Flickr Recent Photos


North Troy brownfields

North Troy NY brownfield savanna

Williamette Cove zone

safari into the Williamette Cove brownfields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chimney swifts over North Troy

chimney swifts over North Troy

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

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


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

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.

neo-geological form

neo-geological form


it’s not nothing…

lost pom pom

lost pom pom

a little closer

a little closer


I suppose there is a certain amount of cheek to me writing this on a leap day, a day that shouldn’t even exist except in service of an inaccurate calendrical system. Today exists, but then again it doesn’t, or rather it exists under the guise of a convenient idea. But what of materiality? The lost pom-poms I keep finding all over the streets of New York seem real enough, despite having been separated from their originally intended assemblages.

Things come and things go, but do we really understand this? At what point does matter coalesce into being and what are we left with when it disappears. Is nothing really nothing? A void? Emptiness? Or is nothing just something that hasn’t yet happened? What is the size and shape of this nothingness?

In The Turin Horse, The Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr envisions a world, inhabited by an elderly horse cart driver and his daughter, that is slowly diminishing over a series of days, as if the universe were a giant iris stopping itself down, until finally all we are left with is an overwhelming absence. But is this the absolute end? The filmmaker never answers this question. Perhaps the darkness he leaves us with is akin to the primordial dark matter, a kind of pre-generative firmament from which the rest of the universe will once again exude itself like so much quivering fruit.

The ongoing search for fundamental particles might indeed one day corroborate that there is, to quote Kurt Vonnegut – a “universal will to become” or ‘UWTB,’ as he puts it. Paradoxically, we appear to be only able to discern this by smashing things into smaller and smaller pieces using such pieces of über-technology as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), through which it is hoped, the Higgs boson might one day emerge. The appearance of this much anticipated entity would be the closest thing yet to witnessing the actual origin of mass, erupting into existence when the Higgs field – the theoretical field that fills all of space – is excited above its ground state. The hitch is that the Higgs boson has been a little hard to find, though of late we seem to be getting tantalizingly close.

An appreciation for the tangled relationship between ‘nothingness’ and ‘somethingness’ is certainly not new, and the notion of ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form,’ goes back to ancient times among Buddhists or as it is sometimes translated in the Heart Sutra: ‘Matter is empty, emptiness is matter.’

In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett calls for a new, vital materialism and a an acknowledgement of matter’s innate agency. Matter it would seem, should have rights and is worthy of our kindness and respect because at least on some level, it wills itself into being, forming its own aggregations and assemblages from, well, emptiness. Never truly inert, matter, by its very nature evokes a response and is thereby generative. In Japan, ceremonies are held at shrines for broken dolls or lost pins…

This generative nature is beautifully portrayed by the Polish writer Bruno Schulz in his (1934) short story – Tailor’s Dummies in which the narrator’s lucidly batty, geriatric father holds forth on the nature of matter in oracular torrents at the family dinner table:

“Matter (says the father) has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation, which invites us to create as well. In the depths of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions built up, attempts at form appear – the whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. Waiting for the life-giving breath of the spirit, it is endlessly in motion. It entices us with a thousand sweet, round shapes, which it blindly dreams up within itself.”

The son goes on to describe the spontaneous generation of pseudo life forms his has father dreamed up:

“a generato aequivoca, a species of beings only half organic, a kind of pseudofauna and pseudoflora, the result of fantastic fermentation of matter… These creatures – mobile, sensitive to stimuli and yet outside the pale of real life, cold be brought into being by suspending certain complex colloids in solutions of kitchen salt.”

Schulz goes on to imagine other generative phenomena such the floral wallpaper in abandoned rooms growing out into rampant, pseudo-botanical festoonery, then receding as soon as it is directly observed.

The pseudo-biological quality of inorganic matter is not just the domain of Eastern European fiction but is entirely observable. At the New York Institute for the Humanities’ recent Survival of the Beautiful event, British science writer Phillip Ball gave a fascinating account of how autocatalytic feedback and oscillating chemical reactions have been recently theorized to account for many natural patterns such as a zebra’s stripes or an angelfish’s swirls, the latter of which beautifully zip and unzip from each other as the fish grows with an aesthetic exuberance owing less to Darwinian natural selection than to the vibrant, self-assembling agency of matter itself. Called Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions, these processes create biological looking patterns, quite independently of biology, which also appear in such inert substances as sand and mud.

angelfish and its ever-changing stripes

angelfish and its ever-changing stripes

The New Scientist recently featured a rather Schulzian sounding research project at University of Glasgow that is creating pseudo-life forms out of large metal molecules, called polyoxometalates, which when dissolved in certain salt solutions start to self-assemble into cell-like spheres, complete with pseudo membranes that have the ability to control the flow of chemicals to and from the ‘cell.’ Instead of using DNA, these polyoxometalate cells use each other as templates to self-replicate, but replicate they do and perhaps they will even evolve, though the experiment hasn’t been run long enough yet to bear that out.

Such self-amplifying processes bring to mind the presence of ‘morphic fields’ Rupert Sheldrake postulates might influence the way matter, both living and non-living, aggregates. Morphic fields, if indeed they exist, would act as a kind of organizing consciousness, increasing the likelihood that things assemble will themselves in certain ways – especially if a given configuration has already happened. The morphic field in some way ‘remembers’ arrangements it has encountered as a resonance – not unlike the excitation of the Higgs Field I described earlier – which in turn acts as a template for subsequent iterations.

So where does this leave us? Is anything every really empty or is what we perceive as emptiness just a transitional state between oscillations of form?

If what we think of as ‘agency’ turns out to be the pervasive action of fields, is there any point in making a distinction between what we have come to think of as ‘living’ and that which is not? It’s hard not to feel a little celebratory about all of this. Even if we can’t find any more so-called ‘life’ out there in the rest of the universe, the fact that we all are part of its vibrant assembly of matter should make us feel  a little less lonely!