In Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, a mysterious guide leads a couple of characters known only as ‘the writer’ and the ‘professor’ into a post industrial ‘zone of alienation’ where it is promised one’s innermost wishes can be granted and where the rules of physics no longer apply. The ‘Zone’ is completely abject, a place of weeds, broken machinery and the ruins of factories and yet it is hauntingly beautiful in a way that is triggered (perhaps) by our deep yet unconscious familiarity with such landscapes –the places Walter Benjamin called the optical subconscious, the quotidian zones in which we are so fully at home we don’t even realize we live there.
These aren’t the iconic, aspirational landscapes of snow-capped mountains, palm fringed coral beaches and glittering urban skylines –the stuff of screen savers and photo murals in tacky restaurants, but rather the prosaic localities we continuously experience, perceiving them peripherally, from the corners of our eyes yet rarely explicitly acknowledging. The French term ‘terrain vague’ comes closest to the way these places feel and they might take the form of a trash-strewn railway embankment or an abandoned car park with rank vegetation coming up through the broken pavement or perhaps one of those forlorn, zones of contamination we refer to as brownfields, which have become the global hallmark of industrial decline.
I think back on my Amtrak journeys through the rust belt of America, marvelling at the Piranesian grandeur of once opulent railway stations left to crumble at the trackside, the ruined vaults now sheltering only birds which dart in and out of the shattered arrays of windows. The train keeps chugging lethargically (it is Amtrak after all, itself a symbol of decline in American technological ambition) through dour, neglected expanses, prosaic, ugly, endless –you can’t really call it ‘countryside’ exactly– but for the occasional scruffy woodlot and oily wetland which passes between the wrecking yards, quonset huts and derelict factories. This is (as Deleuze might call it) a ‘striated’ landscape that interleaves the decaying residue of a once prosperous age of material production with a resurgent, weedy nature –an ecology of discard, a ‘zone of alienation’ where anything might appear– a muddy field strewn with bone white shards of dishes and upturned toilet bowls, the twisted wreckage of a carnival rides left over from, what? A tornado? Perhaps, even–though I did not experience it–the fulfillment of one’s deepest wishes…
But is this not the state of the world as we all now know it? It’s the Anthropocene, baby, and collectively we’ve chewed up every inch of biosphere; extirpating, contaminating and cultivating ourselves into this, the global ‘Nature 2.0’ reality, where even the unfolding of weather and the chemistry of the oceans have become extensions, artifacts of human existence. So past the point of no return are we that we might as well discard nostalgic notions of ‘wilderness’ and adopt a new, Anthropocenic grammar, already envisioned by the likes of Žižek and Morton, which more aptly describes the hybridized, pervasively humanized environment in which we now live.
Our planet has essentially become one, big ruderal ecology (from the Latin ‘rudus’ meaning rubble), characterized by the large-scale extinction of species–passenger pigeons, big cats, rhinos–as well as entire ecosystems–Madagascar, the Arctic, coral reefs. And yet there is a curious, parallel process of adaptive evolution occurring in the disturbance ecologies and debris fields (called anthromes) we leave in our wake.
At Chernobyl (one of the greatest ecological and social messes we have ever been responsible for, a byword for lethal, irreparable contamination and epic technological failure) some bird species–and by no means all of them, as many kinds there have significantly declined–but certain bird species seem to be surviving by evolving a tendency to produce more cancer-fighting antioxidants which help resist the effects of the pervasive radiation. Scientists are calling this “unnatural selection” and it is already driving evolutionary change.
In much of eastern North America, the wolf was largely wiped out during European colonization but it has recently come back not as a wolf exactly, but a kind of hyperorganism–a three way hybrid between wolf, dog and coyote that pushes the boundaries of what it even means to be a species. With the precipitous decline of the ancestral wolf, an ‘eye of the needle’ effect ensued in which wolf genetics became more ‘soluble,’ more open to other singularities and contagions, a necessary precondition for the evolution of a new, protean canid, able to prosper in the niche now available for some canny predator able to exploit the pervasively humanized and ecologically degraded environment of second growth forest and exurban sprawl–the kind of places that are an anathema to the so-called ‘pure’ wolves of the primeval wilderness but which offer abundant prey resources of lawn-fed deer and genetically moronic pets. Enter the ‘Coywolf’ or Eastern coyote. They might be a product of ‘unnatural’ selection, but they sure are hungry!
Such novel recombining is occurring at a multi-species level too, with entirely new hyperecologies evolving as weedy, native species commingle with invasive exotics, all of them jostling and repositioning themselves into configurations that never would have existed ‘naturally’ but which now comprises recognizable and widespread landscapes of brownfield savannah and emergent, wasteland forest that are found throughout the world in pretty much any place we have exploited and then turned our back on. Many of these organisms are the hardy cosmopolitan nomads we are all used to seeing, such as tree of heaven (also known as the ’garbage palm’), black locust, pigeons and rats, but perhaps surprisingly these unprepossessing assemblages can support a diverse array of other species, some exceedingly rare, which hail from habitats like gravelly steam banks and dry heaths now largely obliterated from a hinterland dominated by chemical intensive farming and vast, ecologically sterile acreages of housing developments and big box stores.
In the UK, where humanized landscapes are particularly well studied, it is estimated that up to 15% of the nationally rare insects and spiders are dependent on brownfields for their survival as do several species of reptiles, orchids and other rare plants.
I was delighted last March to visit the grounds of the now disused Templehof Airport in Berlin, which as a result of citizen pressure has been set aside as a kind of publicly accessible ruderal ecology park. Here one is greeted by the incongruous site of windsurfers careening along miles of abandoned runways while skylarks hover high over vast swathes of tawny grassland, singing and establishing territory in their annual rite of spring.
This wonderful interleaving, this striation, this ‘to-ing and fro-ing’, between architectural ruin and ecological renewal is to my mind a tremendously optimistic model for the future of parks in general and for our appreciation of landscape as a whole and it is in promoting this aesthetic that Berlin is very much at the fore. The Templehof park doesn’t try to paper over its problematic Nazi past but lets us grapple with it by preserving the forbidding Fascist architecture and letting us watch archeological excavations of Gestapo prisons and slave labour camps taking place on on its grounds.
At the same time we are offered profound hope by witnessing innate processes of ecological and cultural regeneration get encouraged, not in an over-planned or commercialized way, but from the ground up, in a way that is distinct from the banal, generic late capitalist aesthetic that so frequently defines urban renewal initiatives elsewhere. By being leaving it alone, Templehof is able to renew itself.
Though the global ecological crisis is deep and inestimably tragic, we can perhaps allow ourselves to cautious celebrate the evolution of a new kind of nature, a ruderal nature, where kestrels soar across the heat haze of abandoned runways that are slowly becoming encrusted with lichens and grasses and where rare wild flowers can find a toehold among the rubble of some of history’s worst crimes against humanity. The sky is filled with the coloured sails of paragliders and a bumblebee is making its first foray into the vast warm vault of another spring.
It seems like forever since I’ve posted to this blog and so much has happened. A lot of ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’, most of it delightful, in addition to my usual hunkerings down in Whaletown and old Alphabet City. Everywhere there is strangeness and beauty and I am increasingly unsure what to make of it all, how to narrativize what I am seeing into some kind of coherent whole. So the phrase ‘wool-gathering’ has come to mind. I guess that is what I am doing. Yet there have been such fascinating moments:
These little faceless lions on St. Marks Place:
A message (anguished? ironic?) scrawled on an aluminum box in the subway:
Back on the West Coast, the Paulownias bloomed in record numbers, purply blue and headily fragrant yet somehow sad against the tattered span of spring sky.
Ruth’s book ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ unfurled its pages into the world like some great nectariferous flower and for that and other reasons there has been a flurry of occasions for me to travel and meet delightful and interesting people. For the second time in the past few months I found myself in the storied environs of old Blighty, with its history oozing from every crack and crevice. In Norwich’s ancient cathedral, a man named Colin from the Norfolk Mediaeval Graffiti Society showed us a rich palimpsest of mason’s sketches, people’s names inverted into curses, pornography and devotional iconography scratched over the centuries into the cold stone of its walls. Almost invisible under ambient light, this filigree of subtexts comes alive when illuminated sideways using an iPhone’s flashlight app; the story of the nation furtively inscribed by those left waiting in the shadows of its history.
Mediaeval Graffiti Society
I’m gazing through the window of a train car chugging through the viridian English countryside. Tidy villages, picturesque hedgerows, church spires and mustard fields drift by and I realize I have seen all this before, long before ever having set foot on this historically freighted little island, somewhere deep in my mind’s eye where there exists an inner England, an ingrained point of aesthetic reference I’d long ago absorbed from having grown up in one of its former colonies, where ‘English-ness’ was a pervasive value uneasily superimposed onto the vastness and anomie of the great New World.
When I was a child, Canada was still referred to as a ‘dominion’ and at the start of each school day, ‘God Save the Queen’ came wheezing across the tinny public address system and we were obliged to sing along, while Elizabeth’s diamond tiaraed, porcelain-skinned portrait beamed beatifically down at us from it perch at the front of the room. Toronto’s older streets and buildings have a defiantly English quality about them, as do many of the place names, even some of the social mores; the curious ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ style of passive aggressive apologizing, that I still find hard to understand. Though I was a non Anglo-Saxon child of working class immigrants, somewhere between ‘Rupert the Bear’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ a sensibility must have seeped in and now the real English landscape seems to me archetypical and somehow soothing, verdant and bucolic yet a bit chaste in the way that nature is so obviously confined within the dominion of man.
This aesthetic of control helped spur colonialism and the British Empire which was not without its brutalities. It caused landscapes all over the globe to be transformed into ‘neo-Englands, regardless of climate or the aspirations of the indigenous people. Yet the English landscape is itself a palimpsest of outside influences: much of its now open country was initially deforested by incoming Neolithic pastoralists, its stately chestnut and walnut trees a legacy of invading Roman Legions and its imposing ‘motte-and-bailey’ style earthworks on which so many of the country’siconic castles are built, introduced by the Norman conquerors
A compulsion to amass and showcase objects to reflect the breadth and splendor of the realm is characteristic of many an empire and in England this impulse has been particularly strong. Its museums and galleries know few equals and contain some of the world’s most exquisite treasures. I’ll expand on this later but I just had to draw your attention to Tippoo’s Tiger.
Bringing to mind some of the themes in Taussig’s ‘Mimesis and Alterity,’ sometimes an appropriated object is itself fashioned in the image of appropriator. This is the case of Tippoo’s Tiger, on display at the Victoria and Albert; a curious, almost life-size automaton of a big cat plunging its fangs deftly into the neck of a prone British Soldier. A curious hybrid of Indian and European technology, the tiger contains clockwork mechanisms that make the soldier wail and thrash his hand around while the tiger grunts with gustatory satisfaction. Here is a link to a video of this amazing contraption at work:
The object’s original owner, Tippu the Sultan of Mysore, was clearly no fan of the English and it eventually made its way to England as plunder of war in 1799, after his death in the battle of Siringapatam. Tippu might have the last laugh however; his whimsical, anti-colonialist tiger still raises eyebrows, right in the heart of the now vanished empire, over two hundred years after his death.
Though two hundred years seems to me a very long time, in a country where Neolithic tumuli and Mediaeval cathedrals coexist with Tesco parking lots and ‘The Shard,’ one’s experience of history, that is to say the kind of history measured in the accumulation of visible human artifacts, has a much different feel to it from North America, where the built and unbuilt environments have a rawer, less resolved relationship with each other and there is a tentativeness to the human imprint as if everything, even big cities, might revert to wasteland or wilderness if we just looked the other way. On our side of the pond, some of the most iconic cities such as Detroit are already devolving into atavistic, less populated versions of themselves, barely two centuries after their incorporation, with once prosperous neighbourhoods and industrial parks reverting into landscapes of ruin and weed fields – prime habitat for pheasants!
At least here nature is regaining a foothold.
Yet more affluent areas of North America continue to metastasize toward that most banal of common denominators – the vast, unplanned sprawl of the edge city; a privatized, drive-thru landscape, deliberately generic and purged of history, devoid of landmarks and deficient in public spaces.
England, despite its tumultuous history, has looked like England for a very long time. According to W.G. Hoskins in his ‘The Making of the English Landscapes’:
‘outside the industrial areas most of the settlements in existence today were founded between the fifth and eleventh centuries and mentioned in the Domesday Book.’
Given the density of the population it is astonishing to see how much of the English countryside remains intact. While most of the forests and fields I knew as a child growing up on the rural fringes of Toronto have been subsumed by the worst kind of strip mall and tract home hideousness, the English have managed to legislate anti-sprawl policies and enshrine footpath laws to guarantee public right-of-way through vast tracts of their landscape. The contrast with our private property-obsessed culture in North America couldn’t be greater.
At the very end of March, I went back to Mississauga, my home town, city, conurbation (I don’t even know what to call it!) to visit my elderly parents. My dad was up for a heritage award for his work in a campaign to restore the steeple of the church, (Presbyterian), he and my mother have been attending for years. A charming little brick edifice dating back to the 1870’s, its steeple was smitten from the tower by lightning in 1920, and then hastily replaced with an ignominious asphalt shingled pyramid, which stayed there for the next 90 years. As a retirement project, Pop, who was, by the way, brought up a Swabian Lutheran, organized getting a replica of the original (wooden) spire made in lightning resistant steel and he and the other parishioners were thrilled to see it hoisted into place by a giant crane. The result, it has to be said, is quite handsome as the church sits atop a hill and has now regained its long lost stature as a landmark, with a much more commanding presence over the nearby houses and the vale of the Credit River, a visible link to the past in a context in which most such points of historical reference have been wiped out.
On the unseasonably hot (it was only the end of March after all!) globally-warmed morning of the award ceremony, we drove to Mississauga’s strangely triumphalist, Adolf Speer inspired city hall, left the car in its subterranean catacombs, made our way across a desolate plaza and eventually entered the council chamber where we settled into the gallery to wait for dad to be summoned. There were several bonhomous speeches about the value of Mississauga’s heritage, but my God, I thought, almost the entirety of the places I had known there as a boy had long since been obliterated by strip malls and low rise industrial parks. Yet dad got his award and deservedly so, from the mayor no less, a minuscule lady, so ancient she seemed almost animatronic in her proficiency, performing her duties, astonishingly well, I might add, despite a tubercular sounding cough.
‘She’s been ruling Mississauga with an iron fist for 33 years,’ I heard someone say. ‘And everyone’s damn proud of her – Damn proud!’
Perhaps I caught a whiff of UBIK, or something, but as I sat there I was overcome by a strange feeling as if I’ve been asleep for a long time and had awoken, like Rip Van Winkle, into a distant future. It is 1968 and I’m a boy standing in a warm field of yellow goldenrod and mauve Virginia asters and into the shimmering distance sweeps a blonde expanse of pasture and corn stubble and here and there, a weathered grey barn or a small woodlot punctuated by the vermilion of sumac and swamp maple. Above it all, the crows caw and wheel and a contrail dissolves slowly into the great blue dome of the sky, reminding me that it is, after all the jet age. It was a dirt road that brought us here, my father and I, and we have come to shift the wire pens that contain the flock of unruly geese we are raising in a not-very-profitable after-work venture that dad had concocted to ‘help make ends meet,’ as he likes to say. The farm has been rented by a certain Mr. Baker, a taciturn workmate of his from the factory at which they spend their days supervising the machinery that spits out concrete blocks onto an assembly line and he is in the background right now quietly, as is his manner, tending a couple of horses that belong to his teenaged daughters.
It was all so clear to me but – so what? Forty four years later, everything has changed. Everything that is, except the contrails, which are still there, only there are many more of them. Driving around with my now elderly parents, dad points out a parking lot and says ‘do you remember Oliver, the place where we raised the geese?’ – just one parking lot in a continuum of parking lots that have entombed the soft earth of my boyhood fields beneath their genericizing tarmac. There is nothing, absolutely nothing left of the bucolic landscape I once loved – the red brick farm houses with the white trimmed front porches, their quiet lanes overarched by the green tunnels of elm trees, the raucous retort of ring-neck pheasants erupting skyward from the shrubbery as we passed them by, the dust billowing behind us with me in a heat daze in the back seat , the bobolinks, the meadowlarks, the ancient snapping turtles, covered with water moss, with their eyes tearing up and their anuses straining as they exuded their glistening ping pong ball eggs into the holes they laboriously dug into the gravel of the railway embankment, holes dug with their hind feet, holes they would never see for their precious eggs that also remain invisible to them, because these sad and ancient beasts never looked back and after they deposited their precious burdens they’d track like weeping suitcases across the dirt roads and fields, back toward the mire of their sheltering marshes, the mire which is all now gone and has been gone for years and years.
There are few of us left now who remember the mire and the burble of the marsh wrens and the swoop of the bank swallows attending to their burrows in the grey clay bluffs by the river. Was it all worth losing? Not that we had any choice. We’re having coffee now, mom and dad and I. They are old but the three of us were all born in the same last century, they closer to the beginning of it and me, toward the end of its middle. ‘What’s that?’ I ask, pointing to a sort of mountain rising up on the other side of the highway, a yellow bulldozer creeping up its summit, spewing red dust across the white blue of the Southern Ontario sky. ‘It’s topsoil,’ says dad. ‘They pile it there and sell it back to people.’ ‘Oh,’ I reply and watch a paper cup blow slowly across the coffee shop parking lot till it hits a concrete barricade and then just sits there quivering.
Robert Crumb’s version of North American History from Fall 1979’s Coevolution Quarterly
I’ve just spent the better part of a week in Portland Oregon, hanging out amidst a living experiment that might just point the way to the future of the North American city. The Planet Repair Institute headquarters, once a typical West Coast style home on a typical West Coast street, has been modified by owner, architect Mark Lakeman and an ever-changing crew of cob builders, natural plasterers and urban permaculturalists into an earthy badger mound of mmm-mmm, organic goodness. Lakeman and his many collaborators espouse a kind of participatory architecture in which everyday people learn how to use common natural materials such as straw and clay to make architectural interventions that help humanize urban neighborhoods. The result is a kind of re-organic-ization of the built environment, a softening of the predominantly rectangular aesthetic with blobby, communal pizza ovens, loaf-like street corner benches and hobbit-worthy backyard pavilions. These cheerful earthen structures, encrusted with whimsical mosaics and botanically themed bas reliefs, may have the form and texture of supersized Christmas cookies, but I believe they also suggest something much more profound. Here is a handmade, participatory architecture that seeks to re-design the city from the bottom up, in marked opposition to the traditional top-down impositions of architects and urban planners. The handmade nature of the building technique invites participation, and the constructions take on the character of those who work on them, a truly open source methodology that, with minimal instruction, even young children can learn by molding clods of mud into the cob material that can be then patted into almost any shape imaginable. As an added bonus, the clay used is in abundant supply at local cemeteries and can be had for the asking. It is an inevitable byproduct of the many holes that tend to be dug in that business. The sand and straw constituting the rest of the mix are likewise easily sourced and are of course inherently natural and biodegradable.
Aside from the biomorphic look and the participatory building process, I think it important to point out that Planet Repair’s architectural methodology is often used to ‘re-skin’ existing structures, making them more ecologically sustainable by adding substantial insulation and thermal mass to both the insides and the outsides of buildings, as well as conferring a pleasant, natural aesthetic. The inside walls of the front room at Lakeman’s southeast Portland home have been retrofitted in an extra layer of stuffed straw soaked in a slip of clay, considerably upping the building’s ‘R’ value and giving it a lovely grassy ambiance. Out the back, his office in the former garage has been ‘frosted’ on its outside walls like a yummy birthday cake with layers of earth-toned cob replete with arboreal design motifs. This is architecture as palimpsest, a refreshing contrast to the tear-down mentality of many urban designers who in the past have been all too eager to raze the embedded history of locality in the service of their personal vision. The re-use and re-skinning of existing structures has an environmental benefit as well, keeping demolition debris out of the waste stream and reducing the need for newly manufactured materials. Given the the global ecological and economic crises, this approach makes more and more sense.
Re-skinning with Cob
Straw Insulated Interior Wall
The other Portlandia trend to watch is the increasing fashionability of unplugging from the power and sewage grids. Photovoltaic panels and homemade solar hot water heating systems festoon these nouveau urban pioneer villages, and there are numerous composting toilet and ‘humanure’ initiatives, where, at least in the one I toured, human waste was being re-processed into plant food in a surprisingly odorless, backyard set-up. As civic infrastructure continues to erode under government disinvestment and bureaucratic neglect, these do-it-yourself, autonomous methodologies will become a valuable part of the city’s ‘immune-system,’ and, if replicated and scaled up, might begin to stand in for the centralized systems we once relied on, as they collapse around us. Even in the short time I was there, Lakeman was given the heads-up by a municipal employee who warned him that leaf collection in Portland would soon be under the cut-back axe, and the city was examining the feasibility of downloading these duties to neighborhood volunteers. Lakeman’s response was to promptly organize a block wide, leaf-raking blitz, during which, in about an hour, a large group of us managed to rake up almost all the available biomass on the block’s sidewalks and streets to add to compost heaps and use as mulch on communal garden plots.
Public Tea Kiosk at Intersection Repair
The strategies of ‘block-repair’ and ‘intersection repair’ are key components of Lakeman’s architectural activism. In addition to installing cob structures and edible plantings around Portland intersections, he has overseen the painting of the asphalt surfaces of the intersections themselves with colorful, circular, crowd-sourced murals that calm the traffic and turn previously generic crossroads into pedestrian-friendly neighborhood meeting places. People like hanging out there and drivers tend to slow down. The intersection becomes a place to be rather than to simply pass through. This sort of conscious place-making revivifies the local and re-connects Portlanders to each other in shared urban experiences, alternative to the dominant commercial systems of exchange. Though the aesthetic tends a bit toward the Tolkienesque, the intersection repair projects are an unqualified success, and Lakeman is trying to export the idea to other cities such as Vancouver that have expressed interest. Lakeman’s ‘repair’ paradigm serves to realign the power relationship between the urban planning profession and the people and places that are traditionally subjected to it. By making planning and building participatory, democratic and fun, Lakeman’s techniques empower neighborhoods to re-invent themselves and implement their own site-specific solutions for how they want to be. In this light, perhaps, the failing civic infrastructure of North American cities could open up many new possibilities. But will the besieged municipal governments be willing to relinquish enough control? We probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.