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Unplanning

(I started writing this ages ago – but finally found the time to post it. Apologies for the present tense! O.)

Rübezahl Sun Worshippers

 

I am sitting in a rickety, homemade wooden chair at the edge of the vast expanse that was once Berlin’s major airport but is now a strange new park whose appearance owes more to JG Ballard than to Frederick Law Olmsted. The scale of what I am seeing around me is exhilarating and I feel as if I am in the midst of some gigantic perspective exercise. The sweeping runways vanishing into the horizon have tiny figures careening along them – skateboard sailers tethered to colourful kites that flap high above the tarmac in the brisk blue sky. On the runway right near me, a gaggle of cyclists glides by with babies bundled into bike trailers, beaming and red-faced.

From my vantage point among this ragtag assemblage of knocked-together structures called Rübezahl Gemeinschaftsgarten (Rübezahl Community Garden), I sense an effusive atmosphere of relaxation on what is after all a weekday afternoon, with knots of people picnicking, chatting and drinking beer, while their kids churn at sand piles with plastic shovels or roll around in the spring damp turf. All around me people are reading, napping or taking in a bit of sun. This being Germany, where sunbathing is a national obsession, I spot two burly men, stripped to the waist, who have taken it to a whole other level. They are jammed together in what looks like a modified packing crate lined with golden foil and are clearly enjoying the effects of the season’s early rays on their already sausage pink torsos. Somehow I doubt they’ve applied for a building permit.

skylark over the airfield

skylark over the airfield in the centre right

As I head out on my own leisurely stroll along the landing strips, I come across educational signs set up at the verges describing various birds and insects making their home in the prairie-like airfields which, despite their man-made origins, have become vital habitat for numerous threatened species. The Eurasian skylark is one such charming denizen, nesting directly on the ground among tufts of grass in areas the public is politely asked to stay away from during the breeding season. Though still early in the year, a few males are hovering high overhead, ascending like tiny dots against the cerulean dome of the sky, in what is their exuberant spring mating display – and if you will indulge me here – I include the opening lines from Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from Heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art

The subsumption of Tempelhof Airport, complete with its runways, control towers and terminal infrastructure into what is now a multifunctional green space, wildlife sanctuary and neighbourhood commons is nothing short of fantastic and it is one of the hallmarks of Berlin’s rather progressive recent urban planning history, but it might never happened without the revolutionary sensibility of the people that made this cluttered little garden-cum-hangout space here at its edge.

Rübezahl shares its name with a folkloric, mischief-making mountain goblin with a nasty reputation for turning people into turnips. It is a self-designated autonomous zone, where certain preconditions exist that allow people to imagine what the biologist Stuart Kauffman calls the adjacent possible. This is de-territorialized, interstitial space, where almost anything goes – anything that isn’t capitalism that is – and it is here that alternatives to capitalism’s ubiquitous aesthetic can mutate and evolve, as if in some primordial tide pool of marginalized subjectivities, sheltered from the intense glare of commerciality that so dominates the world outside. This aesthetic of this zone is funky, emergent, salvaged and the tendentious. It is an architecture without architects, the opposite to the self-conscious seamlessness of the iPhone, the curtain-walled office complex, the Starbucks that have so colonized our optical subconscious.

The social networks and shared sense of agency fomenting within places like Rübezahl spill out into the bloodstream of the city like immune cells, taking on long-held truisms of what might otherwise be considered inevitable or automatically legitimate in the trajectory of the city’s becoming. This place-based sense of entitlement is prepared to challenge the sclerotic orthodoxies of the political machine and break up fatty clots of business as usual – the valourization of private property, the stranglehold of big developers on the fate of the public sphere and so on. There are some other factors that should be taken into account when analyzing the amazingness of Rübezahl and the many spaces like it that have to do with Berlin’s unique history. There is a  deep-seated commitment to public allotment gardens here and  they occupy large areas of the city – with at least 833 of them having been counted as of 2012.  The pan-German Schrebergärten movement, dating back the mid 19th century, is particularly well represented. The program began as an initiative for the working classes who had migrated to the cities from rural areas during the nation’s industrialization. In contrast to other European centres, uncontested vacant land was up until recently in abundant supply in Berlin,  as entire districts had been reduced to rubble in the WWII bombing raids and the pace of redevelopment was quite slow in comparison to what was going on in West Germany due to the uncertainties investors felt were imposed by the  Cold War.  During this time there developed a radical political culture via the demimonde of artists, squatters, and other left-leaning activists –the ‘Lumpenintelligentsia’– who moved into the city for its affordable (or free) housing, the lack of a military draft (compulsory in the rest of Germany) and the generally free-wheeling attitude and tolerance of eccentricity that Berliners have long been famous for. After the Wall came down in 1990, the economic situation completely shifted and by now there is massive gentrification pressure on neighbourhoods right across the city as Berlin reasserts itself as the nation’s capital and investment continues to pour in. Bristling with cranes, the city at times feels like a giant construction zone. Nevertheless the long interregnum allowed Berliners to develop a strongly anti-authoritarian civic culture and to organize themselves politically in a way that puts significant checks and balances on the kind of rampant neoliberal development that has so dehumanized metropolitan life in other major centres.

The collapse of buildings seems like an odd pretence for ecological sustainability but this is the thesis Mike Davis puts forward in his fascinating 2002 essay – Dead Cities.  Large swathes of Berlin were demolished by the intense bombing campaigns of World War II but Davis draws a direct parallel to 1970’s inner-city America; where fields of rubble arose, not out of aerial bombardment but from the class war; during a time in America’s history when neoliberalism was entrenching itself and there was a racialized outflow of jobs and money (the so-called ‘white flight’)  from the East Coast cities to car-dependent suburbs. This massive social shift left inner-city neighbourhoods economically bereft and increasingly crime-ridden. Entire districts like New York’s Lower East Side and large sections of Detroit fell into ruin as landlords abandoned their now devalued properties to a growing underclass whose poverty was exacerbated by a raging crack cocaine epidemic. As the neglect continued, even  basic infrastructure was no longer maintained by tax-starved municipal governments and neighbourhoods started quite literally to fall apart. Abandoned buildings hit by arson and the intrusion of the elements soon became unstable and in many cases got demolished, though more than a few became successful squats, taken over by punks who managed without basic utilities, doing their dishes by turning on fire hydrants and so on.  With the demolitions, streetscapes opened up, with new vistas of unbuilt space striating once crowded districts of tenements and warehouses. As in Berlin, these lacunae  soon attracted guerrilla gardeners of various stripes. The predominantly Hispanic senior citizens of the Lower East Side a.k.a.  ‘Loisaida,’ built little community clubhouses or casitas where they could play cards, work on their elaborate, flag-bedecked bicycles and raise a few chickens. The squatter community was arguably more ideologically motivated, channeling hippie or punk notions of a post-capitalist utopia into the complicated mosaic of existing subjectivities. Personalities like the (legendary) Adam Purple and the founders of the Lower East Side Ecology Centre initiated composting facilities, drop-off programs for recycling and other ecologically minded ventures long before such services became commonly available. 

Fence ornaments at La Plaza Cultural in Loisaida

Fence ornaments at La Plaza Cultural in Loisaida

In the end though, whether in Berlin or Loisaida, the aesthetic of these autonomous zones converges into a readily identifiable vernacular – homemade, salvaged and funky – and there are also similarities in their social organizations, in their tendency towards the anti-hierarchical and a self identification as a liberated commons and rallying point for non-commercial neighbourhood culture, with a well-defined sense of alterity toward the municipal and corporate institutions from which they have wrested control.

Might this then indicate some more universal human potential; that people in cities, when freed from the tight strictures of urban planners, architects and city engineers can successfully design and manage their own public spaces? Might this be a beneficial, humanizing strategy to employ in a larger sphere –to lighten up, just a little, on the rigid control of the urban landscape, with its privileging of commerciality and valorization of political power– and let some people, some of the time just do their own thing?  Where do we draw the line as to where we set aside professional oversight? To paraphrase a Zen koan: ‘What can we not do?’

I propose a celebratory adoption of unplanning as a guiding principle in the development of public spaces.  If Berlin and the Lower East Side are any indication, self-organized, ‘open source’ public zones offer us the opportunity to expand the discourse on what it means to live together, to build relationships and to foster the resiliency necessary to face such daunting challenges as climate change and our ability to respond to disaster. Even when these zones are ephemeral, they can have a profound and lasting effect. I saw this clearly in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, during which activists involved in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement – a temporary autonomous zone if ever there was one – were the among the first on the scene in my Lower East Side neighbourhood to provide disaster relief–well before government agencies could mobilize. Working in front of the aptly named Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on Avenue C, the former occupiers quickly rigged up an emergency cell phone charging system using a bicycle powered generator (left over from the OWS action), and it proved a lifeline for those trying to contact worried loved ones after their phones had run down in the multi day post-storm power outage. The ad hoc collective also set up barbecues, offering free hot food to any passers-by who wanted it. The food was salvaged from local supermarkets whose coolers had shut down and it would have otherwise gone to waste. The ability to self-organize on the spot, by what was rather a loose collectivity of squatters, bicycle activists and punks is (to my mind)  directly attributable to their collective experience in instigating ad hoc social spaces – from the East Village squats in which some of them still lived (though there are precious few left), to the local community gardens (still needing constant vigilance to protect them from developers), to the mobile commons of the Critical Mass bicycling actions, and culminating in the historic OWS occupation at Zuccotti Park –a globally influential temporary autonomous zone of consciousness raising and political dissent.

Post-Sandy temporary autonomous zone

Post-Sandy temporary autonomous zone

It is clear though, the appearance of East Village community gardens has changed over the past twenty five years, a reflection perhaps of the evolving class aspirations of the people that live around there and an increasing deference to the demands of civic authorities who push the gardens, in return for some official acknowledgement, be more park-like, with regular, publicly posted opening hours, community educational programs and more attention paid to issues of public safety, such as overhanging tree branches, soil contamination and so on. Along with this newfound acceptability, their members now have to spend considerable time fundraising and applying for grants to upgrade infrastructure and expand the reach of their programming.

While it is hard to find fault with this, it is evident there is a subtle shift in what were after all ‘guerrilla’ gardens, functioning as autonomous zones of anti-capitalist occupation, when they are subsumed into a much less radical programme of municipally sanctioned urban greening – an identity with distinctly more bourgeois overtones. Many of the gardens that survived the purges of gentrification have been registered under city programs such as Green Thumb, which provide helpful material and administrative resources. This does however make them de facto extensions of the city park system, with covalent obligations of accountability. Perhaps this was inevitable. It certainly has provided a modicum of stability.

The East Village neighbourhood itself has been branded ‘the garden district’ by the surging real estate industry for whom these once highly contested spaces of hard-won ecological democracy have become attractive backdrops for the properties they are flogging – leafy signifiers of a vanishing authenticity for which status-conscious buyers are willing to pay top dollar. In the gardens these days there is less bric-a-brac and unattended scrap, fewer salvaged car seats or drums of burning garbage to warm oneself around in the cool of the evening. There are far fewer gardens generally, with so many having been lost in the brutal re-calibration of the property market. Yet those that remain, though tamer and more established seeming, are living testaments to the power of ordinary people to create vibrant community spaces, in the nooks and crannies somehow overlooked by the panopticon gaze of ubiquitous commerciality. The question is: can we set aside more such zones, where the reign of total capitalism and micro-managing urban planners is voluntarily suspended, where everyday people are free to just hang out with each other, work things out as they go along, and build a better, greener world?

  

becoming turtle becoming animal becoming human

a life companion

a life companion

To be, just for a moment, in the mind of another is a worthy ambition – all the more so if the being whose head you want to get inside is a non-human being.

As I type these words, my box turtle Marmaduke is staring up at me from the floor beneath my desk. Having lived with him for than 48 years, I know this particular expression means something: very likely that he has noticed his dinner bowl is empty or that the leftover food therein has dried out. In his own reptilian way, he is telling me that this will not do!

After the very many years of our relationship, I have learned to recognize that look.

But what would it be like to be him? To look out at the world through those baleful, red eyes? To truly experience it all from his point of view, without the baggage of anthropomorphism so drilled into us through too many childhood Disney films?

I am not, nor ever will I be – a turtle, though I would very much like to understand something of a turtle’s subjectivity.

The bio-semiotician Jakob von Uexküll made great strides in such imaginings, laying out a detailed framework on how we might perceive the perceptual worlds of the animal other.

He begins his (1934) ‘A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Man’ with an entreaty to participate in a thought experiment, to imagine ourselves wandering through a flower-strewn meadow, blowing:

 a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with it perceptions that it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colourful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we call the phenomenal world or the self world of the animal.

Von Uexküll goes on to visualize what the world might look like from the point of view of a host of creatures – ticks, sea urchins, jackdaws, flies, dogs, chickens – each living within its Umwelt;  the German translating literally as ‘surrounding world’, of a given subject, perceived and interacted with through its own organs. This seminal text, a combination of astute scientific observation and self-described ‘ramblings’, influenced everyone from Deleuze  to contemporary UX designers.  In it, Von Uexküll  challenges us to reconsider the universe from the non-human point of view, which is after all something people have been obsessed with since our very beginnings. Even in the earliest cave paintings, we see a longing to inhabit, to become the animal; at once the object and the subject of our desire; much more than simply an aesthetic preoccupation. Depictions of becomings animal, of interstitial states, of hybridity, have appeared throughout human culture, from the falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus, to the Minotaur, to the shape-shifting  Japanese tanuki, to the vampires, werewolves, the princes disguised as frogs, Batman, Spiderman – you name it!

We wonder what it might be like to be an eagle, soaring over mountain peaks, its eyes far superior to ours, scanning the barren wastelands for a glimpse of the scurrying marmot? Or to put ourselves just for moment, inside the head of our trusted dog, for whom the air we breath is redolent of convoluted odour narratives and invisible signifiers.

The minds of our pets are frequent objects of our narcissistic conjecture: What do they think of us? Do they love us? Do they miss us when we are away? and so on.

Though we share our homes and lives with them, and have substantially altered their genetics to suit our sense of ‘what an animal should be like’, the power relationships between us aren’t completely one-sided, which any pet owner can verify. Yes – pets are objects, but they are also articulate subjects; compliant enough and yet quite adept at getting what they want.

And I’m not just talking about belly rubs here. The hunting relationship that emerged between early man and certain wolves, fundamentally changed the fortunes of both and caused far-reaching consequences for entire ecosystems. There is considerable evidence that this brutally efficient partnership pushed our cousins the Neanderthals, who were reliant on the same food supply, toward extinction, as well as wiping out such iconic megafauna as woolly rhinoceros, mammoths and giant bison. These big, dangerous beasts could be tracked down and held at bay by the wolves-becoming-dogs, until Homo sapiens could catch up with them, wielding spears and arrows lobbed from a safe distance, reducing the risk of themselves being killed or injured in the hunt. These early human-imprinted wolf lineages gradually morphed into the manifold forms that are the domestic dog today – everything from teacup Chihuahuas to French bulldogs to Great Danes; the beloved beneficiaries of canned food, over-priced veterinary care and doting human companions who reverentially follow them around wrapping their hot faeces up in plastic bags.

Amazingly, one of the key factors facilitating the success of our co-mingling seems to have been the whites, the sclera of our eyes; an unusual trait in animals shared by both man and dog, which enabled us to quickly and noiselessly perceive what the other was looking at – ‘I am seeing–you are seeing me–seeing’ – an immense advantage in the fast-moving context of the hunt.

Our relationship with dogs has stood the test of time, despite our frequent cruelty towards them; the beatings, pitting them against each other in fights, sometimes even eating them.

So it might seem as if dogs were incapable of holding a grudge – but what if they finally had enough? The recent Hungarian film ‘White God,’ imagines a scenario in which abused dogs band together to take over the streets of Budapest in a mass revolt against their human tormentors. What results is a cinematic love child  of  ‘Lassie Come Home’ and ‘Battleship Potemkin’. More than any film I’ve seen lately, ‘White God,’  portrays the world from the animals point of view. The schlocky 1971 ‘rat-sploitation’ film, ‘Willard’  broaches similar territory, (if I am not misremembering it too egregiously) but nowhere nearly as adroitly. In both films,  the human protagonists, while sympathetic, are basically just catalysts for the unleashing of raw animal rage.

Yet dogs, revolutionary or otherwise, do share with us a mammalian physiology which we can closely relate to.

But what of the creatures we choose to live with that are less like us? How might we imagine their Umwelt?

Birds have long been popular pets and some of them, notably parrots, can perform what to us seem like prodigious feats of intelligence. The famous African grey, Alex, was not only conversant in English but used it in a way that showed a grasp of syntax and numbers. Though they don’t all use our vocabulary, other birds like the Chestnut Babbler also use syntax in their communications, using different word combinations to convey different concepts: nest, food, sky etc. Though they use language, birds are physiologically much more distant from us than are dogs, having much more in common with the therapod dinosaurs they descended from than with any of us upstart mammals.

What must it be like to experience the world through a super light weight, hollow-boned body, capable at any point of launching itself into the air, every breath sucked in by a hyper-efficient respiratory system that can power marathon, trans-hemispheric flights through the vastness of the sky, with minimal food or rest? And they start their lives by pecking their way out of a hard-shelled, externally incubated egg!

Clearly, bird subjectivity is not our subjectivity and yet we may figure in their Umwelten, especially if we have established some kind of a relationship with them, as the people who keep them, the people who enjoy feeding them in their yards, the people who obsessively watch them, recording their sightings on lists.

Birds though, are usually most interested in other birds, their predators and prey, as well as the complex topology of trajectories and territorial designations that signify their habitat.

Even that is somewhat of a generalization, for it is what Von Uexküll calls receptor images that turn out to be the major drivers for bird behaviour. He describes certain jackdaw (a small crow-like bird) that would attack any cat or human experimenter  carrying a dead jackdaw. When the experimenter showed up with a limp pair of black bathing trunks in his hands, the jackdaw similarly goes on the offensive. Yet it didn’t bat an avian eye when a dead white jackdaw (presumably an albino) was paraded by it. It was the blackness combined with limpness that seemed to trigger this specific bird – not the ‘bird-ness’ of what he was seeing.

By cultivating a practice of not anthropomorphizing, but trying instead to grasp the semiotic universes in which animals exist; what they think is important; we can develop a much more nuanced appreciation for those with whom we share the planet. Their worlds are not our worlds, but sometimes they overlap!

Says Von Uexküll:

We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exists on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the objects in our human world. This fallacy is fed by the belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeon-holed. This gives rise to the widespread conviction that there is only one space and time for all living things…There is no space independent of subjects. If we cling to the fiction of an all-encompassing universal space, we do so only because this conventional fable facilitates mutual communication.

So perceptions of time as well as space are key elements of a given Umwelt.

Looking back down at Marmaduke, staring up at me from the floor makes me wonder how our relationships to time differ. There are for me,  the obvious physical markers. In the nearly five decades we’ve lived together, I have progressed from boyhood to adulthood, to middle age, with all its attendant physical complications and catastrophes. For his part, Marmaduke seems nearly indistinguishable from his dapper, youthful self, save for a slight fading of his orange neck pigmentation and the unfortunate cross-bite he acquired after breaking his beak some years ago, when he fell off a pile of books he was climbing.

Does time move slower for him – or faster?

Again Von Uexküll offers us insight, reminding us that time is the product of a subject:

Time as a succession of moments varies from one Umwelt to another according to the number of moments experienced by different subjects within the same span of time. A moment is the smallest indivisible time vessel, for it is the expression of an indivisible elementary sensation, the so called moment-sign…

The question arises whether there are animals whose sense of perceptual time consists of shorter or longer moments than ours, and in whose Umwelt motor processes are consequently enacted more slowly or more quickly than in ours.

Which is fascinating…

In his novel ‘The Possibility of an Island,’ Michel Houllebecq imagines the bittersweet feelings of an immortal protagonist living in the near future, toward his little dog ‘Fox’, which is not ‘a’ little dog per se, but many little dogs, or rather a never-ending succession of the same dog – cloned: each replaced by its own puppy self as soon it has lived out its normal, dog-appropriate life span.

The variance in perceptual time between dog and master invokes some sombre reflection on the part of the post-human Daniel, who otherwise experiences the ebbs and flows of the post apocalyptic world outside his gated compound with an almost geologic detachment. Years pass, and not much consequential happens, except his dogs dying every once in a while to remind him of the chronology of the natural world.

But what if we turn the tables and imagine ourselves in the mind of a creature that can outlive us?

Spare a thought for example for that bowhead whale killed off the coast of Alaska in 2007.  It had a harpoon tip lodged in its neck blubber dating back to the 1890’s. This venerable but unfortunate leviathan, possibly over 150 years old, spent more than a century dodging a repeat encounter with our murderous species, out-lasting the end of the commercial whaling industry, only to wind up dead in a relictual aboriginal hunt. Had it become world-weary, plying the plastic-strewn, anthropogenically warmed polar sea and thinking:

‘To hell with it! I’m exhausted… Maybe I’ll just end it all and offer myself up to these Inuit. They seem like nice people…’

Or maybe it just got unlucky.

Then there are the tortoises – venerable, patient as boulders…

Tu’Malila, a Madagascar radiated tortoise lived with successive generations of the Tongan royal family from 1779 until 1965, after having been brought there by the peripatetic Captain Cook. Jonathan, a giant Seychelles tortoise is still alive at 182 years, exiled like Napoleon, to the distant south Atlantic island of St. Helena. What do these ancients think of us as they observe, through rheumy reptilian eyes, our frenetic comings and goings? We must seem like crazed, bipedal ants,  our over-clocked, distractible brains constantly driving us to keep doing things, while they blink and wheeze and munch placidly on soft weeds, noticing perhaps the shift in the angle of the sun as the season progresses or the promise of rain in the great vault of weather boiling high overhead.

Compared to these Methuselahs, Marmaduke is but a spring chicken yet I can’t help wondering how, over our past half century of cohabitation, he thinks about the time passing – or if in fact he even thinks about it! His routine has been remarkably constant: he enjoys basking in the patch of sun that conjures itself up beneath the office skylight at a certain hour in the morning. He tucks into his miniature portion of organic dog food and lettuce leaves with apparent gusto, if the ambient temperature is high enough. There are also his long soaks in his water dish to relieve constipation. That might be fun!

But mostly he just sleeps in one of his several favourite hiding places under my bookshelves. When the house cools down in the winter, these naps can go on for weeks. Being able to remain inactive for long periods confers tangible benefits to turtles, helping them avoid predators, endure inclement weather and interruptions to the food supply. Perhaps these super naps have cognitive benefits too – a pause from too much stimulation, a time to process all they have taken in. Perhaps they meditate Who knows? Perhaps these naps are the way box turtles mark time…

Though his sense of time is opaque to me, I can see that the locations of objects within his operational space seem to matter a great deal. Marmaduke promptly investigates the appearances and disappearances of my knapsack on the floor or any new pile of books or magazines that get put there. Maybe this is evidence of some sort of spatial prioritization, an Umwelt consisting primarily of assemblages of obstacles and hiding places he must negotiate in order to move about efficiently and unobtrusively. Time may have no meaning in such a world, other than the cycles of light and darkness by which objects are illuminated.

As a narcissistic human, I am particularly curious if after all these years Marmaduke has developed any emotional attachment toward me. I’m resigned to the fact that it’s not likely I’ll ever find out. Affection, in the way we humans might understand it, is not something reptiles tend to exhibit, despite this turtle’s entreating use of eye contact when wants to be fed. There is no way of telling what my face even means in his reptilian Umwelt, merely that he has learned that if he stares at it long enough, I will eventually notice him and take care of his needs. In the Venn diagram of our lives, these moments of turtle-initiated communication are where we most overlap. At least it’s something…

Cousteau in a pensive moment

Cousteau in a pensive moment

In contrast to their slow-pokey terrestrial cousins, water turtles can seem quick-witted and engaging. Of the freshwater species, the softshell turtles and the similar pig-nosed turtles are the most thoroughly aquatic, gliding through their watery realm with an almost balletic grace.  Though I’ve only admired pig-nosed turtles with my face pressed up against the glass of the Berlin Aquarium, I have been living with a pair of soft-shelled turtles, since 1997, having raised them from tiny hatchlings.

Pig-nosed turtle at Berlin Aquarium

Pig-nosed turtle at Berlin Aquarium

To say these creatures are odd is a supreme understatement. Their flexible shells are the texture of wet baseball gloves and they have curious, tube-like snouts, which they employ like snorkels. Temperamentally, softshells are highly idiosyncratic and thus require a fair amount of sensitivity and attention on the part of their keeper, which makes them, it needs to be said, terrible pets, for anyone not willing to devote massive amounts of time to understanding their subtle emotional cues, let alone their physical needs for commodious aquaria with fastidiously filtered, expensively heated water and a carefully chosen substrate in which they will bury themselves for hours at a time, switching over to anal breathing so they don’t have to come up for air.

Cousteau, a female and by far the larger of the two, is a Florida softshell (Apalonia ferox) and neurotic in the extreme. The last time I weighed her, she came in at over 16 pounds and that was some years ago, so the two hundred gallon plexiglass tank of swamp water she inhabits no longer seems as excessive as it once did. Though she could easily amputate a finger with a snap of her wire cutter like jaws, Cousteau is painfully shy and goes into deep conniptions at the slightest departure from her accustomed routine: an unexpected noise, perhaps the clunk of a drinking glass on the coffee table, someone entering or leaving the room too abruptly, or even a play of light on the wall she may suddenly find disturbing. Thus agitated, she will bolt to the far corner of her tank with the back of her shell facing the room to sulk for possibly days before deigning to engage in the world again.  She is similarly particular around her meal times, preferring her food pellets to be offered  late at night, after midnight ideally, once the overhead lights are dimmed,  the television tuned to BBC World News at an appropriately modest volume. And yes, I realize this is weird!

I came to discover these predilections through an arduous process of trial and error. On a couple of occasions, Cousteau put herself on a multi-month hunger strike when the conditions of her confinement were not quite to her liking, coming dangerously close to starving herself. Extreme, suicidal behaviour perhaps, but how else could she get my attention? Despite my having obsessively pored over all the literature I could get my hands on pertaining to softshell turtle biology, Cousteau was not just any softshell turtle, but an individual, steeped in her own enigmatic subjectivity. I had to put myself inside her Umwelt, to see things from her point of view – from the watery vantage point of her big aquarium in the corner of the living room.

Okay, I didn’t exactly climb into the tank with her, but started observing much more closely how she reacted to slight shifts in her living conditions – one variable at a time: the temperature of her water, at what time I was offering her food, the lighting, the ambient level of noise, the sonorousness and timbre of the way I spoke to her, and so on – until she slowly emerged from her deep funk. I live with a very large softshell turtle who prefers to eat late at night, with the television on and I need to talk softly to her while droppoing herring flavoured pellets in front of her tube-like nose. And I’m okay with that.

You know what it is to be born alone,

     Baby tortoise!

     The first day to heave your feet little by little

          from the shell,

     Not yet awake,

     And remain lapsed on earth,

     Not quite alive.

     A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

     To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if

          it would never open,

     Like some iron door;

     To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base

     And reach your skinny little neck

     And take your first bite at some dim bit of

          herbage,

     Alone, small insect,

     Tiny bright-eye,

     Slow one.

     To take your first solitary bite

     And move on your slow, solitary hunt.

     Your bright, dark little eye,

     Your eye of a dark disturbed night,

     Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,

     So indomitable.

DH Lawrence: Becoming tortoise.

‘Baby’, a male spiny softshell turtle, inhabits a slightly smaller tank adjacent to the dining room. He is the polar opposite of Cousteau in almost all respects and the closest thing I have ever seen to a ’social’ reptile; constantly solicitous of human attention – a regular life-of-the-party, especially if people are gathered around the dinner table. If he isn’t asleep or hidden under the gravel breathing through his anus, Baby spends his time furiously gesticulating towards the nearest human, his webbed feet performing a kind of frantic semaphore, neck fully extended : Feed me! Feed me! Notice me! Notice me! in the hopes he’ll be tossed a food stick or just hung out with, which he very much seems to enjoy. But why? Obviously he likes being fed, but there seems to be more to it; a kind of intrinsic exuberance that Baby has always had even as a hatchling, no bigger than a quarter. Both Cousteau and Baby came into my life at around about the same time; tiny turtlets only days old; a so-called ‘by-catch’ in a shipment of farm-raised tropical fish. Neither would have experienced much beyond the cosseted interior of the eggs they had so recently slipped out of, maybe bobbing haplessly around in the fish pond for a few days before being scooped up,  stuffed into an oxygen injected plastic bag and shipped to an airport. Yet right from the beginning, Cousteau and Baby were utterly different in the way they related to their respective worlds. Far from being ‘simple’ creatures they are –as we all are – individuals.

But must we live isolated within our unbridgeable solitudes?  Is our access to animal subjectivity such an existential impossibility or limited to the realm of arcane thought experiment? Perhaps they can really enter our minds and we theirs? Maybe the boundaries between our Umwelten are more permeable, our becoming-animal within reach; dangling like the fibres Deleuze and Guattari envisioned in A Thousand Plateaus, as already connecting us in an enmeshed co-presence.

Perhaps it is a matter of  memory. Maybe if we try to remember our animal dreams; the ones that remind us of what it is like to be them, we might be able to become them, at least once in a while.

The philosopher Paulo Virno declares dejà vu a memory of the present. How often have we looked at an animal and felt a deep connection, an overwhelming co-presence in which we briefly are: that cat purring, nestled by the warm hearth, the puppy gambolling in the soft spring grass, the butterfly unfurling its wings, the giant tortoise stoically observing the passage of the centuries through teary, brown eyes, now pausing to nip the petals off a flower?

Animals. We are them. They are us. That is why we like to hang out with them. That is why we should love them even more.

Like a titmouse, which a breeze gently rocks at the end of a sunbeam.

Proust: Remembrance of Things Past

   

evidence of absence

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So I was walking westward along East 10th St. early in the afternoon, feeling a little jet-lagged, having just got back to NYC after a month’s stay in Berlin.  Moments before I’d said goodbye to Ruth as she boarded the M8 bus on her way to the West Village.

My first day back in a place I’ve been away from for a while can feel fresh and full of possibility, though I noticed that winter had been very slow to release its grip on old NYC this year and the sky was still grey, the trees unpromisingly bare and the sparrows disheveled as they pecked at a pizza crust along the sidewalk. A sudden rumble percussed the air – disconcerting louder than the usual construction noise, the ground shaking.  My iPhone buzzed with an incoming text:

Ruth: “Did you hear that?”

Oliver: “Yes I did.”

She calls and tells me the people getting on her bus are talking about some kind of explosion.

“It’s probably nothing,” I said, (as if I knew what I was talking about)

But New York is an incredibly noisy place and one gets used to the din of sirens, pile drivings, and demolition noise that punctuates the background infrasound of thrumming traffic, the vibration of subways and the whoosh of steam conveyed through pipes hidden under the street.

So that was that, I thought and ducked into the barber shop I always go to 2nd Ave, to get a hair cut. It wasn’t busy and I hardly have any hair so it took only a few minutes to restore my stubble and by the time I got out, I could see grey smoke billowing up a short distance down the avenue, just south of the venerable Gem Spa news stand. A crowd had gathered and the first emergency vehicles were rolling in.

There is something horribly magnetic about a fire and I found myself heading toward it without even really thinking; though it was, broadly speaking, on my way home.

The intensity and volume of the smoke was getting worse by the minute and by the time I was a block closer, the fire department had deployed its high ladders and were blasting water from above onto the five story tenement, which by now was almost completely engulfed with the fire spreading to the adjacent.  From that point on things moved very quickly, and in a few minutes we were being herded backward from the existing police cordon, at which point the intitial building blew up. It was surreal, horrible and one felt completely helpless knowing that what was happening, what one was seeing at that moment likely involved the loss of life – how could it not? Some of the onlookers were already sobbing or frantically calling or texting loved ones they thought might be in the vicinity and were not yet accounted for.

I exchanged a few words with the long time East Village character, Jim Power, a.k.a. the ‘Mosaic Man’, who had been darting in and out of the chaos on his motorized mobility scooter, sharing bits of news with onlookers and comforting the more obviously stricken. But what does one say in such a situation, other than to communicate one’s concern for the victims, the shock that such a thing has indeed happened; that this unremarkable building, with its sushi place,  people’s apartments, their stuff, their lives, a building like so many others, a place that one might have even taken for granted, a mere blip in the optical subconscious–unless of course one lived there, knew people there–had so abruptly been ripped from our midst?

I worked my way eastward, away from the fire scene, looking back at the roiling column of smoke that by now must have visible throughout Lower Manhattan. Everywhere I looked, people had stopped in their tracks. Even five blocks away, knots of people gathered on the street corners, pointing at the sky and shaking their heads; all of us one moment in the midst of our quotidian routines and then presented with the sudden spectacle of disaster. That night the media confirmed what many on the street had been speculating – that the explosion, which cost two lives and injured 22 people was due to illegal modifications to the gas lines in the building. A couple of weeks later I happened to speak with one of the ConEd workers  first on the scene and he lamented the criminally shoddy gas-fitting and shared  how furious and frightened he was at the many cases of dangerously careless workmanship he so often encounters in his job, and how this continues to put all New Yorkers at grave risk.

During the weeks that followed, as the ruins got pored over by teams of investigators and then proceeded to be gradually demolished, the intersection of 2nd Ave and 7th Street had the air of a grizzly carnival with satellite news trucks jammed into every available niche, television journalists recording their live spots against the backdrop of straining heavy machinery, mounds of simmering rubble and disaster tourists, posing for selfies – the tragic obliteration of half a city block endlessly mirrored in a mis en abyme of Instagram and Twitter updates; its cause, not terrorism as had been feared, but carelessness and callous indifference. And so Manhattan is left with yet another hole, a lacuna, which the forces of turbo-capitalism will soon fill. But with what?

Even without such tragedies, the streetscape of the East Village is changing so rapidly I am almost always in a state of cognitive dissonance, looking for familiar landmarks that have disappeared, seemingly overnight, subsumed by the juggernaut of gentrification. These are ‘micro-worlds’ complete with endemic communities, ways of being, and so many of them are being lost: the affordable mom-and-pop eateries, the Hispanic botanicas, the dive bars, the squats, the bait stores along Houston – even the cars parked on the streets belie a degree of conspicuous wealth that would have been unthinkable but a decade ago. Though still a diverse and vibrant place, the neighbourhood has lost much of its character, its eccentricity, and has morphed into a theme park of its former rough-hewn self. The blogger Jeremiah Moss tracks this steady diminishment in “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York”, which reads as a chronicle of cultural extinction. But Moss hasn’t given up and is at the vanguard of a resistance movement he calls  ‘Save New York’ and he recently instigated a ‘Small Biz Crawl’ to help out vulnerable East Village businesses affected by the fire. But is authenticity, so reified, still authentic, or are have we fallen victim to some idealized nostalgia? The East Village at the dawn of punk rock was a much grittier, more menacing place with ubiquitous crime along with the cheap rents and opportunities for squatting. But it was this set of conditions that allowed a vibrant non-commercial culture to thrive, the fumes of which the East Village is still running on to this day. At some point though, this will be forgotten.

When small establishments close down and are replaced by banks and chain stores, a sense of ‘placelessness’ descends. The likes of Subway, Starbucks and Urban Outfitters are essentially machines, ‘non-places,’ as the critic Marc Augé puts it, interchangeable with others anywhere in the world provided they share the brand. The human interactions occurring within–optimized, efficient and perhaps even affordable, are insipid, anonymous and non-relational and I would argue, contributory to the epidemic of loneliness we are now facing. A sense of allegiance, a feeling of belonging to the local, a culture of identifiable place, is lost when that place becomes just another instantiation  of a globalized retail platform. When our every public interaction is imbued with overarching commerciality, we have a recipe for psychological disaster.

In her Guardian essay: ‘The Future of Loneliness,’ Olivia Laing makes the case that the internet, in particular social media, is the ultimate commercialized non-place, where the made-up-ness of one’s on-line persona commodifies personal relationships into ‘likes’ and ‘re-tweets,’ distancing the messiness, the imperfection of the real; resulting, says Laing: “ in being looked at and not seen.” We engage with each other in a state of ‘hyper-anxiety’ – constantly surveilled yet never understood.

Laing goes on to reference the quite excellent ‘Surround Audience’ exhibition now on at the New Museum, which for her epitomizes this anomic, yet narcissistic aesthetic. When I visited the show, the work most literally embodying the sense  of pervasive social isolation for me was the series of quarantine chambers designed by the Chinese artist Nadim Abbas,  entitled: Chamber 664, 665 and 666, each containing an abject sleeping bunk and some personal effects that can only be contacted  through a pair of thick rubber gloves – a metaphor it seems to me, as apt for ebola as it is for Facebook.

That this epidemic of loneliness, this feeling of ‘not being seen’, might have consequences far beyond individual indisposition is what the Marxist critic, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, suggests in his provocative reflections – ‘In the lonely cockpit of our lives’ on the recent Germanwings crash,  by now widely believed to have been an intentional act by its co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz. For Berardi, neo-liberal capitalism, with its relentless competition and ubiquitous connectivity, is responsible for us running into the ‘embrace of the black dog’ – the system’s demands have transformed our social lives into ‘a factory of unhappiness of which it appears impossible to escape.’

He goes on to declare:

“(Lubitz) did what he did because he could not get rid of the unhappiness that has been devouring contemporary mankind since advertising began bombing the social brain with mandatory cheerfulness, and digital loneliness has been multiplying the nervous stimulation and encasing the bodies in the cage of the screen, and financial capitalism has been forcing everybody to work more and more time for the miserable salary of precariousness.”

A more extreme form of Berardi’s proposition was foreshadowed, in part violently, in the early 1970’s, by the radical German therapist, Dr. Wolfgang Huber and his Socialist Patient’s Collective, who believed that psychiatric disorders stemmed from the capitalist system and could only be cured by a turn to a Marxist society. Though the therapeutic aspects of Marxism as it has  thus far been applied can most charitably be described as ‘mixed,’ the psychological stress engendered as contemporary neo-liberalism subsumes all aspects of our lives into a pervasive, competitive commerciality need to be taken much more seriously. The system’s increasing inhumanity, its emptiness, is clearly driving people crazy yet rarely do we critique its basic legitimacy.  Horrific events like the Germanwings crash may well be the symptom, not the disease.

via National Geographic

via National Geographic

The overwhelming sensation of diminishment in our working lives and in our relationships with each other is compounded in turn by the vertiginously decreasing finitude of the natural world on which our human institutions, our very lives, depend. We are bombarded with heartbreaking images of ending –the last male western white rhinoceros left in the world, with his abbreviated yet still too valuable nub of a horn, encircled in his placid grazing by a full-time phalanx of armed guards, there to protect him from poachers. We’ve reached the point where there is not a single territory on this planet where such a lonely and iconic creature could live out its life outside the market system. So it is doomed to die.

That we are in the midst of an anthropogenic ’Six Extinction’ event is well known and the artist Brandon Ballengée (who I was in a show with at the Media Sanctuary in Troy New York last spring) recently produced a series of works called ‘Frameworks of Absence’ in which he represented the lacunae of extinction quite literally, by cutting the images of extinct creatures out of historical prints and burning them, leaving behind ghostly white absences amid backgrounds depicting their idealized habitats.

With or without extinction, climate change will create absences in what we have once held familiar. Researchers have recently estimated the velocity of climate change in temperate zones to be approximately a meter a day, poleward or upward; meaning that in a given nature reserve, the localities having now the coldest conditions will be hotter than the places that are now the warmest, within a hundred or so years – the mountaintops becoming as hot as the deserts they loom over are now, and so on. This means species requiring specific temperature ranges will have to migrate higher in latitude or altitude to survive, provided there are no barriers to movement, which in the real world is often not the case. Alpine and polar organisms will be particularly vulnerable, as they often already inhabit the extremes of what is topographically possible and will likely run out of accessible places to move – ‘deterritorialized’ literally, into oblivion.

Other species, now at home in more southerly regions, will need to move northward, as their accustomed haunts become uncomfortably hot. In places such as the North American west coast such migration would be impeded by almost insurmountable man-made obstacles in the form of massive cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which interrupt the continuum, the cline, of available habitat.

In such cases we might initiate preemptive, ‘assisted’ migrations, which I have investigated over the past years in my ‘Neo-Eocene’ project – a logged-over acreage in coastal British Columbia, where I have planted hundreds of young coast redwood, giant sequoia, walnut and gingko trees, all native to more southerly zones, in anticipation that continuing warming trends will create conditions more favourable to them, and less favourable to the vegetation now considered to be native. So far so good, with the coast redwoods making the most impressive progress, thriving unassisted, almost 1000 kilometres north of their closest native range. The sequoias too are making considerable gains, which is reassuring given the prognosis for their survival in their Sierra Nevada home is increasingly grim, to the extent that by some estimates natural sequoia groves are unlikely to make it through the area’s shift toward permanent drought without artificial irrigation and the construction of fire breaks. Is there not a certain poignancy to the fact that we might only manage to preserve something of the primeval sublime of the sequoia groves through the epic administration of artificiality? But then the climate itself has become a human artifact. We broke it we fix it, I guess, only we can’t fix it, not really, not any more. But absence makes the heart grow fonder. Which makes the Anthropocene the biggest lacuna of them all.

the sea and the desert

 

The Sea and the Desert is a chapter in Henry David Thoreau’s chronicle of his extensive ‘sojourning’ around Cape Cod in the 1860’s.

We might think of rising sea levels and creeping desertification as uniquely contemporary symptoms of anthropogenic climate change but Thoreau noticed them way back in his day, recording with his characteristic eye for detail, a great many meteorological, ecological and human phenomena that together create the shifting territory of the thing we call ‘the Cape.’

This desert extends from the extremity of the Cape, through Provincetown into Truro, and many a time as we were traversing it we were reminded of “Riley’s Narrative” of his captivity in the sands of Arabia, notwithstanding the cold. …. In one place we saw numerous dead tops of trees projecting through the otherwise uninterrupted desert, where, as we afterward learned, thirty or forty years before a flourishing forest had stood, and now, as the trees were laid bare from year to year, the inhabitants cut off their tops for fuel.

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Though Cape Cod has been in a state of constant flux ever since it was first bulldozed into place by the glaciers of the last ice age, there is a certain poignancy to its more recent, post-colonial history, as one of the first landfalls of European incursion into North America. The successive human waves that broke upon its shores left their own layers of  deposition–the accumulated strata of hopes, ambitions and failures are embedded all over the landscape, if one knows where to look.

Thoreau encapsulated the protean quality of the Cape so beautifully:

The sea-shore is a sort of neutral ground, a most advantageous point from which to contemplate this world. It is even a trivial place. The waves forever rolling to the land are too far-travelled and untamable to be familiar. Creeping along the endless beach amid the sun-squall and the foam, it occurs to us that we, too, are the product of sea-slime.

It is a wild, rank place, and there is no flattery in it. Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever the sea casts up,—a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the tide leaves them. The carcasses of men and beasts together lie stately up upon its shelf, rotting and bleaching in the sun and waves, and each tide turns them in their beds, and tucks fresh sand under them. There is naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.

There is still a seething, hissing quality about the place; a sort of fragility too, as if all the quaint human infrastructure, the architectural bric-a-brac of National Seashore information kiosks, the tourist shops and thriving gay bars of Provincetown, the upscale beach houses and black-topped roads could all be washed away with the slightest turning in the weather.

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Given my interest in disturbance ecologies, I was thrilled to be offered an artist’s residency at one of the Cape’s oldest houses, at a place called Phats Valley near the town of Truro. I was joined there by my friends and collaborators, Liz Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse of the New School, whose artistic practice focuses primarily on matters geologic and the study of deep time, and who both have had a long term aesthetic engagement with the landscape and culture of the Cape.

We set ourselves a mission of a contemplative nature: to endeavour to capture something of the essence of our locality in its current, Anthropocenic, moment; to attune ourselves to its ephemerality by  simply walking, pausing and observing. Our inspiration was the 17th century Japanese poet Bāsho, who set set out on a five-month journey, documented in his poetic chronicle: Narrow Road to the Interior. While traveling, Bashō drew upon and modified the traditionally collaborative haiku practice known as renga, which incorporates sensations of place, events and allusions to literature, history and myth. Renga, in its most basic form, is written by multiple authors who link their verses, building upon each other’s words under the inspiration of the environmental and social contexts of the moment (the trees in bloom, the stage of the moon, and who else is present at the renga party.) At its best renga embodies the impermanence, the ‘this-ness,’ of an instant in time.

Deleuze gave (this) ‘this-ness’ a name, calling it haecceity, from the Latin ‘to behold.’

A season a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject. They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely of relations of movement and rest between molecules or particles, capacities to affect and to be affected.

A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (with Felix Guattari)

With the inspiration of Thoreau and Bāsho to guide us, Liz, Jamie and I set out under the great blue vault of a magnificent late summer sky to begin what the theorist Jane Bennett refers to as  microvisioning, in reference to the way Thoreau practiced his art of engaged observation and deep attention–not an overly probing or systematic scrutiny–but rather more of a perceptual wandering; a seeing without preoccupied looking.

Go not to the object; let it come to you…

(Thoreau’s Journal 4:351)

From our base at the verge of time and space on the margin of Phats Valley’s picturesque salt marsh, we sojourned to various nearby localities, making a daily practice of easing into our immersive awareness, starting our sessions with conversation and tea before we delved into contemplative observation and ultimately, the generation of the renga stanzas. These take the format of (5,7,5,7,7) syllables. .

(5, 7, 5,7,7)

My gaze it returns

To dying rays of sunshine

A vulture circling

In an otherwise empty

Blue anthropocenic sky

(For example)

Liz and Jamie’s  long-standing relationship with the Cape complimented my situation of never having been there before, and writing together gave us the chance to meld our sensibilities and subjectivities, our responses to the environment and the material conditions we encountered; both in the perfect individuality of the moment and in the larger geologic and historic frameworks where these moments seem to float.  I had just been at the massive (600,000 person strong) People’s Climate March in New York City–a watershed moment in the public acknowledgement that something ought to be done–but what did it all mean? Through renga, I hoped I might get a little closer to some kind of understanding

Our daily practice  evolved as a kind of meta-narrative, a record of our pausings, when we made the time to observe and acknowledge the this-ness of a given moment within the multiplicity, or white hiss, of all the other moments, extending through space and time.

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We ended our residency with a public renga writing party and shared a lovely afternoon with a group of intrepid poets, who composed the  renga with us on large rolls of paper, tacked to the outside walls of the historic Phats Valley headquarters. The whole event is nicely documented here on Liz and Jamie’s blog. Thanks in particular should be given to the residency coordinators Ann Chen and Davey Field of the Nomadic Department of the Interior, who made our residency possible. The house, dating back to the American Revolution, has been in Davey’s family since the early 1960’s and staying there was truly a delight, though when I first walked in, about to spend the night in it alone, I could sense there was some kind of ghost or other (palpable though not visible) presence sharing my abode. As is my custom, I introduced myself to the empty yet somehow electrically charged air of one of the attic bedrooms, and from that point on a cosseting calmness descended and I was able to sleep most soundly. Ghosts very much need to be acknowledged I think, and might appreciate a certain degree of politeness. After all, who knows what it might be like for them having to put up with us clattering around like boors in the overlapping domains of our reality?

Be it the accumulated spirits of the deceased inhabitants or the drifts of plastic waste piling up on its beaches, Cape Cod is all about layers. It is a shifting palimpsest that appears to will itself into being; reconstituting itself out of the products of its own decomposition and perpetually reemerging as the new Cape, out of the shifting, drifting sediments of the old. With its vitality, agency and interconnectivity to the deep, swirling cycles of geology and weather, Cape Cod is truly a hyperobject.

In order to engage such an ephemeral subject at a given instant, we thought it helpful to embrace Thoreau’s concept of ‘incomplete learning,’ an experience akin to what one feels when starting a foreign language, when the sounds and meanings are not yet clear and still largely perceived as an undifferentiated continuum–with the inherent capacity to startle, yet without being subsumed into the banality of explicated meaning.

‘Not until we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves’

(Thoreau, Walden 171)

Jane Bennett makes reference to this non-judgemental, rather Zen-like practice of observation, in her 2002  ‘Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics in the Wild,’ where she builds a convincing case for his surprisingly post-modernist tendencies.

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mineraloids

The Phats Valley house and its immediate environs exist as  a kind of microcosm for the cycles of ebb and flow, erosion and sedimentation that so define the ‘Cape-ness’ of the Cape. The salt marsh is bisected by an artificial ithmus– the abandoned causeway of the Cape Cod railway, now the domain of sombre pitch pines and scraggly sumachs. In its rubble, I found anthropocenic mineraloids– fragments of slag, coke and brick constituting the geologic stratum of a once thriving Steam Age civilization that existed here during the 19th century. The quaint house, archetypical Americana, with its prim clapboard and gnarled, rustling trees,  now seems a world away from the spectre of machinery. The long driveway floods during the higher tides, adding to the sense of  splendid isolation.

Yet the view from the front door, which now looks out over an olive-coloured expanse of soughing cord grass and wheeling marsh birds, was once very different; the railway passed by just a few feet away, and I can imagine the chugging, clanging locomotives vibrating the windows of the parlour, backlighting the curtains with a roiling orange glow as they pulled their squealing train cars on into the magnetism of their destination.

That is all long gone now of course–another layer obscured by more recent sediment, continually accreting. The topmost strata is unmistakable in that it contains massive inclusions of discarded plastic, the most ubiquitous material of our age. In the relatively short time of its existence, plastic has spread throughout the biosphere, substantial parts of which, particularly in marine environments, can now legitimately be called the plastisphere, as organisms have already adapted to the problematic material by colonizing it and breaking it down into an even greater multiplicity of substances potentially harmful to man. Indeed, Plastics “R” Us!,  as water-soluble plastic chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and flame retardants already circulate in all of our bloodstreams.

At Phats, the plastisphere is most visible in the zone of flotsam deposited at the high tide line. Plastic dominates this territory in a surprising variety of material expressions, creating an overall aesthetic experience that borders on the beautiful or the repulsive, depending on what frame of mind one is in. I include some photos of these happenstance assemblages at the start of this post.

Poking around those drifts of discarded polypropylene, polyethylene, styrene, vinyl, polycarbonate and nylon, I wondered what will form the stratum of the next geologic age? Will it be the ashes of human extinction that mark the dawn of the post-human, the way the K-T boundary delineates the quick and brutal end of the dinosaurs? Or will we be someday heralding the age of the neo-human, having somehow morphed into a species with greater sensitivity to the material realities of the planet on which we evolved.

Whatever will come next?

Whoever?

brownfieldlandia

North Troy brownfields

North Troy NY brownfield savanna

Williamette Cove zone

safari into the Williamette Cove brownfields

Those of who call ourselves ‘environmentalists’ have a tendency to imagine a prelapsarian wilderness that once was pristine and then became progressively defiled and diminished through the carelessness of humankind. But the earth had been through many environmental catastrophes long before we came along– though this doesn’t exactly excuse us from our manifold sins.  The infamous Chixculub asteroid impact suddenly ended the long reign of the dinosaurs and the more insidious yet equally catastrophic evolution of photosynthesis deep within the cells of certain cyanobacteria contaminated the earth’s early biosphere with oxygen– a fatal poison to the majority of organisms present at the time, resulting in what is now known as the  oxygen catastrophe, a mass die-off of the earth’s biodiversity and a climate change event that froze the planet in the longest snowball earth episode in geologic history.

What is unique in the present (Anthropocenic) moment is that we know we are causing a massive and likely suicidal ecological crisis and yet choose not to do anything about it. Here we are at the tail end of 2014 with atmospheric CO2 levels higher than they’ve been for 800,000 years and the 6th mass extinction accelerating to the point where the earth has lost half of its wildlife species in the past 40 years. Political leaders, particularly those of oil rich countries like my native Canada either willfully ignore the scientific consensus or in the most egregious cases, (again Canada), actively censor the findings of scientists and even weather forecasters. Because a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Or is it?

In a recent video, Žižek makes the perhaps startling case that there is considerable poetry in our present situation, that is to say, our disavowal, our state of knowing that something is true and yet acting as if it wasn’t. He argues that to “truly love the world, we must love its imperfections,” including, presumably, the ones for which we are directly responsible. “In trash,” he declares “is the true love of the world,” a sentiment similarly observed by a Zen priest in the masterful little documentary, Tokyo Waka, which explores the world of Tokyo’s ubiquitous and trash loving crows. To be more precise the priest observes: “In trash is the residue of desire,” a sentiment perhaps less direct but still elevating garbage to a kind of reified affection.

To follow that logic, when an entire landscape becomes trashed, it should be particularly worthy of our love and it was in this spirit that I embarked upon my summer explorations…

But first some background:  The Superfund was originally set up in the America in 1980 to identify and facilitate the cleaning up of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. In theory this might have created sufficient funding and legislative willpower to deal with this dangerous and unhealthy problem but between partisan politics and bureaucratic ineptitude, implementation fell far short of what was needed.

Though most people would want steer clear of toxic wastelands, I wanted to see if there were any adaptive ecological processes operating there that might be transforming these zones of exclusion into useable habitats. I had the strong sense that conventional ecologists and environmentalists might be missing something very important, that nature was capable of doing an end run around our destruction, if only we would get out of the way.  My summer safari took me to sites on both sides of the continent–Troy, NY and Portland, Oregon–and what I observed there gave me some hope and insight into nature’s surprising ability to colonize the messes we have left behind.

I was invited to Troy by my pal Kathy High for a collaborative investigation into the area’s extensive brownfields. Once known as the ‘collar city’ for its shirt, collar and textile production, Troy is considered the birthplace (and graveyard?) of the American industrial revolution. A fortuitous confluence of rivers made it possible for early factories to harness abundant mechanical (and eventually hydroelectric) power as well as to cheaply transport products and raw materials. Like so much of America’s industrial heartland, the area has suffered from economic decline and many of its once thrumming factories lie in ruin in within highly contaminated terrain.

Some of the worst sites are situated along the banks of the picturesque Hudson River, which transitions here from tidal to freshwater, the end of a long estuary. Downstream, all of the Hudson is classed as a Superfund site because of extensive contamination by PCBs, a potent carcinogen, dumped for decades by the General Electric Corporation as a byproduct of manufacturing transformers and other electrical components. PCB’s are a persistent organic pollutant (POP) that bioaccumulate in the river’s fish, making many species unsafe to eat–including the reputedly delicious striped bass that spawns nearby at the junction of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers.

chimney swifts over North Troy

chimney swifts over North Troy

Despite being a very degraded ecosystem Troy’s former industrial landsa are full of surprises. As part of a summer youth program, I led a ‘bio blitz’ of a community garden that had been established on a brownfield site near the Sanctuary for Independent Media. It wasn’t long before we found a magnificent stag beetle hiding in the rotting stump of an (invasive! exotic!) Ailanthus tree. High overhead, chimney swifts traced their invisible arabesques into the topaz air of the summer evening. This species, has long adapted to human presence and as indicated by its common name, makes its nests in disused chimneys. The chimney swift is a close relative of the Vaux’s swift, which puts up a spectacular display every evening as great clouds of the birds funnel into in a large chimney at the Chapman School in Portland, Oregon.

A local Troy resident told me she had recently found red-backed salamanders under debris in her backyard yard,  situated quite near some of city’s most contaminated industrial sites, with nothing that might be deemed ‘intact’ woodland anywhere in the vicinity. With the sharp decline of amphibians worldwide, even in protected national parks, it might seem surprising to find them surviving in such anthropogenically disturbed habitats but this is consistent with findings in the UK where rare newts and other amphibians as well as lizards, slow-worms and grass snakes make their last stands in these unprepossessing environs, among the trash, eroding pavements and ruined buildings. In fact brownfields turn out to be far more suitable habitat for these delicate little creatures than is the intensively managed agricultural landscape that has obliterated large tracts of Europes’s biologically diverse ‘Kulturlandschaft’.

IMG_2874

stag beetle in Ailanthus stump

At a Superfund site at the foot of Troy’s Ingalls Ave, I watched turkey vultures soar over an edenic looking mosaic of meadowy expanses that have cloaked the heavily contaminated soil. These neo-savannahs are punctuated by lush groves–a botanical mosh pit of weedy natives like box elder, black locust and cottonwood mixed in with exotic Ailanthus and Paulownia. All of this is gloriously unmanaged, left to its own rampancy, and though the species constituting this habitat are largely considered ‘invasive,’ they embody a new kind of ecological becoming, their novel juxtapositionings and processes of succession–a ‘Nature 2.0′ in the making.

If we put aside our purist bias, we might celebrate brownfields as territories of regeneration and marvel at how they adapt to the disturbances and wastes we leave in our wake. One might even regard them as ‘wilderness’ of a certain kind as they are one of the few ecological realms we have let slip from our control–leaving them free to reconfigure themselves and follow independent trajectories of  neo-evolution.

botanizing

Troy NY’s future brownfield rangers

The collapse of industry though, leaves more than just picturesque ruins and novel habitat in its wake. For human communities,‘Detroitization’ means decaying infrastructure, diminished economic opportunity and the adverse health effects of pervasive chemical contamination. If sufficiently de-toxified, these lands can be rehabilitated as perfectly reasonable urban nature parks (see my previous posting on Berlin’s Templehof airport) but the challenge is to do so without diminishing their often surprising biodiversity.

Troy might be an ideal location for a Brownfields National Park, where local youth could work as ‘brownfield rangers,’ leading tours of the area’s ecological and historical heritage as well as doing field studies and cataloging the species to be found there. Though this necessitates a change of perspective in what we North Americans typically think of as a ‘natural’ park experience, it is high time we open our minds to such opportunities. Brownfields are the future. Brownfields are us!

Over on the other side of the continent, I met up with artist Marina Zurkow in Portland, Oregon. Together, we led artistic incursions into a Superfund site on the edge of the Williamette River. We explored first by water, using a flotilla of kayaks peopled by an intrepid collection of individuals who responded to our call for participation in what (to the less adventurous) might have seemed an arcane enterprise.  We conceived our expedition as a kind of group imagination exercise and christened it -“IF YOU SEE IT–BE IT!” in the spirit of the biosemiotician Jacob Von Uexküll, who did such groundbreaking research on the spatio-temporal worlds of animals, which he termed the ‘Umwelt.’  Aboard our tiny craft, we collectively tried to imagine/channel what it might have been like to navigate the contaminated and disturbed riparian environment from an animal’s point of view (water striders, otters, sturgeons, etc.) – inhabiting  (in our mind’s eye) their biosemiotic state, ‘becoming’ them, as it were, in a collective thought exercise.

Marina’s long term plan is to construct a raft-like roving laboratory she calls the Floating Studio for Dark Ecology, on which artists and researchers ply the river, exploring its narratives of contamination and recovery as well as disseminating practices of contemplation and engagement between its human and non-human communities.

Our early evening voyage proved suitably anthropocenic: a bald eagle gliding through the shimmering cottonwoods of Ross Island–a section of river whose bed is being continually scoured by heavy gravel mining machinery–the blue tarp and scrap lumber bricolage of homeless encampments festooning  the banks of the Williamette–the third world within the first world, the metabolic waste of neoliberal capitalism as it eats its way through our material reality.

Neo-ecologies of Williamette Cove

Neo-ecologies of Williamette Cove

Once again there were fascinating and new ecological assemblage in these zones of dereliction and abandonment. Washed up on the industrial shore of a former shipyard–exquisite hydrozoans of a type I have never seen before:

hydrozooan

hydrozoan

The brownfields of the former factory site at Williamette Cove, though dangerously contaminated with heavy metals, wood preservatives and organic pollutants, proved not so ‘brown’ after all and were resplendent with novel botanical groupings–neo-succession! Native species like Arbutus menziesii (Madrone) formed habitat groupings with such hardy exotics as Paulownia tomentosa (princess or empress Tree) and Crataegus monogyna (European hawthorn). It is thought the empress trees made their original landfall in North America via their fluffy seeds, once used as a packing material for porcelain and other fragile goods originating in China and Japan. A gust of wind and an open crate at the dockside and their botanical colonization of the continent would have been begun.

In addition to brownfield neo-ecologies there is a parallel and equally fascinating neo-geology emerging from the material detritus of our age. Mineralogically, these are mostly composites and conglomerates or pyrolized residues of industrial processes such as coke and slag, as well as ceramics that have been fired into the form of brick, tile and pipe, much of it broken up into rubble. This so-called ‘urbanite’ is dominated by concrete and ferro-cement in various states of decay and petrochemically based asphalt and asphalt concrete, widely used in paving.

Sometimes though,  a geologic object occurs that is of  more obscure though still clearly anthropogenic provenance. At Williamette Cove, we came upon an exquisite specimen–a fossil of sorts–consisting of a fused mass of ribbed metal fragments, the armouring of  industrial electrical cable,  set within a matrix of a more indeterminate material, which might have been partially incinerated plastic. Perhaps this mystery mineral was formed when some itinerant metal collector tried to salvage copper wire by throwing scrounged cable into a campfire to melt off its rubber insulation and loosen the metal cladding. I may never discover this exquisite object’s true origin and it might well become the topic of frenzied conjecture to some future archeologist, wondering what our experience was like as we drifted deeper into the fraught and turbulent horizon of our anthropocenic future.

neo-geological form

neo-geological form

  

out of the blue and into the black – tar pits, tar sands and the petroleum hyperobject

 

Smilodon_and_Canis_dirus

where it all went down…

The great blue bowl of the California sky has doubtlessly presided over some strange affairs, but perhaps none is stranger than the serial cycle of entrapment  and petrification that started around 38,000 years ago in a collection of deceptively limpid ponds in what is now a quiet park in downtown Los Angeles. After it rains here, the play of sunlight and clouds is mirrored on their lambent surfaces, beneath which lies a menacing secret: for what first might appear to be a refreshing pool in an arid terrain is only a thin film of water obscuring an abyss of sticky bitumen, which has been oozing steadily from petroleum-bearing rock formations deep beneath the earth.

These are the notorious La Brea Tar Pits and since the days of the Pleistocene their peculiar configuration has served as both death trap and mausoleum for thousands of creatures–great and small, thirsty and merely curious–who venture into them and get stuck in their viscous pitch. Like a giant version of the ‘cockroach motel,’ once they ‘check in’ they never ‘check out’ and indeed the thrashing and bellowing of trapped victims  attracts predators, whose natural wariness proves no match for the  promise of an easy meal, ensuring  they too are quickly doomed after jumping in for the kill. And so for thousands of years,  whole conglomerations,  entire food chains of animals have met their ends here:  predators and prey sinking down alongside each other, each creature naïvely repeating the fatal mistakes of  its predecessor:  sabre-toothed cats and  Dire wolves, with fangs and claws sunk into the contorted bodies of mastodons and camels, all of them frozen in elemental struggle as if in some Classical frieze. Not even the carrion eaters escaped the gruesome fate. Outsized vultures, giant condors and hideous, meat-eating storks, wheeling and squabbling for landing rights on the bloated corpses and almost corpses, snagged themselves when a carelessly extended talon or trailing pinion made contact with the merciless tar, that pulled them in, flapping and screeching , never to fly again. As well as being deadly, the tar has  miraculous powers of preservation. The seething, interconnected beds of bone  that have accumulated there have kept scientists busy ever since they first started excavating back in the early 1900s. Many of the rich paleontological finds are on display at the adjacent George C. Page Museum.

When I was a boy in Toronto back in the early 1960s, a small piece of the La Brea Tar Pits was on display in a dusty diorama at the city’s Royal Ontario Museum. This was a few years before the ROM adopted the loathsome trend for ’interactivity’, which consigned much of the museum’s extensive palaeontology collection to back rooms, out of public view, and what we got instead was an ersatz mishmash of mood lighting,  audio tape loops and fibreglass models of dinosaurs standing aura-less amid plastic palm trees. Anyway before all that stupidity, I remember how transfixed I was ‘just looking’ at the thing itself, without being told how to think about what was in front of me –  the tea coloured skeleton of a sabre-toothed cat, its outsized canines filigreed with tiny age cracks, poised to stab the neck of a hapless ungulate  (a proto-camel? an extinct horse?) which had already begun to sink. It was the futility of it I remember the most, that both animals died together in the same inescapable way, the first doomed by thirst (or bovine idiocy), the second by carnivorous savagery. And I knew this scenario was to play itself out again and again because it was elementally and inherently unavoidable. Presiding over the sad scene was a tromp-l’oeil painted backdrop of a clot of vultures, hanging like wind-ripped umbrellas in the branches of a skeletal tree, and in broad brush strokes, a distant herd of mammoths melting into the horizon.

When I finally, this spring, got to tour the La Brea tar pits firsthand, I couldn’t help but see them as a kind of  trope for contemporary times.

LA is a strange enough place to begin with–its palm-studded freeways and rivers of twinkling windshields pouring into the heat haze of the hyper- illuminated horizon–a place at once banal and startling, the High Baroque of American drive-thru suburbia amid scintillating beaches flooded in a golden, Canaletto-esque light.   There are people there, of a certain age, whose faces have been so surgically altered it is as if they’ve been sucked through a magic wind tunnel. The mismatch between their wrinkle-less heads and the sun-withered bodies is chimerical, as if bands of Surrealist ‘exquisite corpses’  had gone AWOL, pulling themselves off the canvases and walking around.  Los Angeles is the very essence of the American Anthropocene and yet prehistory bubbles and belches everywhere just beneath the surface. The city sits astride a massive oil field, where serried ranks of mini malls and tract homes lie nestled in the napes of brown hills and rustling eucalyptus groves, the edges of which bleed into a kind of terrain vague of ponderously nodding pump jacks tirelessly sucking petroleum out of a deposit dating back to the Miocene– a geologic epoch already long gone by the time the first mammoths sank into the tar.

Wandering through the pleasant grounds of Hancock Park, the past becomes the present and one soon encounters a pair of giant, chocolate-coloured ground sloths, like outsized Easter confections, placid and dim-witted in expression, yet armed with menacing fore claws that could easily rip the face off almost any attacker. As late as 10,000 years ago, these ungainly beasts lumbered across what was a vast North American range – their remains having been found from the Yukon to Mexico. At La Brea, they were regular victims to the suffocating tar.

 

ground sloths

yours truly and the ground sloths

 

In a still bubbling tar pit encircled by construction fencing, a family replica of gigantic Columbian mammoths replays a pathetic tableau. An adult is hopelessly stuck in the pit, its mouth agape in panic, its trunk frozen between the great curved brackets of its tusks, frantically gesturing to its mate and calf who stand helplessly on shore.   The theme of serial entrapment and the futility of instinct gets amplified as soon as one enters the museum, which is packed with reconstructed skeletons and glass cases full of phylogenetically arranged remains, memorializing the legions of hapless creatures who died there over thousands of years, who just couldn’t stop themselves from making the same fatal mistakes over and over, in a senseless and recurring cruelty against which no benevolent god or Walt Disney narrator would intervene to warn   ‘Stay out of those pits, yo!’  If only Spielberg had been in charge…

In paleontological terms, the tar pits are what is known as an ‘evolutionary trap.’ These create a stimulus that certain species are unable to resist and the results are often fatal. A contemporary equivalent has been the sad epidemic of dying albatrosses we’ve been seeing on Pacific Islands, their body cavities packed with bits of plastic that they seem programmed to snatch up from the waves and swallow in place of their natural food. Like the victims of La Brea, they just can’t help themselves.

Back at the Tar Pits, the Dire wolf (Canis dirus)  seems to have been  a particularly slow learner. To date the remains of over four thousand of them have been found there with doubtless many more to come. One of the more impressive displays at the George C. Page is a long, back-lit display, like something out of a high-end shoe store, containing hundreds of Dire wolf skulls, each an embodiment of one individual’s lack of impulse control. It seems that whenever a pack of them came upon an animal in distress in the tar, they would pile right on in on top of it, dooming themselves by  their own overly developed killer instincts and susceptibility to peer pressure. The fact that the Dire wolf seems to have been exceptionally competitive, didn’t help matters.  Males in areas where there was high population density developed outsized fangs with which to fight each other.  It’s hard not to imagine the pack dynamic being a rather savage affair, especially when they chanced upon a bleating animal, trapped in tar. For the Dire wolf, there likely wasn’t a lot of time for second guesses. Though heavier and likely much meaner than their little cousin the coyote (Canis latrans), the Dire wolf failed to survive the Pleistocene, while the coyote still thrives in LA’s hills and canyons, feeding on what it finds in trash cans and snatching up unguarded pets.   Though the Tar Pits weren’t the only factor in the Dire wolf’s continent-wide extinction, the evidence of its behaviour at La Brea indicates an inherent  inflexibility, which must have been a major handicap in what, at the end of the Pleistocene, was a rapidly shifting set of conditions including changes in climate and the incursion of the first Paleo-Indians into its environment, who competed aggressively with the wolf for prey.

dire wolf skulls

dire wolf skulls

Though we may think our species’ ability to show foresight gives us particular resiliency–after all we started out in minuscule numbers, survived an Ice Age and proceeded to take over the world–we find ourselves now under a similar delusion to that which befell those hapless beasts at La Brea. Could it be that in the black, viscous materiality of petroleum we have finally met our match? Though we may think we have mastery over our fate, we seem blind to the possibility that it might be a substance that has control over us…

As an evolutionary trap– a nemesis–petroleum is the perfect agent.  It is the very essence of death, a distillate of corpses from untold myriads of prehistoric organisms, which has quietly waited for us beneath the earth. If substances possess their own agency, as Jane Bennett surmises  in her (2010) Vibrant Matter,  is it so far-fetched to suggest that petroleum is luring us in, manipulating our innate behavioural vulnerabilities to ultimately absorb us into its oozing corpus? Like the sabre-toothed cat and Dire wolf before us, petroleum has exerted its ability to hypnotize, to communicate directly with our vulnerable animality, bypassing our much vaunted capacity for reason and discernment. It’s not that big a leap from the Tar Pits to the Tar Sands…

As happened to the Pleistocene creatures who got stuck in it when they put aside their caution, petroleum–ever protean– has set its exquisite trap for us  in the form of  a fata morgana, which gives  us the illusion of eternally abundant and convenient energy with no long-term consequences.   We are probably already in too deep to realize what has happened;  that we are becoming petroleum, absorbed by the wily substance to become one with its subterranean deposits.

The Anthropocene might be remembered as a geologically brief period during which our species was allowed an overdraft, a blip during which we extracted a quantity of the black ooze before we had to repay our loan with the highest of interest; our lives, and those of the countless other organisms we took with us after we have made the planet uninhabitable. In so doing, we are offering up billions of putrefying corpses, untold tonnage of petrochemical garbage and entire landscapes of withered vegetation to be re-incorporated into the geologic, where unstoppable tectonic regimes will reprocess it into the mother of all oil fields.

So it is a mistake perhaps to wax too moralistic about our failure to rein in our natural impulsivity, to plan sensibly or imagine a future free from our addiction to this substance. Our connection to it might be too deep, too genetically encoded for us to resist through mere self critique.

Following the logic of the Dire wolf, our own species is competing increasingly viciously for what is (for the geologic moment anyway) a limited resource. The power elites in localities dependent primarily on petroleum production (Russia, Nigeria, Libya and others) have drawn whole societies into animality and impulsivity.

Even Canada, long a role model for liberal democracy, has slid into this petro-brutality. Under the prime ministership of oil-mad Stephen Harper, its government has declared a totalitarian war on scientists who study climate change and associated environmental contamination. The uncomfortable facts they keep bringing up highlight Canada’s abysmal record on these matters, which, aside from being an international embarrassment, threaten to push the usually complacent Canadians into a confrontation with the ecological Real (boring!, depressing!), invoking questions the Harper government is determined not to let us ask. Important and long-standing research facilities and environmental monitoring stations have already been shuttered, their scientists sacked and the scholarly material packed away or even thrown into the garbage. Those few scientists still working have been given STASI style minders, through which all communication with the public must be vetted. They even shadow the scientists at academic conferences to make sure they don’t say anything deemed ‘off message’ to the government’s single-minded agenda.

Yet given that our attraction to petroleum is demonstrably biological, can we really blame the individual oil worker, warlord or myopic Canadian bureaucrat? By doing their part to hasten  mass extinction, they are in the service of the long term interest of petroleum itself. By extending its sticky tendrils through a higher dimensional space than most of us are letting ourselves imagine, petroleum assumes the characteristics of what the philosopher Timothy Morton calls a ‘hyperobject,’  an entire set of relationships, interactions agencies and desires of which we are but a small and transient part.

tar sands (via National Geographic)

tar sands (via National Geographic)

forests, trees and time

Vancouver Island highway scene

Vancouver Island highway scene

At this ardently bright juncture of the year, there is something quite delightful about gazing up into the cool, rustling canopy of overhanging trees. It is a very deep memory for me. I must have been an infant, lying on the back bench seat of my parents’ old Buick, gazing up through the rear window at the dark tunnel of foliage billowing overhead, flashing here and there with orange bursts of interpenetrating sunlight. The dust from the road was starting to smell like the softer evening version of itself and the roadside insects, cicadas probably, hissed in their enormous, invisible numbers.

In my recent journeys between England and Canada, I have been struck by the contrast in attitudes toward what one might call ‘arboreal heritage’ between the two places. When driving on Vancouver Island I am inevitably torn between throwing up and crying whenever I see, as I almost always do, some of the last old growth Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) getting hauled down the highway on some logging truck. Their rate of felling has been accelerated recently by a growth in demand from overseas, particularly Chinese, markets and the provincial government’s stupendously short-sighted decision to relax restrictions on the exporting of raw logs.

Each one of these ancient trees is a monument to the passing of centuries, a lynchpin around which complex ecological processes have evolved and yet we are losing the last primeval stands right at this very moment. To see one of those loaded trucks is like witnessing the carcass of a blue whale or a rhinoceros trucked off to a dog food factory but what more is there to be said? We have pointed our fingers yet the market economy has triumphed and the trees continue to fall. Soon all there will be left is a lingering sense of shame until that too eventually disappears. Outside a few relic specimens that happen to find themselves inside parks, the ancient fir groves of Vancouver Island will soon be obliterated. The Island Timberlands company continues to be a key player in this campaign of ecological extermination and is specifically targeting the large old trees on its vast private holdings to service an international market growing all the more lucrative as the global supply of first growth trees plummets.

ancient linden coppice

this linden (lime) tree has been coppiced since at least the 13th century!

While British Columbia has been embarrassingly and heartbreakingly remiss in its protection of Vancouver Island’s ancient firs, there are pockets of silvicultural enlightenment elsewhere in the world that can restore one’s faith in humanity. Last month Ruth and I spent a memorable afternoon at the Westonbirt Arboretum and got introduced to some of its innovative programs by director Simon Toomer. It may sound odd, but one of the highlights of our tour was seeing the manifold stumps of a recently harvested lime (Tilia sp.) tree, which has been harvested using the coppicing technique since at least the 13th century. The tree itself, which has spread out into about 60 individual stems, could be over a thousand years old! Coppicing (periodic cutting from regrowth regenerated from stumps or ‘stools’) is an ancient technique, suitable for a variety of mostly broadleaf trees, which paradoxically causes them to live much longer than if they were allowed to grow uncut. The practice periodically opens up parts of the forest canopy, allowing for an influx of light and a host of species dependent on brighter conditons, which enhances diversity in the forest, without massacring the entire structure over a large landscape as is done during industrial clear cutting. In British Columbia, it would definitely be worth testing out large-scale coppice management of Big-leafed maple (Acer macrophyllum) and Red Alder (Alnus rubra), both of which are capable of rapid regeneration from stumps and which have the potential to produce a range of sustainable wood products.

Westonbirt is also engaged in pioneering research on how forests will be affected by climate change and have initiated a series of long term trials of trees, hailing from a spectrum of locations, from the southern to northern parts of their present day ranges. If conditions continue to heat up, it is likely that trees evolving in more southerly latitudes will increasingly thrive within the British landscape, while more cold-adapted ones will only do well at higher latitudes and altitudes.

Back in British Columbia, I am beginning to draw similar conclusions. Though still in its early stages, the initial results of my Cortes Island ‘Neo-Eocene’ project indicate that some tree species now native to more southerly latitudes, such as Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and Metasequoia (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) might actually grow faster under West Coast Canadian conditions than varieties currently prescribed for re-forestation, such as Western Red cedar (Thuja plicata). The difference is likely to intensify as northern climates continue to heat up. Climate warming is already causing massive mortality in northern populations of the native yellow cypress/cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis), because spring snow cover is no longer thick enough to protect their delicate roots from late frosts.

The premise of ‘Neo-Eocene’ is that we need to examine longer, more geologic time spans for guidance on how ecosystems might deal with the rapidly unfolding effects of anthropogenic climate change. During the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago, taxa such as Sequoia, Metasequoia and Gingko, which are now extremely limited in natural distribution, did in fact range far into northern latitudes; so it makes sense to experimentally reintroduce them, especially to areas where the extant forest has been compromised by industrial logging or climate-change induced die-offs. Our concept of what is considered ‘native’ needs to be rethought,  and we’ll have to expand our definition to encompass organisms that have been ‘prehistorically native.’ So bring on the Giant Ground Sloths! If only we could!

Apropos of the topic of ‘Deep Time,’ I have been invited to Finland this September to participate in the Field_Notes – Deep Time residency in subarctic Kilpisjärvi Finland. Along with the Smudge Studio folks and a bunch of other amazing people, I’ll be considering how developing a more ‘geologic’ perspective might help assess our trajectory into the deep future. As the world heats up again to levels seen only in the geologic, pre-human past, how will we cope? How long will it take for a subarctic place like Kilpisjärvi to feel like Lisbon or Lagos? Will more southerly latitudes, once temperate and agriculturally productive, become thermally uninhabitable? Will climate refugees, human and non-human, flood into the formally frigid northland? How might the northern biota adapt? Or can it? Anyway, I am endlessly excited.

Davidia tree in Wiltshire

Davidia tree in Wiltshire

Another refugee from deep time is the wonderfully flamboyant Davidia tree, which dates back all the way to the Miocene, when it was much more widely distributed. Miraculously, a few groves somehow survived the intervening millennia deep within the gorges of Szechuan China. The tree with its magnificent, floppy white bracts, which some liken to handkerchiefs or doves, caught the attention of a French missionary, Abbé Armand David. He sent some dried samples back to Europe and a botanical sensation promptly ensued. It wasn’t long before a plant hunters from England and the United States were dispatched to what was then a very remote area, charged with collecting Davidia seeds for cultivation. In the Davidia’s case, this proved to be a boon for the global population as there are now fine specimens of the tree flourishing in parks and gardens throughout the temperate zones of the world, thanks to those early batches of seed. Davidia, as is the case with Metasequoia and Gingko are considered vulnerable in their native habitat, and it is only through their widespread cultivation outside the small territories in which they still naturally occur that their future remains assured. Yet who knows? These curious and obscure trees might contain within them a genetic willingness to reestablish themselves in vast swathes of the northern hemisphere, as the climate of the distant geologic past becomes the climate of the not so distant future. Here is a picture of the biggest Davidia I have ever seen. It was in full, glorious bloom, when I visited the the grounds of a lovely Wiltshire property, owned by the Guinness family. Judging by its size, this specimen seems likely to have been one of the first ones propagated – an ambassador of sorts from the distant geologic past that once again has a role to play in the beauty of the wider world.

a flurry of doves or handkerchiefs!

a flurry of doves or handkerchiefs!

a gathering of wool

James Turrell ‘Meeting'

James Turrell’s ‘Meeting’

sheep in the landscape

a vast meadow, English, with sheep

It seems like forever since I’ve posted to this blog and so much has happened. A lot of ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’, most of it delightful, in addition to my usual hunkerings down in Whaletown and old Alphabet City. Everywhere there is strangeness and beauty and I am increasingly unsure what to make of it all, how to narrativize what I am seeing into some kind of coherent whole. So the phrase ‘wool-gathering’ has come to mind. I guess that is what I am doing. Yet there have been such fascinating moments:

These little faceless lions on St. Marks Place:

faceless lions

faceless lions

A message (anguished? ironic?) scrawled on an aluminum box in the subway:

eaten alive

?

Back on the West Coast, the Paulownias bloomed in record numbers, purply blue and headily fragrant yet somehow sad against the tattered span of spring sky.

paulownia blossoms

paulownia blossoms

 

Ruth’s book ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ unfurled its pages into the world like some great nectariferous flower and for that and other reasons there has been a flurry of occasions for me to travel and meet delightful and interesting people. For the second time in the past few months I found myself in the storied environs of old Blighty, with its history oozing from every crack and crevice. In Norwich’s ancient cathedral, a man named Colin from the Norfolk Mediaeval Graffiti Society showed us a rich palimpsest of mason’s sketches, people’s names inverted into curses, pornography and devotional iconography scratched over the centuries into the cold stone of its walls. Almost invisible under ambient light, this filigree of subtexts comes alive when illuminated sideways using an iPhone’s flashlight app; the story of the nation furtively inscribed by those left waiting in the shadows of its history.

Mediaeval Graffiti Society

Mediaeval Graffiti Society

I’m gazing through the window of a train car chugging through the viridian English countryside. Tidy villages, picturesque hedgerows, church spires and mustard fields drift by and I realize I have seen all this before, long before ever having set foot on this historically freighted little island, somewhere deep in my mind’s eye where there exists an inner England, an ingrained point of aesthetic reference I’d long ago absorbed from having grown up in one of its former colonies, where ‘English-ness’ was a pervasive value uneasily superimposed onto the vastness and anomie of the great New World.

When I was a child, Canada was still referred to as a ‘dominion’ and at the start of each school day, ‘God Save the Queen’ came wheezing across the tinny public address system and we were obliged to sing along, while Elizabeth’s diamond tiaraed, porcelain-skinned portrait beamed beatifically down at us from it perch at the front of the room. Toronto’s older streets and buildings have a defiantly English quality about them, as do many of the place names, even some of the social mores; the curious ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ style of passive aggressive apologizing, that I still find hard to understand. Though I was a non Anglo-Saxon child of working class immigrants, somewhere between ‘Rupert the Bear’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ a sensibility must have seeped in and now the real English landscape seems to me archetypical and somehow soothing, verdant and bucolic yet a bit chaste in the way that nature is so obviously confined within the dominion of man.

neolithic horse

neolithic horse

This aesthetic of control helped spur colonialism and the British Empire which was not without its brutalities. It caused landscapes all over the globe to be transformed into ‘neo-Englands, regardless of climate or the aspirations of the indigenous people. Yet the English landscape is itself a palimpsest of outside influences: much of its now open country was initially deforested by incoming Neolithic pastoralists, its stately chestnut and walnut trees a legacy of invading Roman Legions and its imposing ‘motte-and-bailey’ style earthworks on which so many of the country’siconic castles are built, introduced by the Norman conquerors

A compulsion to amass and showcase objects to reflect the breadth and splendor of the realm is characteristic of many an empire and in England this impulse has been particularly strong. Its museums and galleries know few equals and contain some of the world’s most exquisite treasures. I’ll expand on this later but I just had to draw your attention to Tippoo’s Tiger.

Bringing to mind some of the themes in Taussig’s ‘Mimesis and Alterity,’ sometimes an appropriated object is itself fashioned in the image of appropriator. This is the case of Tippoo’s Tiger, on display at the Victoria and Albert; a curious, almost life-size automaton of a big cat plunging its fangs deftly into the neck of a prone British Soldier. A curious hybrid of Indian and European technology, the tiger contains clockwork mechanisms that make the soldier wail and thrash his hand around while the tiger grunts with gustatory satisfaction. Here is a link to a video of this amazing contraption at work:

The object’s original owner, Tippu the Sultan of Mysore, was clearly no fan of the English and it eventually made its way to England as plunder of war in 1799, after his death in the battle of Siringapatam. Tippu might have the last laugh however; his whimsical, anti-colonialist tiger still raises eyebrows, right in the heart of the now vanished empire, over two hundred years after his death.

Though two hundred years seems to me a very long time, in a country where Neolithic tumuli and Mediaeval cathedrals coexist with Tesco parking lots and ‘The Shard,’ one’s experience of history, that is to say the kind of history measured in the accumulation of visible human artifacts, has a much different feel to it from North America, where the built and unbuilt environments have a rawer, less resolved relationship with each other and there is a tentativeness to the human imprint as if everything, even big cities, might revert to wasteland or wilderness if we just looked the other way. On our side of the pond, some of the most iconic cities such as Detroit are already devolving into atavistic, less populated versions of themselves, barely two centuries after their incorporation, with once prosperous neighbourhoods and industrial parks reverting into landscapes of ruin and weed fields – prime habitat for pheasants!

At least here nature is regaining a foothold.

Yet more affluent areas of North America continue to metastasize toward that most banal of common denominators – the vast, unplanned sprawl of the edge city; a privatized, drive-thru landscape, deliberately generic and purged of history, devoid of landmarks and deficient in public spaces.

England, despite its tumultuous history, has looked like England for a very long time. According to W.G. Hoskins in his ‘The Making of the English Landscapes’:
‘outside the industrial areas most of the settlements in existence today were founded between the fifth and eleventh centuries and mentioned in the Domesday Book.’

Given the density of the population it is astonishing to see how much of the English countryside remains intact. While most of the forests and fields I knew as a child growing up on the rural fringes of Toronto have been subsumed by the worst kind of strip mall and tract home hideousness, the English have managed to legislate anti-sprawl policies and enshrine footpath laws to guarantee public right-of-way through vast tracts of their landscape. The contrast with our private property-obsessed culture in North America couldn’t be greater.

the synthetic forest

 

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The old growth forests of Vancouver Island are almost gone. The overwhelming majority have already been cut down and in many cases what has grown back has been whacked back several times over, leaving us with a landscape which, while wooded and at times even beautiful, is basically a ravaged, stunted version of something that was once truly glorious.

On Cortes Island, British Columbia where I live, the forest is an unusual ‘dry rainforest’ known as the (the very dry eastern variant of the Coastal Hemlock zone), which has less than 1% its original forest cover remaining. Some of the finer groves are about to be razed, put on container ships and shipped overseas by a company called Island Timberlands, itself set to be partially bought out by the $480 billion China Investment Corporation (CIC). Under the rules of globalized, neo-liberal economics this is all perfectly legal and in fact encouraged by a compliant provincial government who have been major recipients of forest industry campaign donations during the last election. To reward their benefactors, the BC government further gutted the already weak legislation governing the protection of the environment on private forest lands to the point where it has essentially been left to regulate itself.

The destruction of Cortes’ forests might have started any day now, were it not for outraged citizens physically putting themselves on the line to prevent Island Timberlands from starting its logging operations. This is truly a last ditch effort, noble but doomed to failure unless someone in political power steps up to the plate and comes up with a way of saving this piece of a vanishing ecological heritage.

Yet in a bizarre mirroring effect, as the real world’s ancient forests disappear before our eyes, they proliferate like never before in the simulacrum world of video games and fantasy films.  From The Hobbit to World of Warcraft the old growth archetype lives on as a majestic and mysterious backdrop for the exploits of our avatars and fictional heroes. We are drawn to the these places in our imagination, yet can’t prevent ourselves from destroying the last examples of the real thing. Perhaps we will come to prefer them pixellated. Perhaps we already do.

worlds, ends etc.

drunken santas

drunken santas

Kentucky Coffee Trees

Kentucky coffee trees in Brooklyn

It’s the last day before the NYU students’ Christmas break and the streets of the East Village are full of drunken Santas and inebriated elves vomiting, fighting and staggering into traffic. For some reason this makes me very happy – a debauched anti-Christmas that serves to de-alienate me from the saccharine strains of seasonal Muzak and ersatz bonhomie that are so hard to get away from at this time of year. In keeping with the looming end of the Mayan calendar, a young hipster is getting his picture taken next to the Meso-American themed ‘portal’ he has pasted onto the old bank building on the corner, complete with the now obligatory QR code to link our smartphones to his on-line brand. And he is looking mighty pleased with himself. Sadly, the real Armageddon turns out to be a much slower, more painful, affair, which we’ll have to spend many more years enduring, despite all the prophesying and anticipatory hippie dancing down there in the Yucatan. A day after the anticipated end of the world, the ‘portal’ is already peeling-  its wheat paste no match for the dampness of the winter weather.

portal

the ‘portal’

So where does that leave us?

Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, providing an object lesson in the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to climate change. I was at a panel discussion at NYU, itself having suffered over 1 billion dollars in damage, and heard how the emergency generators failed at several major hospitals necessitating massive evacuations of patients, many of them critically ill, from the suddenly elevator-less buildings.

Though there was a sense of where the flood waters would impact, it was the social dimensions of the disaster that had been poorly prepared for. According to Kizzy Charles-Gusman (a recent environmental policy adviser to Mayor Bloomberg), Sandy had a disproportionate impact on the elderly, people of color and low-wage workers, who predominantly inhabit the city’s flood-prone public housing complexes of which 402 buildings lost power, water and heat for extended periods of time, which resulted in an epidemic of cold-related illnesses such as hypothermia and respiratory infections, as well as cases of carbon monoxide poisoning in people trying to rig up impromptu heating arrangements with insufficient ventilation. Chronic conditions got dangerously exacerbated in many of the low-income residents who depended on itinerant home care workers, whose visits the storm interrupted. The take-home message was that it was neighbors knocking on doors who provided the best line of defense during the sometimes considerable time spent waiting until the disaster relief agencies could deploy their resources. Climate change, increasingly means we have to get better at taking care of each other, particularly the elderly and the house-bound.

Coney Island parking lot

Coney Island parking lot

Even without extreme weather, current global warming commits us to a major sea level rise simply due to the thermal expansion of water, contributing at least as much as that to be added by melting ice shelves and glaciers. So it is inevitable New York City and other low lying, coastal areas will get inundated with increasingly regularity and as a result epic and costly engineering interventions will have to implemented that such as moveable flood barriers and relocating and flood-proofing critical infrastructure.

salt marsh

brooklyn salt marsh

Landscape ecologist and director of the Manahatta/Welikia Projects, Eric Sanderson, suggested ecological solutions to make the New York waterfront more resilient to the effects of climate change, chiefly re-restoring the now largely vestigial salt marshes and oyster reefs that once ringed Manhattan Island, which can soften the impact of storm surges in a self-adjusting, literally rhizomatic way. After a disturbance, the various species of cord grass (eg. Spartina alternifolia and Spartina patens) can redistribute themselves based on their different tolerances for submergence and salinity, forming a self-healing structure that shields the shore behind it. Sanderson pointed out a direct congruence between Manhattan’s mandatory flood evacuation zones and the location of long vanished wetlands, where not surprisingly, the water still collects. As usual, nature knows best and we ignore that at our peril.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for wanting to give things a tweak from time to time though. For better or worse, it is in our species’ nature. Genetic engineering is a case in point. It is controversial, yes, and fraught with danger, not the least of which is the threat posed by big biotech companies patenting the living shit out of everything, recombining what is essentially the earth’s genetic commons and declaring it their intellectual property. The technology to re-splice genes has been around for a good while now and the genie can’t easily be put back in the bottle. So given what’s at stake – and there is a lot at stake – why let big corporations dictate all the terms? There is a small but growing movement of bio-hackers who dedicate themselves to promoting an open-source, democratized biotech. They are educating and empowering ordinary citizens with the tools they need to counteract the hegemonic, capitalistic tendencies of the industry and encourage creative investigations into bio-tech that may not be explicitly utilitarian or commercial, but artistic or otherwise conjectural.

The folks at GENSPACE epitomize this emerging aesthetic and in their funky Brooklyn biolab they offer workshops in isolating, amplifying and re-combining DNA to artists, high school students and just about anyone else curious and patient enough to learn some basic molecular biology and acquire lab skills. By promoting this kind of literacy, GENSPACE includes whole new communities in a practice once relegated to the cloistered labs of the academy and the corporate sector and in so doing democratizes the discourse around this controversial yet epochally significant technological evolution. Though I personally have grave concerns about the release of novel genetic material into the biosphere, the likes of Monsanto have already made that decision for us and we now live in a world where transgenic pollen billows through our air and super weeds erupt between rows of genetically engineered crops, whether we like it or not.

Yet on the other hand, under the guidance of GENSPACE’s Ellen Jorgensen, I was quickly able to learn some basic techniques and sequenced a portion of my DNA, which when analyzed yielded some interesting results:
I carry, through my long chain of ancestral mothers, the H1a3 maternal haplogroup, which originated in the Younger Dryas Cycle – a cold snap occurring between 12,900 and 11,500 years ago that interrupted the general warming trend near the end of the Ice Age. Which means (not surprisingly) that my genetics are deeply and anciently European. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. (Sorry!) If I had run a more comprehensive analysis, (or sent a sample of my spit to some commercial personal genomic testing company, like 23andMe) I could uncover a wealth of nuanced, highly individual information, including my probability of contracting various genetically determined diseases, susceptibility to allergies, candidacy for certain medications and even how much of my DNA has been contributed by Neanderthals.

Clearly this might be useful, not to mention interesting… If I knew I had the genetic proclivity toward diabetes or heart disease, I might keep a closer eye on my diet or even start taking preventative medicines. Yet the larger motivation for me to start learning about genomics is one of basic literacy. As biotech becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it will be imperative for an engaged citizenry to have a basic grasp of its underlying principles, so we can at least filter the signal from the noise at both the Luddite end of the environmental movement and the slick, self-serving communiques of a multi-billion dollar industry.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, genetic processes prove to be an immensely design tool, even outside the test tube. An entire technology of computation has evolved using genetic algorithms, basically simulations that create powerful synthetic evolution machines that can be deployed to solve complex computational problems. I attended a fascinating lecture given at EYEBEAM by the Deluezeian scholar Manuel deLanda, who explained how genetic replication algorithms can be applied to architectural design. For example, the biological principle of heterogeneity occurs when populations of organisms reproduce sexually and shuffle the genetic deck to create occasionally novel outcomes that sometimes confer adaptive advantages to offspring. This principle can be incorporated into form-finding programs such as those that generate solutions to structural problems. These organic algorithms have the benefit of coming up with answers designers didn’t even they were looking for, in as much as they may have been shielded by educational or cultural predispositions. The algorithms can also be set to evolve in the manner of a neural net, interacting with the designer as in: ‘do you like this?’ to refine outcomes iteratively.

Artificial life when it is left to evolve can be quite uncanny, yet when it does, as in this vintage Karl Sims project from the 90’s, one can clearly see that there are some universal principles at work. These simulated beings can evolve and even reproduce but will we ever get to the point where we need to give them rights?