What Rights does Nature have? with Sumana Roy

The German ministry for education and research has launched a Bio-economy initiative for the year 2020/21. In line with this focus, this year’s international literature festival Berlin (ilb) has placed particular emphasis on alternative and sustainable economic forms.  This entails contributions by economists concerned with politics and energy management, work by journalists who focus on the role of trees for our ecosystem, land-grabbing or the meat market, and writing by authors from all over the world on their visions for human interaction with the environment. One of these authors is Sumana Roy, who enjoys writing about trees and roots from Siliguri, a small town in Bengal, India. Due to corona circumstances, Roy could not be flown in from India. Instead, she provided the ilb with an audio file containing her contribution, an essay interspersed with poetry. Instead of moderating the event entitled “What Rights Does Nature Have?”, Kylie Crane, a literary scholar at the University of Potsdam, took visitors on a walk with Roy’s audio recording.

On Saturday the 12th of September 2020, I got on my bike in the afternoon sun to participate in the event. After all, with our Green Library event series, poco.lit. is invested in very similar themes this year. On my way to the Futurium in Berlin-Mitte, where the walk started, I cycled from the south of Berlin, passing the Topography of Terror and the Brandenburg Gate. After crossing the river Spree, I turned west onto the Berlin Wall trail directly at the waterfront. I rode over smooth, grey stone slabs, laid with precision, like a stage protruding into the Spree. I felt small next to the concrete and glass buildings of the Berlin government district. The buildings gleamed, their various shades of grey elevated in the sun, and conveyed a formality that I certainly couldn’t live up to on my bicycle, sweaty as I was. Around the next corner, the Futurium sparkled at me: silver and static. Further back, I espied Berlin’s central station, which completed this man-made landscape of oversized, geometric shapes. If this is a glimpse of a possible future, it really does beg the question of how much of nature it can or will incorporate, apart from the Spree river flowing by.

I locked my bike. For the walk, all participants received a smartphone and headphones in front of the Futurium – disinfected beforehand, of course – and off we went. With Roy’s voice in our ears, Crane led the participants across the Spree, to a piece of lawn with trees in the Spreebogenpark. I was still filled with a certain ambivalent awe that the multitude of massive glass and concrete blocks on the outward journey, with their official importance, had triggered in me. Despite the title of the event, the journey here had left me unprepared for anything green at all. Roy asked her listeners: “Pause for a moment please. Lift your left foot and then the right foot. What are you walking on? Are you walking on grass?”

Our walk barely covered a kilometre, and yet we discovered dried leaves, acorns and mushrooms next to grass and trees. Roy’s rhythm of speech, pitch, the slow walking and conscious mindfulness resembled a shared walking meditation that counteracted “plant blindness” – to which I had also briefly succumbed on my way there. Roy borrows the expression “plant blindness” from Matthew Hall and points out that people usually remember what the person in front of or next to them is wearing, but do not remember the appearance of the last tree they saw.

Taken by my sudden awareness of the green, freshness and liveliness between the grey, clear forms of the government buildings, I listened to Roy’s criticism. “Our parks are curated in such a manner that we experience nature. Nature in codes, mind you, as an observer looks at a swimming pool as an outsider. … We only experience nature as a curator would manicure it for you”. In the discussion that Crane had with the participants after the walk, she drew this aspect forward. The first association of ‘curation’ is probably what happens in museums and at exhibitions. But especially in front of the German Chancellor’s Office, the trees in their rows and the small grassy areas between the paved floor slabs are carefully curated, and reflect the bureaucracy of the German state.

Roy criticizes the fact that bio-economy tends to put people at the centre of attention. Sustainability is necessary so that people can continue to live as well as possible. Related to this are power systems, which the tree symbolizes. The tree has visible parts: crown and trunk. It also has invisible roots that anchor it in the earth. “What we have in the tree is top and bottom … and it is not hard to see that it is this that has influenced human understanding of hierarchy. Top and bottom”. Roy’s essays and poems invite us to take a closer look and, for a change, to focus on nature instead of people, while at the same time reflecting on privileges and the distribution of power. When I left the event an hour later, I looked at trees differently and wished I could call many more of them by their names.