This week in our First Year Seminar, The Planet We Have Made, we have been making our way through the incredible book, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Among the topics we have discussed are how to see the ghosts of the world in which we live—the connections between the dead historical pasts and the living world in which we find ourselves. How is it possible to see the ancestors—the beings and animals and relationships—that move across the landscapes of our lives?
While reading Jens-Christian Svenning’s contribution, “Future Megafaunas: A Historical Perspective on the Potential for a Wilder Anthropocene” I got to thinking about the famous photo of the mountain of bison skulls and the not-so-distant historic destruction of the megafauna of the North American Great Plains. I remembered the photo from 1870 as emblematic of that historic moment when settler-capitalists harvested, destroyed and wasted the landscape with the support of the US government.
In the past I had always been so focused on the pile of bones—shocked by the image of destruction—that I hadn’t seen the ghost. I hadn’t seen the man standing at the base of the pile heroically posed with his left foot on a conquered skull and his right hand resting on his handiwork. Digitally zooming in on his image I realize that I recognized him. I know him.
The bison skulls, the remaining trace of the 180,000 dead animals, are a backdrop to the man. He is a ghost, a specter, the undead. He is an ancestor to us all, a proud member of the anthropocene. To recognize him is to recognize his posture, his gesture, his confidence—his statement in relationship to the world. To see this is to see the genetic inheritance, family resemblance, the haunting connection that he shares with others in our contemporary moment. He lives.