November 2nd, 2038
Professor Margit Isbravnic
Centre for Mobile Ecologies, Vienna
Moving home: the case for translocating spiritual ecosystems
Dear colleagues, partners, and organisers – near and far, present and remote,
It is my pleasure today to give the opening keynote for the 15th annual meeting of the Society for Novel Ecology. Before I begin, I would like to thank the generous sponsors who have made this conference possible, and who have been tirelessly supporting various research projects conducted by some of our members – the Geocapitals group and Redefining Planetary Transformation coalition in particular, which have provided the backbone of several annual meetings in a row.
Addressing you all today is a pleasure heightened by my recollection of this Society’s first effervescent meeting in 2023, when everything was still ahead of us and I myself was a green graduate student trailing behind my supervisor and now distinguished professor emerita Maria Vincente, buoyed as much by the then rare excitement of an in-person conference as by the feeling that a tremendous shift was taking place beneath my very feet. We have come a long way since this early meeting – which some cast as the stage of the second battle for the soul of conservation science, following the highly publicised clashes between traditional and new conservationists a decade earlier.1 Having come of academic age in the midst of this debate, and having seen our discipline come out enriched – if perhaps not beatified – it is my honour to submit a new proposal to you, with potential ramifications for all our research and practices.
It is an ambitious overhaul indeed that I propose to you today, one that is sure to be contentious and to stoke many a temper in this room; I only ask that you hear me out, and I promise I will return the favour when the time comes for your objections. The call I am here to address to the ecological community as a whole is this: that we start tending to our extended, spiritual ecologies; that we include inhabitants that exist beyond the visible and the biological in our research and project design; and that we accept the responsibility of stewarding their movements across treacherous terrain just as we do those of physical beings. This proposal builds on a long, slow turn of academic interest toward the supernatural, and interest that has endowed it with renewed vigour and influence; I would wager that most of us present today have had to compose with beings and practices that fall outside of the biological in our work, an idea that would have seemed alien to the founding figures of our discipline.2 But the time has come to think about more than composing with, more than tolerating, more than suffering: it is time to take an active interest in their affairs and concerns, especially when it comes to their unique geographical vulnerabilities.
Assisted migration – the purposeful relocation of endangered animals and plants to ranges to which we could predict them to move as a result of climate change if they were not facing insurmountable anthropogenic barriers – is one of the ecological interventions that have been at the forefront of our Society’s efforts.3 Many of you probably still remember the time, two decades ago now, when those who called for action on this front were marginal in the scientific community, and their proposals dismissed as dangerous interventions into unpredictably disturbed ecosystems. Many biologists – not entirely without cause – pointed out at the time that moving species around as we see fit was overstepping the bounds of scientific prudence and ethical obligations. But even at the time it was an open secret4 among us that necessity would ultimately drive us out into a compromised milieu and force us to engage, for better or worse, with new allies.5 What was considered the breaking of a conservationist taboo in 2008, carried out in illegal guerrilla translocations or in minor field test-studies over the last decade, and hotly debated throughout,6 has now become a widely used tool in our conservationist suite of practices.7 We have seen the worldwide mobilisation of botanic gardens, many of them coming together under the umbrella project “Moving On: Aiding Dispersal of Endangered Species”, which ran from 2025 to 2030 and has given rise to the international guidelines we now abide by; and the technological advances in horticulture and expanding knowledge about ecosystemic interactions developed over the last two decades have allowed us to prosthetically recreate the migratory pathways we ourselves made impossible for many species, and for them to keep pace with climatic range shifts that would otherwise have outstripped them. Think, for example, of the Birnam Woods that are now marching across Canada, with new seedlings of whitebark pines being transplanted further and further north to provide habitat and food to their displaced companions; or of the experimental reserves that have been strung across Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, great laboratory-gardens brimming with translocated life, cultivated as the first outposts for other migrations to come.8
I remember the critiques we were met with then, and which I still encounter now, even as assisted migration has become a common and practical solution to many environmental disruptions. At the very worst, these proposals were compared to terraforming fantasies, as if we were dreaming of remaking our planet as if it were alien soil, a cosmic terra nullius yet to be inhabited by human beings.9 The sins certain ecologists seemed ready to commit, or to shoulder responsibility for, were grave indeed; and even I must admit that we were more willing than others to face the reality of environmental destruction and climatic range shifts, and that turning away from the hopeless task of preservation may have seemed both cynical and resigned to many.
As a result, we were cast as agents of a deregulated future, both economically and ecologically, in which the cosmos could be assembled and thus reassembled step by step.10 Assisted migration was painted as the vanguard of ecological nihilism, handmaiden to economic projects that wanted to see nature rendered fluid, frictionless, entirely recombinable and exploitable. It is true that many of us are concerned with the preservation or recreation of ecosystem services, in an (often successful attempt) at making ourselves legible to funding bodies other than universities and governmental programs; in many ways, the rise of assisted migration is correlated with the end of universities as we knew them at the dawn of the century. Funding cuts drove us into the arms of private investors and encouraged us to pitch every research project as an attractive, innovative intervention into the status quo – and even if they had not, our proposals already tended to be much better received outside the bounds of traditional conservation.
I will neither apologise for nor exalt this state of affairs; the only point I wish to emphasise here is my personal opinion that this reading had it backwards. Many of us were not exploring novel ranges into which we could nudge our focus species; we merely attempted to transform our understanding of what a native range is by taking another vantage point, by observing these species’ movements over vaster periods of time, unbracketing them from the usual Holocene temporal markers. In assisting species that are escaping unliveable climate conditions we often merely help them return to where they came from, where the convergence of our current climatic conditions with past planetary states is urging them to come home to. One could even go as far as to claim that assisted migration is a technology of stability, rather than mobility; most past and current projects in this area now work with experts in ecosystem history and path dependency, and in so doing prolong history by referring to it. We were once suspected of ushering in a catastrophic future; to which I respond we have merely reactivated the past.
I am not merely indulging in a gratuitous reminiscing of our past tribulations and successes. This last point leads us to the topic I wish to discuss today, since I am in effect calling for a reactivation, a rerouting, a prolonging of pasts that may to many of you seem entirely outside of our remit, but which must nevertheless be taken into account going forwards.
What I mean by this is – ghosts. Yes, dear colleagues, ghosts, and spirits, and gods, and saints; I mean that we can no longer ignore that the ecosystems atomising and reforming around us in an endless seismic dance also include the supernatural, and that we must expand the practices and technologies currently at our disposal to include these beings. The time of guarantees is over, as we now know,11 and we need no less than a complete overhaul of our conservationist assumptions, a new framework uniting the technological tools at our disposal and the obligation to tend to our spirits, ghosts, and saints, left untethered and untended to in the wake of climate change and human and nonhuman migrations.
If you will allow me, I will now take you to the site where I first studied the assisted migration of endangered conifers, and to which the contingencies of my career have restored me in recent years. My team has been translocating a variety of endangered plants across Italian, Slovenian and Austrian borders since 2032, and we have had great success in establishing new refugia in higher latitudes by moving sentries or vanguard species,12 and letting them function as attractors and acclimatisers for their ecosystemic companions.13 But lately our routine work of seeding, germinating, acclimatising and planting, in successive waves further and further north that come and go each year as a reminder that our seasons might be shifting but that their rhythm remains, has been disturbed by doubts about whether we are exerting our influence to its full necessary extent. Last year, our field studies have intersected with those of a group of anthropologists and archaeologists from the universities of Ljubljana, Oulu, and Vienna, who have investigated the distribution and resurgence of psychic and more-than-natural phenomena associated with wetlands in Slovenia.14 The country has been wrung dry over the past decade, but in the places in which portions of swamps and marshes are still functional they have been able to record and map the activity of various local spirits associated with these landscapes; močerad or salamanders, tormenting vedomci, headless souls, wailing-hags, also known as Klagefrauen across the border – even Green George, Zeleni Jurij, has been sighted.15 The wailing and tormenting spirits, in particular, seem to have gained in numbers and vigour recently.
This information was imparted on us just as we embarked on a study of wetland translocation, an endeavour exponentially more complicated than moving conifers. It led us to wonder whether we had not made the grave mistake, in our previous endeavours, of ignoring the non-physical inhabitants attached to the ecosystems or species we were moving. I know what some of you must be thinking: why in the world would anyone wish to translocate wailing-hags, or the tormenting souls of children dead before their time? Why not let them die with the swamps they inhabit, and rid humans of them once and for all? To this I respond that we cannot discount what we consider weeds when helping plants to move; that deadly fungi have their role to play in the health of soils and ecosystems, and that we may not always welcome returning apex predators with open arms but must nevertheless learn to compose with them if our forests are to rustle with life again. We must keep our connections open, or risk making our reassembled worlds psychically uninhabitable – and it is important to note that as advanced as our new metaphysical technologies are, we do not know yet what these spirits want. The paranatural is known to resist, to trick, to enter into unstable alliances in which nothing can be considered as given or secure. I believe that the dead and never quite alive are more inventive in their ways of forming relationships with humans than we scientists often given them credit for16; and we do not get to divest ourselves of elements in our more than natural ecologies merely because they bother or unnerve us. Perhaps the swamp hags and vedomci are wailing to be moved, to migrate along with their wetlands. Perhaps the new chorus of wails ringing across the marshes is also a warning to us, a reminder of certain obligations we have neglected and contracts we have let lapse, a longing call rather than a gruesome portent. Or perhaps they are mourning something we ourselves cannot yet name, the many deaths of the past decades, providing a social or psychological function we do not even know we need, and whose loss would compound the destruction we have already had to weather.
Then there is the curious case of Saint Denys, shaken free from his long slumber and awakened to a world very different from the one he went to sleep in. As you know, this phenomenon has become quite endemic: the past two decades have seen a resurgence of folk saint worship that is only surprising to those who have never entertained the idea that we have been living through truly medieval times. The 2020s were a fertile decade for a variety of pacifying practices, as we all tried to negotiate in any way we could with a nature many liked to suppose was finally taking revenge on us; remember the trade in protective amulets bearing the face of St Alda to be placed under the tongues of animals by livestock sellers and slaughterhouse staff – remember Saint Mira of the Dogs and her galvanising of protests across Southern America.17
Saint Denys Bärenhaupt, or Bearhead, made his reappearance in the vicinity of Windischgraben, not very far from the Italian border with Austria, when ongoing soil erosion due to forest cover loss caused a catastrophic landslide in the summer of 2025. Subsequent excavation efforts uncovered what must have once been a cave, containing a rudimentary altar bearing the figure of a decapitated bear carrying his own head. No historian, archaeologist or anthropologist has yet provided a conclusive answer or compelling theory about how and why this altar was established. What we know for certain is that the excavation of this long-dormant entity, whose bear-like appearance posed no obstacle to it being interpreted as a saint, triggered a wave of interest and fervour; that his name was quickly conflated with that of a minor regional saint, Sankt Dionysus; that this was probably done on the basis of yet another conflation with Saint Denis, the cephahlophore saint par excellence; and that the Vatican has been as vocal as it has been ineffective in opposing the spread of this devotion. This folk saint quickly became immensely popular, especially among climate refugees established in this area, who found in his own climate-conditioned resurgence a hopeful narrative about broken and mended lineages.18 Some devotees have gone as far as to speculate that he is a transmutation of much more ancient European, pre-Christian bear cults, returning to us as an artefact of newly recurred climate conditions. While the existence of these bear cults is debated among archaeologists, I find the argument that we are living in an age of religious and psychic resurgences predicated on climate change compelling. It is not merely the accidents of rumour and marketing that have made this saint so appealing to younger generations, but the recent climatic events that have laid bare new caves; just as the melting permafrost at the start of the century released old viruses and bacteria trapped in the frozen depths, so our changing landscapes are now giving up their buried treasures of local spirits again. Perhaps – in the same way that abortifacient weeds started reappearing at the margins of urban ecologies just as reproductive rights were being rolled back about fifteen years ago19 – his reappearance responds to a need we do not fully understand or even feel yet.
Saints, as we know, are vastly more portable than other supernatural entities. But I would still make a case for an active effort at translocating Saint Denys Bearhead, as the Gailtal Alps that sheltered, hid, and ultimately proffered him will soon become unliveable for much of the original vegetation, and we expect more extreme disruptions to the soil and stone in this region. And there is another, political dimension to such an endeavour: refusing the possibility of translocation would also entail leaving him and others entirely in the hands of right-wing and mythological nationalists, who would argue that they are an expression of or symbol for an intrinsic local character, deeply rooted in the soil. If we treat them, and successfully so, as mobile parts of mobile assemblages, as sustained by attention and work, we may yet avoid these kinds of recuperations, especially in an area as historically fraught as this one.
These are only two examples out of the many I could list here, but my time is almost over and I do not wish to kill you with enumeration when this conference has barely started yet. Our ecosystems are bristling with other inhabitants such as these, whose relations with the land and with a variety of living beings are threatened by climate change. We are better equipped than ever to sense and trace the activities of the more-than-natural; we now have a new generation of thanato-sociologists, of kinetic geographers, of New Dowsers and others ready and willing to provide us with readings and imagery of spiritual events.20 These are all burgeoning disciplines, but why should we biologists and ecologists not make use of them? Some of them are contested, that I acknowledge; but was not this very Society founded on the desire to escape the normative constraints of traditional conservation science and chart new, potentially dangerous but necessary courses in times of irreversible environmental damage? You may call me a techno-utopian, or a neoliberal foot soldier; I assure you I have been called worse things over the course of my career, by colleagues and activists both. I do not think the use of these new technologies necessarily breaks down psychic manifestations into quantifiable, easily manageable phenomena; they are in the business of unpredicting reality rather than mapping it accurately.21
There are now several options open to us. The first is mere hopefulness. We can simply and virtuously hope that saints and spirits, gods and ghosts, and perhaps also demons will simply follow the plants and animals and temperatures – naturally, as it were. You can well imagine that I find this position naïve in the extreme, positing as it does that a relationship between a tangible living being and an intangible entity functions exactly like a biological symbiosis. Even if that were the case, the point would still stand, as we still do not fully understand how to translocate hosts and parasites together, how to seed appropriate microbiomes, and mycorrhizal fungi are notorious for giving our mycologist colleagues vast headaches still. But the fact is that these entities do not cling to living beings like a vine to a tree, like a remora to a shark; their relationships are labour, not nature. They are woven, not given.
The second solution would be to translocate infrastructure wholesale. Build chapels, ship cairns stone by stone and stack them up again, string up ropes and amulets, and wait for their inhabitants to pack up and move in like eager tenants. Again, this solution ignores the fact that infrastructure is comprised as much of stone and wood as it is of habits and usage; an altar or stone circle is not complete without those who know how to act around and in them, those who put them to use, transform them, tinker, play. To think that any god or saint would teleport themselves into a new home still smelling of sawdust simply because it was put, so to speak, on the supernatural housing market, without the promise of companions, betrays an impoverished concept of what worship and more than natural survival are.
A third solution would be to find guides; bring in whoever knows, or rather still knows, how to work with these inhabitants, talk and sing to them, lure them over mountains and across plains, convince them to take root. This would be a wonderful endeavour, necessitating large-scale collaborations with local communities, with anthropologists and religious scholars, and involving a host of people foreign to academic matters in the survival of our spiritual worlds, and nothing would delight me more than seeing these newly formed, heterogeneous groups go into the field, armed with the newest technology and the oldest stories.
But I wonder if there is not also a fourth solution, which could go hand in hand with the third. Perhaps we must accept, as scientists, to make ourselves into these agents of translocation. We ourselves must become the vectors, we ourselves must become the technology, the many shuttles reweaving relationships on this precarious loom of a world. We cannot simply expect others to do this work for us, or even alongside us; we must learn, more now than ever, who lives in the systems whose migrations we are aiding, what language they speak, what sacrifices they require; we must learn how to uproot a plant along with its sprite, how to collect gods along with seeds, how to measure the activity of ghosts along that of microbes in the soil. This is one answer to the questions I posed throughout this talk: ghosts, spirits, gods and saints are embedded in ecosystems but can migrate with people, and thus we must allow them to hitch a ride, to make use of our movements in the same way that plants and animals have done throughout our conjoined histories, in times of leisure and of urgency.22 Ultimately, what I am asking you to consider is the possibility of establishing a haunted conservation science, the creation of an opening, a crack in our own minds, an invitation for others to take root in us and travel with us. Only then, and this I am sure of, will conservation fully realise its transformative potential, and perhaps save its own soul once and for all.
1. Kloor, Keith. 2015. ‘The Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science’. Issues in Science and Technology 31 (2): 74–79; Vintner, Elise. ‘Ecologists Battle for Conservation Science’s Soul - Once Again’. Science 386, no. 7003 (May 2023).
2. Knight, Hazel. Haunted Wells and Magic Woods. The Coming Convergence of Ecology and Superstition. Oxford, New York: Berghahn, 2027.
3. Hällfors, Maria H., Elina M. Vaara, Marko Hyvärinen, Markku Oksanen, Leif E. Schulman, Helena Siipi, and Susanna Lehvävirta. 2014. ‘Coming to Terms with the Concept of Moving Species Threatened by Climate Change – A Systematic Review of the Terminology and Definitions’. PLOS ONE 9 (7): e102979.
4. Chaloupka, William, and R. McGreggor Cawley. 1993. ‘The Great Wild Hope: Nature, Environmentalism, and the Open Secret’. In In the Nature of Things. Language, Politics, and the Environment, edited by William Chaloupka and Jane Bennett. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
5. Stengers, Isabelle. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Translated by Andrew Goffey. London: Open Humanities Press.
6. Marris, Emma. 2008. ‘Moving on Assisted Migration’. Nature Climate Change 1 (809): 112–13; Barlow, Connie, and Paul S. Martin. 2004. ‘Bring Torreya Taxifolia North—Now’. Wild Earth, 2004.
7. Hällfors, Maria, Elina Vaara, and Susanna Lehvävirta. 2012. ‘The Assisted Migration Debate – Botanic Gardens to the Rescue?’ BGjournal 9 (1): 21–24; Aubin, Isabelle, C.M. Garbe, S. Colombo, C.R. Drever, D.W. McKenney, C. Messier, J. Pedlar, et al. 2011. ‘Why We Disagree about Assisted Migration: Ethical Implications of a Key Debate Regarding the Future of Canada’s Forests’. The Forestry Chronicle 87 (06): 755–65.
8. Schulman, Maria, Alfred Niblett, Anna Jackson, and Elise Hudgins. ‘Whitebark Pine Translocation across Canada: A Survey of Results, a Decade Later’. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 50, no. 2 (2037); Rissanen, Mikko, Anne Koivula, Julian Mróz, Magdalena Lizak, and Revs Palters. ‘Establishing Speculative Botanical Gardens: An International Translocation Experiment’. The New Conservationist 13, no. 1 (2029).
9. Laboissière, Anna-Katharina. 2019. ‘Collect, Save, Adapt: Making and Unmaking Ex Situ Worlds’. Cultural Studies Review 25 (1): 65–84.
10. Clark, Nigel. 2011. Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. London: SAGE.
11. Stengers, Isabelle. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Translated by Andrew Goffey. London: Open Humanities Press.
12. Kreyling, Juergen, Torsten Bittner, Anja Jaeschke, Anke Jentsch, Manuel Jonas Steinbauer, Daniel Thiel, and Carl Beierkuhnlein. 2011. ‘Assisted Colonization: A Question of Focal Units and Recipient Localities’. Restoration Ecology 19 (4): 433–40.
13. Werda, Hans, Margit Isbravnic, Jakob Spielmann, Emma Hamerling, Charlotte Neurath, and Stefan Seidler. ‘Endangered Conifer Translocation across the Italian-Austrian Border and Novel Ecosystem Establishment’. PLOS ONE 31 (2035); Isbravnic, Margit, Emma Hamerling, and Anja Bergmann. ‘Establishment of Refugia in Higher Latitudes Is Predicated on Population Diversity: Lessons from Hungarian Conifer Translocations’. The New Conservationist 21, no. 2 (2033).
14. Horvat, Dina, Anes Cirmerman, Matthias Waisman, and Aaro Lehtola. ‘Incorporating Supernatural Remote-Sensing Technologies into Ethnographic Research on Slovenian Wailing-Hags’. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 35 (2035).
15. Horvat, Dina, Nela Repnik, and Lucijan Hauptman. ‘Mapping Supernatural Activity in Three Slovenian Swamps’. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 103, no. 4 (2037).
16. Despret, Vinciane. 2015. Au Bonheur Des Morts. Récits de Ceux Qui Restent. Paris: La Découverte.
17. Tischler, Marko, and Elizabeth Burns, eds. Neo-Medievalism: Folk Saint Worship and Mysticism of the Early 21st Century. New York: Routledge, 2031.
18. Veltersen, Margot. ‘“He Has Been Brought Here Just as We Were”: Prevalence of Saint Denys Bearhead Worship among Catholic and Previously Atheist Climate Refugees in Italy and Austria’. Alyx 5, no. 4 (2033).
19. Granata, Yvette. 2020. Emmenegog. AR installation.
20. Houghton, Peter, and Madeline Pereira. ‘A New Dowsing Map of Greater London’. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 62, no. 3 (2029); Barros, Marielle. ‘A Field of Occult Forces and Energetic Influences: Why the Time for Kinetic Geography Has Come’. GeoHumanities 15, no. 1 (2025); Mazi, Olisa, Junko Tamura, and Malika Moreau, eds. Thanato-Sociology: A Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2026.
21. Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2019. ‘On Models and Examples: Engineers and Bricoleurs in the Anthropocene’. Current Anthropology 60 (S20): S296–308.
22. Rossetto, Maurizio, Emilie J. Ens, Thijs Honings, Peter D. Wilson, Jia-Yee S. Yap, Oliver Costello, Erich R. Round, and Claire Bowern. 2017. ‘From Songlines to Genomes: Prehistoric Assisted Migration of a Rain Forest Tree by Australian Aboriginal People’. Edited by Renee M. Borges. PLOS ONE 12 (11): e0186663.