Olga Tokarczuk’s Ecological Imagination

"Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead" offers a way through environmental despair.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Throughout the 2000s, the reading public awoke to the realities of mass extinction. Environmentalists, conservationists, climate scientists, journalists, and activists began to get through the message that humans have set the living world on a lethal path. By the time Elizabeth Kolbert expanded her monumental 2009 essay, “The Sixth Extinction?” into a book in 2014, the looming threat of biological annihilation was widely acknowledged and deeply felt.

Over the next decade, as predictions for the demise of the living world accumulated, and grim trajectories became the norm for environmental journalism, the literary world seemed to go dormant, as though the death of the biosphere was too much for even the most profound storyteller to bear. And yet, in that quiet, a few writers began to conjure visions of how humans might be able to reckon with the threat of ecological collapse. One brilliant imagination among them: the novelist Olga Tokarczuk.

The Polish Nobel laureate’s stunning 2009 novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, stands out in retrospect as one of the early landmark works of ecological fiction. The eco-drama captures a tiny slice of the planet’s existential struggle in the microcosm of a Polish forest. Like environmental journalists predicting ecological collapse, Tokarczuk’s novel depicts the systematic extermination of species and acknowledges the distinct possibility of annihilation—human or biological or something in between. Yet in addition to depicting the grim prospects, Tokarczuk has her protagonist experience, reflect upon, and, most importantly, act upon, a broad range of emotions inspired by the ecological destruction to which she is witness. This course through anger, vengeance, and sorrow does not run smoothly, but eventually it opens up a new vision of life—one that presents alternatives to the trajectory of doom. 13 years after the book’s publication, Tokarczuk’s ecological conjurings remain strikingly apropos.

Angels of Vengeance

The novel is set in an imaginary forest on the outskirts of Poland’s biodiverse Kłodzko Valley, a place marked by skirmishes between environmentalists and industrialists. As Tokarczuk explained in a May 2021 interview, plot points in the novel’s forest were influenced by contemporary conflicts over deforestation and patriarchal conservation methods in Poland.

Yet Tokarczuk’s forest is also a literary forest, where her otherwise realist characters reemerge as age-old archetypes from popular fairy tales. Tokarczuk summons the characters from Little Red Riding Hood, for example, and gives the grandmother wolf a starring role. The wolf spends much of the book exacting revenge on local hunters. In Tokarczuk’s hand, we cheer for the wolf.

The reader sees the contested wilderness through the eyes of the book’s narrator and protagonist, an eccentric ailing woman named Mrs. Janina Duszejko. Mrs. Duszejko listens to the weather channel, conducts unconventional versions of Mendel’s pea experiments, writes horoscopes, translates William Blake (from whose poetry the book’s title is taken), treats houses as living habitats, and communicates with her car as though it were a friendly fellow animal. In short, she takes part in forest life and goes to extreme measures to defend it.

Mrs. Duszejko is involved in a protracted conflict with the hunters in her area, who pillage the forest, hunt illegally, run cruel fur farms, and dismiss her concerns about the plight of local species. Over the course of the book, several of the hunters mysteriously turn up dead. In response to their deaths, Mrs. Duszejko adopts the role of private investigator. She goes to the police and tells them she knows the cause of the murders: the animals, she tells them, are taking revenge on the hunters.

Tokarczuk renders Mrs. Duszejko’s investigative reports as both wildly implausible and deeply true. Many of the characters in the story, including Mrs. Duszejko’s friends, reject her claims. On the more mythic, surreal wavelength of the novel, however, the reader is invited to entertain the idea that Mrs. Duszejko is really onto something. Perhaps the living world—the deer, the foxes, the forest wolves—really are rising up against those who would destroy them. Instead of reading as a standard murder mystery, the book starts to read as a revenge drama, with Mrs. Duszejko becoming an angel of vengeance on behalf of all animals, against the crime of mass extermination.

Yet Tokarczuk’s forest is also a literary forest, where her otherwise realist characters reemerge as age-old archetypes from popular fairy tales. Tokarczuk summons the characters from Little Red Riding Hood, for example, and gives the grandmother wolf a starring role. The wolf spends much of the book exacting revenge on local hunters. In Tokarczuk’s hand, we cheer for the wolf.

At the outset of the novel, after Mrs. Duszejko witnesses forest pillaging, gruesome snares, inhumane cages, gratuitous killing—she begins to reflect on her anger and determines she must take action. “The truth is,” she says, “that anyone who feels Anger, and does not take action, merely spreads the infection.” When she reflects on her own anger, she emphasizes its ostensibly clarifying effect: “Sometimes, when a Person feels Anger," she writes (in her Blakean practice of capitalization), “everything seems simple and obvious. Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell; Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which it’s hard to attain in any other state.”

Tokarczuk seems to want her readers to recollect and explore those times when they, too, have felt angered, perhaps even murderously angered, by those who perpetuate this. In 2017, after the book was adapted as a film called Spoor, directed by Agnieszka Holland, conservative critics in Poland accused Tokarczuk and Holland of inciting eco-terrorism.

Yet Tokarczuk is not writing a manifesto. It is one of the qualities of the novel form that it permits both writer and reader to act on dark emotions and violent dreams in the imagination—without necessarily acting the same way in the world. While Tokarczuk gives her audience occasion to cheer on the avenger, she doesn’t make it emotionally or ethically easy. Rooting for our wild-eyed protagonist means witnessing grisly crimes against animals and humans, wrestling with the ethical challenges of revenge and the further perpetuation of violence.

Eventually, Mrs. Duszejko’s violent energies dissolve into despair. The vengeful actions do not save the forest animals; more and more seem to be dying. So Mrs. Duszejko starts to take a new look at anger. “Anger,” she says, “always leaves a large void behind it, into which a flood of sorrow pours instantly, and keeps on flowing like a great river, without beginning or end.” She goes so far as to suggest that existentialism is sorrow shared by the Earth itself. “Sorrow is an important word for defining the world,” she says. “It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.” The world itself starts to look essentially tragic. Where do we go from here?

The Beautiful Struggle

Two thirds into the book, at the nadir of despair, Tokarczuk introduces a new character who imbues the novel, and the struggle at its core, with new hopeful energy. In Boros, an entomologist enmeshed in an ongoing dispute with a local forester over the looming extinction of flat bark beetles, Mrs. Duszejko finds an ally and more. When Boros first appears in the forest, our protagonist spies him at a distance, watching him with suspicion. After a while, he appears at her door, hoping for some food and a bathroom. He ends up moving in, and staying longer than expected. The graduate students that are supposed to pick him up never materialize. The book starts to take on a lighthearted feel, with hints of comedy and a little romance to boot. 

Boros has a remarkable influence on Mrs. Duszejko. He takes her to the forest to show her his work on the flat bark beetles. At first, she is thoroughly underwhelmed by the idea, but soon her boredom turns into awe-filled reverie. “The most ordinary stumps turned out to be entire kingdoms of Creatures, that bored corridors, chambers and passages and laid their precious eggs there,” she says. She’s also captivated by the beetles’ ecological interdependence: “they entrusted their lives to the trees, without imagining that these huge, immobile Creatures are essentially very fragile, and wholly dependent on the will of people too.” Under Boros’s influence, and with the engagement of her imagination, she starts to see alternative ways of life in her ecosystem.

Boros enacts one of these ways of life, and his actions stand in contrast to Mrs. Duszejko’s vengeance. Instead of fighting the murderers, Boros resorts to his very own eco-intervention. Because the state forest is cutting down and selling the trees where the beetles reside, he administers hormones to the insects that prompt them to breed in different places. He helps the beetles adapt. He introduces the idea that humans can act as symbionts in their forests, even while battling those who destroy it.

Under Boros’s influence, the novel—and by extension, our suffering world—starts to look less inevitably tragic. He shifts the focus from destruction to a different level of thinking about how vulnerable species might survive, adapt, and even flourish. His love of life—a kind of pragmatic biophilia—makes it possible for him to inspire a shift in others. It is not clear if Mrs. Duszejko will become an interventionist entomologist like Boros, but as she sees Boros’s action toward the beetles, she begins to entertain new ways for humans to exist in the ecosystems they inhabit.

In the end, as a consequence of the murder investigations, Mrs. Duszejko runs into trouble with the police and ends up living in exile with Boros. The two live near the Białowieża Forest, which, like the Kłodzko Forest, is rife with historical conservation debates, extraordinary biodiversity, and new storylines. When she first arrives, Mrs. Duszejko remarks that “the forest is impenetrable,” but eventually, she offers a new reverie. “Sometimes,” she writes, “when the temperature rises and oscillates close to zero, sluggish Flies, Springtails and Gall Wasps appear on the snow—by now I have learned their names. I also see Spiders here. I have learned, however, that most Insects hibernate. Deep inside their anthill, the Ants cling to each other in a large ball and sleep like that until spring. I only wish people had the same sort of confidence in each other.”

What Tokarczuk offers in Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, then, is an invitation to take our ecological emotions seriously, and to engage our imaginations to see what kinds of alternate paths they reveal. If Elizabeth Kolbert’s monumental contribution was to offer us a necessary, but grim diagnosis, Tokarczuk presents a way to look for possible cures. For Tokarczuk, the place to look for those cures is in the literary forest, which is both a biological and an imaginative place that can show us ways to cope with ecological disaster and present new arrangements to circumvent it. Tokarczuk is not sanguine about the prospects, but her work suggests that the path is far from determined, far from inevitably tragic. In other words, Tokarczuk shows us that the ecological imagination is full of alternative ways of life. ♦

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