Monday, November 25, 2013

Tiny Ecologies & the World Wide Web (Part 6)

"Can't stop the signal"

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.


Stepping out of my apartment in Silver Spring, I bundled myself up against the cold. On my way to GWU for our Tiny Ecology day, I stopped by the Strip once again to see how it was experiencing the cold.

Observing the dry, cracked earth, seemingly devoid of insect, I remembered my first visit to the space. In a way the dry frost of November has a striking resemblance to the dry heat of August. Yet this time, instead of an academic outsider to this space, I felt like an insider, hanging out with a friend, perhaps annoyed at the weather together.

We shared that moment, all of us there, as I didn't exactly "thank" the Tiny Ecology for being a collaborator with me on this project, but being affected more with a sense of "appreciation." Over our time this semester, it had changed, I had changed, and through our networks and "the world-wide-web" we had somehow changed things outside ourselves.

Breaking off towards the Metro, anticipating the presentations of my fellow class-mates, other collaborators in this Tiny Ecology project and in the seminar, the feeling of appreciation stayed with me. Opening up the talk provided below, instead of concluding, we embraced the unexpected. Wherever we go now, we go together.



Since September, I have been blogging and engaging weekly with a tiny ecology I called “the strip.” The strip is a 147 inch by 121 inch environment of rocky, clover-filled soil in Silver Spring Maryland, walled in by my 16 floor concrete apartment building, a 3 floor brick house, a concrete side-walk and an iron fence. 

The first time I made conscious contact with the space, I was drawn to its hard arid soil, wondering how it could support such delicate green clover. 

Over the weeks, I engaged with the ecology in new ways, informed by conversations about contact, cohabitation, catastrophe and enmeshment from our Contact Ecology / Ecologies of Conquest Seminar, and understood the seminar material better by engaging with my tiny ecology. In turn, the blog’s 5 entries serve as a site for reflecting on our place and enmeshment together on a world-wide-web.


Thinking through my contact with the soil, pushed me to explore deeper David Macauley’s Elemental Philosophy, particularly his work on earth systems. I was struck by Macauley’s statement that “a place-based ethic” starts with certain particular contacts, such as “the earth underneath” and brings us to relate with the numerous other things it contacts on their own “systematic” terms rather than a “universal,” “instrumental,” or “inherent” value.

In other words, to ethically engage with the earth or blog on the clover, is to stay in contact with their relations the various insects, rocks, bottle-caps, cigarette butts, shoes, shovel, camera, computer, blog, and me. 

Looking wider and digging deeper I found that these rocks, hard earth & other objects knitted together with the clover’s root system to form a seal above and below a layer of moist soil sandwiched in between. Together they held onto a source of moisture that could feed clover roots and more. 

No sooner had I gone from observer of the earth to digger in it, than I found that I did not dig alone.


Cohabiting in this environment and collaborating in the process of excavating the earth were population of ants. For another week I continued my digging, testing moisture and nutrient levels, simply trying to stay out of the ants way. 

I took these contacts with me however as we began to discuss Susan Crane’s essay on Cohabitation in “Pangur Ban,” an old Irish lyric, also called “the Scholar and His Cat.” Crane pushes beyond the historical happenstance of men and cats sharing life, as well as the propensity to allegorize the cat’s life as signifying human labor, looking for moments of their love and sympathy. 

I asked myself, how have I begun to feel with these ants? Within that first week I began to feel and enjoy their presence, touch, even travel with me. I’d find them falling off my pants with clumps of dirt and clover when I got back to my apartment. I sort of liked that they were colonizing where I slept, since I disturbed where they slept.


Then catastrophe struck. Suddenly after several dry weeks, the strip got hit with rain. Strangely my first reaction was not detached intellectual interest that finally the soil would now be soft and damp. Instead, I feared for these ants. For a while, the rain didn’t disturb them. Later, the concrete and brick walls around the strip began to function as a basin, the water rising an inch above the earth. 

It was helpful that we read Steve Mentz’s “Making the Green One Red” at this time, as it challenged the illusion of that the dry was stable with a call to embrace where we are as a “watery, salty, unstable, dangerous place”. We are ever “inter-catastrophe” or between transformative events. 

I watched as the anthills, the bottle-caps, and topsoil wash away and fought the urge to blog that this was the end for tiny world. This is not the first or last time it rains here. Somehow they continue to exist between and within it.


Without knowing absolutely how the ants continued to live in the strip after the rain, my research suggests that various ants have the ability to run to higher ground or hibernate with their eggs through winter and flood. 

When I found smaller, paler ants back working the ruins of their colony, I surmised that a new generation of ants had hatched from those eggs. The ants I had known had likely built upon the ruins of other generations. 

Contacting this mix of past and present together helped me better grasp our discussion of Timothy Morton’s “mesh;” what he describes in Queer Ecologies as a “nontotalizable, open-ended…interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level.” This and that, the new and the old are not totally separate things. 

This mix of dry and wet earth, young and old ant, me and my blog are all enmeshed in ways that make each look back, each return feel a bit like the past never left. As with medieval texts and their authors, the blog may outlive us all on the world-wide-web but we will still exist together in story. 

Yet with each catastrophe, generation, presentation, or blog-hit our enmeshed story grows. Things don’t stay the same. Things don’t stop. Things transform.

Thank You

All those who contacted this blog
are invited to affirm their enmeshed place
in this Tiny Ecology and "the-World-Wide-Web"
by commenting & allowing our story
to grow, live & feel with unexpected others.