The following is the first of a two-part series.
In the recent punishing publishing environment where, for example, sales of adult fiction in America are down from 144 million units to 116 million units (20%) over a 4 year period, according to NPD BookScan, Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing “seems to be the lone exception. After a burst of holiday sales, it landed back at No. 1 on The Times’s latest fiction best-seller list, where it has held a spot for 67 weeks, with 30 weeks at No. 1”.
We read that “publishing experts are baffled by the scale of the book’s success”, that this amazing success is “an astonishing trajectory for any debut novelist, much less for a reclusive 70-year-old scientist” and that “industry analysts have struggled to explain the novel’s staying power, particularly at a moment when fiction sales over all are flagging, and most blockbuster novels drop off the best-seller list after a few weeks”.
However, the reason for the novel’s success springs from exactly the thing that makes this book so unusual: it is written by a retired wildlife biologist with a very long, deep and authentic experience observing and chronicling animals in Africa, part of the material world, not the literary one: Delia Owens’ “previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia, where she studied hyenas, lions and elephants.”
There is reason to expect that this work of fiction, about a young woman living off the land in North Carolina in the 1950s draws extensively on Owens’ huge store of scientific knowledge of the material: ecology, biology, physics, zoology. Owens says that, “she drew on her experience living in the wilderness, cut off from society. ‘It’s about trying to make it in a wild place.’”
While Delia Owens was seemingly commenting on the situation of her heroine, Kya, living in a remote marsh in North Carolina, our planet and our universe is, in a sense, also just such a “wild place”. What could be more wild than the moon, the sun and the stars and the planets? We, also wild, are surely involved with these wild objects in a very intimate and material way through the processes by which we use the sun’s energy (which we receive as we rotate around and orbit the sun), either through harvesting wood or grains or by digging up coal or pumping up oil, which is stored solar energy from decomposed ancient organisms.
Where the Crawdads Sing has an unpleasant, violent and duplicitous character associated strongly with cars (and therefore with fossil fuels) named Chase Andrews. This man dies at the hands of a powerful and beautiful woman living close to nature (she uses very few fossil fuels comparatively and catches or grows much of her food herself) named Kya.
As I’ve pointed out in another essay, I see the story of Kya and Chase as an allegory for C.S. Holling’s adaptive cycle (6), an ecological model with four ecosystem functions (exploitation, conservation, release, reorganization), where Chase represents the exploitation/conservation functions as they inevitably come to an end while Kya is “nature”, or “the environment”, whose natural limits assures his end. Tate Walker, the kind, sensitive and intelligent man who becomes Kya’s lover, represents the release and reorganization functions which follow exploitation and conservation.
“Making it in a wild place” means being able to correctly understand how to relate to the limited (but beautiful) natural environment. Exploiters, like Chase, cannot do this but only those, like Tate, who pay better attention and fit themselves accommodatingly and kindly into nature’s delicate balance, will succeed.
If our era can be matched up with Holling’s model, we are no doubt either now lounging in the same exploitation/conservation functions which are represented allegorically by Chase Andrews or we are at the cusp of the switch to the next function (release). As he was approaching the end of his life, Chase was not aware of it until he had been pushed off the firetower and was plunging to his death. Likewise, we have no newspaper delivered by the gods, that tells us definitely that one phase of our ecology (which we call our ‘economy’ because we still hesitate to equate ourselves with animals) is ending.
However, our fall is more slow, complex, cascading and multi-faceted than Chase’s and we can expect that we will start to pick up cultural signals that will force us to behave in new and novel ways. Hollings makes it clear that “novelty” appears in the release phase (8), so we may be right at the cusp of the change to the release phase and novelty now appears in cultural and artistic productions, which are at the leading edge of change. So this novelty signals the coming release/reorganization functions. This is happening already and this novelty, especially as it relates to materials, materialism and so-called “new materialism”, is becoming an enormous and stealthy cultural force impacting not just the bestseller lists but also academia, the hardware store (where artisanal axes and tools are now the rage), religion, feminism and more.
Where the Crawdads Sing, so exceptional in so many ways, can be considered one of these ‘novel’ harbingers of the changes to come. It defies classification (it cannot be logically sorted into an accepted genre), it is a debut novel by a 70-year old scientist, it has a crime of murder but the murderer walks free and readers, including me, have to agree the outcome is fair. Also, it shows extensive knowledge of the material and natural world, even to the point where it is probably concealing an ecological mirror reflecting our own situation in a subversive and unflattering (but true) way which is nevertheless embraced by millions of readers (precisely because it is true, though it appears in disguise as an allegory).
Publishing experts are “baffled by” and “struggling to explain” the success of Owens’ book precisely because these people became experts during the previous phase (i.e.: the exploitation/conservation functions). “This book has broken all the friggin’ rules. We like to have a comparison title so that we can do sales forecasts, but in this case none of the comparisons work, admitted Jaci Updike, president of sales for Penguin Random House. They cannot professionally assess such a new thing which actually calls into question the very existence of capitalism and market economies, the foundation of book sales and book production in America.
So let’s just review what is meant by “new materialism”, as it’s become very important in academia, especially in the humanities. The term “new materialism” arose during the late 1990s in philosophy, anthropology, and cultural studies, among scholars seeking a way through the impasse of modernism and postmodernism, displacing the centrality of the human subject in interpreting history, politics, and culture. Instead of being at the center, human beings are seen as being enmeshed and entangled, biologically speaking, in an assemblage of the material world. “Objects are not conscious actors, but they are ineluctable parts of networks that human beings must master and use.”(141)
By eating grapes in a plastic wrapper which were both transported by a truck running on oil, I am also partly constituted by oil. Oil is together with me in my materiality, for without oil, I would not have been able to eat those grapes. The plastic, covering the grapes, is similarly part of my materiality, though I do not eat the plastic. The plastic may end up in the ocean and cause the death of some fish or lead to dead zones where islands of plastic congregate in a massive mountain of waste. In this way, humans have clearly not really mastered plastic and oil: rather, these things are mastering us and causing deaths of wildlife, nature and the planet and ultimately us.
In a broad sense, the story of Kya, Chase and Tate can be seen as allegorically expressing a similar type of change in the location of the human subject within the world of natural materials, from Chase’s position (“centrality of the human subject”) as a man only interested in getting what he can get from Kya, to Tate (a man who understands material networks and has a PhD in marine bology symbolizing his mastery) who engages personally with Kya on an equal, reciprocal and loving basis. Tate represents a sort of human who engages with materials knowledgably and respectfully so they do not master and defeat him.
At about the same time new materialism has been taking hold in academia and culture studies, a parallel trend in the rise of the number of witches in America (and elsewhere too) has been occurring. “Witchcraft and other pagan religious practices increased in the U.S. over the past few decades, with millennials turning to astrology and tarot cards as they turn away from Christianity and other traditionally dominant Abrahamic religions”. Thus began a Newsweek article in 2018.
The number of witches and Americans practicing Wicca religious rituals increased dramatically since the 1990s, with several recent studies indicating there may be at least 1.5 million witches across the country. A Trinity College study conducted in 1990 estimated only about 8,000 Wiccans in the U.S., but the increase has been led by a rejection of mainstream Christianity among young Americans as well as a rise in occultism.
Witches have become a cultural force by the millions online on YouTube, facebook and Instagram, and books by witches have become a successful subgenre: “Among the most striking current trends in MBS (mind-body-spirit) books is the still-accelerating growth of interest in witchcraft” wrote Lynn Garrett in Publisher’s Weekly in a recent article called “Season of the Witch”.
What, exactly, is witch? In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abrams links witches and witchcraft to the material when he suggests that the witches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were people who practiced “the last orally preserved traditions of Europe―the last traditions rooted in the direct, participatory experience of plants, animals, and elements” and that the witch hunts of that time were a “nearly successful” effort “to clear the way for the dominion of alphabetic reason over a natural world increasingly construed as a passive and mechanical set of objects”. (199)
In their practices today, witches use material objects, usually from nature: stones, shells, feathers, wood, flowers, bone, water. One major type of photo shared by witches on #witchesofinstragram or in one of the Facebook witch groups is the personal altar photo and these have overwhelmingly natural objects in them. The focus on materials extends to the common practices witches perform such as ceremonies on the solstices and equinoxes or the full moon. These ceremonies are intimately linked to the material, since the sun, the moon, and the earth are all materials.
Abram describes witchcraft as an oral culture, and Starhawk, a witch noted for her classic book on witches, Spiral Dance, similarly notes that in witchcraft “there is no set prayer book or liturgy”. No written words are considered necessary. A deep connection, a spiritual connection, to material itself is what witchcraft is all about. As Starhawk says, “in the Craft, there is no split between spirit and matter”(38).
Therefore, the academic trend toward integrating people and the material world through investigating and exposing human’s physical and biological connections to the material world is paralleled by the witch’s trend to do the inverse: to see the spiritual properties of matter, which is also us. As Starhawk says, “the Goddess does not rule the world; She is the world. Manifest in each of us, She can be known internally by every individual, in all her magnificent diversity…” Therefore, “new materialism” and witchcraft are two sides of the same coin in a way. Both are strongly linked to materials and to the cultural turn toward the material we see occurring now.
Who is this Goddess? Starhawk explains that “the importance of the Goddess symbol for women cannot be overstressed. The image of the Goddess inspires women to see ourselves as divine, our bodies as sacred…we can move beyond narrow, constricting roles and become whole.”(34) In addition, “the model of the Goddess, who is immanent in nature, fosters respect for the sacredness of all living things. Witchcraft can be seen as a religion of ecology. Its goal is harmony with nature.”(35) If a woman wants to feel empowered and strong, then if she focuses her mind on a goddess, a strong and independent being, her goal can be accomplished. If someone wants to inspire themselves or others to stop using plastic because it ends up in the ocean, then a nature god or ocean god can be a way to train the mind to accomplish tasks to reduce plastic or work for its reduction.
In this way, Giordano Bruno, a pantheist executed for heresy by the Catholic Church in 1600, explained that worshiping targeted gods and goddesses is an effective way to channel intention and produce results:
…..just as he who wants bread has to go to the baker, he who wants wine goes to the cellarer, he who longs for fruit goes to the gardener…Likewise one Goodness, one Happines, one Absolute Principle of all riches and fortunes, contracted into various laws, pours forth gifts according to the exigencies of various beings. From this you can infer how the wisdom of the Egyptians, which is lost, worshiped not only the earth, the moon, the sun, and other stars of the heaven but also crocodiles, lizards, serpents, onions.(240)
Often, people who are not witches wonder how it is that a feather waved over a stone and uttered with a spell during a full moon, let us say for money or love, can bring any material change, seeing that the feather, the stone and the moon are materially far removed from bank accounts or wedding rings. There are two answers to this. First, the brain of the witch is a material substance which becomes a bit changed by creating and uttering such a prayer or spell.
These are material changes and though they are subtle, they can indeed promote positive psychological changes in the way people think and behave. According to witch and Wiccan priestness Deborah Blake, who has written three books on witchcraft, As cited in Publisher’s Weekly, Blake writes: “witchcraft can give women both a sense of personal empowerment and a number of goddesses through whom they can channel (their) feelings in healthy and productive ways.” Secondly, of course, the gods may be listening to the spell or prayer and may grant it.
Marianne Kimura is a faculty member in English at Kyoto Women’s University in Japan. She writes Shakesepare-related fiction under the pen name Gemma Nishiyama and has a special interest in supernatural characters in her writing, particularly witches. She is the author under that pen name of The Hamlet Paradigm.