Niagara Falls played an inspiring roll in the creation of the National Parks. Not so much because of it’s own inspiring scenery, but rather as a warning to the unorganized development that arises around places of awe-inspiring beauty. Developers/shop owners/tourists etc. capitalize on the scenery, creating a crust of development anywhere there is a prospect. One could call this awe-mining, although expanding the definition of “prospecting” seems appropriate too. Anna Tsing refers to the process by which “living things made within ecological processes” become capitalist commodities as “salvage accumulation.” As she so smartly points out this is not “an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works.” Whether we call it awe-mining, prospecting, or put it under the umbrella of salvage accumulation, this phenom happens all over the place, usually only abated by geographical limitations. For Isle Royale National Park, the remote volcanic archipelago in Lake Superior, the lesson was learned on Mackinac Island, where resorts and fudge shops replaced forest and field. We often speak of the power of failure in terms of business: companies that can support failure are able to grow and adapt. But landscapes, too, can become collective lessons on the need for bigger vision and the communal benefit of sharing a place of striking awe. The science of awe points to the benefits of these experiences for humans, including increased connectedness with other people. Everyone who I spoke with on Isle Royale, save one grumpy grandmother, described this feeling in one way or another. Our desire to understand this feeling, to research it and support it with data, is perhaps a sign of our growing interest in advocating for the more natural spaces, spaces less overtly contaminated by human economies. That mistakes are part of the process of conservation, perhaps even essential, points to the messiness and unpredictability of life. Isle Royale exists as a park because another place doesn’t - the two places converge, even as their fates diverge further.
How will we be remembered if nothing is left behind? This question may seem irrelevant given the depth of the Athropocene’s impact. As Jan Zalasiewicz noted in a recent segment on ‘On the Media’ - our vast geological thumbprint will include an enormous amount of chicken bones (expertly preserved in our landfills) and the fossilized silhouette of millions of soda cans (the aluminum will eventually dissolve, leaving behind a 335mL void). In researching Isle Royale, I’ve come across a gap in the common historical narrative that speaks to the absence of material history. Roughly 6,000 years ago, miners actively tapped the copper reserves on Isle Royale, as evidenced by the ancient pit mines, tool markings, as well as the lead pollution David Pompeani found in nearby sediment cores. The mining stopped suddenly, only to be resumed in the 1840s when rising copper demand and the discovery of Copper Country led to a boom. In between these two events, there is very little evidence of anyone living on Isle Royale and numerous accounts report that no one did. Timothy Cochrane disputes these reports in his book, Minong: The Good Place, where he evidences with great detail the oral record of Ojibwe families living on Isle Royale during the summer months. But since the Ojibwe were nomadic and left little physical record of their daily living, their story has been left out. Now perhaps the physical record that they did leave is imperceptible to us now — but in fact does exist — we just don’t know what to look for or what to compare it against, like the color-blind being asked to compare red and green. Or perhaps their record was actually fleeting, they lived on the island, but in such a way as to not leave a trail of lead poison or the markings of a building footprint. Consider how different this is compared to your own footprint in three months, how many clamshells or tons of carbon dioxide are left in a human’s wake? I love the things we can make, but it seems like so much of what we actually leave behind are not the intentional fruits of creative labor, but the unintentional byproducts (I believe that these are one and the same). And yet, as the Ojibwe of Isle Royale show, it is also possible to live so lightly in a place that the impact is imperceptible. I don’t think this needs to be the goal, but I do believe that approaching consumption and creativity with an eye towards the archeological record may speak to the human mind.
A female Northern Pike fish can live into her thirties. That’s thirty years of swimming around the cold, oligotrophic, waters of Lake Superior eating smaller fish (and sometimes her own spawn). As she eats, her body fat slowly accumulates environmental toxins, like Mercury, PCBs, and PAHs. A lipid analysis reveals patterns in human consumption, chemical creativity, and global circulation.
When DDT was banned by the EPA, Toxaphene filled the role of the most abundantly used pesticide. An amalgamation of over 670 chemicals, Toxaphene indiscriminately kills insects, causes cancer, and mutates genes. While Toxaphene was predominantly used in the Southeast on cotton crops and was banned in 1990, Lake Superior is highly saturated with the chemical. Winds from the southeast brought the chemical north, where it reacted with the cold expansive surface water and stayed there, embedding itself into the food web.
It’s hard to imagine that buying a cotton tee in 1982 would have affected the Lake Superior ecosystem in 2019. Every decision we make will cascade out in ways beyond our current imagination, beyond the limits of our current knowledge. What is the half-life of a decision?
In Suzannah Lessard’s exquisite new book, The Absent Hand, she reflects upon our cultural narratives that give meaning to place and explain the landscapes we choose to protect. Our country’s romantic love of wilderness, for example, led to the formation of the National Parks. But as Lessard points out, Yosemite, the archetype of wilderness and beauty, was long populated by Native Americans before it became a park. Any obvious signs of human activity were removed from the valley when it became a National Park, in order to preserve it as a diorama of untouched wilderness. Lessard articulates that while romance was previously a tool for conservation, it willfully ignored our history of racism, violence, and environmental destruction. “What we really need from landscape now is truth.” She goes on to say:
“Where our romantic deflection of the truth may have served some good purpose once — the glory of the romantic view of nature infused with transcendence, for example — it now seems to stupefy more than awaken.”
And awaken, we must. The UN report released earlier this week forecasts the troubling century we have in front of us, unless we reckon with ourselves. I’ll admit, I feel dismal. But as Dylan Thomas says:
“Do not go gentle into that good night”
In thinking through the relationship between the human-nonhuman, I am drawn to images that dissolve the human form. Something expansive happens when the body becomes pattern, animal, or distorted enough that it is neither. So much of art and religion is about the human condition. To some extent the work above is no exception, but each piece feels as though it is tracing the edges of humanity: the border between human-spirit, human-pattern, human-animal. As if scuba divers in the deep ocean, these photographs are explorations of the remote corners of humanity.
An acre: historically defined as the area of land a pair of oxen could plow in a day. A measurement of space and time. A measurement of technology. A measurement of non-human strength. A measurement of cultivation.
This summer I’ve been selected for three artist residencies, during which (or rather afterwards) I will produce a series of cartographic diagrams that explore place through space, time, and experience. The residencies will begin in Isle Royale, the national park in at the northernmost corner of Michigan, followed by a residency with the US Forest Service in the Alexander Archipelago off of southeast Alaska, followed by three weeks at the Flathead Lake Bio Station with Montana Open AIR.
One thought I’ve had for organizing the work is to create an Atlas of Measurement: using the constructs of different measuring units to bring together seemingly disparate topics. For instance a fathom in regards to Isle Royale had multiple meanings. For ships navigating the reefs around Isle Royale, the fathom as a unit of water depth became the lens through which sailors experienced the island. For copper miners excavating mine shafts on the island, the fathom became a unit of payment ($20/fathom), as they dug deep into the earth looking for copper veins. While this is a decidedly human lens, can it be co-opted to tell the non-human story as well?
The collage above brings together fragments of thought from Timothy Morton’s brilliant essay, X-Ray in the collection, Prismatic Ecology. Of particular interest to me, are his thoughts on science and the power we give it over non-humans. He posits the following:
“Things are caught in a circle: they are real because they are measured, because measuring measures them. And the humanities therbey ceded a giant area - the area of non-human beings - to science, happy to occupy its ever-shrinking island on the ocean of reason, constantly about to be inundated by the global warming of science and technology, with it ever-encroaching waves of nihilism”
Put simply we have limited ourselves to the human realm, letting only certain specialists be our interpreters of the non-human. But as Morton states, “at the very same time as Western humans are arguing that we have no direct access to the world, we are intervening in it more directly than ever before”. Our waste, our cities, even our conservation efforts are forms of communication with non-humans. In this way, every person is in contact with the non-human.
The above image is of a California Condor, the xray reveals human trash lodged in the condor carcass. While obviously a tragic image, perhaps Morton’s understanding will move our discourse beyond the empty feelings of sadness (followed quickly by buying a kombucha and cliff bar) towards an understanding of the agency of both the individual human and non-human. In this discourse how do we want to communicate? How can we listen?
The above quote from Anton Picon inspired me. If mapping is how we conceptualize large landscapes, how do we use it to describe the abstract and physical territories that landscapes occupy? Picon goes on to say:
Read Picon’s full essay in the Harvard Design magazine at this link.
Pinus tabuliformis striking a pose before it gets installed at Tencent’s Beijing Campus. It is such a pleasure to plant these beautiful trees. Next creative pursuit: a tree ballet, with cranes, swinging trees, hard hats…
How can we create complex plantings in construction documents?
The 4-acre roof of the Tencent Campus was an exciting challenge to take on. We wanted the planting to feel continuous and wild, but we also wanted to create a color scheme where the flower color subtly shifts from hot reds and pinks in the southeast corner, to soothing blues and whites in the northeast corner. Inspired by Thomas Rainer’s blog post and the beautiful modular planting by Dan Pearson at Millennium Forest, we designed a modular planting system. Each color represents a different plant layout. The contractor grids out the site, marks the color of each grid unit, and then lays down a corresponding stencil to spray paint the locations of each plant. The planting plan provides the details of which plant goes in each location, but the question of spacing and density is answered by the stencils, allowing the contractor to work efficiently and our role on site to be limited to making adjustments, rather than laying out each plant. .