Thursday, June 16, 2011


The arc of rebar abandoned in our backyard took only a little bending to make a half-circle. Simon Rodia used train tracks to leverage rebar into Watts Towers arabesques. I used my body, standing on one end and bending the other, rocking back and forth to get the right shape. I snipped metal siding from a demolished shed into letters painted white, yellow, and sky blue that spell out EPHEMERATA GARDENS and wired them to the arc above the gateway to our food patch. That's the name of a tenuous possibility, a roadside attraction/wildlife sanctuary/permaculture sideshow. A survival circus. Maybe one day instead of real jobs I can tinker in the yard as tourists drop by and leave donations -- enough to live off in a humble way. Maybe with enough labor and learning the yard will grow most of our food.

Micro-tourism business models combine wasting time playing, tinkering, yearning, and daydreaming with the pragmatic matter of earning a living somehow (or having good things to eat, paying the mortgage, etc.). The cultural form of DIYsneylands (itself a vulnerable survival that goes back to Rodia, Zagar, Finster, Blagdon, Prisbey, and others who built lively yard art environments) are living machines that capture engineers who must hoard and categorize junk to feed their monstrous patchy landscapes. The engineers live off money tithed by toursists, subsidized with a steady job or multiple odd jobs. While cultural tourism and eco-tourism manufacture voyages to somewhere authentic or pure (linking up a big world through traveling machines), with micro-tourism, the neighbor's backyard becomes a fantastical realm where an odd but friendly character tinkers endlessly on their peculiar atmosphere. There may be big plans for mosaic grottoes or wheeltowers. Sometimes hallucinatory forces speak through doll heads and other mediums of reincarnated trash, or visions of the future puncture the ground and infectious desires for inventive simplicity or a slower life permeate tourists with "ideas."

The survival circus is an atmospheric mode particular to times of ecological apocalypses and economic calamity.* Forms of making due driven by a lack of money or resource scarcity have crystallized as an aesthetic variously identified by home and gardening magazines as shabby chic or Japanese wabi-sabi. Texture, rust, distressed "antiques," patina! The Transition movement more seriously arcticulates survival circus as a move away from oil and back to DIY assemblages of communal self-sufficiency in advance of social/economic/ecological collapse. Things that survive through these social aesthetics include weathered wood and furniture, ceramics (re-replacing plastics), backyard chickens, and various skills like canning or sewing that strive to retreat from global circuits and relocalize. "Voluntary simplicity" might involve giving up habits like cars, A/C, or refrigerators in moral spasms. The arc of threatening futures animates and saturates survival forms. Individuals catapulted along this arc's trajectory begin a dense reinhabitation of patchy landscape, hunkering down into the recycled, homemade home, its worn wood benches or railroad ties on cinder blocks, the gardens that need constant tending. You become a character in the landscape.

When tourists come they like to pose under the arc for pictures. Some take photos of our chickens and others talk about their beloved Plymouth Rocks. We trade plant tips, and they rattle on about their determination to garden even just one edible cantaloupe off the potted sidewalk vine, or what to grow in Maine, and when. They get inspired by the raised bottle beds or wonder what's wrong with us. Maybe one day I'll build a cement stalactite grotto against the back wall, with a mosaic of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Something to draw the tourists.

*Thanks to Halide Velioglu for honing in on "survival for fun" in her writing on Sarajevo, where a televisual imaginary of a post-Soviet stateless existence of subsistance farming sits uneasily against rural poverty in Bosnia.


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