Jenna Witzleben

MFA Thesis Blog

This blog contains experiments, project and reading reflections, unanswered questions, and more relating to my year-long thesis as part of my Master's design program. From Sept. 2016 to May 2017, I explored rewilding human beings and the environments we inhabit at multiple scales including investigation around individual fears of nature, regional food production systems, and global overpopulation. The final works of this thesis can be found in my portfolio.

Further Interviews

Along with the various sprints (co-creation, service, app, etc.), I have been continuing to conduct interviews. Rewilding is such a massive area of inquiry that there is still so much to learn. Plus, I've found that interviews and reading help me stay immersed in my "topic", stay grounded, and prevent anxiety over whether or not I'm working on something important. Speaking with people about it is affirming. From the most recent set of interviews, there have been several fascinating threads of learning.

A couple of my interviewees touched on ownership of public space and there seemed to be tension and confusion in this area This not aided by the different policies different locations have regarding this topic. While one of my interviewees discussed how she hoped people in NYC know that they are allowed to take care of trees in public places, another one of my interviewees discussed the threats of arrest for guerrilla grafters in San Francisco. 

NYC Million Trees Project

NYC Million Trees Project

In this round of interviews I also spoke with a couple barefoot-ers. These helped to inspire my app design, which I'll be posting about soon. But they also raised some insights around visibility and activism. The two interviewees - Matthew Medina of Seattle and Stephanie Welch of Boston had very different approaches to spreading the movement and normalizing barefootedness. Matthew sees his visibility as his primary mode of encouraging people to go barefoot. By being barefoot in public, he increases its normalcy, and invites curiosity and questioning to people interested in learning more.

Stephanie on the other hand, camouflages her barefootedness with Barebottoms shoes. She feels that seeing bare feet is too much for people and is more of a turnoff than a conversation starter. Instead she finds that wearing Barebottoms shoes invites more conversation than going completely barefoot. She also supplements these conversations by working with the Boston Urban Barefooting League to approach businesses and provide them information around the safety and health benefits of going barefoot, to reduce "No shoes no service" policies. 

Barebottom Shoes

Barebottom Shoes

Another interview that I found particularly exciting was one with Davey Jones, a soil scientist from Bangor University in Wales. He conveyed to me the various complexities and controversies around rewilding efforts in Wales. The primary of which was cultural genocide. Many citizens of Wales do not want to "rewild" their landscapes because the grass and sheep have been part of their cultural heritage for over 150 years. This resonates with what Jerry Glover described to me about barriers to rewilding in America too - there are idyllic views of agriculture and a lack of desire for farmers to transform their environments.

Dr. Jones also spoke with me about Ecosystem Services as a method for evaluating all environmental efforts, including rewilding. Using this framework it is clear that there are many considerations at play, and bringing back the types of plants that are native to a region may not always be the healthiest decision considering our new climate conditions, etc. This reminds me of some of Emma Marris' philosophies and again goes back to the way we define wild and rewilding. I think these environmental complexities are the reason Emma defines rewilding as simply making more room for other species besides humans. So it doesn't have to be plants native to the region prior to human contact. It just has to be other plants and animals besides humans.

Finally, a few of my interviews, including a secondary interview with John Thackara, resulted in the recommendation to return to soil/dirt. It is very true that the soil is the common ground (please mind the pun) for the topics I am investigating. We have an overblown fear and distaste for dirt on a personal level. We lack appreciation and awareness of the importance of soil health as a community. We rely on its health to produce food for our nations. And the growing population puts it in danger, because there is not enough of it to produce all of our food and receive all of our waste.

That being said, I am not ready to say that my thesis is now on dirt again. I still have a lot of forward momentum around rewilding and alternate food production. I hope to elevate the role soil plays in each of the lenses or areas I am investigating, but still feel the need to stay broad with my thesis for now.

Jenna Witzleben