Finding a Place for Monstrous Nature in the Environmental Movement


Joe Heumann & Robin Murray

Even though we grew up in different regions we have always loved the natural world, hiking and camping with scouts and climbing neighbors’ trees as children. But the books we read promoted respect for animals more than a broader vision of the environment. We both fell in love with monkeys after reading Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with the Circus, horses after reading The Black Stallion and wild animals after discovering Wild Animals of North America. But as researchers, two books stood out as guides for real interdependent relationships with nonhuman nature: Ellen Swallow Richards’ Sanitation in Daily Life (1907) and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (1949).

In Sanitation in Daily Life, Richards demonstrates that humans are part of nature, generating the basis for the human ecology movement. For Richards, urban problems like air and water pollution were products of human activity imposed on the environment and, subsequently, best resolved by humans. The human ecology movement evolved into home economics, but its grounding in conservation had lasting effects, including the environmental justice movements, health ecology, and urban planning.

Sand County AlmanacIn Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold advocates for the good of all life as part of an ecosystem that includes humans, nonhuman animals, and plant life, not just those animals seen as sentient. For Leopold, “the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts,” and those parts include all elements of the natural environment, from soil and plants to Bambi. A graduate of the Yale forestry school, Leopold promoted game management, evolutionary biology, and ecology, rather than sentimental anthropomorphism.

These two books helped ground our readings of a perhaps pristine natural world exploited and decimated by humanity. What was missing for us, though, were explorations that address monstrous nature like the cockroach, parasite, cyborg, and cannibal. Four books helped us turn these “monsters” into part of the land ethic Aldo Leopold proposes: Cockroach, The Art of Being a Parasite, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, and Dinner with a Cannibal.

CockroachMarion Copeland’s Cockroach (2004) provides a complex perspective on the cockroach and its strengths. Copeland notes multiple positive associations with cockroaches. Although their nocturnal nature has connected them with a Freudian unconscious and id, in Thailand, Australia, South America, and French Guiana, cockroaches serve as food, medicine, and folk tale source. Copeland also notes that cockroaches contribute to cancer research and emphasizes their physical and intellectual strengths by making explicit connections between cockroaches and humans. As with humans, female cockroaches have stronger immune responses than males. And cockroaches can learn new tricks, overcoming their aversion to light. They also can learn to run a maze, even without their heads!

The Art of Being a ParasiteTo illustrate the interdependent relationships hosts and parasites may share, Claude Combes’ The Art of Being a Parasite (2005) defines and illustrates the multiple levels of parasitism. Combes differentiates those parasites that feed off a host without benefiting it from two other types: commensals and mutualists. Commensals live on or within another organism without harming or benefiting the host. Mutualists, on the other hand, do help their hosts. According to Combes, orchids are an apt example of mutualism, because to extract pollen from orchids, moths must have a long probuscis. As with some parasites and their hosts, orchids and moths have evolved mutually, deriving benefits interdependently. Although he emphasizes the interdependent relationships shared by parasites and their partner hosts, Combes debunks notions of mutualism that romanticize nature. Instead, parasites are part of a biotic community in which producers and consumers interact interdependently, surviving in relation to a food web that includes both life and death, not in a Disneyfied harmony like that found in Bambi (1942).

Simians, Cyborgs and WomenDonna Haraway’s (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women explains how the cyborg combines elements of technology and machines with organic physical (probably human and female) bodies. For Haraway, though, cyborg fiction and film also offers a space in which women can deconstruct binaries that construct nature and the feminine as inferior to their binary opposites, the masculine and culture. We see such an exploration in contemporary Japanese body modification horror like Machine Girl, RoboGeisha, and Tokyo Gore Police. In these films, women, nature and the machine merge creating new organisms with the ability to modify themselves from within.

In her Dinner with a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Taboo (2008), Travis-Henikoff provides evidence for multiple types of cannibalism, from the survival cannibalism noted in Jamestown to the medicinal cannibalism of the Inquisition. She notes, for example, that cannibalism is celebrated in at least one book and film, Alive (1993). Her work builds on the research of scientists and scholars from multiple fields, substantiating the existence of cannibalism without condemning its practice.

These books opened up avenues for aligning our early experiences with animals and the land ethic with less pleasant elements of the natural world.

Monstrous Nature

Robin L. Murray is a professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Joseph K. Heumann is professor emeritus from the Department of Communication Studies at Eastern Illinois University. Murray and Heumann are coauthors of That’s All Folks?: Ecocritical Readings of American Animated Features (Nebraska, 2011) and Film and Everyday Eco-disasters (Nebraska, 2014) and Monstrous Nature (Nebraska, 2016)