Wednesday, April 22, 2015

New MNAE Guidebook - part 1

After a remodeling hiatus, the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata has reopened for curator-led tours! We are working on an updated guidebook to the collection, and decided to post the introduction draft on the City of Living Garbage as the theme of collecting trash is central to MNAE. This is a work in progress. Comments welcome!
Welcome to the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata, where you have been all along! MNAE is one of the few remaining in-home, family-run museums in America. Our mission is to preserve endangered forms of collection, to offer a venue where the public can share objects and their stories, and to contemplate diverse processes of collecting.
The slim booklet you hold in your hands – doubtless shedding ink molecules in the fine grooves of your palm, just as your skin forever alters its paper with oil traces – will serve as your trusty guide through the fleeting world of the impermanent collection. A world populated with singular objects and miraculous traces, hypnogogica, petrifications, and taxidermy beasts: a still life where only eddies of dust express movement, mobile accumulations of our objects' inevitable decay.  
The impermanent collection embeds within its displays, its aesthetics, and its very representational practices a reticulated chronology of the histories of collecting. Our panoramic vision glides from saintly relics to Wunderkammern, and from world’s fairs and public museums founded in the Enlightenment's wake to mutant museums marketed for urban leisure—namely, dime museums and theme parks. Each of these historic forms of collecting dealt the public a stacked deck, playing games with “reality regimes” or what was known to be natural, authentic, and true vs. fake, imaginary, a dream. The impermanent collection shuffles these decks together. Likewise, each form of collecting elaborated a peculiar “sensory habitat,”* an artificial atmosphere of preservation that orders the relationships between a collections' objects while excluding some things altogether. Such rarified atmospheres shelter ecosystems where things interact in unanticipated ways and uninvited agents move in (like silverfish and dermestid beetles). As for this Museum's purview, our horizons embrace attics, backyards, shopping malls, and the city itself as curious patterns in processes of collection. Given time even a humble cigarette butt can become an heirloom, and the city dump, a vast archive.
*Earlier MNAE guidebooks refer to “regimes of veracity” and “expository structures.” Here we update the terms to encompass a wider sense of what is at stake in these concepts. We claim that it is not only what was believable or accurate in representations that has changed, but the real itself; likewise, it is not only the structure of exposition or the techniques of exposing that have transformed, but the very habitat in which sensoriums sense things. As a crucial example, air conditioning has reconfigured the reality of metabolism for particular bodies alongside their sensations of the hot/cold continuum, while pushing new standards in the preservation of objects and public expectations of comfort.
As meditation and mediation on the themes of loss and accumulation, impermanent collection objects focus our attention onto ruins, trash, and husks that have been scavenged and exalted as cultural and historical curiosities. From this perspective, museums function as preservation-provenance machines, alchemically processing the wastes of the world into spectacular treasures. Unutterably sad ephemera, the objects of all museums gather dust and wage battle against decay, all the while posturing as essence/origin/past. Indeed, all that surrounds us everyday is fated to fade in memory and materiality – including the very collections that long to stop time. Here at MNAE, we embrace this inescapable loss by displaying objects in various states of decomposition, recognizing that the perfectly pristine antique is but an impossible illusion while today’s unremarkable kitsch shines with the brilliant light of its future significance, and landscapes are haunted by the lost call of extinct birds no living person can remember.  
While this temporal transformation of the banal into important ephemera is melancholic, mysterious, and often lucrative, the gradual slippage between the natural and artificial is no less astounding and enigmatic. For in this dawning age of the Anthropocene, even the sky has become an all-encompassing artifact of accidental human alteration, ribosomes become ‘molecular machines,’ and the concept of nature itself is critiqued as having partly led us into ecological crisis. With the power of hindsight we begin encountering nature-without-humans as highly unnatural, and grasp evolutionary forms in their amazing design and artifice. This Museum celebrates the pivotal moment at which the humanmade finally surges with nonhuman forces, and our collective formations with ecological agents might learn to become more intentional, or even grow a sense of humor or kindness.
Collecting is both a natural process and remarkably artificial: Each of the world’s oceans has a central gyre of currents that slowly gathers matter through centripetal force, providing a new habitat for relations between plastics and phytoplankton. Simply put, these informal museums happen at every scale and in every body. You, too, are but a large Living Museum of Parasites & Symbionts. In this manner MNAE mimics the hoarding that proliferates in both biophysical and sociocultural realms and that rivers, bower birds, the Medici family, and the stars of A&E’s Hoarders have in common. Rather than a psychological disorder we approach hoarding as a sort of cosmic process that accumulates more and more things into novel collectives. While the difference between a collection and a hoard lies in the sensory habitat that brings consistency and narrative to an assemblage, hoards and museums are equally determined by the world-making force of materiality’s inexorable abundance and impermanence.      

Monday, July 8, 2013

More Selfing

Rock Depot is just south along the highway from The Home Depot closest to Ephemerata Gardens. Rock Depot is the rough rock-by-the-pound arm of the Nature’s Treasures new age crystal store. Jewelers can get rock and lapidary supplies. In the yard are chunks of azurite, chrysicola, serpentine, but nothing approaching a landscape supply yard. Natural capital of mineral supply chains and the magic properties of matter converge here to supply the means to DIY sorcery. Rock Depot’s name plays on its multinational corporate cousin up the road, but also rock deposits. Both names resonate with military depots and fantasy despotisms of an individual ruling absolutely. “You create your own reality,” the mantra goes.

The Home and Rock Depots both deal in the subject, self, or individual – objects that are the epitomy of not being objects but the kernel of human agency or soul. In US history the force of the self seems to saturate as beyond ideological – rugged individualism of pioneers, captains of industry, self-reliance, self help... Contra these figures there are toiling swarms of ecological agents and people, of course. The discourse of liberating a self, escaping – whether in lofty political radicalism or on the cookie bag – seems blind to the force of dependent-self, the feeling body’s intensely permeable boundary with other lands, atmospheres, factories, and lives. Subjectivity circulates, an event always composed in relations. Depots stockpile the supplies to make a self, while the home forms exoskeletal and metabolic buffer zones. Treasures, sensations, bodies – all need a home to nestle inside so selves can carefully collect and cultivate themselves as a slew of private properties.

When I need mortar or soil to build Ephemerata Gardens, like a kneejerk reaction, I think of shopping at The Home Depot. The company arms handymen and contractors working at multiple scales to shape housing infrastructure and land use patterns. Its fortunes depend on the housing market’s ups and downs, while the matter it distributes contains lives and brings infrastructure to fruition in the home. Locked in constant battle to underprice and outcompete its rival Lowes, The Home Depot focuses on customer service and the transmission of specialized knowledge – thus the motto “More Saving, More Doing.” It is second only to Wal-Mart in bigbox retailers, and has been criticized for endangering local economies of mom and pop hardware stores while also putting licensed electricians, plumbers, carpenters, home decorators out of work as consumers save money by doing it themselves. Some of these unemployed look for jobs at The Home Depot.

Following the burst housing bubble in 2008 sales associates at Home Depot faced layoffs as over fifty stores closed nationwide. But the firm, along with craft stores, fared somewhat better than other Fortune 500 corporations. Sales from ambitious home renovation projects dropped, while sales of supplies for modest projects and gardening goods went up. Disaster from heavy weather offer welcome seasonal spikes in sales. The Home Depot’s “hurricane command center” redistributes generators, batteries, plywood and the like from stores all over the country to stores along storm paths. These emergency supply-chains make the corporation almost like a de facto FEMA unit. Disaster preparedness and response falls on individuals, or organized publics in DIY community mode.

The Home Depot cultivates an informal labor of DIY that positions the consumer as an unpaid, subcontracted worker (the IKEA model of consumer-producer). But the corporation’s relationship to informal economies hardly stops there. Day laborers congregate in the parking lot for people who need help painting or moving heavy things and for building contractors to hire. Immigrant advocacy groups that have urged building shade pavilions and bathrooms for day laborers are cynically met with criticism that this would just welcome more illegal aliens. The flexibility of the situation is such that The Home Depot can market DIY everything while denying that the informal economy and precarious labor it enables are part of the firm’s responsibilities.

The corporation fills the role of an unwitting social enterprise in multiple ways, adopting some of the responsibilities of nonprofits or NGOs. As mentioned, they provision DIY disaster response with plywood and generators when hurricanes hit. And like it or not, they network an informal market for day labor. Its “associates,” who are sometimes experts on home construction and repair, teach consumers how to do-it-yourself with free classes and more informal Q&A sessions in the store aisles. The Home Depot is the biggest US recycling collection point for florescent lightbulbs and touts this as environmental stewardship (taking back the mercury they sold). And they’re huge – they can have enormous impact on supply chains by favoring sustainable forestry practices or pushing energy efficient commodities.

The agential “self” here is highly managed and projected by the corporation, educated into being. It is at once an empowerment – here’s the tools and how to use them! – and the calculated production of a consumer, the humble maker, hobbyist, or homemaker, whose core identity lies in the image of their independence from experts and licensed professionals. The Home Depot website offers video tutorials on home improvement projects that can be crammed into a weekend, and “do-it-herself” workshops. One workshop leader is a blogger who teamed up with The Home Depot: “I haven’t had any special training, just a desire to make my home beautiful without paying someone to do it all for me! … I find it’s all about trying – getting that courage to do something you’ve never done. I think you’d be surprised at the results! But believe me, my first attempts were not perfect. Actually most of my latest work still isn’t perfect, but it’s little stuff no one would notice.”* Her projects range from wrapping paper for guys made of blue tarp and jingling washers to redoing her whole staircase.

The self engages in an unfolding education through trial and error. There were stories of kitchen cabinets crashing to the ground full of heirloom china, a man who electrocuted himself in the shower by wiring too close to his plumbing. Surely there are meth makers who stock some supplies and tools at The Home Depot. Selves and DIY aesthetics put material forms available as commodities to unanticipated uses, even as the selves are mass-produced via commodity forms. Everywhere in the process informal economies and unintended material processes disarticulate individual and corporate despotisms, snatching trash and pirating network potential. The powers of rocks, plywood, skill saws, fertilizers, knowledges surge and bloat the selves, extending the range and potential of subjectivity to do more and more.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Homer's Feather

In the 2012 “House” exhibition in Ephemerata Gardens, the Santa mug, a Kinkaid nightlight, and other tchotchkes were props in our dwellings’ happy cocooning into private, cozy dreams. Others explored the pressing risk of collective vulnerability from elemental forces that could wipe our cities off the earth’s surface. I built a window display case from the neighbor’s remodeling debris and parts of an abandoned bed frame found down the road. Inside a white feather floated above a Hummel figurine modified by artist Michelle Foster with little bindles to look like depression-era hobo children. In 1988, activists with the Street People’s Advisory Council (SPAC) bought a goose from Callahan’s and threatened to kill and grill him unless Austin city officials would meet to address helping the homeless. Although it outraged animal rights activists, the publicity stunt resulted in some office space and funding for homeless advocacy groups. For several months Homer camped on a SPAC raft, the SS Homer, in Town Lake with two homeless men. After fainting at a summer political rally, Homer moved in with activist Lori Cervenak-Renteria where he lived for 18 years before retiring at Austin Zoo. His theme song goes:

Oh, give me a home
So I don't have to roam
Through the alleys and dumpsters today.
Where seldom is heard an encouraging word.
They just wish we'd all go away.
I can't pay the rent
So I live in a tent
Beneath the Montopolis Bridge.
I just need a home,
With a bed and a phone,
A stove and a toilet and fridge.*

The Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary got its start in 1990 as the Good Day Ranch, Cindy and Jim Carroccio’s private petting zoo of goats and other livestock. The local paper’s 2002 Day Trips column described “the zoo [as] a natural progression for Cindy's love of animals. When she lived in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin her back yard was full of strays and homeless critters.”** Good Day Ranch’s population grew by accepting rescue animals seized from abusive situations, like the crowd-drawing leopards in Reverend Lavender’s traveling revival tent that PETA helped save through the courts. In 2000 the business gained nonprofit status to protect its animals in the long term and have more access to grant money. By 2005 the Carroccios were getting divorced and the zoo’s financial situation was an unorganized mess. The nonprofit board discovered boxes of uncashed checks and $700 cash, bags stuffed with receipts and vet and bank records in the barn.*** By 2008 the nonprofit board had taken over, firing Jim as executive director and replacing him with Patti Clark. In 2009 the nonprofit bought the 54-acre tract of land from Cindy for about 400K. There is a mini-train you can take on a loop through the Hill Country past gazelles and llamas.

Lacking the slick Disneyland aesthetic of places like the San Diego Zoo—intense theming or “landscape immersion,” concrete rockscape waterfalls, and an exorbitant entry price—Austin Zoo strikes some visitors as a rinky-dink knock-off of the real thing. They ask just $8 to get in. It retains the feel of a DIY menagerie, partly improvised out of everyday objects donated by local businesses and families. You can sense the collective effort that composes the sanctuary. The zoo has a strong volunteer base, and you can help with daily chores around the facility, even work directly with some of the animals. They have a sponsor an animal program (“$150 feeds Austin Zoo’s monkeys for one week”) and accept meat to feed the large cats (no pork or horse), hay, fruit, veggies, nuts, and so on. Their gift register features an array of specialty products like a $400 lion bungee toy and chandeliers for parrot play, as well as commodities put to unintended uses: buck and raccoon urine to spray around for tigers to investigate, rattling baby balls for the coatis and kinkajoos. The new Primate Palace is a converted pony barn. The zoo’s homemade habitats include repurposed postconsumer products, like 55-gallon drums the tigers toss around, a castle of milk crates wired together for the goats.

Sometimes salvage animals arrive at the zoo needing intensive veterinary care and rehabilitation. Some of the large cats are retired circus performers or private pets that otherwise could have ended up at “canned hunting” ranches where people pay to kill. A lion from a junk man’s menagerie was so malnourished it had broken an ankle from its own weight. Former lab-testing primates are missing digits or tail tips crushed by cage doors. The Zoo gets 50 requests a month to take in new animals, but they generally accept a dozen a year to stick within their space and funding limits. They say it’s hard to turn animals down.

In 2010 Austin Zoo took in two lions from a private owner that were suspected to be Barbary lions. Their extinction in North Africa is knotted up in Roman, British, and French imperial cruelty. Moroccan royalty who saved captive lions in private menageries preserved a few dozen specimens. This led to Austin Zoo’s first involvement with a breeding program: the Barbary Lion Project, a collaboration between the Rabat Zoo in Morocco and a professor at the University of Oxford funded by the UK-based Wildlink International. The Project’s goal is to selectively breed lions with mitochondrial DNA from the Barbary sub-species gleaned from a museum specimen's bones. By salvaging and amplifying shreds of gene sequences in captive lions breeders hope to reconstruct purebred Barbary Lions to be released on a preserve in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains and reverse extinction. The species is doubly homeless, lacking bodies and a safe habitat. Austin Zoo provided DNA screening to assess if their lions were indeed Barbary lions (measured as a percent of the animal’s genome). They bred two baby lions that drew record crowds on Spring Break. The growing cubs found a new home at the Texas Zoo in Victoria. But Wildlink International mysteriously vanished as an institution, leaving the breeding project in unfunded limbo.*** (Did they ever find out about the DNA?)

What happens when we try to cheat extinction and reverse calousness by salvaging animal lives? In The Chances of the World Changing (2006), a moody documentary directed by Eric Daniel Metzger for PBS, we watch Richard Ogust’s life spin out of control as he encumbers himself with caring for his family of 1200 rare and endangered turtles in their improvised habitats of tanks and tubs. First they take over his loft, then rented warehouses. His “assurance colony” (to preserve species diversity) grows by accepting turtles seized by customs agents and by relieving other turtle conservationists of their burdens. The film meditatively lingers on the turtles’ expressive and colorful faces and shells, their slow floating and leisurely eating. For Ogust, the turtles become at once an ecstasy and a woeful impossibility, their very conditions for preservation leading to insurmountable technical and legal troubles as his collection becomes too big to handle. He hatches the plan to overcome these problems and limitations of the individual by founding an institute.
I in some way wanted to prove to people who were close to me that my having them had some value to it, and it wasn’t all based upon (sigh)…you know, emotional weakness and collection mania and stuff, but that it would somehow be… the whole project would be converted into something of real value.
Another turtle collector shares Ogust’s dream of a collective atmosphere for turtle conservation: “It would be nice to have one giant institute that could take care of everything. It’s called the world, and it’s not working. You can’t build a big enough greenhouse to house everything the way it should be, so maybe keeping fewer things in better condition, more space in smaller areas…” In this daydream the atmospheric institute of the world is broken, and atmospheres maintained by individuals and institutions alike are in constant danger of overburdening their carrying capacity. A third collector commiserates that to ensure the health and manageability of their turtle atmosphere, “we’d have to pass animals by, and that’s the hardest part, is learning to put your hands over your eyes and say, ‘I can’t take these animals even though they need me.’”

In Ogust's world, evolutionary fitness has been replaced by a measure of happiness. Since long-term species survival is out of any individual's hands, Ogust tinkers with making the turtles look "happy" in their homes, an end result determined by meeting their health, food, and social needs. He delivers some of his ward to another collector's outdoor turtle pond where he thinks they look really happy as they slip into the murky water. But his dream of founding an institution recedes as the Environmental Protection Agency seizes one of his turtle shipments. The film obscures exactly how Ogust was able to fund his turtle world, but in the end lack of money impedes his institution.

Institutions in the City of Living Garbage emerge through unplanned, slow aggregation by giving home to undervalued beings. Projects and missions are tacked onto old forms as they are given new capacities and become parts of new processes. Institutionalization of DIYsneylands involves a changing of the characters in the landscape and the professionalization of roles that regenerate landscape patches (as we see with Austin Zoo, as well as Magic Gardens, the Healing Machine, the Bottle Village, and many other landmarks in the City of Living Garbage), but also a constant making do with inherited forms that have taken on lives of their own. While institutions firm up to preserve and save idiosyncratic, vulnerable beings, they are themselves vulnerable. Hoping to save trashed things that have no clear value, they risk underfunding and not being able to pay the rent. They turn instead to an economy of happiness, building just the bare forms of home as refrains in this homeless ecology.


*Austin Avian Rescue and Rehabilitation, “The Story of Homer the Homeless Goose,”
** Chronicle Gerald E. McLeod, March 29, 2002, Day Trips,
***( Andrea Ball, “New day for the Austin Zoo: Animal sanctuary overcoming problems, board says” Jan 6, 2011)
****Being Lion, The author is “a Barbary lion that grew up human,” longing to have its body back. She is an animal-person, feeling transspecies as some people feel transgender. “Even though I take many shapes that seem solid, seem to be built of fur and muscle and bone and claw, when you zoom in to see the essence, it is always Water flowing” (

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Glow Rose

For about an hour after dusk the rose glows softly like ghost flowers. A gift from Janice Washington's GMOasis to Ephemerata Gardens, we had to strategically plant it to catch the sun's last rays, and it only works in the summer and fall. You can also zap it with a blacklight any time at night to see it phosphoress.

Janice is a former Monsanto employee who lost her lab job when the Supreme Court blockbusted the corporation. She wound up teaching at UT Austin and started her own little garage lab as a hobby. Everything she modifies winds up in her garden, from aphid-resistant arugula to vine borer-immune zucchini. She also practices organic gardening and biocontrol, and insists on irrigating only with rain water. This indiscriminate melding of natural and artificial made the GMOasis one of the most befuddling gardens in this year's Austin Art Yard Tour.

The rose garden features carefully bred miniature black roses, "GM  heirlooms" with green petals, roses that smell like rotten meat, and the famous glow rose that expresses a mushroom species' phosphoresence. Turning away from instrumental modifications for insect resistance, Janice likes tinkering with plants' sensate aesthetics, their shapes, colors, and odors. Her fig has perfectly heart shaped fruit. The lemons are cubes. Purple San Pedro, magenta and albino mother-of-millions. Oak leaf lettuce that smells and tastes like marzipan.

Then there are bacteria that devour plastic. She sprays them on her fence of decaying dolls and trucks. She shows you the microphotographs of polymer chains that break down completely. Janice is most proud of this innovation and is working with her grad students to develop commercial application in ecological restoration projects. She gushes about the bacteria like they're her kids: "They're such great learners and hard workers! I'm so happy they have plastic to eat."

The neighbors are organic gardening purists. Their food patches just happen to back up against each other, divided by a chain link fence in the sunny part of the yard. When an almondy-tasting oak leaf lettuce sprouted in their garden, the neighbors lost it. They jumped the fence in the night and went at GMOasis with shovels and clippers, killing all the monsters while Janice secretly watched from her darkened window.

As far as I know our glow rose is now the only one in the world.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Blue Corn

In one of the digital photos we can no longer access, the blue corn stalks are as tall as our six year old daughter. The seeds were second generation from two ears we were able to grow with kernels planted as part of a public protest in 2016. We donated five bucks to the nonprofit FreeSeeds for a packet of organic heirloom corn with drought-tolerant gene sequences patented by Insanto. The corporation more or less ignored this performative flaunting of patent infringement as thousands of backyard farmers got to feel radical while learning that corn is pretty hard to grow.

Last night I was thinking about Insanto's fate and strange rebirth. The first mysterious GM corn and soy field meltdowns were exciting. As thousands of acres of crops withered almost overnight, people thought "nature" was finally retaliating against Insanto's will to control. BT-resistant corn rootworms were winning the arms race. But the bombing of Insanto's corporate headquarters in St. Louis made it clear that the dead fields were also terrorist attacks. Then arsonists started torching the dried up fields. Another drought year.

The self-declared Organic Militia's attacks forced a sudden, glaring clarity on what Insanto had been doing all along: weaponizing food. The armed rent-a-soldiers on hire from Nergal LLC (formerly known as Academi, Xe Services and Blackwater USA/Worldwide) stationed around Insanto's HQ and various test sites were just the human analog to the weaponized food itself, life forms of mass destruction aimed at multitudes of micro- and macroorganisms. Whereas the corporation could kill targeted plants and insects with impunity, the militia had blatantly crossed the line into a categorically different form of violence by killing Insanto employees. Insanto's undeclared war against nature had blurred into an undeclared war between a corporation and a citizen-militia.

In contrast, Organic Militia's first press release was quite open and rabid in their declaration of war against Insanto. There were spies and saboteurs on both sides, comparisons to the French Revolution -- peasants trying to take down a monarchy with organic seeds, mushrooms species, and flames and drought conditions as weapons. They compared Insanto to the East India Company of the 19th century, widely hated while still touting its benevolence in "improving agriculture" and gifting food security to the masses. Both corporations enjoyed paternalistic fantasies of development and state sanctions on their virtual monopolizations in international trade. Organic Militia cast backyard middle class gardeners in the US as peasants, urging them to take up arms and get militant along with some of the laborers in the Global South demonstrating against GM agriculture by burning Insanto seed. Groups like Occupy Insanto committed to non-violent protest and civil disobedience condemned the Organic Militia while still leveraging new images of Nergal troops with rifles protecting HQ and fields.

GMOs were inescapable, showing up in non-GM labeled food, slipped into recipes at supposedly "all organic and locally grown" restaurants. For every fraud caught passing off BT corn or flounder-tomatoes as the natural thing, there were dozens undetected. Government regulators with the FDA or USDA just helped Insanto push through more GM quasi-species. Of course everyone was shocked and saddened by the St. Louis bombing, but we all kind of expected it after a decade of public frustration over foodflation and fundamentalist outrage over landscape impurity and genetic pollution. A speaker at the second GMO-Free Midwest conference in 2013 even predicted the attacks. Strapped state police forces remained surprisingly impassive, as if to say "this fight is between you guys." (Or the '17 Crash caused their non-intervention; the National Guard was far too busy with emergency response on the eastern seaboard to get involved). Multiple court cases ruling in favor of plaintiffs -- organic farmers, people with cancer, etc. -- crippled the corporations' profits with billions of dollars in ongoing settlements. But the clincher was evidence that Insanto labs had engineered a bacteria into corn and soy specifically targeted at degenerating human liver function at the same time one of their biopharming subsidiaries developed medication to help the resulting condition (splicing the same bacteria into fungi). Like a dream, a landmark Supreme Court ruling shut down the company and blockbusted it into little subsidiaries, with a harsh ten year moratorium on planting GM seeds in the US and territories.

Millions of acres of GM landscape patches with dead dirt and thriving superweeds needed remediation. Volunteers cropdusted them with fungal spores that are natural herbicides also capable of breaking down glysophates in the soil. Manure spreaders fertilized the fields with raw human poop. The alien acres of mushrooms seemed to glow at dawn and dusk.

Ultraviolet rays from the rising and setting sun also made our blue corn glow when we peeled back the silk. The stalks grew twice as tall as me. We babied the plants, picking off worms, carefully fertilizing, as if the few ears we might grow could feed the world. But the third year our seed wouldn't come up. We haven't tried growing corn since.

Now Insanto is back with odd new benevolent products. Nanotech waterbeads that manufacture water from soil air. Anti-depressant and anti-psychotic GM corn and soy. Pesticide resistant carabid beetles that eat rootworms. Insanto has realigned itself with the World Peace Council, the UN Peacekeepers, and other international organizations and publicly apologized for its long history in weapons manufacturing (from Agent Orange to glysophates). Strangest of all, Insanto open sourced its entire patent library. Everyone's skeptical: could they really be good guys now?


Monday, June 25, 2012


Happiness bubbles up in Ephemerata Gardens in fleeting things that happen.

The season's first tomato or strawberry drop of blood on the vine. Gathering food grown here, cooking and eating and sharing it, sometimes doing the dishes humming an uncomposed song. Prickly pear cacti bloom yellow bursts echoed by the sunflower patch. 

Chickens catch a purple plastic snake and chase each other around. Monk squawks fly over, the birds rarely landing on the alley power lines. Gangly juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night Heron come down to the baby pool of water. Also, cardinals, blue jays, and butterflies eat the figs. Dragonflies and toads in the greywater pond.

Sunsets hit the top of the pecan in a golden glow while the rest of the yard's already shadowed. Sitting in the shade.

Happiness is not an object or pursuit here but a relational event of light, color, sounds, foods, life forms pulsing in the landscape--qualia of life held together in a harmonious sensory expression. A collective curling up of a smile or jiggling of laughter. Also, happiness is shot through with an all consuming love between lives, a kind of clinging that veers into sadness and loss. It is a way of being for the world that plays on becoming part of a living machine, where you are not liberated but attached and made responsible, eaten alive. Happiness becomes a collaborative sculpture planed down by multiple artists with different aesthetic visions.

There are surprises like fat green caterpillars eating the sprawling tomato vines that I should kill, but don't. Vince's neighbor next to the Cathedral of Junk kills butterflies since he doesn't want caterpillars eating up his yard. Longlasting bumpy brown clusters of fungi on the composting diapers. Snow on the bottle wall raised beds. Happiness is not a state of being but little melting crystals, totally uncontrollable. I can't say if the other entities involved are happy about being in Ephemerata Gardens, or even other people who visit. The elderly woman with her granddaughter aprovingly called it a "bushy garden" with everything overgrown. She held my arm as we maneuvered the perilous gravel walkway. Her light touch also made me happy, and her exclamations: "Oh! A cactus flower!"

Tinkering and wasting time here makes me happy, finding a use for salvaged things nobody else wanted. Telling jokes and stories to visitors, performing for and teaching them. I'm happy when visitors leave a cash donation, like a tithe. Last weekend we earned about a hundred bucks from twenty visitors to our micro-tourist roadside attraction (realizing Disneyland expects this from each visitor). We "sold 'em a look" of the "House" exhibition.* Money is a clotted form of sharing gifts with each other. More to the point, making something out of nothing makes me happy. 

Happiness over nothing, just a nice breeze or watching my son dance to the alley neighbor's Mariachi music. He claps when the song is over. "Yaaaay!" Happiness happens when things like minds, bodies, objects, and events all line up in a brief refrain that suddenly glows while its fading.** This coinciding is hemmed in and even intensified by blanketing unhappiness, suffering and hardship, lurking malevolant forces, or the tenderness of knowing mortality. So happiness is not necessarily about innocence, purity, or naivety. 

There is even melancholy happiness, like poppies on the pet graves every spring. Cold winter moonlight.

In Bhutan, happiness is a metric opposed to the bland measure of Gross National Product. Bhutan surveys citizen happiness by sex, age, region, occupation, education, and other factors to quantify Gross National Happiness. The Center for Bhutan Studies developed the sociological survey tool to measure habitual subjective states as a national development aid. Money ("sustainable economic growth") is just one of four elements that are supposed to guide national development (alongside cultural values, the environment, and good governance). International conferences help to transmit the concept of this alternative development mode and measure of national growth. Over half of the people in Bhutan are farmers, and in 2010, their mean happiness--5.8 on a 10 point scale--was just slightly above the least happy people in Bhutan employed by the National Work Force, while Civil Servants were the happiest.*** Women experienced anger more than men, and in general were less happy.

Ephemerata Gardens and Bhutan are trying to engineer affective atmospheres where happy patterns can happen. We're serious about happiness. Characters in these landscapes are potential parts of circuits of happiness. Feelings are quantified or listed as artifacts, becoming self-reflexive to enhance or preserve harmonious relational patterns between selves/societies/ecosystems. Like in Disneyland, there is almost a coercive element here: you should feel happy, you will feel happy in this magic kingdom. 


*In the 1950's, Ray Bivens of the Black Hills Animal Farm roadside attraction taught Tinkertown's Ross Ward to "sell 'em a look!" "They'll pay everyday to see the same old bear and you won't need to buy a new bear every day either." Ross J. Ward, "I did all this while you were watching TV," published by the Tinkertown Museum, p. 2.
**Sara Ahmed, "Happy Objects," in The Affect Theory Reader, 29-51, ed. by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Durham: Duke University Press (2010), pp. 36-7.
***2010 survey, p.19, women's anger p.65.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Thing in the Garden

Billows of white flesh erupted from the ground. At first the mass doubled daily, then slowed down but kept unfolding. It absorbed other plants, leaving them alive but trapped in its form. It dusted a glass light fixture scavenged from the Cathedral of Junk with its powdery spore. After a few weeks it was a yard across, with shelves of tissue in ripples like a small, solid cloud, an uncanny thing sprouting between the figs and roses in the front garden where the cats poop.

The fruiting sex organs of other fungi have popped up in Ephemerata Gardens. Bird Nests with their tiny cups of spores. Brown umbrellas that open up and rot in a day, bright yellow ones in potted plants and the kitty litter compost. What other cthonic aliens live invisible in the soil? Bondarzewia berkeleyi, the huge Berkeley's polypore, is an edible fungus best cooked when the flesh is young. I learn this on Google and see pics of fungi in dense forests that look like the one in our yard. A museum visitor has a distrubed reaction like the thing scared him, and I realize how fond I am of the mushroom. Something about its unlikely visitation in a "human dominated ecosystem." In a restaurant I overhear a guy reminiscing about his irises. "They died back after we put the fungicide in the yard. Now they're saying iris patches need certain kinds of fungus. They're learning so much about that."

Living soil and its suprises seemed to be endangered. There were reports in peer reviewed journals like Current Microbiology (1) that glysophates, the key ingredient in Roundup and its Chinese knock-offs, were decimating non-targeted soil microbes and mycelia in agriculture fields. Controversy whirled around these texts -- allegations that Monsanto was actively blocking scientific research on its many products' unintended toxic effects while falsifying their own reports, or that the biotech giant was purposefully destroying the biosphere and food security just to maximize its own endless growth, or worse, to kill everyone but "the one percent." Scientific paranoiac visions charged court hearings, public protests, and Occupy Monsanto actions as people tried to get a grip on exactly what the corperation's products were doing to landscapes and bodies. Scientists on both sides of the debate reasoned that lab testing of glysophates and genetically modified plants were always suspect, since things don't work the same in the agricultural fields (e.g., varying in dosage amount, humidity, and the like). Meanwhile the fields themselves were the real experimental labs; the world itself had become the life-size lab.

Like the polypore in our yard this Monsanto worlding turned up in unexpected places. The US Geological Survey isolated glysophates in Mississippi rain (2). Doctors in a hospital in Quebec discovered BT toxin (produced by a soil bacteria's transgenes in GM corn) in the blood of pregnant women(3). In 2009 President Obama appointed former Monsanto lobbyist and VP Michael Taylor as senior advisor to the head of the FDA. Glysophates and GM seeds drifted to neighboring farms, and GM rice cross-pollinated patented Monsanto gene sequences into organic wild rice in a case of genetic pollution. Because there was no mandatory labeling for GMO ingredients you could hate Monsanto and unwhittingly eat its spawn at the same time unless you can afford all organic. Even then Monsanto corn or cotton might be in everyday objects you touch. You could become obsessed with purging Monsanto, get politically active in an international movement "building a world without Monsanto"(4). Like Climate Change, Monster Monsanto became one of those conspiratorial things you could wrap your life around researching and fearing -- its mafia capital built of commodites that kill, first Agent Orange (to kill people, a commissioned product sanctioned by the state military's monopoly on violence), then DDT, now Roundup and corn (to kill pests, no state sanction required). The corporation's living garbage, polluting the minutia of ordinary life, is facilitating cosmopolitan publics of concern, outraged people who could only come together around a trashed world and its remediation.

Besides their ability to manifest in unlikely spots, mushrooms and Monsanto have another thing in common: they eat the death of other beings. They cultivate certain kinds of landscapes by kickstarting a chain of ecological relations by tinkering with forms of death. Mushroom species are living machines, medicinal or toxic to certain life forms. A few lots down from Ephemerata Gardens they might be cutting back oak trees to build a new house. I need to buy some oyster and shitake mushroom plugs and beeswax. The rainbarrels are full of (glysophate?) rain to keep the logs sodden. Maybe a year from now we'll be eating succulent stir fry.

The polypore's mass has yellowed and is no longer tender. I couldn't dismember and eat the thing anyway. Its mysterious autonomy. Plus it's growing in cat poop.


(1) Clair E, Linn L, Travert C, Amiel C, Séralini GE, Panoff JM. "Effects of Roundup(®) and glyphosate on three food microorganisms: Geotrichum candidum, Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus." Curr Microbiol. 2012 May;64(5):486-91. Epub 2012 Feb 24. Also, researchers in Portland found that BT toxin in GM corn has lethal effects on a non-target species of beneficial fungus. 
  • Tanya E. Cheeke
  • Todd N. Rosenstiel,
  • and Mitchell B. Cruzan. "Evidence of reduced arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal colonization in multiple lines of Bt maize."Am. J. Bot. April 2012 99:700-707.

  • (2) Chang, F. C., M. F. Simcik, et al. (2011). "Occurrence and fate of the herbicide glyphosate and its degradate aminomethylphosphonic acid in the atmosphere." Environ Toxicol Chem 30(3): 548–555.

    (3) Aris A, Leblanc S. "Maternal and fetal exposure to pesticides associated to genetically modified foods in Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada." Reproductive Toxicology (2011), doi:10.1016/j.reprotox.2011.02.004.

    (4) Combat Monsanto website ( See also GMWatch (