Monday, October 14, 2013

The Restored Wetlands on Randall’s Island 

   Flanked by Harlem River and East River, Randall’s island is now a place for sports, recreation and natural restoration. Before we begin to learn about the restored wetlands on the Island, let’s have a look at its history first.

   For more than two hundreds years, the island was used as a place for public facilities. A boys’ home, a hospital and a home for civil war veterans can be found there. Since 1930s, people began to fill the little Hell Gate Channel with debris from construction projects in Manhattan, which joined Randall’s Island, Wards Island, and Sunken Meadow into a single island. The year of 1999 witnessed people’s efforts to preserve the Island’s natural area. As we can see, Randall’s Island has long been a place where human activities unfold. People, as a powerful agent, have hugely influenced the configuration of the three formerly separated islands. The anthropogenic forces can never be denied on this planet. 
                                                                             photo from

   However, in this ongoing drama there are other players of the same importance - the nonhuman. The physical surroundings like water, rocks, and air, as well as a variety of living organisms are also agents that actively participate in the process of the history-making.

   We all know that wetland is a unique ecosystems which can filter waters and provide habitat, and healthy wetlands are crucial for the earth’s ecosystem as a whole. But how does it work and why does it work this way? Although disciplines like biology and ecology are useful tools to tackle these questions, semiotics, the study of signs, with its capacity to encompass the faculty of other disciplines, can provide us with another powerful methodology.
   In the eyes of Thomas Sebeok, linguist and semiotician, a wetland should be a “semiotic web” (Sagan, 5) in which parts are connected and interaction explains everything. It is the continuous searching for meaning by different agents that determines the operation of the world. To describe this complex process, Hoffmeyer provides a concept - “ecosemiotic interaction structures”(195). He suggests that it is “an open-ended and nonsettled exploration of relationships between systems at many levels of complexity”(197).

   Inspired by the insights of those semioticians, we can examine a wetland from at least three roughly cut but interrelated levels - the biochemical, the biological and the sociocultural. I will explain the working of signs on biochemical level as an example.

                  photo from randallsecology
   Nutrient cycle is one of the important aspects to explore on biochemical level. For example, nitrogen is an important source of nutrients for organisms. However, nitrogen, in its most common form - N2 (dinitrogen), can not be directly used by most organisms. Only a few bacteria, with their capacity to break the bond of nitrogen atoms in N2, can capture it and convert it into biological usable form NH3 and NO3, which can be absorbed by phytoplanktons and plants. As we can see, several sign processes, or “functional cycle” (Uexkull, 49) involve in this nutrient cycle: The presence of N2 set off the “perceptive sign” in certain bacteria, which response, as an “effect mark”, by capturing these N2 gas. The bacteria convert N2 to NH3 (a sign process on another lower level) and release them. The presence of these biologically usable gas then triggers the “perceptive sign” in certain plants. The absorption is an effect mark.

                                                                                      photo by Chris Haight

                                                                               photo from randallsecology

   The same thing - functional cycles - occur on other levels of complexity, too. The sociocultural level of the sign relation is the most complex one because deeper meanings are weaved into the semiotic web. In the case of wetland, people developed cognition of ecosystem and decided to put the idea of sustainability into action, and then began the restoration project and encouraged the whole society to engage into the stewardship. This process involves multiple, interrelated sign relations that need patience to be broken down and analyzed. 
by Mingyun Zhang
Hoffmeyer, Jesper
 N.d.    Biosemiotics. Scranton : University of Scranton Press, 2008.

        “Some Semiotic Aspects of the Psycho-Physical Relation: The Endo-Exosemiotic Boundary.” Biosemiotics: The Semiotic Web 1991. T. A. Sebeok and J. Umiker-Sebeok, Eds., Berline, Mouton de Gruyter: 101-23. 1992.

Uexküll, Jakob von
 c2010. A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans : with A Theory of Meaning /. 1st University of Minnesota Press ed. Minneapolis :: University of Minnesota Press,.

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