Thursday, August 18, 2011


Iron oxides grow like lichens on Ephemerata Garden's cast-iron bathtub ponds, bottle cap snakes, cat food tins, and other metal detritus. Rust is an agent of collapse that can take out bridges and buildings. In our yard it has an aesthetic presence, something beautiful about its deep red flakiness breaking up painted surfaces. Iron molecules give both rust and blood their red, and both reveal themselves as wounds.

In 2008 I attended the weekend-long Radical Urban Sustainability Training (RUST) workshop at the Rhizome Collective’s live-in warehouses. Taught by Rhizome Collective co-founders Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew,* ecological engineer Lauren Ross, and assorted guests, RUST showcased the warehouses' permaculture systems like composting toilets, pedal-powered machines, rain catches, and gray water wetlands. RUST reimagines sustainability from a community-based DIY perspective, developing new practices that improvise with the richness of urban wastestreams. The workshop is a hands-on introduction to "autonomous technologies" that locally produce food, water, shelter, energy, waste management, health care, and the bioremediation of urban toxins. RUST also doubles as a crash-course in environmental and climate justice issues, with a critique of contemporary sustainable urban development as a new form of gentrification. Because “sustainability” had already been co-opted by neo-liberal capitalists, Scott used the term “radical sustainability” to insist on the entwined radix or roots beneath social and environmental injustices. The RUST workshop is an informal education in how to build the City of Living Garbage out of a world that's falling apart.

When the Rhizome Collective moved in to the warehouses, they depaved the asphalt loading bay, tearing up impermeable cover to make a thriving food garden where bees, butterflies, and migratory birds came to eat. They salvaged mulch from landscaping companies and added homemade compost tea. The compacted soil grew rich, shot through with white threads of mychorrhizal networks. In just a few years the landscape patch became productive and healthy. They free ranged chickens in the junkyard next door until the neighbor complained. They grew shitake and oyster mushrooms on logs, raised tilapia fish, practiced vermiculture, composted humanure – anything for food! They dreamed of gradually transforming the warehouses into an off-the-grid homestead – a zero-waste, closed-loop life support system.

In March 2009, the building was condemned by the Code Compliance Department. Eviction came after nine years of the City supporting and praising Rhizome Collective projects while officially overlooking their code violations. Building inspectors cited a dozen violations including exposed gray water, illegal composting toilets, and a second story addition built on the warehouse roof without a permit. Homespun electrical wiring didn’t help. Code gave a two-week notice of eviction to the nonprofits that operated out of the warehouses—Bikes Across Borders, Inside Books, and Food Not Bombs. The Rhizome Collective fought to extend the eviction to a month, then everybody moved out, struggling to find new homes for the bike shop, prisoner’s library, and kitchen. It was the traumatic end of an experiment in post-petroleum collapse urban futurism. The experiments continue on the south Austin brownfield deeded to the Rhizome Collective as part of an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup grant, now being turned into a recycling center by Ecology Action. Scott and Stacy moved on to Albany, New York, to found the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center, where current RUST (renamed Regenerative Urban Sustainability Training) workshops continue.

During the workshop I attended, Scott led participants around to aquaculture ponds full of tilapia, duckweed, and shrimp, a scavenged satellite dish arrayed with mirrors that focuses sunlight to ignite cardboard (or boil water), and a homemade wind generator that needed some work. The tour’s tableaux let you picture doing the various DIY projects, living the urban homestead life. Round the corner of the “microlivestock” pen and see Scott posing on a milk crate with the beautiful turkey. Dim the lights and watch him demonstrate igniting a torch of homemade methane gas produced by rotting water hyacinth. One by one, a slew of little projects, performed and described, kick-started a self-educated learning process that might not ever stop (or start). One thing blurs into the next as we run through far too many DIY projects to cram into one weekend.

Dogs, a turkey, chickens, machines, and all sorts of other nonhumans swarm at RUST. I hear roosters and someone playing piano while Lauren talks about water security. While learning about a Tupperware worm box that makes “black gold” for the garden, Scott’s daughter tries to feed the dog worms. Ignacio from Bikes Across Borders demonstrates a bike-powered blender driven by a modified roller skate wheel against the back tire, and offers us to taste the smoothie. RUST learning happens with multisensory events going on as parts of the scene. Whistling volunteers make lunch in the kitchen at the back of the big room where another presenter, Rafter Sass, extols “liberation ecology” – a mode of production that moves from extraction and exploitation to intense cultivation and connectivity. Having a kitchen without walls at the back of the lecture room complemented his ideas, keeping you in touch with the smells and sounds of cooking. What might be considered interruptions are nurtured by how spaces overlap, the kids playing in the nursery somehow adding to a multifaceted sensory education.

The ecological home improvement projects that RUST enacts are not as simple as replacing a filament light bulb with a fluorescent – something you can do and forget about. Instead, they fold the individual into the processes that make houses work, amplifying and refraining the house and city as a living ecosystem, inviting new species into the mix of machinic components. Appropriate technologies, animals, plants, and microbiological life forms serve as the technical means for collective security. Since you are their keystone species, these systems of beings require you to do things like tending water gardens or worm boxes. Rather than promising a final emancipation, altering the house with patchworks of DIY sustainability pulls you into relationships of dependency, as if parts of your house had become pets. Your garbage disposal turned into chickens. The compost heap needs fluffing again. But you also depend on these entities to keep the house going. Cultivation becomes the sharing of vulnerability, the individual body and its habits redistributed among interdependent life forms in a living machine. The RUST workshop teems with dreamy possibilities of an emergent probiotic urbanism – a sort of DIY superorganic bioindustrial revolution.

The DIY projects and community organizing taught at RUST are ways to mitigate fear by tinkering with the material contours of catastrophe, to get a grip on something in the midst of a world that seems to be falling apart fast. Crucially, their small-scale solutions to big problems draw individuals into new social networks and ongoing relationships of caring for living things. Fear, anxiety, and the gloom of future catastrophes might give way to other emotions, like the surprises and pleasures of habitats bursting with life. DIY tinkering opens up a slowness that "begins to reduce the anxious rush" of the time-is-money world.**

RUST also attunes the imagination to the scientific-invisible. Illustrations in the workshop handouts zoom in on earthworms with bacteria in their digestive tracts clutching napkins, forks, and knives, eating decomposition – a giddy scaling of beings within beings. Using a backlit microscope we peer in on nematodes, bacteria, and fungal mycilia in a slide of worm box dirt. Lauren Ross lectures on chemicals in urban water and soil, bioremediation using wetlands or compost tea, and the microbe agents in healthy soil ecologies. She warns us about the bad health effects of chemical pollutants in the food and water cycling between our bodies and urban landscapes. Chlorinated tap water sterilizes the soil in your garden, so we should all use rainwater. But you need to ensure that your rain catchments are not contaminating the water. Be suspicious of urban soil toxicity: homegrown organic veggies could carry loads of lead or heavy metals. Lauren promoted testing water and soil to mitigate these risks.

Rust is not necessarily bad for food-growing soil -- a little extra iron for your blood. Just below Ephemerata Garden's surface is a layer of burned timber and rusty nails. A little house in our backyard got struck by lightning and burned down. They just flattened it out across the ground and added a few inches of dirt. Building the City of Living Garbage involves major multispecies labor in remediating landscape patches from the ground down. Everything depends on the soil, and living soil depends on water.


Note: Parts of this entry were first published in Scott Webel, “Free Water! DIY Wetlands and the Futures of Urban Gray Water,” Anthropology Now 3(1): 13-22.

*Kellogg and Pettigrew’s book Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-it-ourselves Guide (South End Press, 2008), wonderfully illustrated by Juan Martinez, goes into many of the environmental justice arguments and sustainable systems featured at RUST.

**In "Grassroots Modernism as Autonomous Practice" (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest 8, 2011), Meg Wade ponders critiques that DIY's little solutions are defeatist pitfalls of parochialism. "If what we need is in fact a change in the scale of our focus – a refusal to expand ourselves to the global reach and pace at which the persisting systems of exploitation encourage us to operate – what then?"

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