Field Guide to the Patchy Anthropocene
The New Nature
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou



The future arrives almost every day now each time with dizzying force

where—and how—are we to find our bearings?

Human action has transformed the planet—from its climate, to its life forms, to its hydrology and chemistry. Such changes have led to the use of the term “Anthropocene” as an epoch of human-influenced environmental change. The Anthropocene is planetary. Yet, as this book will show, it is also up close and personal. It is impossible to understand the Anthropocene without finding out what is happening in particular places: the patches of our title. This is not because planetwide conditions have local effects and instantiations, as so many studies have it; instead, as this book argues, patches make the Anthropocene, including its planetary forms. While big data modeling has usefully brought the idea of the Anthropocene into play, learning more about it requires descriptive field studies and histories, that is, fine-grained attention to patches. What observers find, too, may continue to surprise us: At every scale, nature is changing through its entanglements with human infrastructure. The new Nature is feral. How shall we as observers re-attune ourselves? A field guide can help.

Consider the red turpentine beetle, Dendroctonus valens, as described by biologist Scott Gilbert.1 This beetle lives under the bark of damaged pine trees, drilling out tunnels and creating brood galleries, which can kill the tree by destroying its vascular system. In its native North America, this beetle doesn’t do much harm, even when it is covered with the fungus Leptographium procerum, which helps the beetle drill by digesting the wood. The beetle only came to global attention when it hitchhiked on industrial shipments of unprocessed timber from North America to China’s Shanxi province in the 1980s. There, the beetle was able to form an association with a much more potent local variant of its symbiotic fungus, L. procerum. Working together, this potent local fungal variant and this imported beetle started killing trees in droves. They even roped the trees into bringing on their own demise; the fungus stimulated the trees to produce volatile chemicals that attracted more fungus-covered death-dealing beetles. Gilbert reports that more than 10 million trees have been killed in China, stalling reforestation efforts. Looking ahead, it seems likely that the potent Shanxi fungus will coat beetles that make the return trip, again on industrial timber, to North America. Gilbert addresses U.S. readers as he quotes a pest management official: “Be afraid.”

The red turpentine beetle carries the story of this book in several ways. First, its appearance in China depends entirely on the industrial trade in timber; the beetle would have no way to make it from North America to China without this exchange. In the vocabulary of this book, the Chinese occurrence of the beetle is feral—that is, transformed by human infrastructure but not under the control of human designers. The term “infrastructure” here refers to landscape-changing human building projects, such as the ships, roads, and warehouses that move timber around the world. The beetles become feral as they take advantage of the global timber trade.

The concept of ferality (to which we return later in this Introduction) requires thinkers to pay attention to both human arrangements and nonhuman response. Calling the beetle feral signals that, instead of dismissing trade as a necessary part of being human, we need to study the particular conditions and routes of the commodity chain. Calling the beetle feral also focuses attention on the beetle itself, as it has attracted a new fungal ally in its Shanxi tunnels. Just how do beings transform in their responses to human infrastructures, and how do they remake the world? The term “feral” forces attention to what was once hidden in the gap between “wild” and “domestic.”

The red turpentine beetle carries a second point of the book. Together with their fungal allies, the beetles help make the Anthropocene precisely because of their patchy occurrence. The beetle comes from North America. The potent fungal variety lives in Shanxi, China. These places matter to the story: It is the transfer of the beetle to a new place that sparks its alliance with a potent local fungus, in turn leading to the death of millions of trees. The phenomenon of tree death in this story comes into being because of the patchy distribution of beetles and fungi. It is this too that sparks the fears of North Americans, who expect the beetle to come back with deadly new powers. Patches and corridors are central to the remaking of the earth that characterizes the Anthropocene. This book shows how to bring a spatial analysis—that is, an analysis of patches and corridors—into description of the Anthropocene.

The heterogeneity of time is also important. The history of the beetle, as it encounters the potent fungus, matters; this encounter happened not only in a particular place but also at a particular time—for the transnational timber trade, for Shanxi reforestation efforts, and for fungal evolution and dispersion. Meanwhile, this history unfolds in the shadow of the possibility of an ecosystem rupture, should the forests in this region be deprived of a whole species, along with the insects, fungi, mosses, and other beings that depend on that species.2 Temporal coordinations—and discontinuities—are key elements of the Anthropocene.

Complexes of human infrastructure, we argue, rupture the temporal coordinations that sustain multispecies life. Infrastructures produce feral effects because they modify land, water, and air, causing responses from all the beings that encounter these modifications. Throughout the history of our species, humans have been engaged in landscape modification projects—such as burning to create grazing spaces for game, making small dams for fishing, encouraging some plants over others, and much more. Precolonial kingdoms encouraged much more radical infrastructure projects, such as remaking rivers, but these tended to be limited to areas under direct regional governance. To consider how humans have become a geological force—moving more dirt than the Ice Age glaciers, causing faster extinctions than anything but a meteor, and changing the climate in a way that may take millions of years to readjust—something more than just “being human” comes into play. The imperial expansion of Europe, on the one hand, and capitalist investment, on the other, radically changed the impact of the human presence on earth through massive infrastructure-building projects, which modified land, water, and atmosphere in an unprecedented manner. Feral effects follow such radical transformations. This book argues that imperial and industrial infrastructures of the last five hundred years should be singled out for their exceptional force in changing the earth’s surface.3 The power of their political economies has allowed terraforming at a scale that surpasses previous human interventions. This terraforming is dangerous to life on earth, human and nonhuman. It is for this reason that we imagine this book as a set of materials for “unbuilding.” Dismantling huge swaths of imperial and industrial infrastructure might be our best chance for sustaining more-than-human livability.

One more point of this book rides on the red turpentine beetle: Attention to the beings, places, ecologies, and histories of the Anthropocene can reignite curiosity and wonder concerning our damaged planet, even as we denizens may strive to make things different. That’s why we have produced Field Guide. We want to inspire readers to look around in new ways. Gilbert explains how the red turpentine beetle and the fungus together form a monstrous conception only newly recognized: a “holobiont,” an assemblage of beings that evolves and adapts together. Earlier traditions of biology and natural history glanced over such beings, with their multispecies complexity. This and other forms of excitement await readers who dare to explore further.4

Why a Field Guide?

Field guides teach us how to notice, identify, name, and so better appreciate more-than-human worlds. They provide the descriptive details by which to hone our powers of observation, while offering access to specialized information that we may not be able to glean on our own. To head out into the world with a field guide in hand is to commit to opening and attuning in new ways. It is the start of a relational practice of coming to knowledge that holds the potential for cultivating deeper connections with the rhythms, relationships, and vulnerabilities of more-than-human worlds: an art of noticing that requires you to develop comparative capacities, together with an appreciation of form, color, texture, movement; a mode that marks a deliberate commitment to reorient yourself in the world; an exercise that can lead to you noting things being both in and out of place; a habit attuned to the rhythms of flourishing and diminishment; an attention that enables you to notice and miss critters no longer present, along with what remains and accrues in their stead.

We made Field Guide with the conviction that, if we are to learn to better reckon with these times of human-caused environmental catastrophe, it is essential to reflect more closely on how we got to where we are. There is, of course, no one answer to this question. Likewise, there is no singular “we” or “where” with which to adequately account for what is going on—not to mention what is at stake and for whom and in what ways—as ecologies lurch and stumble across the planet.

This book shows how both spatial and temporal heterogeneity can be useful when analyzing the Anthropocene. In the practices we advocate, on-the-ground social ecologies are at least as important as the thought experiments, such as general circulation climate models, used to imagine a planetary scale. This involves more than taking conventional forms of scholarship and slotting them into expected roles. Rather, as we will show, the analysis of a “patchy Anthropocene” makes possible a new form of attention to the particular in the planetary—and the planetary in the particular.5

Decolonizing Natural History for the Anthropocene

Have a look at the cycad palm. . . . That’s my märi [mother’s mother or mother’s mother’s brother]. It belongs to the land, stories and songs of my mother’s mother clan, the Wangurri people. Märi is the boss for ceremony and everything, really. Märi is our backbone. That’s how it is for us. That’s gurrutu, what you call family or kinship.

—Yolŋu elder Paul Gurrumuruwuy

Over recent decades natural history has fallen out of favor in the sciences, where the rise of big data has substantively recast the grounds of research and analysis. Satellite views and composite datasets can seem to render on-the-ground observations quaintly out of scale in relation to planetary matters. Recently, however, and no doubt in response to public awareness of environmental damage, natural history has been undergoing an astonishing resurgence.

FIGURE 1. Paul Gurrumuruwuy’s märi.

As biology professor and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests, to address the increasingly urgent question of How are we to live? we must start paying more attention to the world around us.6 As we write this book, new kinds of natural history writing abound—films, websites, and exhibitions also.7 Across the humanities, sciences, and arts, new kinds of transdisciplinary research and advocacy projects find energy and purpose in the work of cultivating attunements to situated ecological relations, fostering sometimes radical reorientations towards more-than-human worlds of vitality and coexistence.8 Indeed, as the social sciences and humanities continue to come to terms with natural history’s central role in colonial and imperial projects, natural history museums have become important sites for interventions that directly challenge modernist knowledge systems and the values that they instantiate. Not all of these interventions have the same commitment to decolonizing knowledge that we offer here. However, we believe we can work in dialogue with these projects, expanding them to offer alternative, plural natural histories.9

Natural history offers arts of noticing that can draw practitioners beyond blinding narratives of progress to attend to the temporalities of those living and nonliving others who share the planet with humans—and who make it possible for humans to survive. The natural history that we advocate here recognizes nonhumans—such as red turpentine beetles—as robust historical protagonists in their own right. In doing so, it contributes to an urgent recalibration of the categories of both nature and history, not to mention the long-overlooked relationship between the two. Bringing forth perspectives grounded in dynamically interacting material histories, the Anthropocene natural history we promote is always social and cultural. Indeed, we take this as a fundamental lesson of the Anthropocene. In promoting a revitalized natural history, we do not skirt the fact that the history of natural history remains indelibly implicated in the brutal avarice and racist typologies of colonialism. One means of acknowledging this heritage has been to make the work of identifying ongoing histories of invasion, dispossession, and extraction central to our methods.

We also introduce other modes for decolonizing natural history. First, we reach out to a variety of legacies and practices of observation, rather than limiting observation to Western scientists. We acknowledge non-Western observers of many kinds, as well as many kinds of Indigenous and vernacular admirers of the natural world.10 Our natural history is wonderfully contaminated with a diversity of forms of empiricism. It thus offers a critical eye on imperial traditions that imagine themselves universals. Second, our natural history is always combined with social history—including issues of social and environmental justice.11 We do not aim to segregate the natural from the cultural; instead, we explore how Anthropocene patches are created through allowing social injustice to shape environmental catastrophe. Third, rather than allowing the arts—including the art of mapping—to merely illustrate our social-natural history, we call on them to define and conceptualize problems. By refusing the conventional aesthetics of an unrooted, context-free art, on the one hand, and expanding the sensual grip of the sciences, on the other, we show forms through which situated artists and creative scholars might co-create knowledge. Map-making in particular is a method for learning about the Anthropocene.

Our method to work across modes of doing natural history is to “pile” many forms together. Instead of working toward a single common language, we juxtapose and amass multiple kinds of empiricism. “Piling” is a knowledge practice that embraces heterogeneous forms of Anthropocene knowledge, assembled without the imposition of preordained theory or established disciplinary hierarchies. While this is not the only way to decolonize natural history (see Part IV), it is an opening to the many natural histories that surround us, if we only allow ourselves to notice them.

In the process of looking at patches, we hope users of Field Guide might find “Holocene fragments,” to use Zachary Caple’s term for patches in which longtime evolutionary mutualisms, such as arrangements that link pollinators and flowering plants, remain healthy.12 Natural history of the sort we advocate can find thriving patches as well as terrifying ones, and it is important to be able to tell the difference. In this way, too, we might begin to think about limiting the spread of the worst Anthropocene patches, while preserving and nurturing refuges for Holocene ecosystems. Learning to observe and describe the patchy Anthropocene allows us to notice processes, protagonists, and connections that could show us how to stop Anthropocene proliferations.

We use the term “field guide” in this book, then, in a rather literal sense, not just as a metaphor. Our goal is to allow readers to understand the Anthropocene through the particularity of observations at multiple scales, while also inspiring readers to indulge in this practice themselves, observing the world through its Anthropocene patches. Even when we turn to larger, planet-spanning movements, our analysis stays close to particular organisms, ecological assemblages, and landscapes. It also shows how established conventions of natural history—as inherited from Europeans caught up in colonial adventures—are not enough.

Storytelling and Noticing: A Feminist Approach to the Anthropocene

Ursula Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” offers important guidance for the kinds of stories needed for a field guide to the patchy Anthropocene.13 Le Guin contrasts stories of Man the Hunter, where the action proceeds on the point of a spear, with those that offer the rhythms of women’s gathering activities, assembling diverse stories. The former offer singular big histories; the latter pay attention to heterogeneity and contingent effects. Our Field Guide offers a carrier bag of stories, as is appropriate for a guide to the patchy Anthropocene. This does not mean that we abandon the big picture; on the contrary, we constantly search for structural and out-of-scale effects. But we see these produced through the dynamics of patches, rather than as the preformed effects of planetary algorithms.

In the social sciences, carrier bag approaches have been associated with theories of articulation, especially in feminist approaches to capitalism. As J. K. Gibson-Graham has argued, masculinist approaches were intent on producing master narratives of a singular all-powerful capitalism; they neglected the on-the-ground dynamics through which diverse economies have been created and linked.14 The “Gens Manifesto” and its interlocutors followed up on this insight to show how articulations between kinship and industrial organization can shape the histories through which capitalist political economy develops.15 In this spirit, instead of regarding planetary climate change, assessed through modeling, as the only index of Anthropocene transformations, we consider how human infrastructures in particular times and places remake species, geologies, and, more generally, environments. This leads to stories grounded in place and time: thus, a field guide.

A field guide approach is a way of doing “theory.” Theory here provides traction with the material under analysis, rather than being imposed on it from without, as dogma. Free of the goal of theoretical purity, a variety of explanatory tools can be deployed to illuminate this book’s stories. Imagine the scene of gathering called up by Le Guin. Digging an edible root or catching a frog each requires different tools. Theory enables our storytelling practice as tools to notice the patches, corridors, edge effects, and articulations of the Anthropocene. This means, too, that we tell stories through lots of details. The details matter in getting the story right.

Throughout Field Guide, readers will learn of particular places, times, and forms of life. Look to this for inspiration to find scenes other than those we identify here. Use it to gather your own stories.

More About the Feral

Field Guide is written in dialogue with our digital project, Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene.16 (To learn more about how to use that project, see the Appendix.) Feral Atlas is a mapping project in which field reports, based on empirical observation, describe Anthropocene patches. Field Guide depends on Feral Atlas for many of its case studies, and it opens up the conceptual terrain of Feral Atlas for further discussion. Field Guide thus continues our exploration of the feral.

Ferality, in our definition, is the state of nonhuman beings engaged with human projects, but not in the way the makers of those projects designed. Our definition draws on, but extends, the common use of the term “feral.” A pig is considered feral when it leaves the farm to live in the forest. (Note that ferality is not necessarily a species characteristic: The pig on the farm has the same genetic signature as the feral pig.) We only need to push this term slightly to see the big-leafed vine kudzu as feral when it leaps beyond its planted spaces to smother houses and trees. But we also extend the term to nonliving entities. Carbon dioxide, for us, is feral when it moves out from fossil fuel–burning industries. Here, the feral entity, carbon dioxide, is identified by its non-designed anthropogenic effects: accumulating at atmospheric concentrations that can be neither controlled nor ignored.

Ferality is important for a field guide to the patchy Anthropocene because it shows the autonomous activities of nonhumans, even those most closely affected by human infrastructures. Without the concept of the feral, it is too easy to fall into a dichotomy that only includes the wild and the domestic. Wild things are imagined as having nothing to do with humans; domestics are imagined as entirely under human control. In the patchy Anthropocene, many nonhumans (living and nonliving) are responsive to human actions without submitting even slightly to human control. It is this set of beings that we call feral.

The concept of the feral is designed to urge readers to acknowledge the relationship between human infrastructures and the beings that respond to them: Both deserve careful study. Conventionally, natural scientists have studied beings without bothering with the anthropogenic relationships within which they are entangled. Conventionally, social scientists and humanists have ignored the activities of nonhumans except as they play into human plans. Feral beings require attention on both sides; paying attention to the feral forces readers into the entanglement of human and nonhuman trajectories.

As should be evident from our definition, designation as feral does not indicate whether we approve or disapprove of a particular bit of feral action. Trees that grow up in an abandoned lot are feral—and wonderful for many ecological reasons. Pathogens that evolve resistance to antibiotics are feral—and terrible for the humans likely to die of infections. “Feral” is not a term of political assessment. Our definition is thus quite different from alternative uses, such as the ferality glorified as unbridled masculinity, or condemned as unbridled chaos.17

In these times, noxious feral effects have become particularly evident, and we spend a lot of time with them in Field Guide—even while not ruling out the possibility of benign or beneficial feralities. In contrast to perspectives on the Anthropocene that imagine a time of human triumph, this book charts the dangers of human-induced environmental effects.18 The Anthropocene is a time of great trouble, and it would be great if this epoch might be as short as possible. For the authors of Field Guide, recognizing and bearing witness to the ways that more-than-human assemblages generate environmental harm is a necessary first step to understanding the social and environmental disruptions that make up the Anthropocene.

An important caveat: We do not use the term “feral” to refer to humans or to human technologies and infrastructures. Vulnerable people have always been accused of unnecessary wildness, and we will not join that chorus. Human technologies and infrastructures, for us, are the apparatus that produce ferality.19 Furthermore, whether or not they are adequate to meet the human needs they were designed for is not relevant to our analysis here. Ferality moves beyond human goals. Properly functioning and poorly functioning infrastructure (from a human standpoint) can each have feral effects.

Feral action is traced throughout Field Guide—in the identification of geographical patches, in the unexpected effects of human infrastructure, and in the shifting biologies of organisms reacting to the human presence. In each part of the book, we further develop the concept of the feral for its guidance in describing the Anthropocene.

Who Are We?

Any project about planetwide processes makes one think about the use of “we” pronouns. This book uses “we” in two different ways. Most of the time, when you read “we,” think of the co-authors of this book. Occasionally, however, we, the authors, call up our readers as “we.” The first-person plural can be problematically presumptive, hailing exclusive elites. At the same time, new forms of we are in the making—and the authors need them to address the epistemically patchy Anthropocene this book describes. Following Caribbean American literary critic Sylvia Wynter (see Chapter 1), this book aims to open up the we of the human condition.20 Our readership we is utopian, reaching toward a not-yet-achieved diversity of patchy perspectives and overlapping concerns. Our we is an invitation.

Indeed, the we of the co-authors remains a collective in the making: a shared voice on paper composed by three anthropologists and an architect with divergent disciplinary orientations and experiences. In a nod to this, while most of the chapters that follow are co-authored, you will also find single-author contributions. In Chapter 5, Alder Keleman Saxena shows how unseasonal weather can reveal the inherent patchiness of climate change. In Chapters 7, 8, and 9, Anna Tsing dives deeper into the historical dynamics of the more-than-human Anthropocene, offering analytic tools for tracking crucial interactions between human and nonhuman histories that crisscross the humanities and sciences. In Chapter 11, Feifei Zhou argues for an attention to processes of both building and unbuilding in confronting the social and infrastructural damages of the Anthropocene; and in Chapter 12, Jennifer Deger offers a glimpse of co-creative practices with Yolŋu Aboriginal people to suggest an approach to collaborative knowledge that reaches beyond “piling.” Writing this book together—sometimes integrating our voices in a single text, and sometimes putting our differing perspectives in conversation—has deepened our shared commitment to developing methodological and analytic tools for studying the emerging natural histories of the Anthropocene. Put another way, it has underscored our call for a “patchy epistemics,” the subject of Part IV of the book.

For there is no way around it. While the world we are building was never ours alone, nonhuman histories now shape the future for us all. Learning to observe and describe the patchy Anthropocene in all its multi-sited, multi-scalar and more-than-human complexity is essential if we are to find ways to limit its world ripping force. Only through a sustained and collective effort of piling observations and insights—patch upon patch, perspective upon perspective—can we hope to identify, and so grapple with, the various protagonists, processes, and infrastructures through which the Anthropocene is being made with terrifying momentum. We don’t just need a renewed natural history; we need many kinds of natural historians working in, and across, patches of all kinds to create new constellations of Anthropocene knowledge and collaboration.

Take Field Guide . . . and get out there.

Authors’ Note

In March 2024, when the first run of this book was already printing, the International Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy voted “no” on a proposal to designate the Anthropocene as a geological epoch. Press reports suggest that this decision stemmed from disagreement about whether a single, planet-wide stratigraphic signal could encapsulate the geological impacts of human action. For the past fifteen years, the proposal of an epoch has been a useful pole for both policy and scholarly discussion. Even as our team proposed alternative temporalities, it was a strong place to start. Too often, climate change is imagined without regard to the wider implications of human landscape transformation; “Anthropocene” worked against this. As we move forward, the challenge will be to keep the planetary implications of human action in view without that proposal. This book charts a path through the study of patch-to-planet dynamics.

FIGURE 2. A stark landscape: abandoned overburden from brown coal mining in central Denmark, with a disintegrating cable in the foreground.


1. This example is drawn from Scott Gilbert’s essay in Feral Atlas: The More-Than-Human Anthropocene (2021).

2. David Foster and colleagues’ (2014) account of the fate of eastern hemlock offers a vivid example of ecosystem change due to insect damage to a single tree species.

3. Many commentators continue to see increasing human numbers as the problem without attention to the political ecologies that give some humans greater ecological footprints than others. Yet human numbers are themselves dependent on political economies of reproduction, which change radically in relation to state exactions and property regimes. Human numbers respond, too, to imperial and industrial infrastructures.

4. While some writers insist that the term “more-than-human” can only mean “superhuman,” we disagree—and follow the usage that has become common practice in the environmental humanities and science studies. Throughout this book, we use the term “more-than-human” to refer to humans plus nonhumans. By “nonhuman,” we mean both living creatures, such as the red turpentine beetle, and nonliving entities, such as petrochemicals, volatile dust particles, or phosphorus fertilizers, the characteristics of which nonetheless have the capacity to bring about change in the world.

5. Tsing et al., 2019.

6. Hausdoerffer et al., 2021.

7. In digital media, our team drew initial inspiration from Maya Lin’s What Is Missing?, created in 2009.

8. For forays across the social and natural sciences, as well as often the arts, see for example, Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds., Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth (2020); Thom van Dooren, The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (2019); Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2014); Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing et al., eds., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene (2017); Haus der Kulturen der Welt and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Mississippi An Anthropocene River 2018–19; Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, eds., Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (2015).

9. For a discussion of the revitalization of natural history and an analysis of obstacles within the natural sciences, see Joshua Tewksbury et al. (2014).

10. Some examples: for non-Western natural histories, Federico Marcon (2015); for Indigenous natural histories, Ian Saem Majnep and Ralph Bulmer (1977); for vernacular natural histories, Robert Macfarlane (2015).

11. For example, Bullard & Wright, 2012.

12. Caple, 2017.

13. Le Guin, 1989.

14. Gibson-Graham, 1996.

15. Bear et al., 2015.

16 Tsing et al., 2021.

17. For masculinity, see George Monbiot (2014). For chaos, see Richard Norton (2018) on feral cities.

18. For an important example of an interpretation of the Anthropocene as mastery, see John Asafu-Adjaye et al. (2015).

19. Nonhuman infrastructures are discussed in Chapter 8; these might be described as feral.

20. Wynter, 2015.