Displaced Nature: Multispecies landscapes, mushrooms, and the megapolis

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Karen Holmberg]

Concentric circles of the local to the larger ripple out from a megapolis like New York. The unnatural and natural are tangled in them.

I live across the street from a garment sweatshop. They make ball gowns and on delivery days dresses wrapped in plastic and bound for department stores are sent fluttering on rope down to the street, six floors below. I’d say they look like birds as they fall but they look like nothing I’ve ever seen so that wouldn’t be true. It is strangely beautiful to watch. The workers are all women. Sometimes there is also a cat that will sit on a fire escape. I never see the women arrive or leave. I wonder if they sleep there from the low glimmer of a television late at night. I watch their labor during the day as I work from my desk. At times we catch one another, co-gazing at the Other. The women smile a little when they see me seeing them, which confuses me as I am conditioned to think of a sweatshop as a place of misery. 

dresses being sent to the street on ropes
dresses being sent to the street

At the end of the street there was once a pond fed by fresh springs. It is now a concrete covered park. As the city grew in the 17th century the Lenape people were pushed aside. The pond was filled with the run off from tanneries and slaughterhouses mixed with laundering suds and dead cats and dogs. In 1803 the decision was made to bury it in soil, though it refused to disappear so people were paid to dump their garbage in it. For one shining moment the area was fashionable but then the fill began to stink and release methane gas and the middle class fled. It became Five Points, the first great slum of the United States. It, in turn, was razed for The Tombs, an infamous prison based on an ancient Egyptian mausoleum. Any building put on the land sinks and sags and is torn down. A plaque states that ‘the city displaced nature’, but displaced nature refused to truly leave. The water continues to come back, just as it did in Superstorm Sandy when the landfilled portions of Manhattan again submerged.

On my desk I have a copy of The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing. She delves into the natural, the commodity chain, and the global through the lens of fungus. She urges ‘collaborative survival within multispecies landscapes, the prerequisite for continuing life on earth’. She details a mushroom that is said to be the first life to spring from Hiroshima’s devastation. Near my desk I have a mushroom farm in a box. The spores sprang to fresh life and thrived but perhaps I should have plucked them and cooked them days ago because they have started to look wooden and dry. They are beginning to decay. Is it natural, this ‘organic mushroom mini farm’ wrapped in plastic? As natural as we ourselves are, I suppose. The raw materials of capitalism are of course what we call nature, and we are ourselves part of that material.

Those concentric circles? They are not the meditative ones from pebbles tossed into a lake. They are diopter sight lines that look both forward and backward, future and past.

mushroom farm in a box (when fresh and young)
mushroom farm in a box (when still fresh and young)


Karen Holmberg

I consider myself an archaeologist with a volcanology fetish. I find the earth and social sciences indivisible in the study of past, contemporary, and future experiences of environmental change and disaster. I am currently a visiting scholar at New York University. www.karenholmberg.com

One thought on “Displaced Nature: Multispecies landscapes, mushrooms, and the megapolis

  1. Those concentric circles remind me of Clyde Kluckhohn’s observation that every human being is, in some respects, like every other human being; in other respects, like some other human beings; and still other respects uniquely themselves. Anthropology’s greatest contribution to human knowledge has been to insist that to explain “like some other human beings” we need more than generic descriptions of humanity or details about personalities. We need that middle ground where society and culture shape human possibilities.

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