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.

The Once and Future World

It seems my reading gets better and better as I go along. My most recent book has been "The Once and Future World" by James MacKinnon. This book covers some previously discussed topics and questions around human relationship with nature, particularly the recommendation to view ourselves as part of nature, not separate or above it. However MacKinnon takes his questions and recommendations a few steps further than some of my previous readings and videos, which focused strongly on agriculture and gardening. MacKinnon paints a picture of further rewilding complete with reintroduction of megafauna.

There are five key themes that MacKinnon addresses that stood out to me.

Thylacine, blamed for its own extinction

Thylacine, blamed for its own extinction

Theme 1: Blindness to Change

This book describes several stories around the endangerment and extinction of animals throughout history. These stories are used to highlight an unfortunate pattern. On multiple occasions, as animals around us began to decrease in numbers, we blamed them for their own extinction, though it was largely our fault. Then, after the last of its kind died, we forgot about the species so easily that many extinct animals have been considered imaginary, as though they never actually excited. Mackinnon quotes sociologist Stanley Cohen "[Denial is] our need to be innocent of a troubling recognition."

MacKinnon describes similar phenomena as "double disappearance" in which not only do parts of our environment disappear from the planet physically, they disappear from our minds and memories as well. We, humans, adapt - new jobs, new uses of the land, new ways of acquiring food - often in ways that further the decline of the species and environments in concern.

Playa de Montijo, Spain from

Playa de Montijo, Spain from

Theme 2: Experiments in Nature

One of my favorite parts of this book is when MacKinnon describes a series of experiments he conducted around closeness with nature. Some of these included: watching nature for 60 minutes a day, going birdwatching with biologists for 24 hours, and going swimming in the ocean every day for a season.

These experiments all stress the importance of deeper knowledge and connection to nature, beyond superficial appreciation. One can love spending time on a beach, but may not be aware of the missing sealife and their return when the tides change unless you visit and observe everyday. MacKinnon also references the fictional character Marcovaldo who is known for his appreciation for but lack of knowledge about nature, and the resulting failed attempts at connection.

Today at work one of my coworkers mentioned a book called "Death in Yellowstone" in which, similarly, visitors end up in fatal situations through negligent and naive action. While I would argue we are overly phobic of nature in many contexts, perhaps a healthy dose of fear of nature in some situations would do us good.

This section of The Once and Future World sparked internal excitement around doing my own set of similar experiments. I unfortunately do not live close enough to a beach, however there are many alternate experiments I could conduct including: waking up for the sunrise every morning, spending a hour in a park watching nature each day, going outside whenever it rains, growing a plant, and of course further barefooting.

Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel from

Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel from

Theme 3: Environmental Space

MacKinnon discusses something he refers to as "habitecture" in this book and gives many examples of architecture designed to accomodate species other than just humans. One example is the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland which designed to allow bees to create hives in the pinnacles, with no goal or capability for collecting their honey - it was purely about cohabitation.

Additionally, the importance of continuous natural sanctuaries is stressed multiple times in this book. While the small pockets of nature are a good first step, the healthier ecosystem is the contiguous one. This seems particularly relevant here in NYC. We are a patchwork of small green spaces - a park here, a planted tree surrounded by concrete there. Our flora and fauna can not interact or communicate. How can we bridge these connections?

European Forest Elephant from Archaeology News Network

European Forest Elephant from Archaeology News Network

Theme 4: Rewilding

MacKinnon acknowledges the fact that we cannot fully return to a historical ecological state - we can only move forward differently and shift our current situation. However, he calls for more than just preservation, farming, parks, and gardening. He calls for rewilding and the re-institution of the abundant, diverse, and balanced ecosystem. 

This goal raises many questions and challenges, including to what extent the human impact is "natural" or as MacKinnon puts it, "How much balance is normal in nature, and how much change? At what point does change become damage?" Further we wonder "How do we live in a wilder world? And what is the wildest world we can live in?"

The biggest concern is the reintroduction of megafauna, proposed by many rewilding projects. Such a change will drastically impact human existence. We will have to be more prepared for encounters with such animals. Additionally, as MacKinnon describes, we may end up seeing a separation between fully rewilded spaces where megafauna roam and adapted human habitats that are barrier-ed and protected. Then we have to wonder, what would these human habitats look like? How "wild" would they be?

WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E (2008)

Theme 5: The "Why"

A couple weeks ago I was in Ithaca and spoke briefly with an Environmental Scientist about my thesis. He touched on the issue of appealing to people and finding a convincing approach to prompt sustainable action. People often feel it's not their problem, they won't have to deal with it in their lifetime. So then the appeal shifts to "do it for your grandchildren" but even this argument doesn't seem to be convincing enough. What will it take to provoke action? What is the unarguable reason that we need to make these changes?

Well, the uncomfortable potential answer, according to MacKinnon, is that there isn't a clear one. From our experience and understanding, we're able to survive without nature - artificial food, man-made habitats, etc. Though it is a possibility for us to get by without our ecosystems, there are three reasons provided in this book for why we shouldn't.

1. Quality of life. We have to think about the type of lives we want to have and the type of species we want to be. What type of surroundings do we desire? MacKinnon argues that humans have an innate connection to nature and desire to have it around. He continues by referencing the types and locations of homes of the wealthy. Take a look at the most expensive properties - what do they have in common? Stunning natural vistas.

2. Morality of human destruction. Who says we even have the right to device whether or not other creatures get to stay or go? We are not the center of creation and therefore should not act like we are. Our actions need to account for and support our fellow flora and fauna on more of an equal playing field.

3. Potential Systemic Impact. Further while we may have reason to believe we can survive without full natural resources, to my knowledge this has not been proven as fact. Likely complete destruction of the natural world will lead to unforeseen negative system impacts. Why face this risk for an artificial world that we don't even intrinsically desire?

"With nature out of focus, it becomes easier to overlook its decline. Then, as the richness and abundance of other species fade from land and sea, nature as a whole becomes less interesting - making it even less likely we will pay attention to it."

The process of rewilding in addition to the new challenges we will face in this a wilder world are fascinating areas for design thinking and thus added to my list of potential further inquiries along with foraging and going barefoot.

Jenna Witzleben