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  • Writer's pictureMrill Ingram

Sex, Death, and Stormwater: connecting prairies and infrastructure

Adapted from a presentation for the annual conference of The Prairie Enthusiasts, February 3, 2024.

 

As editor of the journal Ecological Restoration at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum for almost four years in the early 2000s I had a front row seat on the creative and endless work of maintaining a contemporary midwestern prairie. I gained enormous respect for the variety of skills involved, some of which I didn’t even recognize as prairie work. In my 2022 book I wrote about “orphaned space,” and how societally we disappear a huge amount of land, Earth, by severing it from ecological and social connectivity. What I observed at the Arboretum was an effort to push back against some of that disappearance. I also so how, a focus on “special places” can circumscribe cherished spots from their context and in the process put them in peril.

 

Bear with me (three paragraphs) for a bit of context: I’m a human environmental geographer, a social scientist, and I’ve always been interested in how our explicit rules, implicit agreements, and deep narratives shape our environmental behavior and in turn create and maintain landscapes. Such human agreements and stories are evident in the technologies we invest in, in property regimes we uphold, and in how we manage shared space.

 

In understanding the power of narrative, I think about an essay by systems theorist Donella Meadows on “leverage points.” A Pew Scholar and MacArthur Fellow, Meadows wrote often on global challenges and systems change. In one of her most widely read essays, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” she related a eureka moment when she suddenly brainstormed a ranked list of influences on system dynamics and their relative impact on the whole.



From: “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” by Donella Meadows. donellameadows.org


The easiest to change, but with the least overall impact, is “parameters and numbers,” at number 12. This includes things like changing levels of subsidies or taxes, or tweaking standards in existing policies. Changes like these tend to nudge systems toward desired directions but do not make large structural differences and are not difficult to reverse. At the other end of the list of leverage points was number 2, changing the mindset or paradigm out of which goals, rules, and culture and technologies of a system arise; and number 1: the power to transcend paradigms, to keep oneself unattached and flexible understanding our ultimate limited understanding of the universe such that no one paradigm is “true.”

 

Number 1 is important, Meadows says, because the game isn’t to arrive at some final truthful paradigm, but instead to recognize that the role of our own commitment to any paradigm is flexible. Thus, the most powerful lever is the understanding that all systems, if they are no longer producing desirable impacts, should change.[1]



At the UW-Madison Arboretum, I saw how dedicated the staff was to protecting two places in particular, Green and Curtis prairies. I began to think of them as the “crown jewels” of prairie restorations. They are among the oldest prairie restorations in the Midwest, if not the world, and the product of some of our foundational conservation thinkers, most well-known being Aldo Leopold. Those two prairies, even as restorations based on remnant natural landscapes, were profoundly shaped by the individual human vision, practice, and historical context. For example, in 1936 at a 60-acre horse pasture in the just-created UW Arboretum, Aldo Leopold informed a newly minted doctoral student that his job was to “go plant a prairie.” At the time there were not standard operating procedures anywhere to do such a thing. Ted Sperry and some 200 men from the Civilian Conservation Corps ended up taking an experimental approach, planted 42 prairie species in single-species blocks, and creating plots to compare seeds, seedlings and the blocks of sod in terms of long-term survival.



Greene Prairie, another Arboretum gem, was created through an entirely different process. Over the course of 15 years between 1936 and 1951, botanist Henry Green single handedly planted over 12,000 seedlings representing 133 species, carefully matching plant traits that Green observed in his studies of prairie remnants with soil and moisture conditions. The result deserves the descriptor, “master work.” Ultimately, these efforts different as they are produced two of the Midwest’s most compelling prairie landscapes, and also launching the practice of ecological restoration.

 

But today the work of restoration at the Arboretum looks quite different. As I sat in front of my computer editing journal articles, I observed a lot of defense work  attempting to maintain the biodiversity of these special landscapes. Some activities are what we’d all recognize as prairie restoration work: saving seeds, removing invasives, cultivating and counting prairie plants, working to provide safe harbor for birds, ants, bumblebees, and other pollinators.


Other work included mowing tree saplings, herbiciding undesired plants, as well digging catchment basins, creating berms, meeting with city officials about stormwater, educating neighbors, and otherwise figuring out how to design, fund, and build infrastructure.

 

The Arboretum in Madison sits toward the bottom of a very urban, and increasingly hardened watershed. Some 60% of the watershed is rooftops, driveways, patios, streets, and parking lots allowing little opportunity for natural rainfall to make it’s way into the ground. Precipitation that flows across pavement and other impermeable surfaces picks up pollutants. More than 460 million gallons of stormwater flow toward the Arb every year, which relies on container ponds to divert and control the large pulses of water brought in with each ever-more-capricious climate change powered season. That stormwater not only brings in automobile exhaust pollutants, but also organic matter and vegetation, enabling the flourishing of a common invading plant, Reed Canary Grass, on over ten precious prairie acres.  




In the image above you can see the direction of stormwater flow and its relationship to areas of lower biodiversity in Curtis Prairie.

 

Looking at the impact of those arrows, I thought, no wonder the Arboretum is strategizing with neighbors and the city, educating in the schools, and pursuing community environmental education programs about stormwater. I was seeing how the concept of prairie restoration, the idea of creating and protecting a defined, protected area, was running up against a changed reality that belies the notion of a clearly bounded and protected “prairie restoration.”

 

Another way to understand this is to follow the money. At a cost of well over $1.3 million for rehabilitating the stormwater pond, not including the research and design work of storm water management, it is the pond, not the prairie that has been receiving the lion’s share of effort and funding.

 

If you flip the script here, then the stormwater detention pond is as important a part of the prairie restoration as Curtis Prairie itself. Instead of zeroing in on the boundaries of besieged areas, we refuse an easy division between prairie and not prairie.

 

OK, what the heck am I talking about?



I’m suggesting that while we absolutely need our chosen places, our crown jewels, if their nurturing and protection is our ultimate goal, we also need to embrace so much more of Earth as worth acknowledging and paying attention too. We especially need to question our assumptions that suggest so much of the spaces around us are unworthy of attention. That idea is a foundational narrative at work, a habit of mind that disappears an enormous amount of space as workaday, taken for granted, and pollutable.  What if there is no such thing as “waste”, vacant, “subnatural” land, instead view ALL the landscape as potential prairie. Practically, what this means, is that even places that like the photo above become potential sites of water capture, pollution control, groundwater regeneration, native plants and seeds, pollinator and bird habitat, and human joy – all activities that ultimately will also help nurture and protect the crown jewels.


Loving orphaned space means realizing places like Dempsey drainage as water capture, pollution control, groundwater regeneration, native plants and seeds, pollinator and bird habitat, freedom of expression, play, and human joy – all activities that ultimately nurture and protect our already most cherished places.


I think about the disappearance of so much of our Earth as “orphaning” – and to try to catalog the kinds of human behaviors and frameworks of mind that disappear so much space and I’ll talk about how much in a minute. This eventually led to a series of art-science collaboration projects, and a book.  But with flipping the focus what I began to see in places like the Dempsey drainage, are all the ways this place is being held in stasis. My first step was to just see it. I visited, I took photos, I knocked around. Then I catalogued:  I see a place that is fenced, entrenched, concrete lined, undergrounded, lit from above in several places, herbicided, and mowed – and that’s just a starter for ways this site is in a sense constantly policed to do one job, which is get runoff the heck out of there. 

 

So, this space becomes defined by what I call orphaning efforts that minimize all connection ecological and social. In book I wrote,

 

"Orphans are a type of waste, casualties of a rush to develop with little incentive to be sensitive to a broad valuing of land: for place, history, or local participation and control in what happens and where.”

 

One of the best writings I’ve seen to capture this idea is from The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell in which he writes about a small patch of forest that he visits every day for a year, and a golf course that abuts it—

 

The visual field of this forest patch he writes, “is dominated by sex and death: dead leaves, pollen, birdsong. The golf course has been sanitized by the puritan life police.

The golf green is fed and trimmed to keep it in perpetual childhood: no dead stems, no flowers or seed heads. Sex and death are erased. . .A golf course’s ecological community is a monoculture of alien grass that emerged from the mind of just one species.”

 

OK, we’re talking infrastructure, typically urban – we create it to do a job, which we need done. And what does one do in spaces of infrastructure anyway?


Well, I’m not saying it’s easy. I began with simply being in them, refusing to disappear any open space and seeking out where and how I could see Earth’s agency and processes at work. A next step was learning more about the story of that space, and what was and is nearby, and what might be resources for connection.  There is no blueprint, every space is different, and also there is no parameter for success. Even if you make a single connection for one day, it’s more than what was there the day before.

 

It's an exercise in imagination, to consider how new activities could occur here, something more filled with botanical sex and death, (and I know I don’t need to tell you why that’s a good thing).

 

As you will hear I owe a lot to artists, and this idea of temporality, of a connection that is valuable even if it isn’t sustained. That idea was immensely challenging at first. Social geographers need to see a revolution, a fundamental challenge leading to beneficial change lasting forever. Contrast that to a performance, a dance, which can last just 3 minutes, and yet offers perfection. By being open to this idea of temporality I found I had a lot more to work with. I would like to think more about that idea in terms of ecology. We know, even as we try to create sustaining natural relationships, that ecology is all about change.



Here are three proposals I offer as actions to take to “love” orphaned space.

 

#1 is to “reject the void.” Thus, we see not only Curtis prairie but also the stormwater pond that protects it. Both are precious, valued landscapes, deserving recognition and respect.

 

#2. By diplomacy I do not mean meeting in the middle but instead a process by which you create opportunities for voices at the table often not included. So much history of prairie restoration work has been very white, and has denied human history. There’s clearly work ahead of continue to build the practice of restoration in ways that are more representative and inclusive.

 

#3 Collective imagination is understanding that although our society has riven scientific data generation from work connected with human emotion and meaning as a matter of rational decision-making, that approach to science is not necessarily the only route to arrive at a form of truth. Projects that are grounded in a collective of art and science have a lot to offer.



The Ho-Chunk Nation stewards what are left of the mounds.


Once you stop orphaning, and reject the void, all kinds of things can come into focus. Given our national history and how much of our culture has related to land as private, and as a form of wealth disconnected from history and meaning, once you really start looking you will encounter evidence of theft and the denial of history.

 

Poking around in my own neighborhood for example, which looks like a nice ordinary midwestern neighborhood, I learned that it was once at the very center of a vibrant effigy mound region.

 

When the West European and American explorers and settlers arrived in what would become the state of Wisconsin, they encountered drumlins (elongated hills created by glaciers) and also between 15,000 and 20,000 created earthworks. These ancient tumuli occurred almost everywhere in the state — more than 3,000 locations in all, with 1,300 around Madison alone. In my neighborhood, near Lake Monona at least 234 mounds graced at least 27 celebrated places around the lake—now there are three.

 

Robert A. Birmingham has written beautifully about these mounds, and uses the phrase “ceremonial landscape” in his attempts to relate the dynamic nature of the mounds and what they tell us about the relationship between them and the people who lived here. He wrote:

 

 “One gets the impression that the human-made constructions were not simply built as static symbols on vacant land, as one might paint religious representations on a blank canvas, but were built to be alive, actively bringing together the natural and supernatural worlds. The natural topography actually animates bird and animal forms … there is a tendency for mounds to be built with consistent orientation of the natural feature on which its built, legs downslope, and with heads downstream when located along streams and rivers. Birds fly gracefully across ridge tops or up and down slopes. Geese, the harbingers of spring and fall, the death and birth of the world are typically arranged on slopes so as to be arriving or leaving adjacent wetlands and bodies of water.  Animals parade across ridges, changing direction, sometimes subtly, with the orientation of the terrain; water spirits and snakes move up and down elevations, crawling to and from water.”

 

This aliveness and responsiveness, which I know so many prairie enthusiasts think about, I’d like to see extended to more of our precious Earth and for us to find more ways to celebrate not hide our human connections.


Because . . . we are talking a LOT of land



In a survey of over 200 cities around the world, the Atlas of Urban Expansion found that cities are expanding faster than their populations are growing. And any development created and contains a great deal of “open” space. This is a large category, containing areas as diverse as golf courses, street terraces and medians, vacant lots, and brownfields. But once you start looking across all this land you see one, how similarly it is managed to minimize ecological connectivity and diversity, and two, how insignificant all this space becomes to our individual attention as much of the time the space is dedicated to some sort of infrastructural role such as stormwater management, traffic safety, property right of ways, and pollution containment. You begin to see the vast territory around us we commit to a state of perpetual childhood: no sex, no death.



WATERWASH ABC, Lillian Ball. Credit Lillian Ball.


The role of artists in establishing the importance of examining our relationship to land, especially in restoration related efforts, is significant. Lillian Ball was one of the first environmental artists whose work I began to learn from, but one of many, including Helen and Newton Harrison, Aviva Ramani, Jackie Brookner, Patricia Johanson, and many more. These are artists who pursued projects, often in concert with communities, to create projects that both restored some ecological function, and also provided different ways for people to emotionally connect, engage with history, and to explore options for how disregarded spaces might become meaningful in everyday life.

 

We orphan both as a matter of how we design infrastructure – but also as the result of deep cultural narratives that disappear large amounts of Earth. And these projects work at both those levels. (I am also indebted to artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles for many insights on this topic).

 

The image above is from a riverbank wetland restoration that artist Lillian Ball did along the lower Bronx, an area that used to be all wetlands along a river that has been largely disappeared behind warehouses and businesses. Her project collaborated with neighborhood and community representatives to create access, education, build skills related to restoration and environmental knowledge, and expand ideas of what’s technically possible in handling runoff. In collaboration with civil engineers from Drexel University she explored designs to slow and filter water runoff from a nearby parking lot that was shooting straight into the river. She had to be creative throughout process: sourcing recycled glass, testing types of permeable pavements, and creating plants that would adequately stand up to polluted water, for example.

 

Among her goals was offering an opportunity for people in the area, which suffers from a lack of living and open space, a chance to enjoy themselves, take a break, see something green. The installation featured a sparkly winding path toward a view of the river, and a picnic table above. The wetland here is put on display for human enjoyment. Functionally speaking, this design is part of a larger vision Lillian Ball had for Long Island Sound, for which the largest source of pollution is this type of small-scale runoff. But as the artist worked to create a functional pollution control system, she also engaged with political and emotional elements often left out of green infrastructure projects. As a statement refuting its disappearance, the Bronx River here makes a celebrated reappearance, visitors guided down a curvy path to applaud the visual performance of water, light, and plants as well as the invisible work of filtering pollutants.



A different example of how artists reject the void comes from artist M. Jenea Sanchez who grew up along the U.S. Mexico border. Her work refuses the orphaning of the border, insisting on it as a place of connectivity and home, even as it has become increasingly militarized, fortified, and dehumanized. She says about this piece: “My grandmother was born Douglas, my mother was born in Agua Prieta, and I was born in Douglas. The fabrics [woven into the border fence] consisted of a combination of pieces (tablecloths, dresses, unused fabrics) that belonged to me, my mother and my deceased grandmother. The piece was a way to represent how interconnected our communities are in all aspects of life and societal structures, but also share how my family's story is literally a tapestry of crossings.”


 



I want to share an excerpt from my book, Loving Orphaned Space, on the work of artist Frances Whitehead in Chicago:

 

"Surrounded by sagging chain-link fence, the corner lot rests quietly under its cracked and crumpling blanket of asphalt. Soil, accumulated over decades in the fissures and depressions, hosts pockets of plant assemblages: marestail, broadleaf plantain, prostrate knotweed, crabgrass, and dandelion. They are colonizing, their roots expanding the cracks, their growth and decay building up more organic matter and making soft landing spaces for new seeds blown in to take root. The occasional ragweed presents a taller flourish. This orphaned space, somewhere in South Chicago, once hosted a gas station. With the owner bankrupt and long gone and in a neighborhood with low real estate pressure, it has remained here for decades, mostly quiet, in a slowly expanding conversation with “weeds.” Underneath the plants and asphalt lie benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene, all elements of hydrocarbon compounds from tank leaks and fuel spills. The chemicals are included in octane boosters like MTBE and BTEX. There are also diesel fuels, solvents, and degreasers in varying concentrations and depths in the soil. These “lenses” of contaminants have existed here for decades under their protective cap of asphalt, changing only if an underground flow of water shifts things around.

 

Plots like these are a common sight: the fence, asphalt, cement islands, colonizing plants, and contaminated soil are found at hundreds of thousands of abandoned gas stations—all nodes in a vast network enabling the culture and technology of the automobile. Shuttered gas stations are testament to a multifaceted and common story of small business owners and large oil and gas corporations; faulty fuel-storage technology and off-loaded economic risk; massive pollution of underground aquifers and drinking water supplies; and sweeping environmental regulations unevenly implemented. Along with the inestimable costs of poisoned ground water and blighted communities, federal, state, and local governments have spent billions over the past four decades chasing underground pollution from leaky gasoline storage tanks, with the associated costs driving many small gas stations out of business and leading to many properties sitting abandoned for decades.

 

It’s a common sight, yes, but strangely out of focus given its ubiquity and the toxicity of what is underneath. Following the first condition to reject the void, I’m curious about the history here. What happened? And what kinds of ecologies and politics maintain this orphan?

 

The gas station is as American as apple pie, an icon and facilitator of the “open road” as highways unfurled across the nation, especially after World War II. Gas stations powered the American car culture, enabling millions to get the hell out of Dodge, Go West, or just get to work. In the 1970s and 1980s, gas station franchises supported millions of small business owners, including many immigrants, all taking advantage of available credit and low down payments to open up mom-and-pop gas stations.

 

But an insidious problem was slowly developing underground. During the early 1980s, it became clear that the underground storage tanks, many now decades old, were failing, leaking fuel into the surrounding soil. The slowly migrating toxins began to appear in groundwater- sourced drinking water supplies across the country and to produce gaseous emissions that made people sick. Many of the tanks, composed of single-walled bare steel, had begun to corrode, especially along the pipes connecting the tanks to the pumps. The practice of “dipsticking”—dropping long rods to the bottom of a tank to determine the fuel level—was found to weaken and over time puncture the steel tanks, which then leaked fuel into the soil. One 1984 report indicated that 75,000 to 100,000 USTs, or underground storage tanks, were leaking and that as many as 350,000 USTs would start to leak in the following five years. Worse, in what appears to have been an effort to avert liability, many oil companies had divested tanks to station operators, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leaving small business owners holding the—well—tank."



Here is an image from a database for Indianapolis on underground storage tanks. Green are cleaned up sites, orange still need to be. Practically every community in the U.S. can produce a similar map. As early as the 1930s, oil companies had at least some knowledge of tank leakage issues and had begun developing new technologies to avoid the problems. Rather than retrofit or replace aging equipment at the many stations at which they owned tanks, however, oil companies appear to have programmatically divested themselves of many tank systems during the late 1970s and early 1980s, often for nominal sums.


This larger story illuminates some of the forces driving the ubiquitous typology of abandoned gas station lots. Returning to South Chicago, other questions emerge. The lot has lain quiet for decades, the bankrupt owner long gone, the ownership defaulted to the city. The tank has been pulled, but the hydrocarbon molecules remain, lying heavy in the soil. Similar lots in other parts of town have been excavated and redeveloped. But not here. There’s not a lot of money in this part of town for new development. An orphaned gas station site in a low-income neighborhood is a place in hiatus, connections stymied by regulation, legacies of racism, asphalt, pollution, and chain-link fence; all process slowed to a crawl. Such sites are invisible to us partly as a function of their ubiquity and unremarkable nature and partly because so much of what orphans them lies underground, out of human sight.

 

Still, things can happen here, only slowly—exactly where sculptor and School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor Frances Whitehead found a toehold.


 


Frances Whitehead worked with Dave Graham, a brownfield specialist with the city of Chicago, and Paul Schwab, a professor and specialist in soil environmental chemistry. The project centered on a research project into “rhizodegradation,” the potential of soil microbes fostered in a plant’s root zone to dismantle contaminating petroleum hydrocarbons.

 

Abandoned gas stations present a kind of typology, Frances explained “When you look across gas station sites you see similar pollutants, and similar layers of asphalt, gravel, leaking tanks, etc.,”

 

A “sustainable” solution to abandoned polluted gas station sites had to be multidimensional. For one, there was no digging and dumping polluted soil elsewhere, which would just move the problem to a new location; it had to happen in situ. Any new engagement at the plots needed to respond to its conditions—the people and environments around the site. “I wanted to change the story and perceive of brownfields as cultural heritage,”

 

Phytoremediation encompasses a broad range of engagements, with a variety of mechanisms and targets. But research into these capabilities of plants has been a start-and stop affair, stymied by the long time horizons the plants require to get the job done, and the research needs served by neither the typical federal grant-funding timelines of two to four years or the fast turnaround demands of the private sector.


The challenge Frances saw for plots scattered around her city, especially those that lingered for decades in lower-development pressure areas, was the meager palette of known plants confirmed to help degrade petroleum contamination. What about plants that people wanted to live with? What kinds of activities and new connections might occur in these spaces that would make them an asset to the neighborhood?




She conceived that the city might work with a “swatchbook of phytoscapes” with functions like small tree bosque, winter color, fragrance, biofuels, birdscapes and bugscapes, fruitscapes, and prairie.

 

The research on phytoremediation has typically been done at agricultural research stations and has focused on tall grasses and agricultural plants, which are not well suited for small plots and the diversity of applications Frances envisioned as benefitting urban neighborhoods. Nonagronomic plants, including ornamental, habitat, fruit bearing, and prairie forbs, remained, and remain, largely untested. After exhaustive literature reviews, phone calls with specialists, and a lot of “dumb” questions, Frances created a database of almost 500 plants with promising root structures that looked like they might generate microbial activity capable of dismantling petroleum hydrocarbons.  This process of building up the microbial community and breaking down the pollutants takes decades, hence Frances’s use of the word “slow.” While plant-microbial symbiosis can be at work cleaning up underground, she imagined the site above as an engaging, colorful, fragrant space, productive of food for birds, insects, even people.



When I saw it, the site was largely planted, with young trees and bushes at the back of the space (I recognized a native honeysuckle and a persimmon) and lower-growing plants, some of which were in bloom, closer to the entrance point. The deepest-rooting plants were placed where the underground gas tank had been. There is a “hot spot” of TCE (or trichloroethylene) at the bottom of that area—about 10 or 12 feet down. Poplars have been tested frequently for this type of situation, but Frances was investigating the potential of cup plant, or Silphium, to do the job since they have very deep roots and are also “gorgeous kick-ass plants.”




As she designed the planting plan, choosing longer-rooted plants over the deeper lenses of contamination, she also created a seasonal flowering “clock,” clustering flowering plants together according to bloom time, moving from left to right from April to October, and, with the trees in the background, blooming a “frothy” pink in the spring. The performance would last all growing season, reminding everyone nearby of horticultural rhythms. Among her ambitions for the project, Frances aimed to make visible the sequences of “plant time,” using flowers to pull people’s attention to the shifts of botanical life and from there to demonstrate the power of the associations at work: the conversations among root, microbe, and hydrocarbon. “I wanted to revalue slowness, deep work, and help the public understand why this is so important, on a neighborhood basis.”


 

Like many projects that run against the institutional grain, this one came to an end when supportive, but capricious, winds shifted. When Chicago voted in a new administration in 2011, Rahm Emanuel closed the city’s Environment Department, and funding was cancelled for this project. The site was closed and the edging for the plots, so carefully laid down by sculpture students, was pulled.

 

There is little in our current urban administrations that makes this kind of work easy. I was at a recent talk about a new management approach from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure called “Envision,” which is a planning process for city managers working on urban infrastructure that might simultaneously embrace the 5 goals of quality of life, leadership, resource allocation, natural world, and climate/resilience. And while the city representatives at the presentation appreciated the well-rounded approach, they all agreed that projects attending to so many multiple goals would be enormously varied, as each one was developed sensitive to their particular site, that it would basically bring all normal city decision making to a grinding halt.  In fact they sounded a bit terrified at the prospect. This response helps illuminate how we might forgive ourselves our losses.

 

As I mentioned before, a three-minute dance performance can be perfection. Ecologically speaking, even one connection may actually be perfection, and is at least better than nothing. We might as well dance for all we’re worth.

 

In this instance, Paul’s research team was able to continue the soils research begun at greenhouses at Purdue. They eventually determined 12 new species of flowering plants found to aid the dissipation of contaminants in the soil—all but one never before tested.


As we move forward nurturing prairies in whatever ways we best can, I come back to leverage points. Crises are upsetting, but at the same time they are opportunities for change. When masses of people become confronted with the failure of a current system, they can take action to affect change. There is no doubt we are already in crisis. As anyone with any ecological sensitivity knows, we have lost so much, and we are going to lose more.

 

It is not evident to me what kinds of action is possible and when. Our systems are full of people very resistant to change, with a great deal invested in maintaining a crisis-ridden, inequitable, corrupt structure. I believe we focus on what is possible at the moment as a key strategy for the long game (number 2 in Meadows’s list).

 

Frances’s project produced new information about rhizoremediation, and helped feed the public imagination about how abandonment might become beauty and inspiration, as it slowly self-heals from toxicity. Such projects populates our imaginations with new ways of connecting, both technologically and imaginatively. Like Lillian Ball’s Waterwash project, Whitehead's practically oriented effort also contains elements of fantasy. Sparkles, curves, the spectacle—elements that are more than appropriate as we work to flip expectations and reorient to celebrate our everyday, taken for granted spaces.  When we connect the grubby street terrace to the crown jewels of restored landscape we embrace a narrative that sees all Earth as connected and worthy of honor, respect, and care.



 

[1] Number ten on her list refers to infrastructure such as transportation and water management networks. She wrote: “The structure of material stocks and flows and nodes of intersection (such as transport networks, population age structures, flow of nitrogen through soil.) The plumbing structure, the stocks and flows and their physical arrangement, can have an enormous effect on how the system operates.” 

 

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