This article was written on 21 Jan 2014, and is filled under New Ecologies.

Subnature Writing

Detail from Robinson in Ruins

Detail of road sign on Abingdon Road, Oxford, in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (2010). Reproduced on the cover of The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet (2012). In the film, the narrator notes the striking similarity between the lichen and a 1775 silhouette of Goethe.

He believed that he could communicate with a network of non-human intelligences that had sought refuge in marginal and hidden locations. They were determined to preserve the possibility of life’s survival on the planet and enlisted him to work on their behalf. From a nearby car park he surveyed the center of the island on which he was shipwrecked. The location,’ he wrote, ‘of a Great Malady that I shall dispel in the manner of Turner by making picturesque views on journeys to sites of scientific and historic interest.’ (Patrick Keiller, Robinson in Ruins, 2010)

A few months after Robinson is released from prison, several film cans and his notebook are discovered in a derelict trailer. These become the basis for Robinson in Ruins, the third installment of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. Fittingly, Robinson’s search for the origins of capitalist catastrophe in the English landscape begins on a traffic median, the island on which he is purportedly shipwrecked. It is from here that Keiller’s film sets out, though it is largely a reflection on the militarization of  landscape.

The in-between space of a traffic island—a space neither natural nor cultivated, one created by human activity but largely abandoned—is what gardener Gilles Clément would call The Third Landscape. These are the novel environments of a fragmented but rapidly expanding planetary biome that consists of vacant lots and roadsides, abandoned fields and railway embankments. “Third Landscape,” writes Clément in Manifeste du Tiers Paysage (2002), “refers to third estate (and not to third world). Space expressing neither power nor submission to power.”

This is the not the space of nature but rather of subnature.

One year before the release of Robinson in Ruins, David Gissen’s Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (2009) was released to great acclaim. In it, Gissen explores how theorists of architecture and urban design have envisioned “peripheral and often denigrated forms of nature” ranging from smoke to puddles, detritus to dust, weeds to pigeons. Like Robinson, Gissen is concerned with the possibility of the future of life on the planet. Like Robinson, Gissen is biophilic and a liminal peripatetic.

In the wake of Subnature, Robinson in Ruins, and Manifesto of the Third Landscape, New Ecologies invites reflection by errant scholars and other ruderals on the novel environments explored in these works.  Let’s provisionally call it: subnature writing.

The opening salvo in this series comes from GinaRae LaCerva of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her history of dust opens a possibility that Robinson once invoked: “if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events.”

You can read more of GinaRae’s writing at

-Jason Groves

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