fieldnotes



A sporadic report on poetic observations. An email newsletter loosely focused on our radically changing ecosystems and the built environment. Lots of rambling, both in the walking sense & the talking sense.

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002


NARRATIVES ON NARRATIVE FORM:
TRAVEL RESEARCH & DON QUIXOTE 

10-14-2023

AN ALGAE COVERED POND AMID FIELDS AND A STAND OF TREES OVERTAKEN BY KUDZU IN MISSISSIPPI.

It’s a cool day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I am taking the day to rest and reflect. As of yesterday, I’ve been traveling across the country for a full month. As you’re probably aware, I’m attempting to make a documentary loosely about water and the built environment; how we live with water. I’ve been putting my trust in spontaneity; my “research” has been guided by what I stumble into as I travel. And In many ways I’ve been rewarded for this non-method; strange and beautiful conversations with people I’ve met by luck, arriving to landscapes, events, neighborhoods, always at what feels like just the right time, beauty and wonder each day, everything like kismet. To dislodge oneself from the internet in some ways aids magical thinking and the feeling of always being in the right place at the right time (vs. my default mode of obsessive research) and I’ve been luxuriating in this feeling, embracing unfiltered reality.

I think perhaps its because I’ve just got out of academia, where most of my research was of the “remote sensing” variety—learning through other people’s writing, through observations on the internet (Google Earth vs. actual site visit), absent from the physical world— that I am particularly motivated to sacrifice these ways of knowing in favor of unguided wandering. A dérive across America, a materialist method (of the marxist variety) of research to the extremes, one might try to justify. But I haven’t been justifying. In fact I’ve been trying to avoid any explanation of my work. I’ve been absolutely allergic to any sort of plan, method, any hypothesis. God forbid an Artist Statement. Perhaps to my detriment. When someone asks me what my documentary is about I tense up, admit my absolute lack of direction with an embarrassed shrug. The good thing about water is that its such a broad topic and so approachable that usually people are excited to share their perspective and offer encouragement (with the sole exception of a painter, an MFA student, who really gave it to me at one of my favorite dive bars in New Orleans in the wee hours of the morning for not having any real perspective, a “lazy” and “extractive” approach to making work).

She has a point re: extraction, especially. All art and knowledge production requires some sort of extraction, though we might loathe to acknowledge this fact. Which is the very reason I’ve been so hesitant to claim any specific ground (or in this instance, waters). I want to be like an earnest and unknowing child, observing without prior judgements, open to new stories and paths of experience which might take form along the way, taking nothing with me but my own learnings and lots of footage to cut into some coherent narrative later on.

Of course, even my existence in any of the places I’ve been traveling and observing has been reliant on significant extraction of a different type: destruction in the form of tanks of gasoline…another topic entirely but I’ve been imagining this as my last Great American road trip, each one of these tanks of gas hopefully in the the twilight of my reliance on automobiles. What would be reasonable? 100 more tanks in my lifetime? 1000? I’ve been loosely planning to live in LA for a while as the end point of my cross-country trip, which might complicate this goal, it being the apotheosis, in megalopolis form, of U.S. car culture (yes?)

Narrative, then, has been a primary question haunting me as I drive. The narrative of this project. The narrative of my life. My “career.” Legibility. Sense of place, of time. I try to write songs. I try to write nonfiction prose. I try to make photos, sketch. A documentary film. I look back on my design work from the past three years with a removed and apathetic gaze. Maybe it is okay to go through life without a hypothesis if you have a method. (i.e. a songwriter doesn’t necessarily need to have a uniting theme to their songs, say). Or its okay to switch mediums if you have a hypothesis (an artist interested in a specific topic might make photos, paintings, essays, diverse mediums as tools to approach a singular goal). I’ve never stayed long enough with either subject OR medium for either to grow into a discipline. (a telling word, discipline).

It feels telling, too, that for the first time in my life that I’ve had real funding to support my work I find myself wandering aimlessly without a clear goal or outcome and unable to articulate the project, if there even is one.


A COTTON FIELD AND IRRIGATION DITCH ALONG THE ROAD OUTSIDE CLARKSDALE, MS. EACH FIELD FELT SO CHARGED WITH SOMBER HISTORY AND MEANING, A MILLION BRIGHT POINTS LIKE A HORACE PIPPIN PAINTING.

Don Quixote, what many herald as the first modern novel, is a story about a man who goes mad by reading stories. A man with an average, novelistically illegible life chooses to live under a self-delusion to bring to his life a sense of purpose, a projection of an invented reality onto the world around him, often in direct confrontation with the “real.” Doesn’t any narrative, any story, require this same form of magical thinking? Rather than having ““swept the world's admiration for the mediaeval chivalry-silliness out of existence” as Mark Twain (another self-dubbed name, another fiction more real than the reality of Samuel Clemens) put it, I see Cervantes as having hit on a much deeper, existential problem, a problem both central to literature and extending beyond it to all of cultural meaning. I read Don Quixote as a brilliant critique of the human condition, a nihilism with a chuckle at self-invented meaning as both futile and our only hope in a fractured, morally subjective world.

I can’t decide if it is tragic or hopeful. What does it mean that on his deathbed, Don Quixote renounces his false name, even his lady love, the unseen Dulcinea del Toboso, again becoming Alonso Quixano, the simple hidalgo who kept a library of chivalric romances and dying alone as his “true” self? Don’t we all wish, like his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, that our protagonist might meet his Maker as the great “Don Quixote”, even if he no longer believes, or maybe never truly did, in the fictional world he created?

I used to think our obsession with “titles” had some thanks to the career-mindedness and increased specialization under industrial capitalism, and of a post-cinematic world. Scientist, Artist, Entrepreneur. Actor, Conservationist, Writer. Petroleum Engineer. Gluten Free Specialty Bakery. Chief Executive Officer. Post-Hardcore Sludge Metal. Multidisciplinary Designer. Content Creator. But here we have a story from the early 1600s. By reinventing himself as the protagonist of his own life, isn’t Don Quixote doing what all of us do constantly? We are absolutely saturated by stories– cinema, photos, branding, biographies, resumes, social media; now it feels that to build some sort of artistic (or otherwise) legibility, you must choose your narrative wisely. If Don Quixote chooses to be a knight errant, what am I choosing to become?

And does it matter if he knew he was pretending or not? I think of other great spinners of self-myth, populist leaders; Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, etc etc. Perhaps dramatic examples, but demagogues point to the insincerity of self-image, identity, of stories. This is the thing I have been resisting, I think. To declare any “title” feels at best like a collapsing of my self into a narrow and flattening simulacra, and at worse an ego-driven self-serving tool which might erode the few core beliefs and symbols I still maintain as my “truth” or “true self” through a gross simplification which consumes the complexity of reality. A house of mirrors. But by resisting a legible (both internally and externally) self identity is a dangerous game— in attempts to avoid being typecast by the world I might loose any hope at the very authenticity I’m chasing. Instead of simply writing about my trip, my work, I am now writing about writing about my work: always I am removed. These are not “fieldnotes” as I had planned ( a nice paragraph about the Gila Wilderness here, a diagram of a slot canyon there, say) but further tantrums of a lost soul, further neurotic, inherently self-indulgent and pathetic ramblings.


A CONVERSATION AMONG STRANGERS ABOUT A HORSE IN DOWNTOWN CHATTANOOGA.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the narrative structure of a quest. In short, it is the pursuit, across space and time, of an object. Its quite the popular, perhaps the eternal, narrative device. We love the simplicity maybe, the panacea, the silver bullet. Related to the quest: I’ve often felt similar feelings to those outlined by Agnes Callard in the recent New Yorker piece, “The case against travel.” Travel, in the fully commodified experience it so often has become, is repulsive, at its worst, and horrifically boring at its best. I, and many of my ilk, might try to avoid these “consumer” experiences abroad in favor of some “authentic” reality. Even this instinct, though we might trace to concepts of the “exotic” and the colonial origins of tourism from within the British Empire. And, then, even people who drive the horrid homogenization of the world through their obsession with “comfort” or “security” still desire a “safe” version of “authenticity.” (Perhaps you are staying in the more "authentic" Mérida and trying to learn some Spanish phrases and looking down on those tourists walled in the all-inclusive resorts of Cancún. Yet you both arrive, searching for something, to Chichén Itzá).

And so I think maybe the answer is to travel with a purpose. The pursuit of knowledge. To learn ways of conserving water, say, to help us as we approach a fatalistic tipping point in global climate change. Or some other fabricated narrative.



A DRAINAGE DITCH BEHIND SOME HOUSES IN JACKSON, MS


A quest, then. But what is my object? And how could any travel research possibly be non-extractive? Missionaries had a purpose. As did the conquistadors. Even my tentative new name for my practice “Field Works” harkens back to the “golden age” of exploration, the bookish adventurer I so idolized as a child: Alexander von Humboldt scribbling notes on some inhospitable and impossibly remote peak in the Andes, fighting the wind for his sheet of parchment, Darwin waking in his cabin on the HMS Beagle, uncharted islands on the horizon rippling into a kaleidoscopic green in the crown glass letting in the pale morning light onto the worn wood floors where hand-scrawled maps and notes lie spread out from a late night of work, Indiana Jones packing his gun and his whip and donning his hat after giving another well-attended lecture to his star-struck students.

So what drives an adventure, without a grave to rob, or new lands to chart? (I hope you read the irony, here.) For some, its found in the collection of other things– aging blues artists for music ethnologists like Alan Lomax in the 1960s, say. Or its the photographs– for the professional photographer and Instagram influencer alike, typically the more rare and difficult to attain the better. What was Thoreau, really, but the first cottage-core influencer? (again, irony, yes. But I also remember an artwork at the National Gallery which put reproductions of Thoreau's cabin and the Unabomber's cabin side by side...Googled quickly, I believe it may have been James Benning's Two Cabins, but not positive). For the academic, it is to do “research." Are any of these ethical imperatives? How much good must come of synthesized knowledge to be worth the costs? How do we make work without becoming the bullshit we've long criticized in the salad days of one's creative practice?


TWO YOUNG MEN STANDING IN A BOAT CLOSE TO SHORE IN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER IN VICKSBURG, MS



A RESTROOM AT A TRAILHEAD IN BIG BEND STATE PARK, NEAR THE BORDER BETWEEN TEXAS AND MEXICO

All of us are driven, to varying degrees, by a desire for more, a hunger…it is this blind, embarrassing and undirected ambition fueling me across the limbo of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways in search of MORE: more purpose, more community, a better place to call home. I’m trying to embody the experience, at the very least: To really be, fully, the ethical gray that is a roadtrip across the United States in the time of extreme global precarity, to admit to myself that my own placeless and Sisyphean ego drama is rooted in the same cosmopolitan bourgeoisie artist identity I frequently scorn, to accept that any chance at escape from this identity crisis might not require either a Quixotic leap into the deranged world of ambition-Capitalism (LA is a good place for this, I hear) or further decent into a rejection of prevailing norms (give away my phone, go WOOF at an organic farm in Oregon) which becomes, like Thoreau or Kaczynski, its own form of White man ego-yelp and self-delusion, but instead could, like a seedling, grow from a slow and steady building of community, of empathy, of hope. Perhaps its not this impossible choice of a) join a community of fellow Quixotes in a lifelong playdate of agrarian anarchism, or b) learn to accept and even cherish the violence of our world, drive a big truck, and buy stock options. It is simply to try to be a little better each day. To try to make friends. To share, earnestly, to practice kindness. To try to buy less plastic (but not beat yourself up when you eat an entire pack of Corn Nuts, a bag of Zapp's Voodoo chips, a Heath bar, and a Coke in one 100 mile stretch crossing West Texas).

To be able to hold and inhabit both worlds— the fictions we need to make to participate in our current world (i.e. a legible "career," a sense of self not founded upon self-flagellation, even, dare I say it, a Roth IRA) and the truths which might build a better one (that our daily life relies on unimaginable suffering worldwide and is ushering in the 6th mass extinction on Earth), is maybe all I can do "authentically" at the moment. I drive my car many miles each day and see things of beauty. I don't know have a clear narrative for my life and I know I want to make something beautiful and try to end or abate some small sufferings with my short time left here. I wouldn't wish this writing I've just scrawled on anyone and yet I will send this email anyway. I fear the power of stories and feel a strong urge to capture them.

I might paint Rocinante on the side of my van, even knowing that I'll later regret it.  ◬



001


INTRODUCING FIELDNOTES
09-14-2023

Hello, friends. I hope you’re well and feeling centered and engaged with the world. I’m writing, primarily, to share some news (hm…a “newsletter?"):



  1. This email is the last thing I am doing before I start on the road for my travel research! As in, I leave today! First stop is the mining areas of West Virginia where mountaintop removal mining has radically altered the landscape, with, of course, significant and dramatic implications for the built environment and water resources. Then to Asheville, NC, then Raleigh, then Charleston, SC, (all to visit friends, primarily) then further afield, in the generally Southern direction. Currently deciding if I go all the way down to Miami (for obvious city-water related connections) or pivot West before the Florida panhandle. (Thoughts? And again, if you live somewhere in between Maryland and Florida, or between Florida and Los Angeles for that matter, reach out! I’d love to see you. And, truly, probably intended to reach out but have been above-averagely avoidant in planning this trip.)



If you haven’t heard about my travel research project: I was awarded a generous travel fellowship upon graduation, and pitched in the application to study water infrastructure and water scarcity’s impact on urbanism/ city life. Then, in a hubristic and potentially regrettable bolt of inspiration, I bought a camcorder from the web and decided I would make a documentary (despite my complete lack of filmmaking experience and slim knowledge of water resource management). I am tentatively calling it WATERWORKS. You can read a bit more here.

  1. The name change. In short, I’ve decided to hang out my shingle! I am pleased to introduce Field Works, an experimental design and research company of which I am sole proprietor. The past month, I’ve been thinking a lot (constantly) about the type of work I’d like to do, and how one might practice design and design research both full-time (i.e. make money) and ethically. I still don’t have the answer, but I know one thing: I care about studying and improving how we live and make our way through the space around us, and I want to try to keep doing it as long as I’m able. On the name (in a small nutshell): I see a disjunction between how we study and design our living infrastructure, in the “studio”(i.e. inside, separated) and the material reality of the world we live in. Whatever the scale, from a piece of furniture to an urban plan, good design work begins and ends with observation and exploration outside the studio— in the field. I’ll be doing a lot of “field work” on this road trip, and I hope to continue making such observations wherever I next land. And so this newsletter, formerly Broken Fences Almanac, will now be fieldnotes, the newsletter of Field Works.



Is Field Works a proper design practice? A form of conceptual/ social-practice art? A way for me to cosplay my childhood dreams of being an adventurer/explorer/ scientist? I suppose the answers to these questions are in its reception (i.e. if I get any clients). Really, it's just a way for me to construct legibility in my own life, a structure in which to concentrate my diffused and disparate passions (history, research, writing, photography, building things, design) into a shorthand which I can use to explain what I am doing with my life and not sound crazy (maybe?) And, an even slimmer maybe, get paid for it?



fieldnotes is a change in name only. This newsletter will retain much of the same form (sporadic, rambling) as Broken Fences Almanac, just hopefully with a bit more legibility, and over the next few months, will serve as a log of my travels and discoveries along the way.



A (fledgling) website for the practice can be found at www.field-works.org



I’ve also, against my better judgement, made an Instagram @field__works



Finally, I've got a new email: ben@field-works.org



I’ll go ahead and sign off here. Thank you, so much, for reading this little bulletin. Writing them certainly helps me to get my head around things, and it means so much when some of you reply that you enjoyed reading. A more fun one should be coming soon that isn’t just life updates, and I promise from here on out they will feature more fun/ fascinating/ hopeful observations and tidbits and less existential neurosis! ◬


Broken Fences Almanac 006


B
roken Fences Almanac_006
07-11-2023

BROKEN FENCES ALMANAC_006

WANING CRECENT MOON
JULY, 11, 2023



The face of West Rock after a cool rain in April.

I haven't written you, the generous signer-uppers for this newsletter, since October. I apologize, if anything to myself, for I really hoped this might be a regular practice, one oriented towards fostering consistent connection in what feels like an increasingly fragmented world.

Fragmented, at least, for me. I recently, on a late night research spiral, came across the Wikipedia entry on Schizotypal Personality Disorder. (Is there a word for hypochondria but specifically for psychological conditions? Just googled: Phrenophobia?). Alongside the characteristic difficulty maintaining close social ties (hmm…), the entry listed another telltale symptom of SPD as  “the preoccupation with seeing themselves and/or the world as strange/ odd.” But the world is strange, I thought. Not that I think I have a personality disorder per se, (or, not this one, at least) but my feelings of recognition with the obsession with strangeness did give me pause. Is it possible that our current milieu of social media, texting, the infinite scroll (what we might collectively call “internet brain”), the 9 hours a day I spend in a hermetically sealed, air-conditioned office, the absurd quantity of cars, of consumer goods, of trash, is strange, yes, but not quite as strange or unbearable as I experience it? One has to wonder what mental distortions one is peering out of.

“No!” I think, “It is equally strange as it is terrible.” (Convince me it’s not, please?)

Thus: It’s Not All Bad. This has been a sort of mantra I’ve been saying to myself lately. My negative thinking has gotten to a place where even a hike in the woods won’t bring me peace— all I can see are the various invasives covering the forest floor, hear the drone of the highway nearby, remember that this is all second growth, a weed patch, really, in comparison to the ecosystem richness of the Chestnut old growth forests prior to the European invasion of North America. A tiny weed patch where the remaining fireflies, songbirds, and deer must cling, the only oasis in the fecund mat of human development that stretches from here, in D.C., without a break all the way to Hartford, Ct. But a handful of wineberries, glowing like little lanterns (the Italian for raspberry, not coincidentally, is lampone) in the sunlight: It’s not all bad.  


Quality Moss in Woodbridge, CT



RECOMMENDED ENCOUNTER: FAR-LOOKING


Last month I was on a walk in New Haven (before graduation and my move to D.C, to name the least of my recent life-altering experiences). Something caught my eye, some flash of movement. It was not close at hand but far up the street, at least at the end of the block. I didn’t clock whatever it was, but I found myself scanning the deep center of the picture plane that is what my eyes see, and became aware of this sensation in real time. With this came a sort of epiphany. It may sound stupidly obvious, but I felt I was seeing this spatial dimension for the first time. Far sight. For the rest of my walk, I focused my attention on the far distance— the block, one which I’d walked countless times over and which, if I am being honest, had become fairly banal and tiresome, was born anew.

About a week after this moment of clarity, I went for an eye exam. Before going, I went on a research spiral around how optometrists work, and how often they might wrongly prescribe someone’s corrective vision— I’ve been taken aback by their casual and happy-go-lucky demeanor on past visits. (I wonder how many times "Optometrist" and "Happy-Go-Lucky" have shared a sentence). Over-prescription is quite common, actually. Worse, it encourages our eyes, those of us who are myopic, to further extend, in order to meet the sharpness of the image projected onto our retina, resulting in something ominously termed, and I might be misremembering it here, “Ocular Creep.”

At the actual exam, I got confirmation of this by the doc. She was asking the age-old question “Which is better, 1…or 2?” To which I replied the requisite answer: I couldn’t tell. She opted for the lower dose, citing the same concerns of over-prescription.

Day to day, I now realize how CLOSE I am looking all the time. The computer screen. The phone screen. The desk in front of me, the people walking in the opposite direction on the street, the facades of buildings I pass. My attention is claimed by a sphere of 20 or so feet around my head. Probably closer to 3 feet.  All of us office-bound, vision-conscious workers are familiar with the “20-20-20 rule”. But what about beyond 20 feet, or beyond even the “far looking” I’ve been doing in the city? How rarely I gaze at truly FAR vistas, at the stars. Is this a great shrinking of our environment? As our “information” increases exponentially and into smaller and smaller “bits”, becoming further and further abstracted, does our physical body follow suit? An abstract human body, shaped by not physical environment but evanescent information...

This physiological change, the lengthening of our eyeballs, feels connected to others driven by “modern life”: our increasing overbites, our crowded teeth, our shrinking jaws. Our collapsing nasal cavities, our habitual and deathly mouth-breathing. I’ve been an obsessive nose-breather for months now, yet I still revert to the mouth if I am not careful. Again, information: breathing through our mouths must be tied to all our talking, no?

To come to an end of my rambling: I recommend you try far-looking and looking long in your daily life, if not to challenge our increasing “close” sphere, then for the increased range of poetry and aesthetics one can experience in experientially tired spaces: to find new joys in old places.



BROKEN FENCE: ROBIDA COLLECTIVE




Illustration by Vanilla Chi for Mold Magazine


If Robida Collective sounds familiar, its because I mentioned them in my last newsletter. Since then, I sat down with them over Zoom for an interview for a piece on their practice for Mold, which I procrastinated on finishing for, I kid you not, 6 months. It is now, finally, published, so I am including it below, follow the jump to Mold for the rest :)

INHABITING THE MARGINS WITH ROBIDA COLLECTIVE:
THE YOUNG DESIGNERS BUILDING COMMUNITY IN A RURAL VILLAGE ON THE SLOVENE-ITALIAN BORDER

In the mountains of the Natisone River Valley, nearly on the border between Slovenia and Italy, lies the small village of Topolò. That’s its Italian name, anyway. In Slovene the village is called Topolove. To Robida Collective, a group of primarily young academics and architects who call the village home, the two names matter. As one member, Dora Ciccone explains, “Topolò is very related to the Slovenian border community, which is a minority in Italy, so we have a special care for culture, for languages.” Most of the group met in Slovene-speaking Ljubljana, two hours by car from Topolò, but now live together, some full time, others for parts of the year, in the village in this bilingual region of Italy. The identity and space of borderlands being so central to their practice, it is no surprise then that their annual publication, Robida Magazine, features pieces in English, Italian, and Slovene, among others (so far, the magazine counts 9 languages published across their 8 issues, with a 9th issue, titled Soil, on the way).


From this annual magazine, to hosting a “Summer School” of collective learning with lecturers and participants from across Europe, to their internet radio station, Robida Collective is exploring, challenging, and remaking the relationship between the small, isolated, rural village they call home and the rest of the world. This connection—between the rural and the global—has long been a preoccupation of my work and is why I sat down with Robida Collective last month to ask them how they understand their village in relation to the urban and the rural, the global and the local, and what relevancy places like Topolò might have for the future.

CONTINUE READING

SEEKING ADVICE: WATER WORKS, A DOCUMENTARY

Finally, just an ever so brief update here that I'm the recipient of a generous travel award, which I plan to use to make a short, experimental format documentary on water infrastructure, water use, and future water scarcity in the U.S., tentatively called WATER WORKS. More to come soon, but if you see any interesting water stories, news tid bits, etc. I'd be so grateful if you sent 'em my way!

I made this video project, developed as a panoramic immersive video installation (hence the weird long format), to question how we might experience the ghost of an ecosystem, specifically the Lago Di Texcoco under present-day Mexico City. It's not great, but was foundational to my current thinking on water relationships in cities and water scarcity and how it relates to design.

Screenshot from “Ghost Lake” (2023) the short “film” I made in architecture school last semester.




Broken Fences Almanac 005

10-09-2022


FULL MOON TONIGHT
October 9th, 2022


A clear autumn day at the sprawling Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford, CT.


When I named this newsletter the Broken Fences Almanac, I was interested in exploring that form— the Almanac. The almanac, at its core, is a publication connected to the passing of time and time's measure; by sharing moon phases and solar events and other such phenomena, it connects the abstract Gregorian calendar to our real earthly existence. An admirable goal, and one vital for the livelihood of farmers and with larger implications (immense value, I think) for our overall existential well-being. The almanac also attempts to forecast: from weather and planting dates for farmers to tidal information for sailors, to horoscopes. This too, we need now more than ever. How can we forecast our future on earth as our climate is changing rapidly and like never before in history? And how can we center ourselves, and connect to the real, the material within this changed Earth? And how can we connect to earthly food systems and ecosystems amid a world increasingly, nearly completely, privatized.

What this newsletter has been so far is more of a “what I've been up to and thinking about” sort of thing. So, in an effort to get back to these central interests, this month, and perhaps months following, I will include:

  1. a Recommended Encounter: An action that has helped me to connect to our earthly existence. It might be a walk in the woods, or a bath in ice water, or a book, or album, recipe etc.
  2. A “Broken Fence”: To try and spatialize the act of commoning, I imagine a broken fence as an apt symbol for the process of moving beyond private property. Hoping to share each week a spatial project (architecture, urbanism, art, landscape, activist group, etc.) which feels to me to be doing some small part to move us towards a more interconnected and commonly-cared-for world.
  3. A longer piece of writing: Full disclosure this is just to force myself to write more, and have a place to think though stuff not completely in an echo-chamber. This month from my series on Rural-urban systems for MOLD.

RECOMMENDED ENCOUNTER­
Anton Chekhov's short stories

Chekhov in 1893

I brought a Chekhov reader (that had been following me around for probably a year now) on my flight to Germany last month. I had grabbed it from a used book store initially because of the singing endorsement of him and fellow Russian short-storyists  by George Saunders, in his unique book-as-writing-class A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. (also highly recommend this book if you like fiction. And doubly highly-recommend if you write, or try to write, oh so secretly, like me, fiction sometimes.) Also, more than thrilled that George Saunders has a new collection of his own short stories out! I'll let George Saunders tell us what makes Chekhov, and his compatriots of late 19th century Russian fiction, so great:

“These stories…were written to challenge and antagonize and outrage. And, in a complicated way, to console…The resistance in these stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found in observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.
…[These writers] seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as a vital moral-ethical tool. They changed you when you read them, made the world seem to be telling a different, more interesting story, a story in which you might play a meaningful part, and in which you had responsibilities."

I couldn't agree more. These stories are so simple, and about what seems to be apolitical and quotidian things, but dig into some big existential questions, and are moving, at the overwhelming-love-and-pain-of-recognizing-the-universals-of-humanity scale.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite Chekhov stories so far:
  • “About Love”
  • "In the Cart"
  • “Gooseberries”
  • “The Privy Councilor”

Also very good:
  • "The Darling”
  • “At the Mill”
  • “Vanka”
  • “The Man in a Shell”

You can find most of them for free in this PDF (translations vary of course… I'm not so into his work yet to know or have opinion on the differences in quality among them). Interestingly enough, I also watched Drive My Car, the 2021 film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, based on a Murakami story, of which the plot has a lot to do with Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya (next on my reading list). The movie itself must surely draw inspiration from Chekhov's ability to approach big ethical/ moral ideas through the lens of everyday life and I'd recommend it  (a warning though, 3 hours long...) as a nice pairing with reading Chekhov.

BROKEN FENCE
Robida Collective
My studio this semester was able to chat briefly with this group via Zoom, who based in an extremely small village in Northern Italy, nearly on top of the border with Slovenia, called Topolò (Topolove in Slovene). They are a collective of artists who live and work in the old village, which has been largely abandoned, approaching the village “as a house” and with a feminist theory of care. Like many artists occupying affordable places, they are grappling with issues of potential gentrification, and what their presence, which is bringing more people to the village, means for the village's collectivization and future. Their approach and framework seems genuinely caring, and I think the problems they are grappling with and the questions they are asking will prove vital to understanding occupation of “the margins" or “periphery," as they call it, especially as we can stay connected from rural areas, -potentially de-centralizing the city as a place for cultural production. Find their Website here to follow along and tune in to their radio programs or check out their magazine.



RURAL-URBAN SYSTEMS
Eternal fountains of the Eternal City


Illustration for the piece by Vanilla Chi for MOLD.

Originally published by MOLD on 9.29.2022

In Tivoli, Italy—around an hour and a half bus ride from the Centro Storico of Rome—lies one of the most dramatic celebrations of water in the world: the fountain garden of the Villa D’Este. Built in the 1500s by the wealthy Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, the Villa’s expansive grounds contain hundreds of fountains. Taking outlandish forms—from grotesque faces and moss-covered dragons, to a boat with an obelisk for a mast–the fountains are powered by gravity alone and spurt water throughout a lush landscape of planted beds, reflection pools, waterfalls, artificial grottos, and flumes. Standing along the “Viale delle Cento Fontane,” or the “Avenue of 100 Fountains'' (actually composed of 300 fountains), you can gaze out across the countryside of Lazio below, and somewhere on the haze of the horizon, to Rome. The Villa D’Este highlights an important feature of the hills around Tivoli, prized since ancient times: the rich spring water of the Aniene Valley. Nearby, abandoned villas where this water no longer flows reveal the essential, place-making impact of the springs. There may be no greater counterpoint to the Villa D’este than the city-scale ruins of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s villa, which can be seen in the valley below from the gardens. In the height of summer, it is dry, and hot, the wreckage of grand fountains flickering in the heat waves of the midday sun. The Mediterranean climate, famed for its mildness, can be brutal without a secure water source.

How does the city of Rome, with nearly three million residents, survive? The hills surrounding Tivoli are where the story of Rome’s drinking water begins.The water that feeds Villa D’Este comes from groundwater, a large standing aquifer within Karst formations—a geologic feature characterized by many passages and holes dissolved from rock, which allows for high water inundation. This same water is what the ancient Romans tapped as early as 140 BCE as source for their aqueducts supplying the city-state’s water. Of the eleven ancient aqueducts, four begin in the Aniene valley, stretching roughly forty miles to the city center. In modern Rome, not much has changed. Ninety-seven percent of Rome’s water is provided by springs. In some cases, it is still brought to the city using ancient infrastructure: the famous Trevi Fountain, for example, gets its water through remaining underground segments of the Aqua Virgo.

I was fortunate enough to spend close to a month in the Eternal City this summer, studying the landscape and architecture structuring the urban fabric through long days of walking, and periodically taking refuge from the heat in the dark and cool interiors of churches. The drama of chiaroscuro—the sharp shadows on the undulating baroque facades, the bright-bleached walls outside to the dark and cool inside—is an apt metaphor for how a city walker relates to water in the city. I would walk  near-empty handed, only a small sketchbook in my pocket, accepting and enjoying the sweltering sun. When feeling too sun-soaked, or more bluntly, dehydrated, I would shift my attention to the streetscape, peering down alleys and into squares. Before long, I was sure to encounter a fountain, bubbling with some of the coolest, clearest water I'd ever tasted. That I could walk out my door in the morning—my Nalgene abandoned on my desk—with confidence that free, clean water could be found whenever I might need it, and practically anywhere in the city, seemed the stuff of utopian urbanist dreams.

The Nasoni, or “big noses”—named from their spouts, which protrude out like a nose from a head—number some 3,223 across the city. Azienda Comunale Elettricità e Acque (ACEA), the water management company for the region, counts a total of 6,044 in the entire service area of Lazio. In the center, where most tourists, like myself, spend the bulk of their time, one can be found without too much trouble—seemingly stumbled upon at just the right moment. The crowds, the sun, the dry sharp relief of ancient stone, beyond time, can be exhausting. The fountains feel, truly, like an oasis.

And what an oasis they must be now. As heat waves tear across all of Europe, Italy is experiencing its worst drought in 70 years. The Po River, the country’s longest, is reduced to critically low levels exposing wide swathes of its sandy bed. Rice paddies are drying up, leaving whole fields of ruined crop, while tomato growers, olive groves, and vineyards are threatened with the same fate. What of this makes its way to the day-to-day lives of a city dweller in the nation’s capital? Food shortages perhaps, and of course the heat—suffered by all—but soon enough, water rationing across Italy will be likely.

Water access in the city has a history of contention and political pressure. After the fall of imperial Rome, and with it many of the original aqueducts and fountains that characterized the ancient empire’s wealth, the city population collapsed, in no small part due to a lack of available fresh water. As such, bringing clean water back to the city became the principal project of the city’s rulers– the various popes which, from the 8th century to the 19th, were the primary government of the Italian peninsula. Elaborate fountains acted as billboards to announce the grand re-entry of fresh spring water into parts of the city, and the power of the papacy.   This trend is exemplified in Baroque masterpieces such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (by Bernini for Pope Innocent X) in Piazza Navona, and of course the Trevi (Nicola Salvi for Pope Clement XII).

In 1870, Rome was captured from papal rule, and the Risorgimento came to a close: the Italian peninsula finally became a fully united nation-state under King Vittorio Emanuelle II. Water, again, announces the new sovereignty: The Nasoni were a way for the new united government to celebrate “modernizing” the country, supplying hygienic water to the growing capital. We might ask what a similar celebration might look like in our contemporary cities. How would a city’s leadership celebrate the return of public space to the city? Of ecosystems resilience? Of resilience to climate change and water security?

Municipalities of the United States could do well to mull on these questions: the current water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi is only the most recent instance of municipal neglect of water supplies in majority Black cities. From Flint, to Milwaukee, to Baltimore, Black communities have to disproportionately deal with contamination, flood events, and aging infrastructure due to decades of disinvestment. 44 million Americans are drinking water from service providers that have recent Safe Drinking Water Act violations, and are disproportionately likely to be Black. Thinking of the water not as a “service”, but as a shared, city-wide commons, about which we might all have decision-making agency, is a necessary step to answering some of these questions, and achieving a more equitable and sustainable future.

For now the public drinking fountains stay on in Rome, but this access is not guaranteed. In 2017, the last time of serious drought for Rome, the mayor ordered some of the Nasoni be shut off, at the rate of roughly 30 a day. Protests came from nonprofits and residents who argued that the fountains are vital for the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the city. They’re also critical to the nonhuman inhabitants of Rome—a small basin at the bottom of each fountain, specifically designed for dogs, some say, allows all sorts of animals, wild and domesticated, to take a drink. It has also been pointed out that leaking pipes in the city’s vast and aging plumbing system are to blame for far more water waste—some cite a loss of roughly 50 percent of the city’s water—compared to less than 1 percent lost from the Nasoni. Others argue that the Nasoni are actually necessary to the system, relieving pressure like a release valve, to keep the water flowing and the pipes clean.

Yet the drought brings to light that, as delicious and seemingly inexhaustible as it is, the groundwater that feeds the city with water is not, in fact, eternal. In order to be replenished, an aquifer must be slowly “recharged” by rainfall. The measurement for groundwater recharge rates is in the millimeters per year, and so is by definition a slow and steady process. The ACEA is aware of this challenge, and recently inaugurated a man-made recharging system to pump water back down into the aquifers. The recharging of groundwater is just one of hundreds of water-related problems cities will face in the coming decades: problems that seem particularly pressing for Italy’s capital. Climatic projections expect that drought days could make up more than 50 percent of the dry season in the mediterranean region by 2065, if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t radically reduced. The greater Po Basin (where a third of all Italians live) hit record low water levels this year. Estimates say 30 percent of the rice crops of the region will die, affecting the economy of Europe and beyond. (Italy provides the EU with 50 percent of its rice). This July, record high temperatures in Italy’s north destabilized a glacier, causing an avalanche in the Dolomiti (the Italian Alps), leaving seven people dead. A recent toxic smoke cloud hovering over Rome’s skyline in late July seemed an omen of the potential strife to come.

Today, the Nasoni are a model of what urban water access might look like: a free resource that encourages occupation of the public realm, supports the health of all, and renders commodification efforts (i.e. the plastic water bottle) obsolete. Rome has a real, visual and physical connection to its water source, to its hinterland, thanks to them: the Nasoni flow day in and day out, each one like their own mini-river. Their soothing trickle, perhaps lulling you to sleep through an open bedroom window, the cool air around them deepening your breath: le fontanelle bring the hinterland into the daily life of the city—a constant reminder of the life giving force of water. Perhaps this is when Rome’s moniker as the “Eternal City” rings most true: water flowing from the fountains like a river, the sun sharp and timeless on the travertine, and the scraggly permanence of the stone pines, their shadows stretching out across the surface of the Tiber.


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