Wednesday, October 15, 2014

(Plant)ing Evidence: Archaeology in Dark Green

by Jeff Benjamin

October 15, 2014
Riverside Park, NYC (all pictures) 
Archaeology requires sustained attendance to form. This kind of disciplined attention has its challenges and rewards. The mystery of the process of observation is distilled in the zen koan: “A 
mountain is a mountain/ A mountain is not a mountain/ A mountain is a mountain.” This poem seems to suggest a path from illusion to doubt to understanding - a kind of maturation - whereby in the final 
stage we can hopefully retain some of the initial enchantment that caused us to begin to look in the first place. The question that has been occupying my mind lately has been: Where should I direct my gaze for the next few years? What should I study? There are practical considerations of course: geographical distance, available archival documentation, other authors' work in the subject. But then there's another side: How will this sustained scrutiny of exterior form affect my internal life?

Four years ago, I was asked by some friends in New York City to build a roof garden for them. At the
same time, I was pursuing a degree in industrial archaeology. Their request was timely. I had been 
thinking about the integration of industrial and ecological forms, the adaptive re-use of industrial 
sites as places of architectural and environmental synthesis, and since they lived in an old warehouse, I suggested that they install a green roof. I learned everything I could about water and root barriers, 
filtration, drainage substrates, growth medium and the plants themselves, and began the process of 
gaining approval from the building owners and enlisting green roof specialists and engineers. School 
took me away from the work, but my friends continued the project, and now there is another small 
patch of grasses, flowers, sedums and sempervivums on a roof in Manhattan. As soon as it was 
installed, there were non-human visitors: butterflies, bees, many other insects. It pleases me to no end to witness an expanding rooftop wildlife corridor in the city, an archipelago of life.

When examining and thinking about industrial and pre-industrial structures, we are often confronted
with this material known as “wood,” but I think a more accurate term would be deceased arboreal 
tissue. There is a biology within structure. Of course there are transient living beings, but there is also, embedded within this deceased arboreal tissue, a vast amount of information pertaining to environment, time, rhythm, tool-handedness, sound, fire, drought, soil characteristics, traffic, transportation, growth, harvesting techniques, all of which problematizes the distinction between artifact (an object made by humans) and ecofact (an object not made by humans but carrying cultural significance).

At the heart of these thoughts is the concept of cross-species identity. I identify with trees. Over the course of my life, having incorporated enough of their tissue into my lungs and fingers, it is time to offer something in return. This is all still in the realm of abstraction, but can perhaps be approached in a series of questions:

Can western red cedar separate poetry from philosophy? Is digital mutation familiar with redwood?
How does chlorophyll bear witness to genocide? Is a fluttering aspen leaf the genesis of rail 
transportation? How does maple organize human thought? Will the thrush return to the same elm?
Is amaryllis partial to Kropotkin? What does microscopy gain from balsam fir (and how does birch tag along)?

by Jeff Benjamin

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