Learning in the 'expanded field'

by Margaret Ronda

Double Helix stairs, Treasure Island, CA (Wikimedia Commons)

What might an ecological education entail in a time of planetary crisis? Can a poem, or a walk, or a site-based action, produce new paths for thinking? How might ecopoetics inhabit a mode of collective and collaborative inquiry, a form of radical pedagogy?

In his opening remarks at the conference, Jonathan Skinner pointed out that a central dimension of ecopoetics is “what happens off the page,” both in terms of “where the work is sited and performed” and in terms of its reception — what happens, that is, not only within but beyond the bounds of a given work. Performance, conversation, collaboration, collective research, active investigation of materials and specific sites: such methods, prominently on display at the conference, foreground ecopoetics as “field work” whose aim is the development of new literacies.

The panel “Ground Scores: Unburying Ecologies through Embodied Practice” explored various on-the-ground examples of collaborative learning as path-making. Its panelists — David Buuck, Jen Hofer, Seung-Jae Lee, Rachel Levitsky, Ira Livingston, Jennifer Scappettone, Kathy Westwater — presented their various work with site-specific research, performance, and collective “detours” in public, urban spaces. For the conference, these panelists collaborated on a keyword chapbook — a primer of phrases, concepts, mini-manifestos — called “A Neural Net: OoRS, PARK, BARGE, and ANTENA." What these groups share is an active engagement with the material histories of vernacular environments — places not often associated with ideas of ecology or environmental aesthetics, except perhaps in negative terms (the urban street, the landfill, the toxic waste dump). Their investigations involve archeological survey of the layered pasts that compose a given site and active engagement with the social ecology of its present. As the definition of “Expedition” from “A Neural Net” reads: “What we will discover is not pre-set. The path will be crooked and multiple.”

Scappettone, Westwater, and Lee presented images from their collaborative, site-specific performance project, PARK, which considers Fresh Kills landfill in its transitional phase from active waste-disposal site to a remediated parkland — a landscape of mounds “capped” in layers of plastic, dirt, and grass. Dancers in white-paper gowns forming circles; wind; bags of plastic, socks, styrofoam, mylar; words read from scrolls; words whipped away by the air; the shiny mylar ‘capping’ the dancers; participants gathering stray scraps of paper. Or, as Scappettone puts it: “strings, post-consumer waste, a phantom city block and chorus, dance, and empty horns of plenty.” 

Buuck, founder of BARGE — The Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics — led an excursion over the conference weekend, “Buried Treasure Island,” to Treasure Island, a former military base and landfill in the San Francisco Bay which is still occupied by 3,000 residents who live in subsidized housing. The BARGE tour “attempts to unearth the secret histories of this site, and explore how this landscape is transformed not only by how it is used, but also by what is elided from view.” Images of the tour revealed eerie figures in white Tyvek gear digging up dirt, exploring abandoned buildings, and removing soil samples from sites marked as containing hazardous waste. In his presentation about Buried Treasure Island and other site-specific works, Buuck explained various forms of his bodily engagement with the site, from eating its dirt to reclaiming the sides of buildings as public art. In such acts, a different kind of learning takes place — an education by way of “listening to materials.”

The conference itself emerged as a site of interactive learning, particularly with regards to the discursive ecologies of the Bay Area. Skinner urged participants to learn something about the local ecology over the weekend, and there were abundant opportunities to undertake such study. On Robert Hass’s tree walk, participants learned about recent debates at Berkeley over whether to replant the aging eucalyptus trees, a non-native species, or to return native species to the area. At Urban Adamah, a progressive Jewish community farm on an undeveloped lot in Berkeley, conference participants heard not only about the practical dimensions (and difficulties) of farming in an urban setting, but about the cultural and community-oriented work of the farm — growing, for example, collard greens for the nearby Baptist church and sugar cane for their Jamaican neighbors. (Poet Cate Lycurgus provided these reasearch notes.)

All these engagements involved forms of deep listening, attending to the particular knowledges and communicative practices associated with a particular place. At the same time, many presentations at the conference drew their listeners deep into the field of language, examining the complex layers, assumptions, and histories built into words — meanings that happen both on and “off the page.” Brenda Hillman’s presentation, “Radical energy: beyond a poetics of emergency,” traced the evolving meanings of “stem” in an era of ecological and financial crisis: “stem” as a noun, the “stalk of a plant most above ground but occasionally subterranean…” or “long thin supportive main section of something” as in “the root or main part of a noun, adjective, or other word,” but also “stem” as a verb, as in “many of California’s deficit problems stem from Reaganomics.” Hillman mentioned recent uses here: “stem the bleeding” (of the economic crisis), “stem the flow” (of oil during the BP oil spill).  “Stem,” then, means both “stop or delay,” “stand and support.” Hillman’s talk advocated for what Raymond Williams, in his seminal “Ideas of Nature” essay, calls a “radically honest accounting” of the history of language and its real effects on ecological and social systems.

Myung Mi Kim’s talk, punctuated with silences and “swerves,” considered the implications of ecological and cultural “deracination.” How, Kim asked, might language account for these effects? How does language—as a vehicle for the production of “competence,” “correctness,” monocultures — participate in the diminishing of various forms of habitat? At the same time, how might the charged language of poetry serve as a means of remediating the commons?

During the question and answer period, Kim suggested that we — audience members and presenters — enact a form of “engendering new discourse.” She invited the audience to raise questions that would hover in the air, unanswered, urgent, fodder for collective contemplation. In the charged space of question and pause, we thought together and in silence; we disagreed; we listened; we looked out. We were in a room, trying to hear the unknown. Following a line of words — where?