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.

Ted Talks - Proximity to Nature, Messiness, and Mechanistic viewpoints

I've recently found several interesting Ted talks relevant to my inquiries.

Jeff mainly speaks on driving and city sprawl but what is particularly interesting is his argument about proximity to nature. He states "if you love nature, stay the heck away from it," and argues for more people to move into dense cities where carbon emissions per household are the lowest, among other factors. 

But to me this is a fearful, band-aid solution. Just the other day I was walking through Central Park and saw a beautiful field of trees all fenced in with signs saying "Protect the American Elm. Please Stay Out." And while, based on further research, the concerns of soil compaction are the reasoning behind this message, this sign promotes a general theme that we do not have the capability to develop a caring relationship with the earth and that "the best we can do" is to stay away. As John Thackara describes, this is a "do less harm approach."

To Jeff's point, yes, we shouldn't move to the suburbs where we occupy more space and rely more heavily on automotive transportation. But in a systematic and long term approach, we cannot consider hiding in our concrete bubbles the solution either. Staying away from nature is not the answer if we want to shift from "doing less harm" to "leaving things better."

This video was much more aligned with my point of view, as Tama discusses her journey into weed foraging. The topic itself is fascinating and I look forward to learning more first hand by going to a session with Wild Man Steve here in NYC. 

Tama had two points that particularly resonated with me in this video. First is our predisposition to believe that nature is something to be controlled and orderly. She argues that we are part of nature and not its masters; and that we should embrace its messiness. The debate between human as separate from vs. part of nature raises a slew of questions for me - including the "naturalness" of our constructions and creations. But in a connected and inclusive approach, though we and all our creations would be considered natural, we are also held to maintain respectful relationships to the ecosystems that surround us - as an equal member. This perspective has the potential to limit industrial growth more than the "humans and nature as separate" perspective. 

The other piece of this talk that I particularly enjoyed was her closing statement: "Once you embark on this path you will notice things that are beautiful that you've never noticed before. And in the morning when you feel the texture of the herbs and the dew on your hands and the thin rays of the sunlight slant in your eyes, you will feel amazing." In our separation from nature we have amplified our cognitive and visual capabilities and suppressed some of our emotive and visceral ones. Logic and numbers are often prioritized over feeling and gut. Sex and intimacy are risque subjects and discussions around them are often accompanied by embarrassment. We need everything clean and clear for our visual comfort. Tama's call for a messier interaction with nature where we start to use other senses and we start to listen as opposed to direct, is a greatly needed shift. I look forward to further investigation on this matter through reading up on the history of landscape architecture.

This video is one of my all time favorites. Joel gives a passionate talk that furthered my thinking from the previous video. A primary topic of this talk is the distinction between a mechanistic and biological viewpoint towards life. We are so focused on optimization and order and using nature as a machine to complete tasks for us. We have no focus or concern for the fact that these systems and organisms are living. I loved Joel's example that we have no scientific studies on how to "make pigs happier." 

Further we have diminished the natural and biological so much that it seems ugly or barbarian-like to us. No more weeds, no more breastfeeding, etc. All of these natural things that we're reliant on, we're disgusted by. Chemicals and artificiality are considered "sexier". Which brings me to one of my other favorite statements from this talk: that there is far more sex going on in a bin of compost than there is in chemical fertilizers.

Joel's various arguments surrounding the fact that we have "divorced ourselves from normal visceral relationships" prompts my further interest in all of the natural beings and behaviors that we are afraid of or disgusted by. What are they and how can they become re-normalized and celebrated?

Jenna Witzleben