In 2006, Scott Smith released his hotly anticipated second novel, The Ruins. Published thirteen years after his debut bestseller A Simple Plan, The Ruins delivered fans an unexpected package. Readers who were expecting a second crime thriller were likely to be surprised, as Smith eschewed the criminal element in favor of a horror novel exploring the deleterious effects of violence and trauma on a group of friends in isolated settings. Smith’s novel begins in a generic postcolonial space with Western, Anglo travelers embarking into an unfamiliar locale against the warnings of the indigenous population until they eventually find themselves threatened by the wrath of a malevolent vine growing wildly in the Mexican jungles. Smith posits fears that gain their power by decentering his characters from their positions of privilege both on the localized scale, through protagonists’ interactions with Indigenous populations while traveling abroad, and, more frighteningly, on global ecological scales, where they are forced to reconsider their own humanity within a larger biosphere. As the [page 75] novel continues, however, the threat from indigenous peoples becomes supplanted by the horror provoked by indigenous plant life. Through each strain of threat, Smith subversively argues that the most frightening prospect for his travelers lies not in their potential death, but in upsetting their preconceived notions of ontological and social hierarchies.
Smith’s work revolves around two young couples—Jeff and Amy, and Stacy and Eric—sharing a final vacation together in Cancun, Mexico before they embark on real-world responsibilities of medical school and employment. At the resort, the couples befriend a traveler from Greece, who adopts the name of Pablo to overcome language barriers, and Mathias, a vacationer from Germany. After they all spend several days together, Mathias informs his newfound companions that his brother, Heinrich, abandoned him to follow a female archaeologist with whom he is smitten to a dig site located on a hill outside of Coba. The group collectively agrees to accompany Mathias on the journey to find his brother, only to be met by several portents along the way. Taxi drivers are reluctant to take them to the site; the local Mayan population attempts to dissuade the travelers with guns; and a dense green foliage prevents them from easily accessing the dig site. Nevertheless, the group marches up the hill only to discover the vine covering the hillside is not only seemingly carnivorous, but sentient. To keep the plant quarantined, the Mayans refuse to let the group retreat from the hill, and as the days go painfully by, the vine systematically preys upon each traveler.
Critics generally greeted The Ruins warmly. An anonymous reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised the work for its “eerie atmosphere and compelling plot” (“The Ruins”), while Noel Murray from the A.V. Club proclaimed The Ruins as “one of the best scary stories since the heyday of Stephen King.” Despite its bestseller status and occasional acclaim, The Ruins has yet to see any substantial critical consideration. Meanwhile, Bryan Curtis, writing for Slate, praised Smith’s first novel A Simple Plan for its probing of “the moral and ethical dilemmas of wealth” but found in The Ruins “nothing […] to suggest such a critique, and it’s worth wondering about the purpose of all this carnage.” Of course, there are important ethical dilemmas readily visible in Smith’s second novel. [page 76] In the relationships of the novel’s protagonists, The Ruins ostensibly highlights the fears of dissolution of community during bouts of intense psychological and physical stress. But Smith’s work also reveals a more substantial fear animated by the reorientation of one’s place in society and nature.
What lies at the heart of this deceptively fast-paced novel is an imbedded fear of the dissolution of hierarchies and the comfort that they provide to people in the positions of greatest power. In this way, Smith crafts a text ripe for literary postcolonial and ecological exploration, and these two fields in unison produce exceptionally fruitful readings. While the broad appeal of each of these fields should be fairly apparent, given that the novel involves a malicious plant attacking Western travelers on foreign soil, I am primarily concerned with these fields as they relate to hierarchies and orders. In his seminal early ecocritcal essay “Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism,” for example, Glen A. Love posits that the “most important function of literature today is to redirect human consciousness to a full consideration of its place in a threatened natural world” (237). As I intend to argue, in The Ruins, Scott Smith performs the precise action of “reevaluation of place” proposed by Love and in doing so precipitates an anxiety that extends beyond the dissolution of community by calling into “question the concepts on which the old hierarchies are built” (Campbell 128). Moreover, Smith forces his characters to become entangled in, to borrow Timothy Morton’s phrase, a “sprawling mesh of interconnection” with both unfamiliar human and plant life (The Ecological Thought 8). As a result, readers witness the dissolution of cultural power through the disintegration of colonial privilege and safety that the American travelers experience abroad, and a concomitant dismantling of biological hierarchy that signals nothing less than the destruction of the Anthropocene,1 which suggests nothing less than the end of mankind itself, that humankind “is like a face drawn in the sand, eventually wiped out by ocean tides” (Dark Ecology 13).
The first current of anxiety that runs through the text is the upsetting of the cultural order in which Smith’s protagonists find themselves, particularly as American travelers juxtaposed against the indigenous Mayan population that lives near the mound. Early in the text, Smith introduces a cultural faux pas by way of a trio of [page 77] Greek characters who “adopted Spanish names […] which they seemed to find very amusing. Pablo and Juan and Don Quixote was how they introduced themselves, saying the names in their strange accents and gesturing at their chests” (4). Significantly, we see here characters feigning interest in Mexican culture, but only as a means to appropriate and mock it, to purport some bastardized connection with the people and culture with which they choose to surround themselves. Similarly, when Mathias first alerts the American travelers of his missing brother, Jeff begins immediately to fantasize about the potential adventure on which he and his cadre might embark: “He was thinking of the jungle, of the ruins there, and what it might be like to explore them. They’d talked vaguely of doing this when they’d first arrived: how they could hire a car, a local guide, and see whatever there was to be seen” (9). Underlying the entire concept is the thought: “why shouldn’t it be fun?” (9, italics in original). Eric, too, later believes of the trip that “They could be travelers, for once, rather than tourists; they could explore and discover” (21). As these passages—two sets of thoughts from two of the male protagonists—reveal, the undergirding ambition to take the trip is not solely an imperialist adventure fantasy, but one of privilege, of the prevailing knowledge that because of their positions as “tourists” capable of “hir[ing] a car, [and] a local guide” (9), there exists, despite foreign and potentially inhospitable circumstances, an implicit resonance of safety.
Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin suggest that there are “certainly connections to be made between tourism and colonialism” (76), and such connections within Smith’s text can help to facilitate an understanding of one of the fears imbedded in the novel. After stumbling into the Mayan village where the locals pay them little attention, the travelers head out on foot in search of the mound to which Mathias’ brother supposedly ventured. When the tourists first discover the trail leading to the Coba mound, they find that “someone tried to hide the path” beneath a thick covering of fern fronds (Smith 48). Given the proximity to the Mayan village and the wariness with which the group was treated by the Mayans, prudence would dictate that the travelers understand that the trail’s concealment signals that they should abandon their course of [page 78] action. Instead, the group attempts to rationalize the blocked path through a rote assessment of the Mayans, the “others,” as either naïve or nefarious: “Maybe it’s got something to do with drugs,” Amy suggests (48). “How’s this? The archaeologists have started to find things of value. The mine isn’t played out. They’re finding silver or emeralds, maybe. Whatever they were mining in the first place” and “They’ve recruited the Mayans to help them keep people away,” Jeff offers (49). In each proposed scenario, the Mayans are treated with a general distrust, if not outright disdain. No potentially charitable suggestion is given as to why the Mayans might not want the Americans venturing into the jungle. And so, in their initial interactions with the Mayan population, the travelers rely on their perceived privilege to escape from situations unscathed. Concerned neither about the Mayans’ ambivalence to their arrival nor about the pains taken to obfuscate the entrance to the trail, the tourists believe that their supposed positions of superiority provide them clearance to pursue whatever plan of action they desire, regardless of its consequences.
The reactions to a potentially deadly standoff between the Mayans and the travelers further highlight their reliance on perceived cultural axioms and anticipates their later reactions to the indigenous plant life. After following the trail, the crew hears “hoofbeats, approaching at a gallop down the narrow trail at their back” (53). A few tense moments later, one of the villagers arrives with a pistol and begins “shouting at them again, waving his arms over his head, pointing back down the trail” (54). Although Stacy wonders aloud what the local could possibly want, the answer is clear to Jeff, who acknowledges, “He wants us to go back” (54). Despite this awareness, Jeff and Mathias attempt to communicate their intentions to the Mayan, but make no motions toward abandoning their plans. Soon enough “two more horsemen burst into the clearing” armed with “bows slung across their chests, and quivers of thin, fragile-looking arrows” (55). Rather than acknowledging the supremacy of the Mayans and returning down the trail, the travelers’ first inclination is to reason with the Mayans. As will be discussed momentarily, a second inclination is to offer the Mayans money. Amy, however, performs perhaps the most egregious action with her camera. During the exchange, Amy becomes thrilled by the idea of “capturing the drama of the [page 79] moment” (55). Eventually, Amy manages to capture “the Mayan men with their weapons [and] also Jeff and the others” (55) in the photograph, which leaves her feeling “pleased with herself, still feeling weirdly outside the encounter, and liking the sensation” (56). Amy’s photography negatively portrays the Mayans as set pieces in a type of colonialist adventure photo. At best, the Mayans become quaint, pastoral symbols of a different and implicitly retrograde culture; at worst, they symbolize a harshness and violence that Amy attempts to juxtapose against the seeming placidity and civility of the White Anglo travelers. Regardless of the photographers’ intent, Smith reveals that the outcome prompts a sense of contentment for Amy, that the quality of the photograph is the only matter of importance. As such, the group engages in a type of tourist encounter “in which local people are themselves treated (‘zooified’) as curiosities, and are stereotypically represented as being at one with the natural environments they inhabit and protect” (Huggan and Tiffin 67). Quite literally, the Mayans become subjugated as Amy makes them the unwitting subjects of her photography: “Amy pointed her camera at the men, took another picture. She could tell she wasn’t capturing the drama of that moment […] the Mayan men with their weapons but also Jeff and the others, standing there, facing them, everyone looking so frightened man” (55). That Amy would reduce the scene to mere “drama” illustrates these travelers’ predicament. Rather than finding inherent danger in the standoff, Amy finds only “entertainment.” It is fitting, then, that Amy’s naiveté to the symbolism of her imperialist stance is, at the same time, a threshold to a more profound confrontation.
A current that further evinces the group’s reliance on an established cultural order is Jeff’s apparent contentment during the worst of the crisis, particularly in how he deals with one of the Mayans during an early scene in the novel. While the other characters revert to childlike optimism or intense fatalistic dread, Jeff instead lands on something closer to guarded pragmatism, emboldened, no doubt, by a felt privilege in his lofty position in the cultural pecking order. He seeks rational solutions to cataclysmic problems, which, if they work, may help to provide some order to the chaos. Such pragmatism is not uncommon during moments of [page 80] duress, particularly when viewed through an ecocritical lens. Love explains, “We have grown accustomed to living with crises, and to outliving them, or to resolving them in some manner or other with comparatively little harm to business as usual” (226). Jeff’s craving for a semblance of order and his desire to solve problems provide one of the surest examples of this idea. A proclivity toward adventure and a belief that he can withstand adverse circumstances dissuade Jeff. After recognizing that the local is forbidding them from approaching the trail, Jeff proposes of the Mayan, “Maybe he wants money. Like a toll of something. Or for us to hire him as a guide” (54). In classic Western, capitalist fashion, Jeff offers the Mayan a ten-dollar bill. The Mayan ignores this action and instead “made a shooting motion with his hand” (54). Obviously, by ignoring the money, the Mayan signals that his concern for the group is not monetary. Jeff, however, reacts by offering cash—a skill that he wrongfully believes will solve all of his inconveniences in Mexico. And so faced with the defensive Mayan, Smith’s characters experience a register of crisis to which they are unaccustomed—one that cannot be ignored, cannot be avoided. No sum of money will placate the Mayan, and the “North Americans’ privileged place within the global postcolonial economy” proves moot in this particular circumstance (Huggan and Tiffin 74). In that way, the terror evoked in Smith’s writing correlates to the very real cultural and environmental threat that we as a global community currently encounter. Between the inability to categorize either nature or the scenario, Smith’s characters experience unease in having their preconceptions upended and their seemingly solid positions of privilege drawn into question.
The group’s failure to understand the immediate danger surrounding them, both from the Mayans and, as will become clear momentarily, the plant, emerges from their misunderstanding of the interrelatedness of all things—living and non-living. Timothy Morton suggests understanding “the interconnectedness of all living and non-living things” or, more succinctly, the “mesh” of existence (The Ecological Thought 28).2 Although the travelers patronize and disrespect the Mayans, they nonetheless attempt communication and to understand the locals, as the travelers understand that the Indigenous population is fundamentally related to them in kind. Cultural differences aside, both groups are clearly [page 81] human, and that makes all the difference. A significant shift in attitude toward other creatures, however, distinguishes the two groups. The Mayans understand their place in the mesh. Of course, to be a part of the mesh does not necessarily mean to coexist in a mutually beneficial symbiotic state. On the contrary, the Mayan population avoids interactions with the vines at all costs. The Mayan population understands that they are fabric in the ecological mesh and develop a lifestyle evidencing that fact. But to consider the Mayans subservient to the plant is incorrect. They do not worship the plant, nor do they pay homage to it. They do not offer sacrifices—quite the opposite, in fact, as some of the earliest conflict in the novel revolves around the Mayans’ efforts to prevent the travelers from entering verboten territory. Rather, they have come to terms with the threat environment in which they live. Morton explains, “People in indigenous cultures are not happy-go-lucky people immersed in their life-world, they’re actually really anxious, only they’ve made friends with their anxiety because they have it all the time” (Poe). And so by finding avenues of coexistence with the vines, the Mayans establish some degree of harmony, whereas the travelers, with their avoidance of the mesh, purposeful or not, foster a misunderstanding about the concomitance of creatures and, as is so often the case, fundamental incomprehension promotes fear, disdain, and anger.
Disentanglement from the mesh—that is, failure to appreciate alternative beings on their own terms—breeds fear when supposed axiomatic binaries, such as the separation of “man” and “nature,” are overturned. The plant’s interactions with the novel’s characters present a creeping fear that exists within the minds of “civilized,” “modern” humans, often without their knowing, that of the unrelenting drive of nature and non-human actants to reclaim domesticated spaces as their own. Such an idea forces humans to confront their inherent disposability and appears in a scene during which Jeff attempts to elicit help from future travelers. After a day on the hill, Jeff fashions pleas for help on notebook paper found inside of a tent at the mining site and posts his makeshift signs at the bottom of the hill. The following morning, however, Jeff discovers “his signs had vanished” (153). Eventually, a reflective glint of metal from his post catches his eye, and he discovers his [page 82] signs consumed beneath the vines, which “were already starting to dissolve the paper, eating it away” (154). In this instant, Jeff attempts to rationalize the situation, imagining outlandish scenarios in which the Mayans (re: humans) are the actors responsible for the destruction of the signs. Smith writes that Jeff “couldn’t stop himself from clinging to the old logic; the ways of the world beyond this vine-covered hill” (154, emphasis mine). The “old logic” here refers to binary thinking, but when confronted by events that subvert the porous borders of rationality, binary thinking is wholly unstable. The “us versus them” distinction then further catalyzes the anxiety of the scene, because Jeff reveals that such thinking works only in a pre-Coba moment, not in the present.
This scene of Jeff’s realization presents the hazards of binary approaches to ecology, specifically in how they foster fear toward the other. Estok, speaking of ecological disasters more broadly explains,
We hear about ‘American exceptionalism,’ and may feel appalled, but the affect of human exceptionalism never really comes home to us. The whole question of human exceptionalism emerging through Sandy or Sendai or any number of other natural disasters tells the world that we humans—the whole bunch of us—are nothing. The creeping reality—one which we are desperately trying to keep at bay—is that we are as expendable as carrier pigeons. (137)
The notion of human expendability underpins Smith’s novel. At the core of this terror rests the expendability not just of the characters within this novel but of humankind as a whole. This fear resonates particularly strongly due to recent discussions of the Anthropocene and of the catastrophic impact that humankind imposes on the planet. To wipe out humankind, to prove its expendability, then, is to usher in the conclusion of the Anthropocene and to decenter humankind from its relative position of influence on the geophysical aspects of existence. Notably, Morton explains in Dark Ecology, “The Anthropocene doesn’t destroy Nature. The Anthropocene is Nature in its toxic nightmare form. Nature is the latent form of the Anthropocene waiting to emerge as catastrophe” (59). Smith entertains these ideas, making use of the nightmarish qualities that Morton posits. It [page 83] is not the existence of the Anthropocene that proves troubling to Smith’s characters, however, but rather the climax of the Anthropocene, the end of significant human contributions (positive or negative) to the climate. Before proceeding further, it will be useful to define the (contentiously named) geological epoch dubbed the Anthropocene. According to an early definition from Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Anthropocene is a catch-all term for the epoch that begins when “humans act as a main determinant of the environment of the planet” (341). According to proponents, we currently subsist in a geological age during which humans are dramatically and irreparably altering the shape of the planet’s environs. Troubling as such a concept is, Smith’s novel argues that both the end of this era and the consequent realization that the natural world—that is, what we call “nature”—will continue without humans equally trouble us. Richard Grusin’s comments about the academic field of inquiry known as the “nonhuman turn” can help to better contextualize Smith’s argument. Grusin writes, “Perhaps most powerfully, the nonhuman turn challenges some of the key assumptions of social constructivism, particularly insofar as it insists that agency, meaning, and value of nature all derive from cultural, social, or ideological inscription or construction” (xi). That the earth will eventually recover from humankind’s impacts and repair itself indicates that humans do not hold quite the power that they conceived of themselves holding, and this is what Smith’s texts so underscore. The earth does not view humans as particularly valuable, nor are they a necessary component of the “mesh,” but this is a difficult idea for Smith’s characters to contend with. Indeed, understanding the natural world on its own terms provides a point of contention early in the text.
The concept of humans understanding surroundings solely through the lens of the human disentangles them from the mesh, which in turn fosters fear and “ecophobia.”3 According to Estok, ecophobia is “an irrational hatred of the natural world, as present and subtle in our daily lives and literature as homophobia and racism and sexism” (132). Estok’s assessment here proves useful to our understanding of Smith’s text. Like racism, homophobia, and sexism, ecophobia is often imbedded, systemic, and importantly, unrecognized, which is to say that humans may actively distrust or [page 84] act antagonistically to the non-human elements surrounding them without cognitively registering from where their antagonism springs or recognizing that any antagonism exists at all. The characters’ approach toward the ruins highlights the necessity of providing context for nature, and Stacy’s thoughts, in particular, reveal the deeply unsettling idea of nature existing of its own accord. Having taken a drink of tequila before embarking on the hike, Stacy’s progress is stilted because “she felt light-headed and a little sick to her stomach” (50). While the physiological effects of the alcohol trouble Stacy, they are augmented by the wilderness surrounding her. Smith writes, “There was all this green around her—too much, she felt … thick leaves on either side, the trees growing so close to the trail that it was hard not to touch them as she walked. [...] And there was green underfoot, too, moss growing on the trail, making it slippery in places” (50). In this scene, Smith presents the foliage surrounding the trail as an element that exacerbates the effects of the alcohol, and further discombobulates Stacy. By detailing that the overwhelming green was not only in Stacy’s immediate field of view but also underfoot, Smith creates a gyroscopic effect that fosters a sense of disorientation and evidences the overwhelming incomprehension of Stacy’s experience. Lee Rozelle, writing in Ecosublime, describes how “Nature provokes terror at the moment when the subject becomes overwhelmed by its power and magnitude” (5). In order to better assess her predicament, Stacy finds it necessary to contextualize the jungle’s overgrowth with the field of human experience precisely because she is so overwhelmed by the overwhelming and overpowering substance of her surroundings. We’re told early in the text that Stacy’s mind has a tendency to wander, earning her the dubious nickname of “Spacy” (13), but her mental meanderings during the hike prove quite insightful in their relation to the necessity of the contextualization of nature.
As Stacy hikes through the foliage, Smith tells us that “Green was the color of envy, or nausea. Stacy had been a Girl Scout; she’d had to hike through her share of green woods, clad in her green uniform” (51). In this instance, we see Stacy’s attempt to make sense of the curtains of green encroaching on her personal space. The initial connotations, of course, are negative in that she ties the color of her surroundings to her own upset stomach and the [page 85] negative affective condition of jealousy, an affect that, Sianne Ngai explains, has traditionally marked people as possessing “a static sign of deficiency” (127). More important, however, is where her mind eventually lands: the time she spent as a Girl Scout. While the ubiquitous green uniform worn by the Girl Scouts importantly supplants the idea of “wildness” for domesticity (that is, the dichotomy of nakedness is conquered by the “civilized” concept of clothing), of greater interest is the action in which Stacy, as Girl Scout, participates: hiking. If the Girl Scout name is now synonymous with cookies, it should not be forgotten that the original vision for the group was an “outdoor and educational program for youth” (“Our History”) predicated on interaction with “natural” environments. Of course, the activity of hiking, in and of itself, presumes that the “wild” dangers of the trail—animals and plant life, in addition to the possibility of becoming lost—are muted by the domestication that the environs have undergone to be classified as a trail. This is to say, trails present a type of controlled wildness. Morton explains, “When we think of non-humans we often reminisce nostalgically for a less deviant-seeming moment in agrilogisitcs” (58). Although Morton here refers to the concept of agrilogisitics and widespread farming and domestication of natural systems, his words prove useful in their twofold application to Stacy’s understanding of nature: first, as it is something to be overtaken and dominated (as is the case with agrilogistics); second, in its affect-producing role as a nostalgic focal point. Each of these systems, however, ultimately serves to dislocate Stacy’s sense of centrality when nature refuses to abide by the standards in which she believes. Further, As Allison Bylerly has noted of the U.S. National Park System, “the landscape permits the viewer to define and control the scene, yet fosters the illusion that the scene is part of self-regulating nature” (53-54). Such spaces as trails and parks present a challenge, but also promise a return to safety by following their trajectories. As such, Stacy’s ruminating on her experience as a Scout, rather unintentionally, connects her current experience hiking with those from her youth. Her situation in the jungle then becomes no more threatening than the hikes that she took as Girl Scout, hikes she emerged from unscathed. You’ve made it out before, the thought implies; you’ll make it out again. While [page 86] Stacy’s mental retreat to her time spent in the Girl Scouts helps her to grapple with an overwhelmingly lush biosphere, the physicality of another object allows for the other characters to better contextualize the scene.
Smith mimes an anthropocentric stance in his first description of the mound itself. After emerging from the densely foliaged trail, the group members encounter for the first time the hill upon which they will ultimately meet their fates. Smith writes, “It was a beautiful site: a hill shaped like a giant breast covered in red flowers” (52). At first glance, it would appear that Smith partakes in what Douglas A. Vakoch dubs “the dual oppression of women and nature” (4). And indeed, Estok agrees that “such sexist, anthropomorphic metaphors […] are simply perpetuating the idea that nature (and women) are to be controlled” (130). That is, by equating landscape with femininity, Smith suggests that the landscape here exists for the travelers—the men in particular—to conquer. While a strong argument could be made to support such a proposition, an alternative reading suggests that the actual oppressive instinct of the travelers delves one level deeper and strikes at the very heart of the American colonial complex. Since the first colonial settlers landed on what is now considered American soil, landscape was equated with femininity.4 Therefore, the travelers’ impulses to understand the landscape through their Western lens take part in a type of crypto-colonialism.
The crew’s understanding of the scene relies on an anthropocentric framework. In likening the hill and its plant life to a part of the female anatomy, Smith implies that the scene, in all its beatific grandeur, would be impossible to conceptualize without an application of the human form. The lack of trees also makes it difficult for the travelers to understand precisely what they are seeing, as the intense green that previously overwhelmed Stacy now seeps into the consciousness of all of the crew—that is, however, until Mathias provides a source of contextualization for the group. While surveying the environs, Mathias notices “an orange square of fabric just visible, at the very top of the hill” (52). Smith notes, “From this distance, with the rise of the hill partly blocking their view, it was hard to tell what it was. Stacy thought it looked like a kite, trapped in the flowering vines, but of course a tent made more sense” (52). One is reminded in this scene of nothing so much as [page 87] the titular container from Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar.” In this poem, the speaker famously “placed a jar in Tennessee … upon a hill” and, with a manmade context by which to juxtapose against the undomesticated environment, “The wilderness rose up to it, / And sprawled around, no longer wild” until the jar ultimately takes “dominion everywhere” (76). Like the proverbial jar, the tent here acts as a reference point by which the characters gain their bearings. With the tent in place, the characters now understand the hill, not through the lens of its own autonomy, but as a spot upon which their presumed companions reside. The bright orange fabric renders the hill and its botany domesticated, as being acted upon by humans. As such, the sense of being overpowered by “green” that Stacy previously noted becomes moot as the characters perceive the hill as the dominion of man. Of course, in order for man to dominate nature, either nature must be docile or its human competitor must possess the resources and tools necessary for domination. Over the course of Smith’s novel, however, the plant proves to be anything but passive, and the humans prove woefully incapable of subduing their non-human counterparts.
The explicit sentience of the vine provokes the novel’s most ubiquitous fear. This is first evident when Eric descends into a mineshaft to assist Pablo, who lies at its bottom, back broken from a fall. As Eric awaits the makeshift stretcher, he “had the sudden sense, in the darkness, of a hand touching the small of his back” (98). Unnerved by the sensation, Eric jumps, but immediately finds relief that “it was only the plant,” which “had managed to take root down here, too, at the bottom of the shaft” (98). Nevertheless, he migrates closer to Pablo, a reminder that during his moments of physical and psychological duress, man’s coping mechanism is human contact. Pablo’s presence reassures Eric of his preeminence over the plant, and perhaps that he controls the situation. The vine’s persistent touch cancels any respite Eric finds in proximity to Pablo, however. Smith notes, “There was that pressure against Eric’s back once more, a hand touching him. He felt his heart jump in his chest even as he struggled to reassure himself. It was just the vine. He must’ve slouched back into again” (102, emphasis mine). In both Eric’s reduction of the vine to inert matter and in the [page 88] repeated use of the pronoun “he,” the scene illustrates a profound human naivety in the face of a larger ecological system. First, Eric relegates the vine to a subordinate position. By noting that it was “just” the vine touching his back, Eric subordinates the vine to a position of inferiority, as an object incapable of agency. Further, the following sentence firmly establishes Eric, through the pronoun “he,” as the actor in the situation, and attempts to establish that it was Eric’s movement, not a motion on the part of the plant, that is responsible for the touching one another. Eric’s attempts to establish himself as the agent of action in this scene occur precisely because to abscond that position would leave Eric in even more unfamiliar circumstances, and heighten his sense of peril. Later, when the vine touches Eric for a second time, Smith more explicitly exposes Eric’s thoughts, writing, “The vine had moved somehow, crept toward him, drawn by his warmth, perhaps. It made him uneasy, a little scared, to think of the vine like this—something volitional, almost sentient—it made him want to flee the hole altogether” (102). Through his second interaction with the plant, Eric confronts the idea that the plant refuses to obey traditional notions of how a plant “should act.” So upsetting is this concept that Eric briefly considers abandoning his friend in the darkness of the mineshaft. Moreover, with the darkness surrounding him, Eric lacks the ability to re-contextualize the plant as Stacy and the group had previously done. In the end, he must instead understand the plant as a non-subjective entity, but one that acts according to its own agency.
What so upsets Eric is this scene is an example of what Jane Bennett would refer to as “thing power.” Explored at length in her fascinating study Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, thing power, broadly, points toward “the moment of independence (from subjectivity) possessed by things” (3). Bennett, in essence, attempts to articulate the ineffable and speak to the autonomy that organic and inorganic matters alike possess outside of the realm of human subjectivity—which is to say, to understand things on their own terms and not those that humans ascribe to them. Such an endeavor, of course, proves challenging, as there exists within us a seemingly inexorable “impulse toward cultural, linguistic, or historical constructivism, which interprets any expression of thing-power as an effect of culture and the play of human power” (17). [page 89] Such an impulse is evident in Eric’s attempts to contextualize the plant through his own actions, to orient himself as the agent of action and claim responsibility for the contact. The responsibility for his back touching the plant, he wants to believe, lies within himself, particularly because he is so helpless in that moment. During Eric’s time spent with Pablo, Smith writes, “He wanted to help, wanted to stop Pablo’s screams, but he was stupid and useless and there was no way to change this. He felt the urge to pace, yet he just kept standing there, staring instead” (77). The helplessness that Eric experiences only becomes exacerbated by the vine’s complete ability to perform as an agent in this scene. That is, the human who should be capable of enacting change cannot, but the plant that should remain inert instead demonstrates agency.
At the heart of Smith’s novel rests the fear elicited by a disruption of perceived ontological order. The vine disrupts the anthropocentric pastoral vision of nature that has traditionally “decided what nature wanted, what it could do, and what it ought to do” (Latour 26). By acting in ways that plants “ought not,” the vine forces Smith’s characters outside of their spheres of understanding and pushes them not only to reimagine but to accept that the flora behaves in a previously unobserved and wholly unintuitive manner. Indeed, Anthony Oliver-Smith explains, “Nature has been constructed as a fund of resources that human beings have not only a right to dip into, but also a right to alter and otherwise dominate in any way they seem fit. […] This model places human beings and nature in opposition to each other” (31, 30). But Morton clarifies the human experience of anxiety as “when things lose their significance, when one is thrown back on oneself […] anxiety is how I experience myself as a thing. Anxiety shows me that I am an entity among others” (78). Morton’s and Oliver-Smith’s insights prove fascinating, as they suggest that the conflict experienced on the Coba mound is neither necessarily new nor unique. What is new, however, is the agent of power in the situation. By writing the vine into power, Smith effectively positions humans on the defensive against nature, but not against a type of nature traditionally understood. True, animals, floods, volcanoes, and various other components of “nature” have long threatened humankind, but Smith instead creates a horrifying [page 90] amalgam that preys on both our fears of exposure to elements and the terror that accompanies an inability to rationalize a vindictive and clever enemy. Moreover, the plant evinces a type of radical hybridity that draws from the most threatening physical aspects of nature and the most psychologically damaging of the human. Blake and Cooper explain that hybrid monsters—those showcasing traits both human and not—”emphasize the similarity between the monstrous and the human, and thus they comment on the behaviors of mankind” (4). The mimesis exhibited in the plant’s laughing highlights its ability to recreate devastating sounds during threatening moments, but its vocal abilities progress beyond the mimetic, as by the text’s conclusion the vine is actively fabricating hurtful and vexing phrases in the hopes of either disrupting the human characters’ senses of well-being by further upsetting long-held conceptions of bucolic harmony and compatibility, or luring them into dire situations in the same way that a turkey hunter uses a call to replicate sounds familiar to the turkey.
Near the novel’s conclusion, Smith more clearly exposes the dark capabilities of the vine, particularly its ability to communicate. At one point, Jeff and Amy venture into a mineshaft at the peak of the hill. Throughout the novel, the characters have heard the chirping ring of a cell phone emanating from the shaft. After descending, however, Jeff and Amy are unable to locate the phone, despite the near constant ringing. Eventually, Jeff realizes, “It’s the vine. [...] The flowers. They’re making the noise” (213). In his landmark early environmental text The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx explains that in classic literature, nature’s ability to mimic and respond to man typically elicits a sense of ease or symbiosis among its human counterparts. Writing on Virgil’s Eclogues, Marx notes that when the herdsman plays music, “the woods ‘echo back’ the notes of his pipe. It is as if the consciousness of the musician shared a principle order with the landscape and, indeed, the external universe” (23). According to Marx, “The echo, a recurrent device in pastoral, is another metaphor of reciprocity. It evokes that sense of relatedness between man and not-man which lends a metaphorical aspect to the mode; it is a hint of the quasi-religious experience” (23). So, too, do the plants in Smith’s novel “echo back” to their human counterparts, but to far darker, direr effect. Although communication between humans and nature long [page 91] suggested camaraderie between these actors, Smith subverts this idea by having the plants learn to produce tonalities of supposed comfort (in the mimesis of a cellular phone ring) as a means of further upsetting hierarchies and understandings of divisions between humans and non-humans.
With this newfound knowledge of the vine’s aural abilities, the couple furiously retreat from the shaft as the vine continues to reproduce sounds. Meanwhile, Stacy, who stations herself at the bottom of the hill to observe and take advantage of any potential lapse in vigilance from the Mayans, becomes unnerved by the plant’s chilling reproduction of the sound of laughter. Witnessing such abnormal behavior, however, tests the limits of Stacy’s cognitive abilities, and she can only begin to wrap her mind around the situation when the plant is static. After being relieved from guard duty, she marches back up the hill and considers all that she has experienced. Smith writes, “She kept trying to tell herself that it was just a plant, only a plant, nothing more than a plant. This was what it looked like now, after all; it wasn’t moving, wasn’t making that dreadful laughing sound. It was simply a pretty tangle of vegetation … soaking up the sunlight, harmlessly inert” (229). An oddly conciliatory remark, especially in the use of adjective “pretty,” this exemplifies the nearly insurmountable task that Stacy faces in attempting to conceptualize a plant that acts counterintuitively to what botany has taught her. For Stacy, “this was what plants did; they didn’t move, didn’t laugh, couldn’t move, couldn’t laugh” (229, emphases in original). She later reneges, though: “She’d seen the vine move, seen it burrowing into Eric’s leg, seen it reach out to suck dry Amy’s vomit, and she’d heard it, too, heard it laughing—the whole hillside laughing” (229). These two disparate visions highlight the trouble that Stacy has in reconciling what she has seen against what she expects—one the pastoral, “pretty,” listless plant harmlessly inert in the sunlight; the other a vicious, hungry, and, seemingly at this juncture, actively rancorous force.
The sheer absurdity of what Stacy sees and hears drives her to the brink of her linguistic capabilities. Smith notes that Stacy “hated the vine, too, of course, if it was possible to hate a plant” (203). That she would have to question whether or not she could [page 92] ascribe her fury to the plant illustrates precisely the degree to which the idea of order has been challenged. Eventually, Stacy decides that she can, in fact, hate the plant, and hate she does, but it’s worth noting the specific traits toward which she directs her anger: “She hated it for being able to move, for its hunger, and its malevolence” (203). Importantly, nearly every sentient being possesses the former two traits; they are building blocks of sustenance and survival. Certainly, she rightly despises the vine for its malevolence, but Smith follows this passage with additional victims of Stacy’s “Hate and more hate” (203). Smith writes that, “She hated Pablo for having fallen into the shaft […] She hated Eric for his wounded leg […] She hated Amy for not stopping [a makeshift operation on Pablo], hated Mathias for his silences, his blank looks, hated herself most of all” (203). In this diatribe, Smith makes an important distinction by having Stacy hate her cadre in addition to hating the plant. By projecting the outrage onto her group and herself as easily as onto the plant, she is essentially lowering herself on the ontological hierarchy in the murky, general abyss of “life.” She essentially nullifies the essentialism of humans and locates herself, by her intense self-hatred, at the center of the disruption.
In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton writes, “confronting the end of the world as we know it drastically challenges our learned perspectives and ingrained priorities” (20). In the case of Smith’s stranded group, such reconceptualization necessitates that they disengage with hierarchical food-chain structures, and instead realize their place not as equals but instead as victims of the plant. Such a vision, however, proves frightening. To reevaluate one’s place in the biological and social order is to upset a supposedly fundamental truth. The vine, therefore, prompts Smith’s characters to confront the falsity of such “truths,” and Smith, in turn, asks his readers to imagine a world where their positions were dislocated. By forcing his characters to renegotiate their relationships not only with one another but with cultures and the planet more broadly, Smith’s novel asks readers to confront and potentially dismantle their preconceived knowledges both of “nature” and of cultures to which they do not belong. [page 93]
1. “Over the years,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction, “a number of different names have been suggested for the new age that humans have ushered in” (107). Donna Haraway proposes that “a big new name, actually more than one name, is warranted” for the timeframe during which humans currently subsist and continue to alter the planet and atmospheric compositions (“Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene” 160). In her study Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Haraway suggests that a more accurate name for this epoch might be “Chthulucene,” as it unburdens our thinking about the human component and asks us to consider greater ecological webs. She writes, “Unlike either the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene the Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming […] Unlike the dominant dramas of the Anthropocene and Capitalocene discourse, human beings are not the only important actors in the Chthulucene, with all other beings able simply to react” (55). Nevertheless, because the term “Anthropocene obtained purchase in popular and scientific discourse” in recent years (45), I choose to employ this term, while acknowledging that Haraway’s Chthulucene fits within my overall understanding and approach to the Anthropocene.
2. I believe Morton’s extended use of this metaphor to be the most fruitful way of approaching the idea of the interdependence of all things. It’s worth noting that Barry Commoner addressed a similar idea in The Closing Circle: Man, Nature, and Technology, writing, “Everything is connected to everything else” (29).
3. Estok acknowledges, though, that David Sobel made use of the same term “at roughly the same time” (132).
4. Although too lengthy a discussion to host in this essay, curious readers would do well to consult Annette Kolodny’s The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 163-1860; The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters; and Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth for foundational readings. [page 94]
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke UP, 2010.
Blake, Brandy Ball, and L. Andrew Cooper. “Introduction: Haunting Bodies.” Monsters, edited by Blake and Cooper, Fountainhead Press, 2012, pp. 1-10.
Byerly, Alison. “The Uses of Landscape: The Picturesque Aesthetic and the National Park System.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm., U of Georgia P, 1996, pp. 52-68.
Campbell, SueEllen. “The Land of Language and Desire: Where Deep Ecology and Post-Structuralism Meet.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, U of Georgia P, 1996, pp. 124-136.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Ecocriticism: The Essential Reader, edited by Ken Hiltner, Routledge, 2015, pp. 335-352.
Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle: Man, Nature, & Technology, Random House, 1971.
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---. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.
Huggan, Graham and Helen Tiffin. Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment, Routledge, 2010.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Picador, 2014.
Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860, U of North Carolina P, 1984.
---. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters, U of North Carolina P, 1975.
Latour, Bruno. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences Into Democracy, Harvard UP, 2004.
Love, Glen A. “Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, U of Georgia P, 1996, pp. 225-240. [page 95]
Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America, Oxford UP, 2000.
Morton, Timothy. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, Columbia UP, 2016.
---. The Ecological Thought, Harvard UP, 2010.
Murray, Noel. “Scott Smith: The Ruins.” A.V. Club, 16 Aug. 2006, www.avclub.com/review/scott-smith-ithe-ruinsi-3838.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings, Harvard UP, 2005.
Oliver-Smith, Anthony. “Theorizing Disasters: Nature, Power, and Culture.” Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster, edited by Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, School of American Research Press, 2011, pp. 23-47.
Opperman, Serpil. “Theorizing Ecocriticism: Toward a Postmodern Ecocritical Practice.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 13, no. 2, 2006, pp. 103-128.
“Our History – Girl Scouts.” Girl Scouts of the United States of America, 2017, www.girlscouts.org/en/about-girl-scouts/our-history.html.
Poe, Marshall. “Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).” New Books in Critical Theory Podcast, New Books Network, 23 Feb. 2014, newbooksnetwork.com/timothy-morton-hyperobjects-philosophy-and-ecology-after-the-end-of-the-world-university-of-minnesota-press-2013-2/.
Rozelle, Lee. Ecosublime: Environmental Awe and Terror from New World to Odd World, The U of Alabama P, 2006.
“The Ruins.” Publishers Weekly, 15 May 2006, www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4000-4387-3.
Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, City Lights Books, 2015.
Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Harvard UP, 1950.
Smith, Scott. The Ruins, Vintage, 2006.
Stevens, Wallace. “Anecdote of the Jar.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Vintage 1990, pp. 76.
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