My Tiny Ecology: A Presentation

A little over a month ago I delivered the following presentation in Jeffrey Cohen’s graduate seminar on Contact Ecology. This day, in which all of the seminar participants presented, was the culminating event of our shared tiny ecology project, which asked us to each individually “choose a place for intense ecological attentiveness.” All of this intense attentiveness led to some really remarkable presentations, and I feel fortunate to have been in attendance for a day of blogs, comic books, scatter plots, and powerpoints as we each tried to represent our–at times achingly intimate–engagements with our spaces. 

For my six minute presentation, I filmed my tiny ecology and let it play behind me, opening and closing with some lyrics from “What’ll I Do,” Irving Berlin’s 1923 heart-stopper. The video is reproduced in full below; I’d watch at least the first minute or so.

Finally, I take some of my terms (especially “now-ness” and “bristling”) from Timothy Morton’s recent presentation at GW, which you can listen to in full here.


With its aching, quiet plea—“what’ll I do?”—Irving Berlin’s 1923 song conveys the ripplying “now-ness” of a present that is imbued with both the remembrance of past trauma and the certain expectation of future catastrophe. “What’ll I do?” the singer asks, intimate already with the pain of loss and knowing that she will lose again, and soon. It’s a bleak, but strangely not a sad song; it’s melancholy, sure, but it takes joy a certain joy in its sadness, too, and in the dense present in between past and future loss. It’s an appropriately bristly place to be when thinking about ecology, I think, and it’s barely an exaggeration to say that this song has been stuck in my head this entire semester, and especially when I visited my tiny ecology.

Built on the eastern grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian, my tiny ecology was also intended to sit in this in-between space, to serve as both elegy and restoration. The multiple signs outside of the low, stone wall that surrounds my ecology, a wetland, announce this intention:

These diverse wetlands . . . represent the original Chesapeake Bay environment, the largest estuary in North America . . . Four hundred years ago, the Chesapeake Bay region abounded in forests, meadows, wetlands, and croplands. The National Museum of the American Indian restores these environments and is home to more than 27,000 trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants representing 145 different species.

Implicit in these plaques, and explicit in some of the museum’s other materials, is an invitation to ask Irving Berlin’s question of ourselves: Here’s what the museum is doing to conserve what remains of these habitats and traditions. What will you do?

It’s a good question, really, adequately posed. But in spite of the attention that the museum’s designers paid to the specifics of the wetland habitat—for instance, putting in native plants like swamp milkweed and southern bald cypress—I was frequently struck by the indifference of the wetland to the story that was being told about it. What does this squirrel, this cattail know about the catastrophic loss of land and life that the plaques intend to remind us of? And this raised what was, for me, a surprisingly difficult question: if this squirrel doesn’t care, why should I? In spite of our best attempts, no one today remembers what it was like when DC was covered with wetlands and hardwood forests, and the National Museum’s bristly, mallard-attracting attempt to reconstruct those habitats is, in some ways, just a pale reminder, a photograph to tell our troubles to. And someday all too soon I’ll be gone, and no one will remember the way a squirrel once scolded me out of the forest. Perhaps all the squirrels, the humans, the cattails and foxes disappear from the earth. Some other things will replace us, only to be replaced in return. Loss will follow loss, and we can safely ignore Berlin’s urgent question. What’ll I do? Nothing, thanks.

I was feeling especially bleak one day last week. It was cold at my tiny ecology, and I was sad, with the hollow, washed-out feeling I’ve had trouble shaking all semester. Watching the ducks, I was already feeling a bit better when something to my left—a sound? An unconsciously registered smell? Pure luck?—caught my attention. I turned my head, and a scant six feet away there was a fox, red and impossibly beautiful and walking straight towards me. We made eye contact, and both of us froze. Eye contact is bristling at its best, I think, a palpable shock across space. After a second and without too much haste, the fox loped around me, disappearing around a curve in the wall. And although I’m worried this is already veering into the overly personal, I think I’ll be doing this story an injustice if I don’t admit that I immediately burst into tears. I was grateful to have seen the fox, I already missed it, and I wanted more. More eye contact. More ducks and squirrels and opportunities to let my ears get cold. More life.

Every moment of contact is an individual invitation to response, right now, here. That invitation doesn’t go away just because the invited respondents will. What’ll I do with the fox that catches my eye right in the moment when I catch his? One option is to feel less, to distance ourselves from the bristly, tricky middle space between loss in the song. Another option—the option I want to choose, although not painlessly—is to care more, to ask “what’ll I do” over and over and over again, as often and as sympathetically as we can, to sit with the uncomfortable, melancholy, wholly alive and lovely certainty of loss.

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Of Sympathy and Stink Bugs

The brown marmorated stink bug is an invasive species with a wide range in the US. Likely transported as a stowaway on a shipping container, the bug first appeared in the mid-Atlantic two decades ago and has spread to the west coast and into Canada, causing huge damage to crops and native species. 

adult-female-fullI know these dime-sized bugs very well. In our last apartment, in Maryland, they used to cluster on the screen of the window above my desk. I’d be writing, and my cat, Creature—like Pangur Ban, all fur and focus—would bat them off. Ross and I flicked them off, and I can recall the satisfying thwunk of the screen and the feel of a hard little body bouncing away under my fingernail. The stinkbugs would fly away, only to return after a little while. Often they would get in the house, and Creature would follow them for hours until Ross got home to drown them. Normally I hate it when he kills bugs, but with the beetles I let it go. After all, they’re an invasive species.

Now that we live in DC, we don’t see the beetles as much, and I save my ethical exceptions for the mosquitoes that breed in the parking lot and appear in the apartment for a few weeks each year. So I was surprised, and a little confused, to see a lone little brown marmorated stink bug on the Metro last week. He or she was perched on the seat next to mine, crawling slowly along the yellow vinyl and watched by the old woman across the aisle. I watched him, too, and wondered about him. How did he get on the Metro? Did he fly all the way down, through the escalator tunnels and over the gates and in through the doors? Did he hitch a ride in the folds of someone’s clothes? Or did he come from the suburbs, before the train descends underground? How long had he been there? Mostly, though, I wondered what would happen to him—specifically, I wondered how he would die. Would he be sat on by accident, or purposely squished? Wondering turned to worry, and just as quickly to resistance. I was on my way to a friend’s apartment for a few days—to care for a less ethically sticky creature, her corgi—and I had more bags than usual. My hands were full. The bug would have to find his own way out.

My ride with the bug happened a few days after the University of Maryland’s symposium on “Nonhumans and Sympathy.” A full day of thinking about sympathizing with the nonhuman—“including the most difficult, challenging, and hostile nonhumans”—the symposium had me thinking about care in all of its queer, precarious, dangerous, and radical forms. Is there a wrong way to care for the nonhuman world? Does it care for us? What are the dangers and limits of sympathy, and what happens if we blow right past those limits?

Reader, I rescued him. Maybe. Juggling my Smartrip card, my suitcase, and a bag, I scooped up the stinkbug and left the train. We touched; I felt his little feet as he crawled up my hand towards my elbow, and I carried my arm at an awkward angle in an attempt to get him to move back towards my hand. For just about a minute we were together, not in all senses of the word, probably, but at least in some of them, the trajectories of both of our days altered by each other. My plan was to carry him up to the surface, but he disappeared before I made it through the escalators, and for all I know he was immediately stepped on by a commuter. At best, I aided and abetted an invasive species, a small-scale version of the carrier ships that brought brown marmorated stink bugs to North America in the first place. So I don’t mean to say that my act of sympathy, of carrying and care and love, was a harmless one. The symposium, two weeks ago now, proved that sympathy is never clean, never without power and unintended consequences and some darkness. But I can’t help wondering if there might not be something to be said for the impulsive, affectionate action anyway. Maybe, when faced with the impossibility of caring for a species, for a planet, or even just for an ethical stance; when all care is suspect, and predicting the outcome is impossible; maybe then the decisions we make in moments of intimate encounter—the sympathies we feel, one-on-one—might still count for something.

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Tiny Ecology, 7am, September 30


I hope to write more about this sketch later, but in the meantime here’s a quote (from the much-missed Roger Ebert, to whom I owe much of my career – another story) that I think about every time I draw.

Some few people actually can draw very well, if by that you mean “realistically and accurately.” They can draw a dog that looks exactly like a dog. I respect and envy them. It is worth saying however that from a philosophical viewpoint their dog looks no more like a dog than mine does, because their drawing is a two-dimensional representation of the real animal, rendered in either various color choices or some version of monotones. Nor does a photograph look like a dog. You see my point.

Begin with a proper sketch book. Draw in ink. Finish each drawing you begin, and keep every drawing you finish. No erasing, no ripping out a page, no covering a page with angry scribbles. What you draw is an invaluable and unique representation of how you saw at that moment in that place according to your abilities. That’s all we want. We already know what a dog really looks like.

Roger Ebert

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Just Published!

FAULT_CoverYesterday morning postmedieval published its newest issue, a special collection on FAULT edited by Anna Kłosowska and including my first published essay! I’m thrilled to be included as one of the three 2012 Michael Camille essay prize winners (along with David Hadbawnik and Alison Hudson), and I’m delighted with what I’ve seen of the edition so far. It looks beautiful.

Eileen Joy’s introduction to the essay prize collection can be read here. You can see the entire issue’s table of contents here, and a nice write-up of the edition at In the Middle.

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The Tiny Ecology Project

This gallery contains 8 photos.

The photos below were taken in response to an assignment posed by Jeffrey Cohen’s current graduate seminar. The assignment asks us to choose a place–a “Tiny Ecology”–for “intense ecological attentiveness.” The necessity of returning frequently to one’s ecology means that … Continue reading

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