Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tiny Ecologies & Boundary Stones (Part 2)

"Earth is a 'serving bearer' that is capable of emerging, rising forth, and issuing upward... the earth withholds from our attempts to fathom it."
Elemental Philosophy, David Macauley

The Tiny Ecology project is focused on intense ecological attentiveness of a particular place. Frequent visits to the site will be made between late August and early December. Critical attention will be paid to human influence and neglect, nonhuman forces (weather, sunlight, microclimates, pollution, decay, gentrification), and the surfacings of particular histories. This project arises from an engagement with the Ecologies of Conquest / Contact Ecologies seminar being taught by Prof. Jeffrey J Cohen at the G.W.U.



Communication requires contact. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, derives his name from the Greek word for boundary stone, herma. Digging into the earth in my tiny ecology, "the Strip," implicates place and person together through touch, affect and change.

In order to pursue the leading question of my project, "how does otherwise arid soil give life to a host of green vegetation?", I've begun breaking open the top-soil in order to get a look deeper in and further down. This is an act of penetration and a crossing of a boundary marker which makes me responsible in new ways for the destruction, alteration and growth of this environment.

The object of my study nonetheless speaks back to me in surprising ways and gets under my skin (and finger nails) in the process. Hermes marks borders, not as absolute divisions of self & other, subject & object, but rather as points of contact, exchange, hybridity and inter-being. It is at the same time a meeting-of-worlds which maintain their own kind of interiority (and interiority-of-kind which philosopher Ian Bogost has termed "darkness"), that in the process forms, through this information-exchange, a shared ecology.


Stoney Exteriors

A cursory return to the Strip after a series of thunder showers, I find the land has surprisingly changed little in appearance. The clover looks slightly greener (an effect of lightning releasing nitrogen into the air) and there are a few more cigarette butts (apparently many residents in my building use this out-of-sight space to smoke), but the soil itself seems rather the same.

Getting down on my knees, a few shiny rocks call out to me. While the bits of concrete, red brick and clumps of dirt seem to withdraw from my senses into a sort of aggregate-background, several polished hunks of quartz, bits of metal and a flattened glass marble stand out from the rest. This is an active ability in the rocks on me which brings about a response, not simply a pre-concieved process in my own mind, which Jane Bennett calls "vibrancy" or "thing power".I feel this power as I document the stones with my camera and struggle to pull myself from them towards the other earths.

The skin on my knees already feel the dryness of the compact soil  as they press into one another. Pushing my fingers against the dirt, it holds together and rebuffs my attempt to push through. As I take out my metal measuring and digging instruments, I prepare to push through, expecting as little response as I got in my last attempt at exploring the interior the the earth.


Darkness takes Roots

Suddenly the land breaks open and I get a glimpse through and into the darkness of the earth. Physically pealing away a chunk of the top-soil, my hands discover a much softer layer about half an inch down. This moist collection of earth and water folds together for about 3-4 inches above another rocky foundation.

Plumbing down through this dark damp earth involved both fingers and tool, for while the soil could be molded by hand it was interlaced (even structured) by a strong mesh of roots coming down, up and across from the plant-life. And so I become opened to another contact ecology. The roots of the plants dig down to draw up moisture from this layer of soil, and in turn they protect and buttress the dark earth. 

This revelation however came at the expense of breaking apart a portion of this meshwork (to borrow a term from Timothy Morton). In the process I've become responsible in new unexpected ways to my tiny ecology and in turn the vibrancy and darkness reaches out and pulls me closer. There is hardness and alienation which distances the Strip from me, but increasingly intimacy and responsibility has pulled us closer together; changing both of our narratives through contact at the boundary stones of our inter-being.


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