In David Quamann’s delicious book, The Tangled Tree, he expertly unravels the story of horizontal gene transfer, our rather our current understanding of it. The ability of genetic code to migrate between species, even between kingdoms, throws our understanding of evolution. It also calls into question our understanding of the individual, at the level of organisms to that of species. Our bodies, made of 10% human cells and 90% of bacteria, viruses, etc., are colonies as much as our towns are. To reference David Bohm, our cells are in a constant dialogue with each other, creating something far different than their original genetic makeup would predict. We have mapped our genetic code and most of the world, seen it with our eyes, our microscopes, or our satellites, and yet, there is still so much we don’t know, still so much terra incognita. It seems that while we have amassed the technology to see a cell, a body, a forest, or a mountain range, we haven’t yet figured out how to see the dialogue between - this is our terra incognita.
At the north-western edge of our continent lies the Tongass National Forest: a wilderness of stunning beauty and solitude, filled with ancient trees, whales breaching, and the sound of sea otters cracking shells. It is also filled with our trash. The U.S. Forest Service invited me to accompany them on one of their wilderness monitoring programs to the West Chichagof–Yakobi Wilderness; a ten-day kayaking trip along the outermost islands in the forest. While the purpose of the trip was to monitor human activity, it became clear that human waste is far more pervasive than humans themselves. Over the course of the trip, we picked up 580lbs of trash, including 600 plastic bottles.
At the murky edge of humans are the objects we create, the objects we buy, the objects we eventually toss. Here, in the West Chichagof–Yakobi Wilderness, our objects are entangled in the environment; buried under a thick moss, caught on a driftwood branch, entwined in seaweed. They are ghosts of massive storms, fishing expeditions, and above all human hubris.
Lake Superior was once a lava bed. Or rather, it still is a lava bed, it’s just a billion years old and now covered in some of the deepest, clearest water in the world. Through forces like uplift, compression, and collapse, the lava bed curled up at the edges and created a peninsula on one side and an archipelago on the other (similar to lying on a slightly deflated air mattress — when compressed in the middle the mattress edges will rise up). Fast forward through deep time to our present day, where the archipelago once scraped and depressed by the mass of glaciers, is now on the rebound, rising roughly one foot per century — that the land can still be feeling the release from a weight lifted 10,000 years ago is profoundly beautiful.
Earlier this month I returned from 20 days on the Archipelago, called Isle Royale National Park. I was visiting the park as an artist-in-residence, researching the complex entanglement of humans/non-humans, biotic/abiotic elements, and how these play out over time. My project was to create an atlas for the park: a series of maps that explore these stories, but beyond that I was free to draw/walk/read as I pleased. I grew up wandering the deciduous woods of New England and a walk in a forest gives me the feeling of finding a phantom limb. It’s a feeling that I don’t realize is missing in my everyday life, but once I recognize it, it seems essential to being. There is much talk and research these days recognizing the importance of our relationship with the natural world, including forest Bathing, doctor’s prescribing the outdoors, and our chemical reaction to being in a forest; all of which deeply interest me. We (oxygen consumers) are involved in a grand symbiotic relationship with plants, which in turn are involved in a grand symbiotic relationship with fungi, and on and on. But breaking the relationship into parts undermines the expansive quality of a forest. Perhaps Herman Hesse said it best:
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers…They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
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. .