Friday, April 15, 2011

   More on Biological Slumming and Discursive Strategies

(Wastelands)…have very high diversity (and) large connected vacant sites are particularly outstanding habitats, ranging from pioneer stages, in heavily disturbed areas, to pre-forest stages in others.

- Herbert Sukopp, Development of flora and fauna in urban areas (1987)

A scientific mode of engagement with wasteland ecosystems holds the potential for a more objective and neutral narrative of marginal nature. However, we who study these fortuitous habitats are familiar with Mabey’s ambivalence about his attraction to this marginal nature which he labels “biological slumming.” This lifeworld is subject to a range of interpretive ecological readings: a weedland community of inappropriate nature, a cosmopolitan community of uniquely adapted ruderal organisms, or an invading force of alien species destroying the integrity of our homeland. There is some truth in each view, but all are influenced by cultural perceptions of good and bad nature. Thus, the assessment of the ecological standing of wasteland ecosystems is necessarily both scientific and cultural.

 Wasteland ecology, also, requires addressing the question of nonhuman agency. The lifeworlds of wastelands and margins are coproductions of humans and nonhumans. They are the actualization of what David Harvey called a “socioecological project,” which result in a commingling of the proper and improper – social activities, natures, and agents. Urban waste spaces are filled with life through the agency of non-humans taking advantage of the open habitat and human neglect. These ruderal species claim the wastelands and thrive.

Harvey noted the need for, “discursive strategies that allow us to talk freely about the production of nature…in which it’s not simply the social that’s the activating unit but also, scallops and mice and all the rest of them.”[1]  Here in the wasteland is the context of “all the rest of them,” from nematodes to mice, from cryptogamic crust to ailanthus trees, whose collaboration in harsh environments produces marginal nature.
It takes a relocated Texas songwriter to offer a discursive strategy for talking about urban wildlife.  He imagines the thoughts of Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk who nests on the edge of Central Park in New York...
Pale Male the famous redtail hawk

Performs wingstands high above midtown Manhattan
Circles around for one last pass over the park
Got his eye on a fat squirrel down there and a couple of pigeons
They got no place to run they got no place to hide
But Pale Male he’s cool, see ‘cause his breakfast ain’t goin’ nowhere
So he does a loop t loop for the tourists and the six o’clock news
Got him a penthouse view from the tip-top of the food chain, boys
He looks up and down on fifth avenue and says “God I love this town”
But life goes on down here below
And all us mortals struggle so

We laugh and cry
And live and die
That’s how it goes
For all we know
Down here below

Pale male swimmin’ in the air
Looks like he’s in heaven up there
People sufferin’ everywhere
But he don’t care
But life goes on down here below
And all us mortals, struggle so
We laugh and cry
- Steve Earle

This kind of ironic perspective on urban wildlife, with a bird more at home in the city than the suffering humans down below, suggests the possibilities for reinterpreting narratives of nonhuman agency from the vantage point of city margins as habitat.  We can imagine Pale Male as an agent making his way through the city picking off squirrels and courting and nesting while New Yorkers line up below to watch.  He is an active subject intentionally using the city, rather than simply a passive object shuttled about in flows of urban metabolism. The mobility of urban wildlife like birds and large mammals allows them to exploit the entire city as habitat, but many come home to the wastelands as part of the marginal community.  
The agency of marginal nature is a more collective undertaking, a gathering of nonhumans in a collaborative project to make home in a particular place in the city. The less mobile members of marginal nature do not have the ability to elude the human interventions of restorationists or environmental managers, and so they take advantage of more discrete opportunities like high alkalinity of soil which some flora and fauna tolerate better than others.  Soon the community has begun to gather and the coproduction of marginal nature has begun.  

[1] “Nature, politics, and possibilities: a debate and discussion with David Harvey and Donna Haraway”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 1995, Volume 13, p. 515.

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