What’s in a Colony? Invasion Science, Eco-Narrative and the (Mis)Uses of Alien Species

Keynote address by Graham Huggan

Saturday, May 15, 3:30 pm (UTC+2)

What the word ‘colony’ means depends on from whose perspective it is seen as well as who has the power to control the definition. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that the two standard geopolitical definitions of ‘colony’ thus work in entirely different directions: as a country controlled by a foreign power, or as a group of people living in a foreign place. Biological definitions of ‘colony’ are less ostensibly political: individual organisms living together in close association, often though not necessarily in large numbers: colonies of bacteria, for example, or colonies of insects, which ‘colonize’ larger organisms in their turn.

Such definitions, of course, are more political than they seem, or are at least susceptible to political uses, one prominent example being the ongoing debate over ‘native’ versus ‘invasive’ species, in which the latter are often seen simultaneously as ‘alien’ even when there is abundant evidence, in some cases, that they are not. The study of invasive species has generated a field of its own, invasion science, which deals with the spread and impact – nearly always seen as negative – of alien species and considers ways of managing their numbers. Needless to say, biology to culture transfers, which are perilous at the best of times, are particularly dangerous here, and the field of invasion science has been seen, not always fairly, as implicitly or even inherently xenophobic in the context of our turbulent political times.

This paper considers what a postcolonial/ecocritical approach might have to add to a debate that is all too often grossly simplified or polarized, looking in particular at the function of eco-narrative as a template for empathy and/or cooperation across the species divide. Two examples will be drawn upon to illustrate this. The first, Germaine Greer’s 2013 memoir White Beech, tells the story of Greer’s attempt to restore a plot of land in the southern Queensland rainforest by adjusting the ratio of ‘native’ to ‘invasive’ species; the second is my own account of some recent trials and travails surrounding a de facto ‘native invasive’ species, the spruce bark beetle, which has colonized large areas of old-growth European forests, with destructive consequences in some cases but generally mixed ecological results. In both examples, I will move between ‘scientific’ and ‘popular’ understandings of the human/non-human interactions involved, also asking what is to be gained – but also risked – by seeing biological processes in cultural terms.

Graham Huggan teaches in the School of English at the University of Leeds. His research straddles three fields: postcolonial studies, tourism studies, and environmental studies, with each of these fields being brought together in his most recent book, Colonialism, Culture, Whale: The Cetacean Quartet (Bloomsbury, 2018). The author or co-author of fifteen books over a thirty-year career, he is currently working on a full-length co-written study of modern British nature writing and a monograph on ecocritical approaches to Australian literature.

Image courtesy Graham Huggan/University of Leeds