“Staying with the trouble” on Planet (i)
No matter where you live, I can bet you have experienced climate change in some form—warmer winters, strange storms—or at the very least, in your newsfeed. Climate change is appearing in pop culture, too, from public art installations, to film screens, and music. Squirrel Flower (Ella Williams) is an indie musical artist whose second album, Planet (i), was released this year. The lyrics, tone and album art engage climate change and the Anthropocene while complicating the usual apocalypse narrative often associated with these issues in popular culture. Squirrel Flower’s work is not cheesy, nor is it particularly hopeful. It imagines an apocalypse in which weather is a constant, unignorable presence, loneliness isn’t all bad, and life is in constant motion. This creative rumination on climate collapse is in the vein of Stacy Alaimo’s concept of “dwelling in the dissolve'' and Donna Haraway’s “staying with the trouble” (1). These environmental thinkers share a common call for moving past climate change denial and inaction, towards imaginative response to the growing issues and existentialisms climate change presents.
Upon first hearing Squirrel Flower’s album, I was struck by how directly it engaged with the issue of climate change. I couldn’t really think of many other songs, let alone entire albums, that did so. In my reading of it, Planet (i) imagines life in a post-apocalyptic world. There is a somberness, a sense of foreboding, that seeps into each track and is amplified by the cover art, which pictures a zombie-like person I take to be Williams herself trudging through a red-tinged landscape. The album title is repeated, fainter and fainter, above the image of Williams, before fading out completely on a hazy, yellow horizon. This doesn't feel like a feel-good, call-to-action, save-the-trees protest anthem à la Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. Instead, Squirrel Flower’s Planet (i) feels like something more along the lines of Donna Haraway’s call for “staying with the trouble,” which “requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvic futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” (2).
There is a sense of self-empowerment in this work, as Williams navigates a landscape where technologies and transportation systems are breaking down, and where it seems like she is often the only person present in the scenes. Listening to this album, I am reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Williams’ character, like McCarthy’s, seems to be constantly on the move, at the edge of ominous danger. She sings about driving a busted car down the highway and peering down dark alleys in the middle of the night. Another consistent theme is weather-- across the album’s 12 songs, she mentions storms, rain, floods, deluges, drought, tornados, and firestorms. We get hints of species loss and extinction: “I saw a hummingbird/face down in the water”; and of societal breakdown in mentions of stolen goods and shady purchases of shitty car parts.
Listening to Planet (i), I am also reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, which considers why writers, and arts and humanities practitioners more broadly, do not engage more with issues of climate change in their work (3). Of course, many artists and thinkers do engage with it, but Ghosh suggests that limitations imposed by culture and perhaps by the literary form of the novel itself prevent more widespread focus on climate change. Squirrel Flower’s latest album takes up the task of addressing the climate crisis in a creative manner that manages to surprise and inspire this listener in a way that more hopeful, call-to-action music about climate change doesn’t. Lake Street Dive’s recent single “Making Do,” for example, is an overly cheerful anthem with an obvious feel-good message that people need to step up to protect future human generations and the more-than-human. The song feels cringey and overstated in comparison to Squirrel Flower’s subtle-yet-compelling deep dive into life on a troubled, lonely planet where weather is the main character, infusing and affecting every situation.
In interviews, Williams does mention post-apocalypse and climate anxiety as themes for the album, but she also describes her own personal preoccupations and intense memories associated with weather as part of the inspiration for these songs. In one interview, she describes being afraid of the sun as a small child, and of sometimes feeling as if she would fall into the sky (4). She embodies the earth in its entirety in her album’s title and in this phrase repeated in the first track, “I’ll Go Running”: “I’m a space rock burning fast.” Yet, in the rest of the verse, she’s also implicated in what has caused the planet’s destruction: “I’m an oil tank burning slow/Didn’t listen long enough to know.” Her intense emotional response to weather throughout the album reads as a becoming-with, a giving-in to the world around her. This type of engagement is what Haraway, Alaimo, Ghosh and others are calling for in order to grapple with living in this now, this so-called Anthropocene.
1 Alaimo, Stacy. Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times, University of Minnesota Press, 2016; Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.
3 Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
4 https://www.stereogum.com/2151939/squirrel-flower-planet-i-track-by-track/interviews/footnotes- interview/
Hannah Taub received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon in 2018. Her Master’s project in the Environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah involves creating and implementing Indigenous history programming at Antelope Island State Park on the Great Salt Lake, in collaboration with the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation. She is interested in pursuing further work on partnerships with Indigenous nations in her career.