Ecosemiotics as a branch of semiotics began to form in the 1990s. One of the first to use the name was Winfried Nöth (1998; 2001), who defined ecosemiotics and other branches of semiotics very widely, including within them the entirety of the activities that shape an organism. The predominant use of the concept nonetheless defines ecosemiotics as semiotic human ecology, including within itself human relations with different living beings and their groupings (Hess-Lüttich 2006; Hornborg 2001; Kull 1998; Maran 2004; 2007; Maran, Kull 2014; Oelschlaeger 2001; Siewers 2014). Ecosemiotic analyses observe human communication with different beings and the depiction of the environment in cultural sign systems, as well as take into account the semiotic activity of other living beings (the biosemiotic component) (Maran 2007). Ecosemiotics is thus interested in phenomena (whether texts, systems of thought, or activities) wherein pre-linguistic and human-specific sign systems meet. Ecosemiotics does not only study the designation, depiction, or presentation of nature in culture, but also the possibilities of communication between respective cultural and non-cultural sign systems, as well as the possibilities of communication between the respective living beings using these cultural and non-cultural sign systems. Having been born in the space between bio- and cultural semiotics, ecosemiotics plays a unifying role in semiotics, creating dialogue between the two fields.
Timo Maran, Kadri Tüür, Ene-Reet Soovik, and others have demonstrated the efficiency of such an approach in the interpretation of nature writing. In conceptualising nature writing it is not enough to analyse an isolated literary text; instead, to understand the text one must also know the environment it depicts and from which the text itself emerges (Maran 2007: 280). The semiotic activity of other species has been investigated by human beings since well before written culture, and not only for the purpose of making observations helpful in their own planning and projects. This is exemplified in the anthropologist Andreas Roepstorff’s (2001) ecosemiotic research, which focuses on the culture of Greenland fishermen out to catch giant flounders. The latter are deep sea fish, whose trajectories often follow large icebergs and areas with active glaciers. As large blocks of ice may break and cause whirlpools and unexpected waves, it is relatively dangerous for humans to move near icebergs. However, seals also travel near icebergs, and their hearing is noticeably better than the hearing of humans, which allows them to recognise the disintegration of icebergs earlier and therefore avoid those dangerous areas. In turn, the fishermen follow the behaviour of the seals, using this as a sign of the danger level of a situation.
Ecosemiotics is not only related to anthropology and literary science, but also to political ecology. How social relations and the symbolic means by which they are held together become profoundly affected by the relations between humans and the environment has been studied by Alf Hornborg (1999), who examined the general utilitarian phenomenon of money as a sign that erases the difference in meaning between objects. With the singularity of meaning also comes the ability for exchange, making possible the situation wherein patches of rainforest become “exchanged for Coca-Cola” (Hornborg 1999: 155).
Salupere, Silvi; Kull, Kalevi (eds.) 2018. Semiootika. Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, lk 498-499.