Missing insects

For the past nine days, the only thing I’ve really wanted to talk about is an article in the New York Times by Brooke Jarvis titled, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” I had noticed the article on the homepage for a few days, but last Saturday I finally sat down to read it all the way through. I was not prepared.

The story follows scientists and “amateur” etymologists mostly in Europe and the United States who are all arriving at the same conclusion: populations of insects are declining at an exponential rate.  The study that first alarmed the scientific community calculated a more than 75% loss in total flying insect biomass in 63 German nature preserves over the past 30 years. Similar studies of monarch butterflies, honeybees, moths and others have corroborated this research. Worry is growing that the insect kingdom will eventually disappear entirely. The consequences are expected to be catastrophic.

Beautiful headline graphic from the NYTimes article by Matt Dorfman.

The article hit a nerve very close to home for me because for the past year or two I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and watching videos about permaculture design. I’ve come to believe that nature can heal itself with the right combination of human interventions. I’ve begun to follow Jeff Lawton, Colette O’Neil of Bealtaine Cottage, and Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden. My YouTube homepage is full of recommendations for videos about swales, cob construction, and food forests.

The creativity and optimism of these teachers has given me some hope for the future, but this article reminded me that their endeavor is more urgent in more ways than I had realized. Insects are integral to the creation of soil, the fertilization of flowering plants, the decomposition of all living organisms, and the foundation of the food chain. What is permaculture without insects?

I started to look more seriously at how humans have shaped the environment, not just through the lens of permaculture vs. monoculture, but also from the perspective of insect habitat. We’ve taken our flowering meadows and replaced them with grass yards and immense
monoculture farms, we’ve chopped up dense forests into subdivisions, we’ve dammed rivers and prevented them from flooding surrounding lands with their nutrients. We have replaced every known habitat with asphalt roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and other impermeable surfaces. We have removed elements of insect habitat everywhere: pollen, rotting trees and animals, feces. We have cleaned up our environment in every imaginable way and we are left with something monotonous and ugly in contrast to diverse and natural beauty like this alpine meadow that I experienced this summer, shown in the photo below.

Or this Hill Country valley next to Enchanted Rock from last winter:

As I continued to read, I remembered another article from February of this year, “Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild,” that taught me for the first time how insects, birds, and small mammals all rely on dead plant growth from the summer months for shelter during winter. Some insects burrow into the ground, I learned, while others “like ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.” For three years, I drove to work past farms south of Richmond, and every season I watched as plants were harvested and removed entirely from the environment: no rot, no hollow stalk for hibernation, no insulation for production from the wind and snow.

I also felt a very personal sense of guilt as I thought about the ways that I have waged war on insects on my own small part of the world. Insecticide, in addition to climate change, is seen as a major determining factor for insect population decline. When we moved into our current house, I sprayed a general insecticide all around the place. I don’t even remember what exactly I was trying to kill, probably ants, but most likely out of some irrational fear. I remembered when I was young how my dad would fog the back yard of our house with an insecticide a few hours before my parents had friends over in order to control the mosquito population. What does it say about the product if we children weren’t allowed go outside for an hour or more after he sprayed? In just the past year I’ve poisoned rats with kill boxes, I’ve trapped flies by the thousands, and I’ve killed wasps burrowed into the dirt around our house. Although annoying, these wasps are actually harmless and we’ve never known them to sting. The insecticide revolution (along with fertilizer) allowed for modern farming to proliferate, but also created a world inhospitable to insects.

“Hans de Kroon characterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis to the next but with ‘a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.’ Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that were thought to affect only treated crops but turned out to accumulate in the landscape and the consumed by all kinds of nontargeted bugs.”

Brooke Jarvis, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here”

Even small amounts of these toxins have been shown to wipe out insect populations. Jarvis writes that one of the theories about how neurotoxins affect bees is that it prevents them from finding their way home. Lost, the bees die alone and entire hives are found, not full of dead insects, but mysteriously empty.

Considering the insect apocalypse also reminded me that one morning in September of this year, while waiting for the bus, I had been excited to see a bumblebee floating from flower to flower on our purple heart plants. I was so excited that I even took a photo (below) and watched it for as long as I could. What I didn’t realize at the time, because it is so difficult to notice, is that my excitement was borne not of the presence of the bumblebee, but of the overwhelming absence of all other insects in the garden.

Jarvis writes that we are exceptionally good at forgetting how things used to be. “The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.”

As I have now been made aware of this acute loss, my last response has been to imagine ways that I could contribute to insect habitats. I found a lovely British organization called BugLife that created the following diagram for gardening with insects in mind.

Big Life guide to Wildlife Gardening

This diagram includes food, water, and habitat for insects to grow and survive all four seasons of the year. One of the core lessons that BugLife seeks to share is that in order to support insect life we need to do more and we need to do much LESS. We need to stop keeping our farms, yards, and gardens so tidy and we need to keep a much wider variety of flowering plants than in a traditional garden. Essentially, we need to return our small portions of the earth back to a more natural environment and we need to learn to see beauty in way that each element serves to benefit the other.

I’ve also been daydreaming constantly about buying a small parcel of land that’s for sale near my house and fully living into my permaculture fantasies. It’s a densely wooded area perched above a ravine on one side while bordering a neighborhood and an old semi-industrial area on the others. It looks like there is enough run-off from the street to feed a small pond or two on the property and enough room for a house and multiple outbuildings. While many trees would need to be cut down, the entire property could eventually be reshaped into a self-sustaining and diverse ecosystem of wild prairie, forest, ponds, as well as gardens and living spaces. I’ve imagined the houses incorporating sustainable design such as cob construction, passive and active solar, rocket stove mass heaters, and composting toilets.

Of course, I don’t know how to do any of these things and I can’t quit my day job, but it’s still fun to dream:

Until then, I will be actively swapping my anxiety for action with small changes to make the natural world around me more interesting, more wild, and a little more hospitable to our little friends.

The MAMA swings

Last fall I took two online classes through the local community college as prerequisites for a graduate program that I eventually decided not to pursue. Along the way, I discovered James Marcia.

Marcia contributes the idea that as someone enters each stage of identity development they tend to move into four alternative statuses: identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, identity moratorium, and identity achievement.

These four alternatives are connected by the presence or absence of two  characteristics: crisis and commitment. The experience of crisis, to Marcia, involves an individual exploring options as their identity develops. Commitment is the moment the individual decides to invest in one option and integrate it into to their newly resolved identity.

There are four different combinations of crisis and commitment that a person may find themselves experiencing during their development. Identity diffusion is the state of a person who has not explored meaningful alternatives and also has not made an identity commitment. Perhaps, they have been made by others to feel powerless to true exploration and commitment or it may be they are simply content and comfortable. An individual who makes a commitment without exploring options is said to be in identity foreclosure. They’ve confidently ended their journey before they even started, often accepting their received culture and path. Identity moratorium is the state of an individual who has explored meaningful alternatives, but has not yet made a meaningful, lasting commitment.

At the end of a crisis, if the person is to have developed in a new way, they will examine all of the options they have explored during their crisis and commit to the one or few that most define their identity in this new context. This is called identity achievement.

It’s certainly not a passive process. Most current research suggests that major identity shifts occur during late adolescence and early adulthood when individuals are embracing their independence and exploring on their own. In early adulthood there is an emergence of identity that is more vetted and integrated. But the process is never finished.

The final truth that I learned from Marcia, for me, is the most encouraging. He believes that in order to achieve a positive identity, most individuals go through “MAMA” cycles: from moratorium (that is, exploring without a commitment) to achievement (choosing and recommitting to your identity) and then back again. “Marcia agues that the first identity is just that—it should not be viewed as the final product.”

With each relationship, job, community, major world event, or other change in life, we are given the chance to reconsider our beliefs and identity. The MAMA cycles are healthy. That was positive news to me—as a somewhat impulsive explorer—and an affirmation that searching is healthy. We can always decide to return to what we already knew to be true, but knowing that we have explored our options will provide necessary assurance along the way.

I’ve primarily learned about Marcia through the textbook Children by John Santrock (2013). All quotes and paraphrases here are from that work.

Thoughts on Richard Sennett’s “Flesh and Stone”

The other day I read the introduction to Richard Sennett’s, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. What an incredible piece — perfect example of why I love introductory essays.

Sennett here is writing a history of the physical aspect of life in the cities I have been learning about all my life: Athens, Rome, Paris, London. He isn’t interested in an intellectual history: just a bunch of Western thoughts traveling along from one place to another. Instead, he writes, “I was prompted to write this history out of bafflement with a contemporary problem: the sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern building: the dullness, the monotony, and the tactile sterility which afflicts the urban environment.” With the context of history, Sennett introduces us to the ways citizens have lived differently in the past and the role of the city in protecting and facilitating human interactions.

Additionally, Sennett conjures a common conflict within this history that sets Western cultures in opposition to the body. He writes, “Western civilization has had persistent trouble in honoring the dignity of the body and diversity of human bodies …” from the Greek ideal of male athletes to the multicultural communities of modern Greenwich Village (15).

Consistently returning to the current experience, Sennett writes that rather than interacting with other people while accomplishing daily tasks, even literally bumping into them, many of us live from one contained space to another: the home, the car, the office.

Today, more sensory experiences are now consumed with little required input. Pleasure and pain are most often experienced through television, movies, and video games and even the greatest cities are most often viewed through the windshield of a car. Distances that once involved hours and innumerable human interactions now require only 10-15 minutes of driving. “Both the highway engineer and the television director create what could be called ‘freedom from resistance.'” Sennett is writing from the vantage of this society we’ve created for ourselves in order to prevent unplanned, unwarranted encounter. “Thus the new geography reinforces the mass media. The traveller, like the television viewer, experiences the world in narcotic terms…” (18).

After looking through my books, multiple friends have commented that the large font of Flesh and Stone “stands out” on the shelf or that the title is “weird”. I think Sennett (or his publisher) chose the title partly in order to make people uncomfortable. The fact that it sounds sort of like an adult romance novel is definitely connected to Sennett’s thoughts on contemporary life and our discomfort with even the word “flesh.” Sennett is concerned for the experience of the body in the city in and most importantly the way that social behavior reinforces social connection far more than in merely romantic terms. He writes, “much as today in small southern Italian towns a person will reach out and grip you hand or forearm in order to talk seriously to you” (21).

When I read that particular example I was struck by the simple idea of it and how far it is from normal behavior among my friends and family. Sennett writes to teach us about ourselves and the lives that we live, sometimes prescribed by urban design and other times by cultural tradition we have forgot to even notice

Finally, Sennett concludes with a personal note about the origins of his research, particularly within the context of his friendship to the late Michel Foucault. When they began in the 1970s, he writes that Foucault envisioned human bodies as constrained by tradition, culture, and “choked by the knot of power.” But as he observed Foucault in his last days, Sennett noticed that the fixation on power and control began to relax. As a result, the book that he completed is not the research that Sennett began decades before.

Particularly, he pushed his research beyond simply the realm of human sexuality and, to honor his late friend, embrace the numerous aspects of life that provide meaning and value. He writes, “If liberating the body from Victorian sexual constraints was a great event in modern culture, this liberation also entailed the narrowing of physical sensibility to sexual desire” (26). This narrowing, to Sennett, is no longer necessary or helpful toward understanding human social interaction. As in the example from Italy (I think the Instagram account @notmynonni is a fitting connection here) there are a million meaningful moments in a life that deserve our attention.

Ever-committed also to his hope in the potential of the city, Sennett writes from the Judeo-Christian perspective that the body is connected to the spirit, valued and important. Although I don’t think Sennett is a Christian today (in more recent interviews it seems like he identifies as a secular humanist), at the time of writing this book he identified as a “believer” and acknowledged this perspective in his research. While conceding the Biblical idea of “the fall” and great separation between humans (loss of trust, for example) he also shares the way that his faith weaves into his research and his own stubborn optimism.

Somewhere between the chaos of the past and the isolation of modern life, Sennett ultimately writes, “to show how those who have been exiled from the Garden might find a home in the city.”

New Museums for Atlanta and Charleston

In the past year I’ve heard dozens of arguments in Richmond against museums: they’re not profitable, no one cares about history, they’re too expensive. In the past few months, Atlanta and Charleston have told a different story.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta opened a few weeks ago on June 23, 2014. The goal: tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship to Atlanta and legacy in the American Civil Rights Movement within the context of global human rights battles being fought today. Here’s a remarkable article on the center from the Bitter Southerner.

The International African American Museum in Charleston, set to open in 2017, will tell a complex cross-continental story of forced migration from Africa to Charleston and the American South. Mayor Riley announced last week that the museum will connect to Gadsden’s Wharf, the actual location where slave ships arrived in Charleston. Although the museum is still years away from it’s projected opening date, it already has a snazzy website promoting the museum and region:

IAAM Website

ArtNet News reports, “The 42,000-square-foot museum will feature interactive exhibits that describe the black experience in America. The displays will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who is responsible for the exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the new Visitor Reception Center at the United States Capitol.”

Reading about these new institutions reminds me of the life lesson: make choices or they will be made for you. Richmond has a venerable place at the table in terms of historical significance. After all, it was Richmond, not Charleston or Atlanta that was chosen to lead the CSA. It was Richmond that industrialized while the Charleston elite held on to their agricultural society.

And it is Richmond that has spent the last 150 years wondering why.

Vocal residents and politicians in Richmond seem to think that history alone won’t be enough of an attraction for the city. Really, we make excuses to avoid telling the story we were born to tell. And while Richmond thinks, argues, and tosses plans on the shelf, other southern cities are making sense of their story and inviting the nation to drive down I-95 for a visit, passing straight through Shockoe Bottom on their way.

Making Memories

While my 16-year-old sister was at the beach last month, she stopped by the local bookstore and bought me a copy of The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. Amazing. A lot has changed since it was published in 1960, but the main idea is just as important today: we should work to enhance the quality of the experience of each city. Is the city easy to navigate? Is it memorable? Is it hospitable?

Throughout the book, Lynch uses small drawings to explain his theories. Now, instead of practice my signature when I’m bored, I’ve been doodling:

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 5.41.02 PM

This is my idea of the best highway experience. The road travels toward the city, embraces the full broadside view of its beauty, then bends around. In Richmond, there is a reoccurring conversation about the view of Richmond from the highway (especially traveling south on I-95). Lynch’s research gives good context to this and similar, ongoing conversations.

To explain his desire to improve cities, Lynch uses the terms legible and imageable. Basically, does it make sense and is it memorable? If it doesn’t make sense to the viewer then it won’t be memorable. I have to add, you want your city to memorable for the right reasons: beautiful, consistent, dramatic, historic, dynamic, creative, vibrant, efficient.

To describe the “imageable city,” Lynch chooses five elements that he believes make up the urban experience. Each of these can either be completely forgettable or incredibly memorable. Here are some examples from Richmond:

  • Paths (Monument Ave., Grace St., the Boulevard)
  • Edges (the James River)
  • Districts (The Fan, Church Hill, and many others)
  • Nodes (downtown, Carytown, MacArthur Ave.)
  • Landmarks (The Sailors and Soldiers Monument, The Carillon)

Fortunately, Richmond has been blessed with examples that show off the potential beauty of each element. At the same time, there are many issues with the “Richmond image.” To many, it’s a confusing and disconnected city. 

To move forward, we need to find simple ways to turn everyday elements into memorable, quality experiences. For decades, economic development in Richmond equated to wedging large-scale projects in or near the central business district. These projects aren’t going to improve the overall experience of the city. In contrast, improving the most basic elements—paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks—will gradually create what Christopher Silver refers to as the “Good City.”

The real lesson of the book is that urban form is important from border to border. It’s a lesson for us as we work to create the best possible Richmond: a city that is coherent, beautiful, and vital.

Another National Slavery Museum Design for RVA

Somehow I’m the last to know that there is a third (or fourth?) design for a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom. And, might I add, it’s my favorite:

PA-533_24

It looks like the design was completed by a partnership between the former BAM firm and SMBW then, I assume, it followed Chris Fultz to it’s current home on his website, fultzarchitects.com. The homepage of that site got me planning my next cross-country road trip … until I realized that this Slavery Museum design also won an AIARVA honor award in 2010. A little older than I thought. Then I found an article on this design, “Bridging the Gaps,” published in Richmond Magazine on October 19, 2009. The author of that article writes,

All Eyes on Shockoe, Again
The city of Richmond seems poised to embrace a national museum with a culturally significant subject and create the kind of international profile the region has been so desperate to achieve.”

Of course, five years later, we know that all eyes are on Shockoe again, again. This article was a good reminder of the many hours spent designing plans that were never completed.

I found a more recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article on this design published January 30, 2013. I’m not entirely sure how this design was still newsworthy after four years in existence, but I assume it was either gradually developed or gradually revealed to the public, or both. This article appears to be a followup with more details on the plan. According to the Times-Dispatch:

“The Richmond Slave Trail Commission…released its vision to develop a $100 million to $150 million heritage site in Shockoe Bottom, including a slavery museum, an African-American genealogical center and a glass-enclosed Lumpkin’s Jail archeological site.”

In the past year this design seems to have been generally forgotten and replaced by another less-ambitions (albeit beautiful) design for a slavery commemoration in Shockoe Bottom.

So what happened to the 2009 design? The question was recently posed in a comment on the Style Weekly article “Getting Wilder.” Thomas writes,

“The building Wilder wants for the museum doesn’t even look big enough to house a “National” slavery museum. If you want a grand one on a national scale, start from scratch. What happened to that National Slavery Museum proposal by Fultz Architects? That was the best one. We should have jumped on that one…”

I tend to agree. It’s no surprise that I’d rather Richmond move forward with something exceptional than settle for something acceptable. Besides, there are examples of projects of that scale in this country that were funded by a combination of state, local, and private funds. I continue to believe that good ideas of far-reaching significance energize donors more than anything else.

The story of this design should cause us all to take a step back. After reading through each article I found myself wondering,

How can one city generate so many incredible, unfinished designs?

On the one hand, this is just a factor of the architecture industry. An astounding number of designs are submitted every year that are never realized. But it still seems to point to a deeper issue of governance that prevents us from connecting the plans to reality. Every so often I stumble upon another great idea for Richmond that somehow never found funding or political momentum. And now we have this “economic development plan” for Shockoe Bottom that seems to be moving in the same direction. So what can we do next time to prevent the same results?

I found the best answer to my question in the original Richmond Magazine article from 2009. Christy Coleman, the president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, states that the planning process for a museum of this scale should not begin with a building design. The article continues:

A fledgling museum should begin with a mission statement and a plan of whether it will be a “collecting” institution — one that houses a vast collection of artifacts for display and research — or a “storytelling” institution that strives to communicate knowledge and an experience to its visitors.

“All of these things start coming up that will have an incredible impact on the long-term operations,” [Coleman] says.

We ought to extend this wisdom to any large-scale project brought forward for the benefit of the people of Richmond: start with your mission statement. What is the essential purpose of the development and how will it serve the needs of the city?

As we have seen, there are many architects and firms in the area that are more than willing to turn a good idea into sparkling designs. They might even do it at a discounted rate if they are particularly inspired by the proposal and assured that this time there is a likelihood that the project will actually happen. This city has incredible potential, regional powerhouse corporations, and visionary leaders. Together I truly believe we can make something great.

But first, we need a good idea.

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:

Old_map_1807_plan

In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.