(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 forgrants 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?
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The morning broke grey and brooding outside the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and after a quick breakfast, we were on the trail, hiking up Saana Fjell, guided by Erich Berger of the Finnish Bioart Society. The idea was to familiarize ourselves with the geology, ecology and cultural history of the vicinity so we could dive into our research plans as soon as possible.
The Australian bio-hacker, Oron Catts had already been here for a week to do some scouting for his group’s ‘Journey to the Post-Anthropogenic’ project. They planned to perform a comprehensive bio-archeological survey of the crash site of a German Junkers 88 bomber that came down on Saana in 1942, which included a metagenomic analysis of the plane’s debris field and a recreation of the crash trajectory using a remote-controlled drone.
It wasn’t long before we passed the tree line where the mountain birches gave way to an expanse of open tundra sweeping out before us in a swath of russet heath and exposed rock, with quivering patches of silver cloud here and there snagged on the crenellations of the topography. As if on cue, a small herd of reindeer appeared over the crest of a nearby hill and galloped across our field of view, cocking their heads as they past us and then just as quickly melting into the gloom of the opposite horizon. It is hard to judge distances here in this cold desert. An unusual rock formation in the distance might be small and quite close by or enormous and very far away.
I felt for a moment as if I had been transported back to the Pleistocene, as the landscape I was looking at was what much of Europe and North America would have been like at the end of the last Ice Age, though (other than the reindeer) there wasn’t any of the charismatic megafauna such as the woolly mammoth and the cave lions I would have had to concern myself with back then. Semi-domesticated, reindeer have sustained the local Sami people since ancient times and they are of the few creatures (other than snails) to manufacture the enzyme lichenase, enabling them to survive on lichen during the winter months.
How this delicate ecological balance will be affected by climate change is unclear but to my mind it doesn’t look good. Lichens exist in fairly specific temperature and humidity conditions and in Kilpisjärvi many are symbiotic with the birch trees, themselves a cold-dependent species. A continued warming trend in this region is bound to mean diminishment of suitable reindeer habitat. This has already occurred in North America, where the closely related Woodland Caribou has steadily disappeared from the southern portions of its range.
Standing in the middle of this iconic subarctic landscape, it is hard to imagine rapid changes occurring. For thousands of years, the processes shaping it have been gradual and incremental – the slow scouring of glaciers advancing and retreating, the infiltration of frost with its insidious heaving and splitting, the seasonal flows of meltwater into the lakes and rivers. The cold accentuates the sense of Deep Time here. Rocks dragged by ancient ice flows sit solemnly in place as if they stopped moving only yesterday. The sparse, slow growing vegetation is no match for the overwhelmingly geologic feeling of the place. Even minor disturbances stay visible for centuries.
But add even a small degree of warming and there would be potentially huge changes. Vegetative growth would ramp up, allowing trees to flourish in areas that were once windswept barrens. It is easy to imagine the slopes of Saana darkening as the Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris), now found only intermittently in the Kilpisjärvi area but quite common further south, finds conditions more suitable to it and becomes a dominant species. True tundra and the flora and fauna that depend on it could disappear from the area entirely.
lone Scots pine
Fast-forward a little further and there could be a whole host of new species that find the once frigid environs of Kilpisjärvi newly tolerable. A good many of these are likely to be weeds, which thrive on man-made disturbance. Investigating the grounds around the research station, I soon found a small clump of English plantain (Plantago major) a cosmopolitan weed, dubbed the ‘white man’s footprint’ by North American First Nations, who noticed it growing wherever European colonizers had disturbed the original ecosystem. The humble plantain is just the beginning. I predict that larger weed species will soon be gaining a foothold at Kilpisjärvi; their seeds imported on tire treads or blown in with the wind.
I wondered how it might look here when Ailanthus altissima, a tree variously known as the ‘Ghetto Palm’ or ‘Tree of Heaven,’ moves into the Finnish subarctic. Originally from China, Ailanthus is exuberantly invasive, and has already moved into ruderal (ruin) ecologies throughout the world without any signs of stopping. This tree has the astounding ability to feed off concrete, allowing it to thrive in cracks in pavement, the roofs and facades of under-maintained buildings and pretty much any other place its myriad seeds are able to lodge themselves long enough to germinate.
As the global south becomes uninhabitable due to increasing drought, wildfire and relentless heat, it isn’t hard to imagine a newly temperate Kilpisjärvi becoming a major magnet for climate refugees, human and non-human. Higher annual temperatures, as well as attracting different flora and fauna, could make the cultivation of cereal crops a possibility and perhaps other kinds of intensive agriculture, now more characteristic of Central Europe. This could transform the wild, transhumance landscape into a ‘Kulturlandschaft,’ the subarctic wilderness giving way to ploughed fields, perhaps even orchards. There might be a property boom as the open range lands once suitable only for reindeer husbandry become hosts to cash crops and housing estates. The effect on the traditional Sami lifestyle would be incalculable.
A climate-changed Kilpisjärvi would be a kind of ‘hyperecology’– a co-mingling of adaptive, cosmopolitan weeds, perhaps a few resilient local organisms and a steady in-migration of biota from the south. Outside the national parks and reserves, post-climate change nature will have even less of a free hand. There is massive industrial development afoot for Lapland, particularly mining and its ancillary industries which threaten to blight vast tracts of the relatively pristine landscape with open pit mines, tailings ponds and processing infrastructure, which, as well as inevitably introducing all sorts of pollution will create a new terrain vagueof slag heaps and factory wastelands. These ‘brownfields,’ ubiquitous in much of the industrialized world are the preferred habitats of the globally distributed ragamuffin flora: Ailanthus, Buddlea and Robinia, which find the toxic and impoverished soils to their liking.
Industrialized, intensely cultivated and densely populated, the Kilpisjärvi of the not-to-distant future might look strangely familiar to any present day resident of a more temperate latitude. Yet what has been predictable there for so long will soon become much more extreme. We may all find ourselves moving north.
But climate change isn’t likely to stop at this arbitrary point. The heat will likely continue to build, especially if mankind continues dumping carbon into the atmosphere and particularly if the much feared ‘runaway greenhouse’ effect kicks in. What then for Kilpisjärvi? The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum that happened some 55 million years ago gives us a clue. In those days, the weather north of the Arctic circle was sultry and humid the year round. In addition to the Sciadopitys trees I described in my previous posting, vast swamp forests of Metasequoia and Taxodium spread out across the far north of Eurasia and North America, with turtles and crocodiles plying through the black water and mire. It would have resembled the bayou country of Louisiana or subtropical China, with snow and ice pretty much non-existent, a far cry from the frigid Kilpisjärvi of today, which can be icebound 200 days a year.
Northern regions are well on track for a repeat of these subtropical conditions according to the most agreed upon climate change models, which predict an up to 4 degree Celsius rise globally by the end of the century, with a strong likelihood that changes in high latitudes will be more extreme. Though the biota will surely be more impoverished than it was in the Eocene, not having had anywhere near as much time to evolve, an anthropogenically tropical Lapland would be a mind-boggling yet disturbingly real possibility.
Though our species’ effect on climate can (and will) precipitate far-reaching changes in areas like Kilpisjärvi, there are many planetary processes playing out over which we have no control. The evolution of biota over Deep Time is as much happenstance as forward movement, with periods of great flourishing such as the infamous ‘Cambrian Explosion’ interspersed with ‘reversal’ or mass extinction, either organically or extraterrestrially engendered, which often obliterate whole classes of once dominant organisms and provide opportunities for minor ones to come out of the wings.
Past instigators of mass extinction have included: asteroid impacts, widespread volcanic eruptions with concomitant ocean acidification, even the evolution of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria, which released the toxic gas oxygen into the atmosphere to the detriment of the once dominant anaerobes. Any and all of these scenarios will likely play out again somewhere in the fullness of Deep Time, but barring the elimination of all life on the planet, it is worth speculating on the impact such upheavals would have on the vegetated landscape.
For example, what would happen if flowering plants, also known as angiosperms, dramatically declined, perhaps taken out by some pandemic or selective evolutionary pressure? They’ve really only been common since the Cretaceous and it isn’t hard to imagine Kilpisjärvi’s abundant so-called ‘lower’ plants – mosses, club mosses and liverworts, moving into the vacuum and attaining gigantic proportions, as was the case during in the coal swamps of the Carboniferous Period.
Neo-Kilpisjärvi with giant club mosses
A reduction in the availability of sunlight due to volcanic ash or widespread dust storms could have equally bizarre consequences. With green plants and algea in decline because of the challenge to photosynthesis, there would be a selective advantage for fungi, which might take over Kilpisjärvi forming bizarre, colossal structures as they did during the Devonian Period, some 400 million years ago, and again during the mayhem of the Permian mass extinction. Whether our own species would survive under such extreme and alien conditions is an open question, but life of some sort is almost certain to find a way. Perhaps fungi will regroup to form the planet’s supreme intelligence. Some would say, they already have!
It is this last point that gives me a vestige of hope. We Homo sapiens are a problematic creature, a classic, invasive species that thrives on disturbance, tends toward monoculture and displaces competing biota from its habitat. Yet in the overall scheme of things we are likely to be a transient phenomenon. We will either precipitate our own extinction, (and if the surviving ecosystems of the planet could sigh in relief, they surely would!), or we will find a way to live within our ecological means and develop a more equitable arrangement with the fellow denizens of the biosphere. My stay at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station offered me the ideal vantage point to consider this conundrum. What we are in now is not so much of a ‘watershed’ moment but more of a ‘timeshed’ moment!
In many ways the bleak solitude of Kilpisjärvi proved the perfect vantage point from which to delve into ‘Deep Futures,’ both due to the majestic, timeless feeling of the landscape but also the unique vulnerability of the fragile ecosystem, which like others at high latitudes is likely to suffer disproportionately from the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Perhaps biting off more than I could chew, I tasked myself with compiling what I called a ‘Speculative Botany’ for the future of subarctic Finland, based on what is there now and what is likely to happen in both the near and the long term.
The effects of global warming on arctic and subarctic ecosystems are already proceeding apace and in addition to the well known images of abject polar bears stranded on rapidly melting ice flows, there have been many other effects on northern biota. Here in North America, more southerly species such as robins (Turdus migratorius) and Pacific salmon are colonizing high arctic latitudes. A little to the south, vast tracts of Rocky Mountain forest are turning brown under an unprecedented onslaught of pine beetles, whose numbers are no longer kept in check due to milder winters and hotter summers.
So what about ‘Deep Futures?’
Environmental conditions are changing so rapidly that I frequently get the feeling I have already woken up Rip Van Winkle style in some deep future, where the things I have long taken for granted are no longer recognizable. Like the frogs that used to teem in the ditches of my suburban Toronto childhood. They are now disappearing worldwide, their once exuberant choruses silenced by a strange new fungal pandemic. The Western black rhino has just gone extinct – all of them. Gone. Wiped off the earth by relentless poaching. Neither you nor I nor anybody else will ever have a chance to see one. We blew it. And countless other species are on the brink of the same fate.
Climatologically, the obvious effects of anthropogenic warming are now everywhere and we are seeing weather events that are routinely more extreme than anything experienced in the recent past, though they have long been in our collective imagination. Reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian 1960’s fantasies – ‘The Drowned World’ and ‘The Wind from Nowhere’ we now live in a world where ‘superstorms,’ extreme flooding and the disappearance of Arctic sea ice are the new normal
With the scientific consensus emerging that global temperatures will continue to rise by at least 4 degrees C by the end of the century, I wondered what might happen at Kilpisjärvi, which presently finds itself in a delicate mountain birch forest ecosystem, where normally the snow doesn’t melt until June. Already it is clear that with less severe winters, plant productivity and abundance in many far northern areas has significantly increased.
What novel re-groupings, permutations and combinations might occur as the climate of Kilpisjärvi warms up? Will the existing plants grow more rampantly or will they begin to find the new conditions intolerable and fade from the landscape? There are some basic principles I thought I could extrapolate from. For example, rapid climate change is likely to favour generalists, often weed species, capable of riding out a wide variety of conditions and quickly colonizing disturbed habitats. Cold-loving, habitat specific specialists will have a much more difficult time and would disappear from many of their more southern haunts.
the future of arctic fauna?
How long might it take for major changes in the biota to occur? There are so many things to consider. For example, birds can colonize newly habitats quickly, which in turn will be a vector for certain plants whose seeds travel long distances inside their digestive tracts to be deposited on new terrains. Wind borne seeds and spores are likewise rapidly distributed. We humans are perhaps the greatest agents for the dispersal of species, transporting them deliberately or by accident, through the shipment of goods, gardening and even on the soles of our shoes. The deeper the future, the more daunting the range of possibilities, so I thought it reasonable to start with the situation in Kilpisjärvi at the present day and project onward into deeper and deeper horizons of time, with a corresponding decrease in certainty.
I am an artist, not a scientist, so I knew my speculations would be more qualitative than quantitative, but I figured it was worth trying to extrapolate obvious trends and imagine how they might unfold in both the near and long term.
A few hours after first touching down in Helsinki and pleasantly catatonic from the jet lag, I took a long walk through the venerable Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden. It is a habit of mine to visit the botanical garden of any city that is new to me and I was curious to see what the Finns managed to cultivate at such a high northern latitude. And I wanted to establish some sort of a baseline for what would typically constitute northern flora. Admittedly Helsinki is a good deal further south than Kilpisjärvi but is nevertheless considered the world’s most northerly metropolitan area and I reckoned the climate of Kilpisjärvi would begin to drift toward that of present day Helsinki as the planet continues to warm. Established in the early 1800’s Kaisaniemi has the agreeable and lush historicity of an old, lovingly maintained park, a world within itself of specimen groves and steamy glasshouses, where the casual stroller or the committed anomophile can each commune with the diverse array of the botanically possible.
From the very beginning gardeners have always pushed the envelope of what can be cultivated in a given climatic zone and Kaianiemi is no exception. For example there is an enormous walnut (Juglans regia) tree, sprawling and laden with nuts far to the north of its usual more temperate haunts. I was delighted to see one of my favourite living fossils, the monotypic Sciadopitys verticella, commonly referred to as the Japanese umbrella pine, as it is now only native to a small area of Japan. Yet during the Eocene Thermal Maximum 50 million years ago there were whole forests of these trees in the vicinity of what is now Finland and the resin they produced was so ubiquitous it makes up the bulk of the area’s famous Baltic amber. During that long ago time, the average temperatures on the earth were extemely high, as high, in fact, as it is expected to rise again within this next century, due to man-made global warming. Could it be that Sciadopitys might one day hop Kaianiemi’s garden fence and make itself at home again in the forests around a newly tepid Baltic? I wonder…
In contrast to how compact everything generally seems to a North American traveling through Europe, the distances in Finland are quite vast. The day after arriving in Helsinki, I was en route on the seven hour trek to Kilpisjärvi, which began with a one hour flight north to Rovaniemi,‘the hometown of Santa’ and the capital of Lapland (not necessarily in that order), followed by a six hour bus ride on a two lane highway to almost the 70th parallel. As the scenery passed by and the tires hummed and the vegetation grew more sparse, we were able to acquainted with each other and start thinking about how we might address a topic as vast as ‘Deep Time.’
On a more prosaic note: I loved the bizarre and über-Nordic aesthetic of the coffee-shops in roadside Lapland, a few of which we were able to sample on the bus ride to and from Kipisjärvi. Amazingly, there is a pension for Thai food up here. Their secret ingredient – reindeer meat! And by the way, the wood carvers are definitely on drugs – perhaps some taiga version of the magic mushroom… Check out the whacky wooden dwarfs that are the regional specialty. The carving style out-Seusses Doctor Seuss! Oh those long winters! I think I understand the flying reindeer now…
An hour or so from our destination, and the landscape morphed into a vast, misty expanse of exposed rock, russet heath lands and dwarf birches, their branches stripped of all but a few remaining yellow leaves despite it being only mid September – still, as far as the calendar is concerned – summer! When we finally pulled into the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station it was almost dark. The air had a thin, alpine quality about it and the massive silhouette of the Saana fjell loomed over us like some giant recumbent beast. We were told we’d be climbing it the next day and we collapsed into our beds…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?