(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 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
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
North Troy NY brownfield savanna
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
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’.
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.
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
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:
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.
zone of alienation
zone of regeneration
In Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, a mysterious guide leads a couple of characters known only as ‘the writer’ and the ‘professor’ into a post industrial ‘zone of alienation’ where it is promised one’s innermost wishes can be granted and where the rules of physics no longer apply. The ‘Zone’ is completely abject, a place of weeds, broken machinery and the ruins of factories and yet it is hauntingly beautiful in a way that is triggered (perhaps) by our deep yet unconscious familiarity with such landscapes –the places Walter Benjamin called the optical subconscious, the quotidian zones in which we are so fully at home we don’t even realize we live there.
These aren’t the iconic, aspirational landscapes of snow-capped mountains, palm fringed coral beaches and glittering urban skylines –the stuff of screen savers and photo murals in tacky restaurants, but rather the prosaic localities we continuously experience, perceiving them peripherally, from the corners of our eyes yet rarely explicitly acknowledging. The French term ‘terrain vague’ comes closest to the way these places feel and they might take the form of a trash-strewn railway embankment or an abandoned car park with rank vegetation coming up through the broken pavement or perhaps one of those forlorn, zones of contamination we refer to as brownfields, which have become the global hallmark of industrial decline.
I think back on my Amtrak journeys through the rust belt of America, marvelling at the Piranesian grandeur of once opulent railway stations left to crumble at the trackside, the ruined vaults now sheltering only birds which dart in and out of the shattered arrays of windows. The train keeps chugging lethargically (it is Amtrak after all, itself a symbol of decline in American technological ambition) through dour, neglected expanses, prosaic, ugly, endless –you can’t really call it ‘countryside’ exactly– but for the occasional scruffy woodlot and oily wetland which passes between the wrecking yards, quonset huts and derelict factories. This is (as Deleuze might call it) a ‘striated’ landscape that interleaves the decaying residue of a once prosperous age of material production with a resurgent, weedy nature –an ecology of discard, a ‘zone of alienation’ where anything might appear– a muddy field strewn with bone white shards of dishes and upturned toilet bowls, the twisted wreckage of a carnival rides left over from, what? A tornado? Perhaps, even–though I did not experience it–the fulfillment of one’s deepest wishes…
But is this not the state of the world as we all now know it? It’s the Anthropocene, baby, and collectively we’ve chewed up every inch of biosphere; extirpating, contaminating and cultivating ourselves into this, the global ‘Nature 2.0’ reality, where even the unfolding of weather and the chemistry of the oceans have become extensions, artifacts of human existence. So past the point of no return are we that we might as well discard nostalgic notions of ‘wilderness’ and adopt a new, Anthropocenic grammar, already envisioned by the likes of Žižek and Morton, which more aptly describes the hybridized, pervasively humanized environment in which we now live.
Our planet has essentially become one, big ruderal ecology (from the Latin ‘rudus’ meaning rubble), characterized by the large-scale extinction of species–passenger pigeons, big cats, rhinos–as well as entire ecosystems–Madagascar, the Arctic, coral reefs. And yet there is a curious, parallel process of adaptive evolution occurring in the disturbance ecologies and debris fields (called anthromes) we leave in our wake.
At Chernobyl (one of the greatest ecological and social messes we have ever been responsible for, a byword for lethal, irreparable contamination and epic technological failure) some bird species–and by no means all of them, as many kinds there have significantly declined–but certain bird species seem to be surviving by evolving a tendency to produce more cancer-fighting antioxidants which help resist the effects of the pervasive radiation. Scientists are calling this “unnatural selection” and it is already driving evolutionary change.
In much of eastern North America, the wolf was largely wiped out during European colonization but it has recently come back not as a wolf exactly, but a kind of hyperorganism–a three way hybrid between wolf, dog and coyote that pushes the boundaries of what it even means to be a species. With the precipitous decline of the ancestral wolf, an ‘eye of the needle’ effect ensued in which wolf genetics became more ‘soluble,’ more open to other singularities and contagions, a necessary precondition for the evolution of a new, protean canid, able to prosper in the niche now available for some canny predator able to exploit the pervasively humanized and ecologically degraded environment of second growth forest and exurban sprawl–the kind of places that are an anathema to the so-called ‘pure’ wolves of the primeval wilderness but which offer abundant prey resources of lawn-fed deer and genetically moronic pets. Enter the ‘Coywolf’ or Eastern coyote. They might be a product of ‘unnatural’ selection, but they sure are hungry!
Such novel recombining is occurring at a multi-species level too, with entirely new hyperecologies evolving as weedy, native species commingle with invasive exotics, all of them jostling and repositioning themselves into configurations that never would have existed ‘naturally’ but which now comprises recognizable and widespread landscapes of brownfield savannah and emergent, wasteland forest that are found throughout the world in pretty much any place we have exploited and then turned our back on. Many of these organisms are the hardy cosmopolitan nomads we are all used to seeing, such as tree of heaven (also known as the ’garbage palm’), black locust, pigeons and rats, but perhaps surprisingly these unprepossessing assemblages can support a diverse array of other species, some exceedingly rare, which hail from habitats like gravelly steam banks and dry heaths now largely obliterated from a hinterland dominated by chemical intensive farming and vast, ecologically sterile acreages of housing developments and big box stores.
In the UK, where humanized landscapes are particularly well studied, it is estimated that up to 15% of the nationally rare insects and spiders are dependent on brownfields for their survival as do several species of reptiles, orchids and other rare plants.
I was delighted last March to visit the grounds of the now disused Templehof Airport in Berlin, which as a result of citizen pressure has been set aside as a kind of publicly accessible ruderal ecology park. Here one is greeted by the incongruous site of windsurfers careening along miles of abandoned runways while skylarks hover high over vast swathes of tawny grassland, singing and establishing territory in their annual rite of spring.
Along with a surprising diversity of meadow dependent birds – wheatears, shrikes, whinchats and so on, 236 bee and wasp species have been recorded on the grounds, more than 40 of them endangered or near extinction, particularly those dependent on the open, sandy microhabitats that have all but vanished in the over-managed environs of the countryside.
gestapo prison excavations
This wonderful interleaving, this striation, this ‘to-ing and fro-ing’, between architectural ruin and ecological renewal is to my mind a tremendously optimistic model for the future of parks in general and for our appreciation of landscape as a whole and it is in promoting this aesthetic that Berlin is very much at the fore. The Templehof park doesn’t try to paper over its problematic Nazi past but lets us grapple with it by preserving the forbidding Fascist architecture and letting us watch archeological excavations of Gestapo prisons and slave labour camps taking place on on its grounds.
At the same time we are offered profound hope by witnessing innate processes of ecological and cultural regeneration get encouraged, not in an over-planned or commercialized way, but from the ground up, in a way that is distinct from the banal, generic late capitalist aesthetic that so frequently defines urban renewal initiatives elsewhere. By being leaving it alone, Templehof is able to renew itself.
Though the global ecological crisis is deep and inestimably tragic, we can perhaps allow ourselves to cautious celebrate the evolution of a new kind of nature, a ruderal nature, where kestrels soar across the heat haze of abandoned runways that are slowly becoming encrusted with lichens and grasses and where rare wild flowers can find a toehold among the rubble of some of history’s worst crimes against humanity. The sky is filled with the coloured sails of paragliders and a bumblebee is making its first foray into the vast warm vault of another spring.
sailing the runways
skylarks nest here