contact zones change the subject—all the subjects—in surprising ways.”[x]

And through her imagined campfire conversations we come to share the generative working of her demanding but passionate encounters with thinkers of our time, all invited by Old Tim’s laughter and delight to taste and accept, to find themselves crazy and in love with the world of life.

At the time of her death, Deborah had just completed work on a final book, Shimmer, which explores the entangled lives and deaths of humans and flying-foxes in Australia. This book is currently being finalised for publication in English. As in Wild Dog Dreaming and the various essays written over the final two decades of her life, Deborah drew her Indigenous teachers into conversation with Western philosophy and theology, but also with the natural sciences, to take up questions of time, death, connectivity, storytelling, and witness, in new ways—in particular in ways that make them, from the outset, inescapably questions of ethics. Not normative ethics, to be sure, rather processual ethics: “being touched and responding”[xi]—or connective ethics: “open, uncertain, attentive, participatory, contingent, as one is called upon to act, to engage in the dramas of call-and-response, and to do so on the basis of that which presents itself in the course of life.”[xii]  

This ethics is at work in her approach to story(telling). Deborah insisted that stories do not just recount connectivities, they also weave new ones. They are about forging relationships, about learning to see and understand, and as a result about being drawn into new obligations and responsibilities. There are no abstract ethical systems here; instead, as Deborah put it: “Stories themselves have the potential to promote understandings of embodied, relational, contingent ethics,” to “pull readers into ethical proximity.”[xiii] Through the slow, careful, work of paying attention to the world—in our own or others’ stories—we come to understand, to be connected, to be redone, in ways that just might enable better possibilities for life.

But she also knew that the power of stories is very far from being absolute. She argued that even if there is only death, even if nothing is to be gained through “writing into the great unmaking,”[xiv] there is still an obligation to take up this work. Profoundly indebted to philosophers and writers of the Shoah, she insisted on the importance of storytelling in the mode of witnessing, of refusing to turn away from suffering, from violence, from injustice, an act of “keeping faith.” To refuse to turn away, she argued, is “to remain true to the lives within which ours are entangled, whether or not we can accomplish great change.”[xv] To turn away, to disavow, to forget: all are modes of abandonment that must be resisted, perhaps more than ever in times like these, times of colonisation and extinctions when living beings and their ways of life are under threat en masse.

These senses of the ethical importance of storytelling—as a mode of connection and avowal—ground Wild Dog Dreaming, as they do much of Deborah’s work. In this way, this book is not simply one about ethics; rather it is an act of ethics, an effort to interrupt the relentless momentum of contemporary death-work to make a space for something else. It is an effort to summon a pack of dogs into this difficult space.

In the chapter titled “Job’s Grief,” Deborah tells the Aboriginal story of the dingo and the moon in dialogue with Job’s biblical struggle with God. Each story helps us to see the other differently, to draw out possibilities for relationship and responsibility. In this case, the dialogue becomes a site for reimagining the conclusion to Job’s story, a reimagining that inserts a canine presence: Blackie, a dog who befriends Job in his time of greatest need. “Being a dog, she would not be fussy about open sores and flaking skin, bad breath or loathsome odors. More than that, she would see him not as a sickly shell but as a full human.”[xvi] In other chapters, a host of living and dead, philosophical and literary, canines guide the way. In each case they become vital figures for new ethical possibilities. More than simply embodying the good, they interrupt and reorient, transforming the status quo through the provision of comfort, connection, recognition, guidance, loyalty, and more.

In no small way, Deborah Bird Rose’s work provided the foundation for the interdisciplinary environmental humanities in Australia and has in turn been profoundly influential in the shaping of the field around the world. She articulated a vision of the environmental humanities as a passionate and engaged space of scholarship. She did this in her own writing, but also in her stewardship of the field as a founding editor of the journal Environmental Humanities, as a convenor of early conferences and workshops, and as a supervisor of numerous PhD students.

As such, the engagement of Deborah might be seen as relaying the challenge with which so many of us who work in the academic landscape are confronted. This challenge was first enunciated by Virginia Woolf’s “Think we must”, in her Three Guineas, when she wondered about the difference women could make in the both submissive and violent academic institution. It was reiterated in another guise with the furious cry of the Afro-American thinker, Audre Lorde’s, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – those tools which, in the name of critical reason, were analytically dissecting the need and desire to nurture each other, dispossessing of their real power “those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older…” And it was dramatised by the way academic feminist critiques anathematised the reclaiming practices of ecofeminists. For those of us who inherit this challenge, reading Wild Dog Dreaming is an event. Seeing that “one can write like that” makes us realise that Deborah Bird Rose made the kind of difference which Woolf despairingly doubted academic women would be able to achieve. She learned not to think about but to think with those who taught her how to handle tools from science, philosophy and theology, and to cry and dream with dogs. And she empowered a new generation of researchers to dare and to craft stories which conjoin the demands of scholarship with the art of careful, attentive connection, and with the art of learning to be transformed by the demands of the connection.

This passionate scholarship is at the heart of Wild Dog Dreaming. It is a scholarship grounded in the insights and commitments of Indigenous and decolonial thought, of feminist philosophy, of multispecies and more-than-human perspectives. In short, it is a scholarship that insists that “the environment” is from the outset relational, and so ethical. As explicated in this book, this is an understanding of connectivity that works against the cliché notion that everything is connected to everything, and that instead insist on attention to the specificity of the relationships that hold us together: dependent, vulnerable, and responsible to one another. At the heart of her philosophy is an insistence that there is no outside to connectivity—only the arrogance, delusion, and destruction of attempts to occupy such a position.

Through her body of work, Deborah modelled a scholarship that was committed to life; to exploring the living world in its beauty and its challenges, and to making a stand for flourishing, inclusive, possibilities. She opened up space for the next generation to write, think, and research in new ways. Put simply, her work was animated by and aimed to draw us all into a kind of “world-craziness”. Adopting and adapting Shestov’s thinking, she called for us to turn towards the earth: “to cherish birth and growth, and to love that which is perilous. … World-craziness immerses us in the power, resilience, connectivity, and uncertainty of the living Earth.”[xvii]

Header image: Dingo in Namadgi National Park. Photo by Washed Over.


[i] Deborah Bird Rose. Unpublished interview conducted by Thom van Dooren on 26 September 2018

[ii] Quoted in Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011), p. 50

[iii] Monique Wittig, Les guérillères (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1969)

[iv] Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, p. 136

[v] Deborah Bird Rose. Unpublished interview conducted by Thom van Dooren on 26 September 2018

[vi] Deborah Bird Rose. Unpublished interview conducted by Thom van Dooren on 26 September 2018

[vii] Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, University of New South Wales Press, 2004, p. 185.  

[viii] Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, p. 4

[ix] Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, p. 15

[x] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), p. 219

[xi] Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, p. 12

[xii] Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, p. 143

[xiii] Deborah Bird Rose, “Slowly ~ Writing into the Anthropocene,” TEXT 20 (2013), p. 9

[xiv] Rose, “Slowly,” p. 8

[xv] Rose, “Slowly,” p. 9

[xvi] Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, p. 78

[xvii] Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, p.118