Natural Histories for Troubled Times, or, Revisiting the ‘Entangled Bank’

This seminar looks at our (troubled) times, its toxic landscapes and eco-unfriendly townscapes, through the lens of natural history. By “lens” we can think immediately about optical instruments that bring the world into view, from the first microscopes that revealed legions of minute beasties and beauties, to scanning electron microscopes, which create their own phantasms of visual mastery. What makes this materiality of vision so inviting is that intrinsic to the craft, practice, and indeed the science of natural history are the techniques of observing, representing, writing, drawing, modeling, collecting, sorting, naming, and knowing that are consistent with our own work as architects and landscape architects. The natural history tradition—which at one point in its own history shifted from a descriptive to a historical art—long promoted the notion of the kingdoms of nature: mineral, vegetable, animal. Living amidst their ruins, we will attend to the ways in which the social, political, and especially economic (i.e. ecological) ideas and ideals that supported these kingdoms fell apart, producing far more curious and complicated affiliations and entanglements. For the sake of focus (see the discussion of lenses above), the narrators and objects of this seminar will be drawn mainly from two large phyla: Arthropoda  (insects, arachnids, crustaceans) and Annelida (segmented worms). That said, some other sorts of creatures will inevitably crawl, wing, or wiggle their way into our discourse. These relatively small beings, all of them “spineless,” play a tremendous role in our lived and inhabited world, which we will examine through the art, language, craft, and literature of natural history. In these troubled times we need natural history more than ever to explain to ourselves, while looking out for, peering back from, or projecting onto our environment, what nature has become and/or where it has gone.