Tiny Ecology

First posted December 30, 2015

I delivered the following presentation in Jeffrey Cohen’s graduate seminar on Contact Ecology in November 2015. 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 above; I’d watch at least the first minute or so.

Finally, I take some of my terms (especially “now-ness” and “bristling”) from a presentation by Timothy Morton at George Washington University, 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

Haylie Swenson