Chapter Seven: The Takeaway

Published on 2019-03-07

Arguably the simplest take away from all my studies of Native American arcana was to learn to walk mindfully, to move while meditating. Walking has emerged as the most ubiquitous tool of most ecological artists internationally. In Ghost Nets, the premises I contemplated from the Medicine Wheel as I walked the site allowed me to connect human qualities such as wisdom or justice, to ecosystem dynamics even as I contemplated the state of my yellow Magnolia grandiflora.

Each day was planned around a ritual walk of the four quadrants I had mapped based on what my Indigenous studies had inspired. On average, the walk took an hour, down the hill to the East to consider the over view of illumination, partially back up the hill to a center point and then further down the hill to the south to consider innocence and small things, the toe of the site where waves pounded rock into sediment, then back up the hill and into the West, to consider introspection, where I’d placed a huge boulder as a focal point for meditation, back to the center, then down the hill in the other direction, around the perimeter of the site and into the quadrant that included  for the watershed, and the small quarry there to consider justice and wisdom. As I made that journey each day, I tried to consider what the relationships might be between those qualities and why they might culminate as they did, with a connection between water, wisdom and justice. Finally, each time I walked back around that corner, back up the hill, and back to my beginning in illumination. In winter, that walk often meant breasting deep drifts of snow. On some days, the winds whipped my then waist length hair into my eyes so that I was constantly pushing it back. Each spring or summer day of my walk, I looked down at the path at my feet to watch grass grow, fretted over seedlings that hadn’t flourished, paced myself when my breathe was short and I felt weak, looked up at the sky to watch the eagles soar by or gazed across the bay to see the loons dip their long beaks into the water.

My practical ideas about restoration work evolved from identifying each ecotone that broke down the microhabitats and defined the edges of water drainage from the heights of the site to the shore. I had three major restoration goals I intended to organize as the performance score for this first phase of the restoration: conserving water, creating forage for land animals, and enhancing fish habitat. Those three goals were delegated sequentially to the three time sequences poetically named: 1. The Trigger Point Garden to restore the uplands riparian zone, 2. KindWind, to consider how mercy balances justice and 3. Traffic Dance, how all life finds the means to co-exist if no one species dominates. This how I began work on each goal and how they each built on each other.

1. Conserving fresh water in the Trigger Point Garden by restoring the riparian zone

In 1990, the entire site had approximately ten isolated patches of indigenous junipers and volunteer spruce growing from bare, broken granite detritus. Nothing impeded spring snow melt downhill or the erosion that came with that flow. I wanted to experiment with making a template to filter and preserve clean water in the uplands riparian zone on its way to the shore. Before I could start stabilizing or replenishing the remaining soil, I had to understand how the island naturally protected its water system. 

I knew that the island is a sole source aquifer. That was important because it made the island a microcosm of how the whole world must manage and conserve fresh water anyplace else. More than decade before environmental activist Vanadana Shiva wrote, Water Wars, I knew the global dangers of water depletion. That danger was something I was very familiar with in Southern California, where water rationing for households, Colorado River diversions for agriculture, and fires roaring through desiccated landscapes is a routine part of the way of life. I knew the root systems of trees and plants can help protect and filter water and how the volatile oils of which plants had to be considered in landscape planning. Global water vulnerability was the reason I was working so hard to restore Ghost Nets. The site was an experiment in fresh water conservation because it was a microcosm of a microcosm. A sole source aquifer means that the only available fresh water either comes from the sky or is stored in subterranean rock fissures. The vulnerability of that system is that when groundwater become contaminated, whether through salt water, as has become a national concern in recent years, from fracking chemicals, or as an act of war against civilians when a well is deliberately poisoned, there is no remedy to restore the system once it is contaminated. On Vinalhaven, if water is overdrawn from wells anywhere on the island, or if there is sea water intrusion anywhere along on the coast from sea level rise, the water supply for the entire island is threatened. I approached the problems of water conservation on the dump site as a microcosm for restoring conditions to protect water elsewhere. How that restoration might accomplish that protection was the intention of the bioremediation I undertook. The plan was primarily effected by designing for permaculture: layering to filter and contain water and by my plant choices for that layering. Contemplating permaculture was another way to think about how to assemble relationships in complex adaptive systems and eventually, trigger point theory. A complex adaptive system or model (CAS, CAM) is a method that has developed from systems theory and complexity science to determine how apparently disparate agents in interaction can be algorithmically tracked to determine outcomes. During most of Ghost Nets, my observations about water were entirely empirical.

When restoration began, the first thing I noticed was that spruce and juniper were struggling to find purchase at Ghost Nets. I identified with those stubborn plants as I confronted my exhaustion each day, even as I began noticing how by watching them over time as I continued my walks, I could learn how nucleation worked to pioneer adaptive change for natural succession and an expanding colonization. Since those remnants could passively effect nucleation, I chose to leave them undisturbed but monitor them. Meanwhile, I also chose different sites for nucleation with introduced species of native plants. Each was planned to reinforce discreet ecotone systems in relation to hydrologic, geologic and wind patterns and then they were mulched for protection while understories and tree canopies grew up.

At the site, I collected and distributed compost around my plantings created from food scraps and collecting the seaweed that washed up at the shore. Newspaper soaked in mycorrizhae (a fungus that can be liquefied and added to soil for enhanced plant root growth) was also used as mulch by working it around the root systems of new saplings. I weighed down the soaked newspapers with rocks to anchor them against the fierce winds that routinely scoured the coast in case they might be swept off the covering soil. Indigenous flowering plants (forbs) and grasses were planted, so that their root decomposition could eventually make soil and in many cases, become nitrogen fixers to feed other plants. Traps for water and debris to establish microhabitats were made by leaving fallen branches around bare boulders. This modest system created refugia on the site that was complimented by the cover of needles and leaves from the growing trees as the seasons changed and passed. I lost myself entirely in these tasks.

Bioengineer David Polster, whom I met years later at a conference for the Society for Ecological Restoration in Mexico has described how he employs similar means to create nucleation by gathering debris. He uses wattles, live gully breaks, and other natural structural interventions to create catchments and refugia in drastically disturbed sites at a far greater scale than I was working with. Mine was a small site but the purpose was the same. From studying the site and applying an aesthetic logic about 3-D design, I had intuitively applied parallel techniques throughout Ghost Nets. The difference was that I considered these mini-collections of branches and rocks, leaving storm-blown snags and other small structures to trap flow and reduce runoff to be temporary sculptures for other species. Natural catchments were also created by weather, and byfall on Ghost Nets that would eventually create new soil, provide habitat refugia, and slow the damage of erosion. In the estuarine portion of the restoration at the conclusion of the work, Lines of Demarcation were installed  as an eighty-foot long configuration of boulders placed as a wave attenuation barrier between zones in the wetlands restoration.

2. Providing food for migrating and local species is a matter of environmental justice with other species. 

By the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the islands in Maine were denuded by succesive generations of sheepherding. The sparse habitat cover left on most of these islands had reverted to spruce woodlands, which limits biodiversity and is qualitatively different than the composition of forests early European settlers had found, rich in deciduous trees. Even before sheepherding, earlier in settler history, according to seventeenth and eighteenth century diaries and ledger books, Maine was a source of hardwood timber. White Pine provided ship masts to royal navies. Aggressive harvesting changed the ecosystem across the entire state before farming took hold. The previous habitats have long since been superseded by simpler forest systems dominated by the boreal spruce associated with Maine in more southerly densities than their natural boreal zone. As climate change proceeds, this may change. I’ve carefully watched for evidence of that change, noting for example that the yellow Magnolia grandiflora tree I planted in 1991 is now much happier. As I watched the increments of change on each walk, I listened as the sound became more complex and rich in variation as the habitat filled in its nuanced layers.

By 1994, all my plantings were in place to protect the local watershed and I had begun my basic work on the riparian zone. I began by anticipating what might impact preparation to restore the estuary, in the final third of the project. Work proceeded on my restoration strategy by focusing on the surface water of the watershed in the Northern most quadrant, where a quarry was located. I called this second phase of work KindWind for the North winds that defined the microhabitat. I was borrowing from Native American lore about how justice is defined by the relentlessness of North winds and extrapolating that justice is the ultimate kindness. 

But in the wider world, this was the time of OJ Simpsons’ trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole. The legend that accompanies the idea of North Winds with some Plains tribes references justice for two brothers, one of whom is a rapist. It was one of many occasions in my life that re-evoked my own experience of rape as a young woman, personalizing and embodying and making the eventual restoration of the marsh an anthropomorphic vision. I was one of the reputedly one in four women in this country who have experienced rape. It was a time when external politics drove my personal investment in the metaphors in Ghost Nets with even more urgency and passion than I was already carrying from the reality of my personal circumstances..

Because Ghost Nets is in a Class A fly zone for migratory birds passing north and south along the Eastern Americas continental shorelines, birds play an important role in nuclear regeneration by dispersing seeds. Based on my research into settler diaries, the magnolia was one of several deciduous tree species I planted with a particular interest in the limits and extent of their range as a barometer of climate change. I was very curious whether a more hardwood dependent system might be reestablished even before climate change might make my Zone 3 site more hospitable to a different, happier Zone 5 forest. I also guessed that as they grew, the deciduous saplings, including two magnolias, would determine which bird species might take up symbiotic residence. Nucleation starts successional waves at all stages of regeneration. The planting design I created provided a balance between what I intended to experiment with, and how the birds might become my planning partners. To accomplish this aspect of my work, my intention was to attract as broad a variety of birds as possible with a complex garden planting design. The forage I provided was to support migratory bird flights and to help them spread plant varieties for bioregional forestry health beyond the site. I imagined my little site as a dot in a long matrix of connected dots that could be established all along the Eastern North American coastlines. The effect would contribute to biodiversity, reduce fragmentation and restore forest contiguity. Making drawings for how that might be accomplished were my happiest, easiest and calmest times on the island.

I wasn’t the only one thinking along the lines of how ordinary citizens might enhance the habitats of their own properties. It was a methodology similar to that advocated by the Backyard Habitat Program for the National Wildlife Federation ( Wildlife/Create-a-Habitat.aspx). The distinction at Ghost Nets was the basis for trigger point theory in how I kept seeking the realization of a pattern that reinforced large landscape contiguities. These distinctions became more pronounced to me as my plantings grew. The microclimates and patterns of interactions with the winds began to change along with the animal communities inflecting everything from sounds, to temperatures and fragrances.

The Trigger Point Garden was designed to fit the site and attract wildlife. But I also luxuriated in the colors, textures, scales of everything I experimented with, making endless drawings for heather group, justifying their presence because the island geology had broken off from Europe millions of years ago. The paths were stroll gardens in the manner of Japanese gardens to inspire surprise and foster meditation as they alternately revealed and concealed views of the ocean beyond the site. The paths were sculpturally conceived, marked by boulders, and flanked by the bones of the tree limbs as they grew on either side. Each small gardening decision was based on the ever more nuanced observations I was accumulating in my daily walks. 

The terrain of the site combined with an extreme exposure to the ocean on the west side continued to create a wide range of potential microhabitats despite the relatively small size of the lot and the morphing of the plant communities. The plants I selected ranged over hundreds of species, recorded in numerous thick notebooks, but those I mostly focused on were primarily native species. Their Latin names continued to delight me as much as their appearance or function, the leathery dark green leaves of Arctostaphylos uva ursi, the blueish cast of Juniperus virginiana needles, the brilliant blues of Iris versilcor, the tiny, delicate pinkish white of Amelanchier laevis blossoms, scarlet branches of Cornus sericea in winter, the fruits of Prunus avium feeding visiting bird and Pinus strobus, whose trunks once masted the British Army. These species were integrated with specimens from more southerly oak-hickory forests in anticipation of how plant communities would likely migrate from global warming, such as my favorite, a yellow-blossomed Magnolia grandiflora for the Eastern quadrant of the garden I often frquented. In addition, I watched carefully for local volunteers, such as the small blue flowers of Linaria vulgaris, common to waste areas, and lovely red Aquilegias, which may have remained from previous settlers’ gardens. The vertically layered planting patterns nourished animal communities above the ground and below the soil line, invisible to humans.

Each day and the incremental progress in creating relationships between plants and animals was monitored in journals. The same journaling monitoring the Ghost Nets site, walking paths and planning plantings in the riparian zone recorded my personal life. The journals helped me monitor my health to try to control my CFS but they were not organized as any scientist might have recorded their observations. In fact, I had no idea then how that might have been done. Instead, page after page illustrated how color combinations were conceived to overlap seasonally and provide a continuous ‘walking mandala’ for sensual experience of the site while informally monitoring habitat changes. 

In the West quadrant of the Trigger Point Garden, one stroll path was created just for visually tracking the use of forage plants seen from different points of view. In this way, I could consider how to eventually enhance (littoral) coastal habitat to support finfish survival. 

Looking forward to restoring the coastal aspect was the most challenging design work and closest to the Baroque music counterpoint rule of composing the end before resolving the arc of dissonance. It required me to reconnect the fragmented habitat of the uplands riparian zone and with what would eventually become the restored estuary with all its ecotone transitions re-established and that wasn’t completed until the end of the project. 

From the beginning, erosion was my greatest consideration in knitting ecotones and habitats. My strategies to maximize water retention in the uplands soil and filter water when spring melt and rains created runoff, was so that nutrients did not overload the estuary at the Southern base of the site. The ecotone emphasis I parsed was intended as a working model for other homeowners to use in managing relationships between fresh and salt water.

Following my initial focus on the uplands riparian system to establish robust water filtration, I established additional plantings of the smaller plants to expand successional nucleation in edges where patches might overlap and in the ecotones at the edges of patches. I continued to love learning the Latin names of each species, their roles in all the plant communities I was researching, as I studied pictures and considered how they might live with eachother. The new plantings included blackgum and red oak trees: Nyssa sylavatica, Quercus rubra, and more food for birds:Viburnum opulus var. trilobum, Juniperus horizontalis, and gracefully elegant Tiarella cordifolia to plant beneath the understory in the groundcover

The estuarine restoration would be the third phase of my work, Traffic Dance, referring to how ecosystems exchange functions in complex ways between fresh and salt water. That final phase was initiated with Wendi Goldsmith of The Bioengineering Group, whom I had met at a conference. Our work culminated in 1997, when we extracted sixteen truckloads of riprap that had created the made land of the deep-water wharf where my studio, the former sawmill was. Removing the riprap from the site allowed what is called “daylighting” to reveal estuarine soil and permit tidal exchanges. Elevations were calibrated to match the local control site, a pristine location with comparable characteristics. 

Because of my CFS, each three-year phase of this conceptual symphony was an endurance performance. The specific local relationships with soil (or sediment in the estuary), wind, animals (including humans), and water inflected my experience of each phase. 

Soil was periodically tested in each microhabitat for chemical compatibility with each of the planting groups and residual contaminants. No toxic compounds remained, but I assumed and planned for air pollution and how acid rainfall would require continued filtering. The years passed. I was learning to live with CFS with more acceptance and take more joy in what was changing on the site. 

3. Edges between fresh and salt water are the most extreme and fragile habitat manifestations of complexity. Traffic Dance, 1997–2000: effecting the estuarine daylighting. 

The final third of Ghost Nets was the restoration of the estuary at the base of the site in the south. The challenge in the southern quadrant was to visualize how the littoral zone community interacted with the marine zone and the uplands riparian zone. This required the deepest meditative focus on interspecies relationships of the entire project. The estuarine wetlands required daylighting to allow tidal flushing of soil and sediment. My aim was to link the fresh water watershed, the riparian zone, and the restored estuary, mixing fresh and salt water for habitat. It was the same task I wanted to accomplish in own body- a balance between tensions and expectations.

I don’t think the experience of rape ever goes away. I was raped as a virgin when I was a nineteen-year-old virgin by the man I thought I would marry. I left him without telling anyone what had happened. After all, I knew him. In1964, knowing the perpetrator meant it couldn’t be rape. It had to be the victims fault. A rape victim had to be a whore. I felt shame and confusion. I was one if four- one in the every four women who have experienced sexual assault. It may have been common, but it was another one of those life altering experiences. I’ve been in therapy pretty much ever since. It was very easy then for me to see how many ways sexual degradation was normalized. Destroying womens lives with a sexual attack this way was, and in many cases, evidently, as the MeToo movement has revealed, still is a ubiquitous problem. When I was treated for breast cancer in 2012 and then in 2016, my experiences with the medical establishment recapitulated the casual violation of my bodily integrity I had experienced with rape. I came to think this tolerance of abuse is our culture and inextricable from the forces that destroy the Earth as we know it.

In 1997, the particular destruction of estuarine systems seemed to me to be comparable to the casual destruction of fertility when women are abused and raped. Like young women, or females of most mammalian species, estuaries are among the most fertile habitat systems on Earth. Their richness ranks with our dwindling rain forests and dying coral reefs under assault. It is estimated that half the estuaries of the United States have been lost since the beginning of the European colonial invasion of the North American continent. In addition to being a nursery for fish, estuaries protect coastlines from storm erosion. This function has gotten more attention in the age of sea level rise and the more severe storms that are the hallmark climate change, such as Katrina and Sandy that have become normalized in the years since I completed Ghost Nets. The impacts of this scale of loss on the fisheries and the protection of coastlines is enormous. 

The configuration of the small “pocket” marshes typical of the entire upper half of the Gulf of Maine, including most of those on Vinalhaven objectively recapitulates the shape of woman’s womb. The word “cunt,” derives from an old English term for plowing the field, without any salacious implications. In spite of criticisms of ecofeminist thinking as a “essentialist,” I spoke of work on the Ghost Nets estuary as the restoration of the, “ultimate cunt.” What I was thinking was that the original site had been treated like a tempting virgin to be ravished, destroyed and discarded. I was also considering the fractal iteration of form and how it might be determining animal populations

Our work began with backhoe excavation under the supervision of bioengineer Wendi Goldsmith to take out fifteen truckloads of granite debris that had been dumped into the shoreline. After the truckloads of granite rip rap were hauled away, the next task was to shape the edges to allow regrowth. This phase culminated my focus on littoral zone biodiversity. My approach aimed to maximize habitat and forage systems serving the wide range of animals dependent on salt marsh habitat. The beginning of this phase was marked by three days of conventional daylighting and planting in March of 1997.  Goldsmith calibrated the final levels projected for the site by making comparisons to a control site across the bay.

Long coir rolls about 24” in diameter were employed for wave attenuation at the point where the upland slope met the flat base of the shore. The rolls served as a planting medium for bare-root salt marsh grasses: Spartina alterniflora and S. patens that were staked in place. Further up the newly shaped slopes other native seedlings and shrubs were planted, with a small crew of helpers, in the soil which had been bared after daylighting. Three years later, in 2000, funding from the Nancy H. Gray Foundation for Art in the Environment supported Dr. Dionne to monitor the success of the work, which found 18 indicator species of a successful restoration. I was ready to take my trigger point theory show on the road.