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.

Research and Methodologies

For this thesis, I have employed six primary methods of research: interviews with subject matter experts, reading of contemporary non-fiction books, reading of contemporary articles and blogs, attendance at events like the Annual Permaculture Festival in Brooklyn, viewing related films (fictional and documentary), and direct immersion through experiences such as foraging classes and barefooting. The following information details the inspiration, motivation, and guide posts for the work I have and will continue to create in this thesis.

ACADEMIC RESEARCH

WHY REWILD?

Climate change and carbon sequestration has been on the top of the environmental radar for the last several years. But what many people don’t realize is that climate change is just one of a multitude of environmental concerns on the rise. We are facing water shortages, drought, soil degradation, deforestation, habitat loss, and species extinction at the highest rates since the extinction of dinosaurs. These issues, just like climate change, will multiply and pose just as much of a threat to the human race as climate change. Another commonality with climate change? We’re the source of this problem. 

The estimated beginning of the Agriculture Revolution is 12,000 years ago. With this came new modes of treating the land to control our food production. One of the fundamental techniques employed is tilling. Tilling is an artificial catastrophe that works to prevent fields naturally progressing towards climax forest. Tilling up-turns to soil to prevent root growth such that the farmers can continue to plant monocrops. This causes a whole host of issues, but most notable is soil erosion. We are losing topsoil at rates of up to 40 times the rate of regeneration, and thus we are running our of arable land to grow plants and food in. This is the entire focus of David Montgomery’s book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. In addition to simply mistreating the soil, we also pave over it and dump it with our waste products. We need to “heal the soil”, as John Thackara often says, to prevent from further conflict, crisis, and catastrophe.

Deforestation for agricultural and urban pursuits not only damages the soil and the fungal networks, but it also destroys habitats and resources of other non-human animals. With this we start to see the extreme endangerment and extinction of animals. Extinction is furthered by chemical runoff into marine habitats, overfishing, human overconsumption of resources, and hunting of predators to protect ourselves and our sacred cattle. All of this activity is amplified by our exponentially expanding population. J.B. MacKinnon describes the phenomena of “double disappearance” in his book, a phenomena that makes the matter of extinction even more troublesome. It is a historical pattern where once an animal is declared “endangered”, humans blame the species for their own decline. Then after extinction, we continue to deny our own impacts and often species become lost from human memory or even labeled “imaginary”. Such was the fate of the Thylacine (otherwise known as the Tasmanian Tiger). So these animals are not only disappearing physically, they disappear from mind and memory as well.

This pattern of extinction and ignorance is a problem because of interwoven our ecosystem is. One key example of this is with bees. The declining bee population poses a huge threat in pollinating the crops we humans eat. But even beyond that, we should be able to be empathetic enough with other species, to have enough moral and ethical thought to realize that we are no more important or superior that them. That, ethically, we should desire protection of other species.

Rewilding would involve direct action against these issues, but the benefits of rewilding can extend beyond environmental health as well. In my interview with him, Peter Michael Bauer said “all roads lead to rewilding”, as rewilding also addresses social inequities among humans. 

We must recognize the interconnectivity of human health, the health of other species, and the health of soil and water and other natural elements. Our ignorance of this interdependency can lead to sudden systemic collapse. We also have to think about the type of lives we want to have and the type of species we want to be. E.O. Wilson would argue that humans have an innate connection to nature in “The Biophilia Hypothesis”. The question is how to awaken this in each of us. We may have reason to believe we can survive without full natural resources through technological innovation. But complete destruction of the natural world will likely lead to unforeseen negative systematic impacts and collapse. Why face this risk for an artificial world that we don’t even intrinsically desire?

ELEMENTS OF A REWILDED WORLD

Food Production Systems

At the beginning of the projects, I carried with me some heavy assumptions around what food would be in a rewilded world. Foraging, of course...right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Through my research I was educated on how, though foraging can be a fun and educational way to break the divide and reconnect people with more diverse edible plants, as well as to provide intimate experiences with food acquisition, on the whole this practice is not sustainable. Even in the case that the individual forager is responsible and doesn’t over-harvest, if 1000 foragers come and take from that same source without communication between all of them, then the source will run out. Foraging lacks reciprocity. Peter Michael Bauer was tremendously helpful in understanding the source of our presumptions and myths around wild and natural food sources. He specifically discussed the myths that we hold around hunter gatherer methods of food production. When white settlers arrived on many of these lands, the landscapes appeared forested and wild - as if the native peoples simple foraged off the landscape and did no maintenance work. However, these people engaged in what we now call permaculture, which incorporates tending of the land but in a way that is reciprocal, maintains soil health and biodiversity, mimics the forest landscapes, and provides habitat for non-human animals.

In the realm of sustainability, we now have organic farming, a method that utilizes alternative forms of fertilizer, and slightly increased biodiversity from traditional agricultural farms. Local farmer’s markets are rising in popularity. This is a great step in the right direction. But according to my interviews, and particularly a conversation with Dr. Jerry Glover, it has become clear that organic farming is not enough either. According to Dr. Glover, most of these farms still only have 5 different crops, as opposed to 2 in non-organic farms. So they still lack biodiversity. Further, this doesn’t remove the inclination to convert more land to farmland that could otherwise be maintained for healthier ecosystems and habitats. Jerry called for a vision more hopeful that this. 

So what then, if not foraging and not organic farming?

One suggestion was industrialized algae. We have the capability to alter food flavors to be just about anything we want and algae is abundant and easily renewable. This would free up land currently being used for agriculture to be rewilded. 

The other suggested method, as I previously mentioned, is permaculture. Nearly half of my interviewees mentioned this practice, many without prompting. Most modern permaculture has taken place on small, community garden scales, though there are efforts to experiment with industrial farm-scale versions. If successful, these lands will increase in plant and animal biodiversity, they will be more resilient to pests and disease, they will be more water efficient, and they will better sequester carbon. 

So if there are alternatives such permaculture, why hasn’t this taken off? There are many reasons. First, the most obvious, is that agriculture is such a risk-laiden and highly competitive business to begin with, that farmers many not be able to afford this investment. On a related note, the push for more food to feed our global population is outweighing any concept of caring for ecosystems. Especially in terms of algae, some of the testing and technology is not fully developed yet. But potentially more deep seated and systemic of a cause, pointed out by both Jerry Glover here in the US and Davey Jones from Wales, is the cultural barriers to transforming agriculture. In both nations, agriculture and farming has become integrated into our culture, literature, and celebrations. We have painted farming and agriculture in an idyllic form, and this romanticization is standing in the way of high impact. Dr. Glover posed the question “Even if we technologically could rewild - would people choose to live in rewilded area?”

My optimism about this regained strength when I spoke with Ariel Greenwood. She is a grazier in California, and thus works very closely with the land and animals there. Her role involves planning out how the cattle on the land will graze it and then doing the physical labor to make that happen. It’s a  process called holistic management or holistic grazing. She discussed with me her appeal to the role of “grazier” as opposed to “rancher” and how it somewhat subversively allows her to get paid for taking care of the land. People are paying for the product - the beef, but her main priority is the land stewardship. This gave me hope that people in agriculture could want to live in a “wilder” way, however this practice does not come without its challenges as well. Ariel discussed how isolating her role can be and she described her vision for more social versions of grazing and bringing more people into this practice.

Sensuality and Earth

This theme of tactility and corporeality was incorporated in some of my other readings and TED talks as well. Jana Richman writes in the book “Dirt: A Love Story” “In a culture where only young women are allowed to express themselves as sexual beings, dirt on the body allows old women to say: fuck that. You don’t determine my sexuality, I do. The earth does.”

In his TED talk on treating the land with care, Joel Salatin gives a passionate argument on 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. 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 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”. But Joel counters ”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?

Returning to Jana’s quote, we also need renormalization of all human bodies. It shouldn’t be the case that we are held to an abnormal ideal: permanently being young and hairless. 

Adjusted Humans Norms

As we rewild will need to be more aware of our surroundings: both to avoid harming other beings as well as to be capable of acquiring food and protecting ourselves. In some ways we will need to be more individually capable - being able to make things from the materials around us, establish modes of food production, pay attention to our impact, etc. In other ways we will need to be more respectful of the community - both of humans and non-humans and respect the natural resource commons.

Additionally humans will need to adopt alternate forms of entertainment and fashion. We need to consider how will retail stores, movie theaters, amusement parks might transform to exist in a rewilded world, or will they become obsolete? How will our clothing change as we spend more time in “natural” or “wild” spaces?

We also will need to learn to accept and embrace natural human phenomena and behavior: As we grow more comfortable with other species - their biology and behaviors, is it likely we will grow more comfortable with aspects of our own species that have been discarded or denoted “uncivilized”, including breastfeeding, body hair, and menstruation.

Barefooting

Going barefoot is another human behavior that will likely be re-normalized in a rewilded world. This practice allows us to re-engage physically and sensually with the earth. It’s also actually healthier for us, as the increased sensation of feet provide our bodies more information and help our legs adapt to terrain better. Further it makes us more aware of the trash, garbage, and debris on the ground. If we all went barefoot, we’d probably treat the earth that we walk on a little bit better. And just think of all the avoided material waste if we all stopped wearing shoes, or at least stopped wearing shoes as frequently.

I was able to speak with a couple long term barefoot-ers. The two interviewees - Matthew Medina of Seattle and Stephanie Welch of Boston had very different approaches to spreading the movement and normalizing barefootedness, to touch back on the modes of change. 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.

Language Shifts

When you start talking about rewilding, you have to restructure the way you speak about the natural world. We currently speak in a dichotomous fashion “humans vs. animals”, “civilization vs. nature”, etc. However, we are not so distinct - we are part of the natural world. John Thackara says “The closer you look, the more blurred becomes the border between organic and inorganic life.”And therefore even the terms of nature, wild, and wilderness don’t make sense as separate entities from human. We currently try to separate ourselves from the fact that we eat other living beings by referring to “it” as opposed to “he/she”, “bacon” as opposed to “pig”, “what’s for dinner” as opposed to “who’s for dinner”. Editing this manner of speaking can help us in our shift to reconnection and away from objectification.

Emma Marris calls for a redefinition of nature in her book and TED talk. We currently view wild nature as something pristine and untouched by humans. If that were the case we would not have any nature left on this planet. Simultaneously, the national parks that we associate with this wild image are actually heavily manicured to maintain this aesthetic. She argues that the dandelion growing up in the pavement cracks is more “wild” that the manicured parks. Further she says “That which is untouched is unloved.” We should be defining wild nature inclusive to human beings and in various scales and manifestations. 

Comfort

Our culture cherishes comfort, but boxing ourselves in cuts us off from connection. Our current society, particularly in regards to food and entertainment, hijacks our reward centers and tricks us into feeling good without actually gaining nourishment. People feel miserable when they’re cold, but if we train ourselves we can feel livened by conditions that make most people feel miserable. This is the shift from unwilding to rewilding.

We can transform our homes, our climate control, how we sleep. We can redesign work environments such that they are more resonant with our natural movements and instincts. We can invest in habitecture to share our spaces with other species. We can design our landscapes to not fight with nature, but embrace it. 

We also need to learn to embrace dirt, rain, sun, and bacteria: Our fear and disgust around these natural elements of our environments will need to be reduced heavily. This should come as part of the transition, and be furthered by our new ways of living.

Population Decrease

Overpopulation limits our ability for rewilding, particularly in our food systems which places the priority on yield instead of ecosystem and soil health. Jana Richman questioned whether we even deserve to learn, to change, and to survive. Would it just be better for the planet if humans went extinct? This is the ideology of groups like the VHEMT - Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

This theme also showed up in Marc Bekoff’s book in the relationship between human overpopulation and rewilding and conservation efforts. Overpopulation leads to human overconsumption which can lead to the extinction of other species.

Biodiversity

Last but certainly not least is the topic of increasing biodiversity. Arguably this is the key element of a rewilded world. And there are a few ways of getting there.

In order to support biodiverse ecosystems, the animals living there need to be able to roam freely from central forests outwards to bodies of water. Currently we disrupt these traffic flows with our car traffic and roadways. Animals become disconnected from critical parts of their ecosystem. Instead we need to be building contiguous "wild"/natural spaces. 

We also must learn to be comfortable with closer encounters to plants and other animals: As we make room again in our towns and cities for other living things in addition to humans, we will likely have more frequent encounters with them. We will need to increase our knowledge of these plants and animals, how to treat them with compassion but also how to keep ourselves safe.

This will also necessitate adapting our methods of architecture and urban design. We will need to ensure symbiosis with plant life, with other animal life, and with weather patterns. Some great examples here include cohabitecture like the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland designed to allow bees to create hives in the pinnacles and the NYC 2050 City Masterplan by Walmir Luz.

URBAN REWILDING

When imagining areas in need of rewilding, urban areas are often the obvious immediate choice. The massive amount of steel and concrete that covers these areas is perilous. Trees are stuck in holes in the concrete, and green spaces in general are disconnected and lack biodiversity. Further, street trees become toilets for dogs and repositories for trash. There are a few hopeful initiatives and ideas, however, on how to rewild our cities.

Depaving is gaining steam, especially in cities like Portland. Depave Portland is an organization that works with local community organizations, like schools and churches, to depave and transform their properties and parking lots, converting them into gardens and green spaces. We need to further these initiatives into other cities, as, for urbanites, the concrete is one of the largest barriers to physical connection to the land.

There has been a significant push to increase the green spaces in cities with seed bombing activities. There are also initiatives like guerilla grafting to convert existing street trees to be fruit-bearing. A conversation with member of the Guerilla Grafters in San Francisco and a volunteer at Swale in NYC was informative in respect to the city’s desire, or lack thereof, to incorporate fruit trees in the streets and parks of the city. Apparently, San Francisco is worried about homelessness, rats, and tripping hazards. However, they could implement owl or hawk poles to manage the rats and expand the ground below the tree so fallen fruits get composted. The Swale volunteer that I spoke with discussed how NYC Parks does not want to change their practices around pesticides or invest in any extra work to support the edibles in the parks, so they keep foraging illegal. Swale aims to demonstrate that public edible greenspaces are achievable and desirable to the community. 

It is also fascinating to hear perspectives on maintenance and citizen authority over public trees and green spaces currently. On one end of the spectrum, the woman from Guerilla Grafters has the constant threat of arrest looming over her and Peter Michael Bauer mentioned that one of his friends was arrested for planting seeds in a public park. Meanwhile, Vanessa Ventola from LES Ecology told me  that she hopes people know that they can take care of the street trees. Apparently most of the street trees are public and can therefore be cared after by any concerned citizen.  

There are also some more broad scale and official projects and proposals to create more biophillic or biomimetic cities. NYC has been working to install 2000 bioswales to filter and clean water runoff. Other initiatives in this space include green rooftops, native vegetation, reduced building spatial footprint, lights out campaigns, restrictions on reflective glass, restrictions on noise, and nature corridors. 

Urban parks are of courses an important consideration in urban rewilding as well. We are seeing increasing numbers of natural playgrounds as opposed to plastic structures. However there is still much work to be done. The parallel lives that we maintain on social media can encourage superficial visits to nature. Many urbanites visiting city parks or accessible parks outside the city limits maintain the mentality of “I saw it, I was there, I got my instagram photo, now I’m done.” This was particularly a concern of many of my interviewees working in the NYS parks department. They are facing issues of trying to get visitors to go beyond the initial view and visitor center and actually engage with the park.

Related to this phenomenon is that of manicured nature. One of my biggest inspirations in this research, alongside of J.B MacKinnon’s book, was Emma Marris’ TED talk on “seeing” nature. She highlights our modern view of nature as separate from humans and something we think should be "untouched". But she argues “that which is untouched is unloved.” And calls for new definitions of nature. She describes how if we use our current metrics to define nature, we wouldn’t have any nature left on this planet. Instead of seeking something wild and untainted, we should embrace the nature that’s all around us. Marris proposes that the dandelions growing up in the cracks of the pavement are more wild than the manicured national parks. And I agree. This influenced my definition of rewilding, and reinforces my goals to integrate humans back into ecosystems and allow us to play a nurturing role in our environments.

The urban disconnect is also evident in our food systems. Though there are also increasing numbers of urban gardens, many of my interviewees still bemoaned the extreme disconnect between urbanites and their food sources. David Montgomery urged for urban dwellers to realize that soil is how we keep food in the fridge. Tom De Luca agreed, describing grocery stores as a facade. The status of global soil health is nowhere near reflected in the appearance and abundance of most grocery stores and so it’s not in the mass consciousness. This theme of "forgetting about nature" was furthered by my discussion with Nancy Engels, who described a recent TV advertisement that a local station in Albany made for Thacher State Park. There was a surge in visitation after this ad, and visitors mentioned to Nancy “I just forgot this was here.”

But these shifts of depaving, localizing food, and transforming our urban landscapes are not straightforward. Rafe Kelley explained “There’s a reason why we have all of this concrete.” He described the pressure that the natural world would face if we all suddenly started pooping in the woods and foraging for food. There are too many people to sustain this. 

SUBURBAN AND RURAL REWILDING

While it’s assumed, or at least I assumed, that urban spaces are the most in need of rewilding, I have learned that this is not the case. This has been a theme in my conversations with Jerry Glover and other soil scientists. While on the surface there is more plant life and “green space” in suburban and rural areas than in urban areas, the biodiversity here is extremely low, if not lower than urban areas. Monocultures and cut-grass lawns dominate these areas and are a waste of space in terms of generating wild food and hosting other non-human animals. 

Connection with nature is also strained here. Though supposedly kids have more access to open, outdoor spaces to play, Thom Schuchaskie of Urban Kid Adventures described that just like urban kids, suburban kids are also not getting outdoors.

Goals of reintroduction of species in rural areas has been met with tremendous backlash. People are scared for their own safety, and those raising cattle or other livestock are fearful of the impact that reintroduction of wolves and bison might have on their operations.  Actually, the relationship between our modern agricultural systems and rewilding is a surprisingly fascinating, complex, and critical one. While I initially resisted entering this realm, a many of my interviews touched on this - and each from a unique and novel point of view. 

COMPLEXITIES OF HEALING THE LAND

As I previously mentioned, adapting our practices and healing the land is not always straightforward. “Green” is not always good, particularly in the case cited in John Thackara's book around the green revolution. Some of these initiatives led to kicking farmers off of their farms to make way for industrial agriculture. They ended up living in slums. Any solutions we arrive at must incorporate social rights and human impact. Though through rewilding we are trying to shift the balance towards equality between humans and other animal species, we can’t completely forgo considerations of the impact on human societies. The goal should be for both environment and social justice.

Another complexity comes in the form of our inspiration for rewilding. Some people believe in a form of rewilding called Pleistocene rewilding, where we use this time period as a baseline and try to return all ecosystems to this pristine state. This ignores the fact that our climate and ecosystems have changed, and it often is an unnessarily fanciful idea considering we could instead be focusing on embracing and supporting species that currently populate an area. Davey Jones told me that if we were to plant trees that used to thrive in the ecosystem that you’re currently living in, some of them would not be able to survive in our warmer climate.  Dr. Jones recommended looking at 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. Going back to Emma Marris’ philosophy, 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. General increased biodiversity and ecosystem health should be the goal.

Finally we need to re-establish the delicate balance human need to maintain in all of this. We currently define ourselves as the managers of the planet, considering ourselves hierarchically superior. But the ethos of rewilding opposes this status. At the same time, the answer is certainly not “hands-off” and further stepping away from the rest of the natural world. We have to understand our role in the ecosystems and start living this part. 

HOW TO MAKE CHANGE

A key piece of information I was able to gather from many of my interviewees was how to make change in this space. There were three main groups that this split into: individual lifestyle shifts, community organization, and designing gateways.

For those in the first group, the belief was that the best way to make change is with yourself, and by being a visible model for change. Then you can become a hub of information and spread the movement through sharing and visibility. These individuals found that this approach was more inviting and welcoming than trying to force the ideas on other people, especially given the intensity of the goals of rewilding. It was also critical for the majority of my interviewees to individually spend time in “nature” everyday. J.B. MacKinnon spoke about his “experiments in nature” in his book. Through visiting the same beach every day for a season he made observations on the sea life, or lack thereof, that most one-time visitors overlooked. Through immersion and focused attention on the natural environments that surround us, we start noticing things that we otherwise wouldn’t. Why are the birds chirping in that rhythm? What does it mean when they stop chirping? Why isn’t there any sea life on this beach? A related challenge that my interviewees mentioned, however, is the anxiety that often comes for people not used to sitting “without anything to do” for an extended period of time.

While individual changes can be helpful, Peter Michael Bauer, pointed out that humans evolved in socially organized groups, and that rewilding needs community to be successful. This is why he started Rewild Portland. Similarly, Stephanie Welch organized the Boston Urban Barefoot League for this reason: to centralize a critical mass and work together to make change. Don Rakow and Eric Toensmeier spoke about the importance of community driven design and change as opposed to top-down transformation. Regional changes and regional plans need community ownership and buy in to be successful.

To some people, rewilding and going barefoot can seem like a “fringe hippie thing”, so many of my interviewees suggested the implementation of gateways. People need routes back into their local ecosystems before they can really get into the idea of rewilding. Thom Schuchaskie said “There’s something for everyone, you just have to find it.” This can be photography, food and cooking, bird watching, etc. A few of my interviewees, particularly Rafe Kelley and Kevin Park viewed natural movement as the gateway into rewilding. Rafe explained, “Natural movement is a gateway because if we start climbing trees we’ll start wondering ‘what trees am I climbing?’ ‘How do these trees interrelate?’ And we’ll start asking more questions.” Danielle Trofe talked about meeting people where they are and how she incorporated this into the progression of her mushroom lamp designs. Josh Teeter and Steve Brill noted on the importance of entertainment and theatrics to drive interest.

This leads me to the next dichotomy that became apparent in this research. Who to focus this impact on? We can reach out to the people that are 80% there, as suggested by Rafe Kelley, then move out in progressive circles from there. Each sequential person becomes a hub. Alternatively, we can push to the extreme and go for the people that arguably “need it the most”. As Kevin Park put it, the people working in high rise buildings that take the elevator to their car then drive home, order dinner, watch TV, then go to bed with their cell phone are the ones we should be designing gateways for.

In my research there was also debate on where to focus our efforts: individual and human level or the policy level. Tom DeLuca, implied that it will take government and policy change to make an impact, but that this won’t happen until we’ve reached rock bottom. On the other hand, Marc Bekoff in his book “Rewilding our Hearts” says “Personal rewilding is central to the process. Laws and public policy won’t do it.” I personally resonate with Peter Michael Bauer’s philosophy that we need all of it. We need individual eduation and skill development, community purchasing and investment, and  institutional legal changes and dismantling. Peter said that all of the activity and momentum we can get is helpful, from permaculture to illegal off-grid living. Even the arguably superficial paleofitness and mainstream adoption can be a helpful first step, as long as the idea of breaking out of civilization eventually becomes the universal priority. 

There are many other systems that need to be disrupted and questioned for change to occur. My research also touched on green economies and brought up question on how quantifying the cost of environmental and animal impacts can potentially help OR hurt (through further objectification) rewilding efforts. There was a theme of time scale mismatches: how our decision cycles and news cycles are much faster that environmental change. For example construction damage to trees is terribly impactful, but it takes 5 years to kill a tree after root compaction so no one working on the construction site will actually see this impact. We also have many cultural myths to dismantle such as the assumptions around Paleolithic lifestyle and around the reason for “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policies. Did you know that there aren’t actually health laws against going barefoot in public? It stemmed from anti-hippie sentiments during the Vietnam Era. 

Finally, tangibility and tactility seemed to be important aspects for impact. John Thackara mentioned in his book and over our phone call that one of his favorite interventions in this realm was a soil tasting ceremony as part of an XSchool in Sweden. In this project the students gathered soil and berry samples from around the island, and presented paired berry infusions and soil in glasses to smell and taste. This is also not the only example I’ve seen around tasting or eating dirt. Last year there was a project around soil and air pollution by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography at Ideas City. The project involved the creation and distribution of “Smog Meringue” to make more tangible our susceptibility to intaking toxins/solutions through our skin and our respiratory system. Adventurous visitors could taste meringue created to simulate the various “flavors” of air in different cities. Similarly a project by WeDesign NYC and artist Julia Mandle involved asking participants to bring dirt from their neighborhood to mix into a cookie. 

All of this together aided in focusing the scope of this thesis and user groups. I planned to leverage visceral and tactile experiences, to instigate public and visible behavior changes in early adopters. I decided to focus more on the model of hubs expanding outward, than attempting to jump to the people most disconnected.

EXPERIENTIAL RESEARCH

Inspired by my research stressing the importance of personal experimentation and immersion, I incorporated first hand experiential research into my thesis process. Three instances were particularly useful: going barefoot around NYC, taking an urban foraging class, and completing a 30 day rewilding challenge through We Are Wildness University.

BAREFOOTING

In this experiment, I wanted to explore walking around barefoot in NYC for two reasons: 1. to discover the barriers to this lifestyle choice (physical, environmental, social, etc.) and 2. in attempt to start normalizing barefooting. The more normalized something becomes, the more likely we’ll design our environments to support it. 

 
 

I conducted research to start understanding the risks and benefits. Many sources assured that there was very low risk of any illness or health hazard unless you cut your foot and have an open wound. I was convinced. One weekend, when I was visiting my parents, my mom gave me a small first aid kit to keep in my bag and, upon my return to NYC, I hopped off the bus with my sandals tucked away in my backpack.

The first day of the experiment went rather well. I had only a couple short walks that day - one from the bus station at FIT to my apartment 5 blocks away and another to the Trader Joe’s nearby. The more interesting experience was that of going to Trader Joe’s. Worried about store policies, I did some research before leaving to see if they require shoes. Luckily, I came across and article in which the manager of NY and CT Trader Joe’s stores openly welcomed a barefooters and shared their store’s “No Policy policy”. I was still concerned when I seemed to have caught the attention of the security guard, but he let me shop without question. It raised a question for me, though, about privilege. I am privileged enough to walk in here without shoes and not get stopped. Further, just the privilege to choose to be barefoot is of concern. How does my decision impact those across the world who can’t afford shoes?

The second day of the experiment was a Monday, and therefore a work day. I decided to pack shoes to wear at the office, as I was still a new hire and people didn’t know me well enough yet, but I went barefoot on the commute to and from work. My boyfriend and I had been walking on the Highline to work together in the mornings - he would get off at 26th, and I continued down to 30th. I figured the clean and nature-filled path would be perfect for a barefoot walk, but I was very wrong. While a good portion of the walk was on smooth concrete/stone slabs, half of the walk was on grated textured steel. While no cuts were incurred walking across this barefoot, it was far more painful than even the most graveled sidewalk sections. It left my feet burning and throbbing for the rest of the morning.

That day, I walked on the streets on the way home instead. The journey was far more comfortable, with the exception of the social awkwardness incurred by the many stares and disgusted expressions. This opened me to the idea of potentially investing in a pair of “barefoot shoes” (not Vibrams), that look like sandals from the top but are actually sole-less. But I quickly reconsidered. With the exception of using them to sneak into places that require shoes, I felt that the barefoot shoes would detract from my secondary goal of normalizing bare feet.

On the third day, I started to incorporate some strategy to my methods. I had learned that the streets overall are actually more comfortable than the Highline, and some streets had smoother surfaces than others. The smoother surfaces are nicer not only for comfort, but also for visibility of glass, fecal matter, etc. So I started to create a map of preferred routes from home to work and back. Unfortunately I didn’t get very far with the map, as this ended up being the last day of the experiment. On my way home from work, about a block away from my apartment, I stepped on a tiny shard of glass. It must have been sticking up just in the right direction for me to not see it and for it to pierce my callused feet.

Without a bench or other place to pause to clean and bandage my cut, I hobbled home, keeping the wounded area off the ground. While the cut was extremely minor, and there was no concern about tetanus from the glass, I was paranoid. My boyfriend’s co-workers were saying the day prior how I could “get infected and die”. What if they were right? How careful was I to keep my wound off the ground? Am I sure I didn’t step in urine or feces afterwards? Luckily, my mom the RN calmed me down. But it took several weeks and a “just-in-case” tetanus booster before I stepped outside barefoot again.

Though it was a short experiment, it was certainly informative. I experienced three primary “barriers” to a comfortable and safe barefoot experience.

1. Harsh ground surfaces. The Highline is the biggest example of this. Even a place that is considered to be a park, with some areas that do encourage going barefoot (like a little water stream that you can walk in), have some very unfriendly surfaces for bare feet. For the three days of this experience, I longed to be at beach with my feet in the sand or in my parent’s grassy backyard. It made me appreciate these surfaces even more. I question to what extent the harshness of our surfaces impact the other species living here. If we all walked barefoot, and selected our ground surfaces accordingly, would the result be healthier for other animals as well?

2. Sharp Objects (and infectious debris in combination with that). NYC is dirty. Urine, feces, food droppings litter the ground. But none of these things are harmful, unless you have an open sore. Which makes the presence of glass shards so dangerous for going barefoot. But the thing is, NYC isn’t unique in having sharp objects and bacteria-filled droppings. Go to any park and you’ll likely find the same. Now potentially, the softness of the ground in a park could decrease the risk of glass-induced puncture, unlike the hard concrete surfaces of NYC. But, while I’m tempted to agree with those who say barefooting is safe in many places but not NYC, I’m not sure I can. What this does leave me curious about is the presence of glass in our world. In many circles, glass is thought to be a eco-friendly material (at least compared to plastic). But what if it isn’t? It’s prone to generating unnecessary waste due to it’s fragility and break-ability and it is one of the biggest barriers to walking barefoot. Surely other animals are impacted negatively by broken glass as well. Beaches often ban glass because people walk around without shoes. Could that become a wider-spread policy?

3. Nay-sayers. A large reason for the conclusion of this experiment was paranoia and a lot of that came from those who disagreed with this modality. Further self-education is needed to counter the fear induced by the fearful.

I didn’t include the social barriers of “no shoes” policies in this list simply because I didn’t encounter them in my short experiment. However I imagine, had this experiment run longer I may have found that to be a barrier as well. 

Since the conclusion of this experiment, I have continued to go barefoot indoors at the design studio and feel I have been an advocate for the normalization of bare feet here. I find I see more people with barefeet or just socks on than I have in years past. 

Eventually I would like to get a point of going barefoot outdoors again. A couple weeks after cutting my foot, I found a small piece of glass inside my close-toed shoes and it reminded me that injury and infection can occur whether you’re barefoot or not. Hopefully after further research and understanding I can feel comfortable “putting my feet out there again.”

A final point of reflection is how this experiment informs being connected with nature/environment. I was certainly much more aware of my general surroundings, particularly paying attention to the ground ahead of me and looking out for glass and other unpleasantries. But how can being barefoot actually foster a relationship to nature? Well I think that answer could be found in a brief ethnographic study: If you were living barefoot, what types of ground surfaces would you want to walk on? While there is the potential for many people to want marble or tile, I think we have a visceral tie to dirt, sand, and soil that results in a longing to be barefoot on those surfaces.

FORAGING

Also over the summer I had the chance to further investigate personal fears and barriers to engaging with “wild nature” through an urban foraging class. I wanted to investigate how knowledge of edible vs. poisonous plants can play a role in easing proximity to the natural world. 

So my boyfriend and I ventured to Central Park in a rainstorm to meet Wild Man Steve Brill, his daughter Violet, and (somewhat to our surprise) 20 other eager students, for this Urban Foraging class. We spent 4 hours following Steve and Violet through the park learning about the various plants. The pair thoroughly covered identification, flavor profile, uses (culinary and medicinal), seasonality, as well as similar toxic plants to avoid.

At first, this last bit was somewhat discouraging. I thought, “maybe I should just stick to the farmer’s market where everything is marked and labeled as edible”.  But I realized that, while the potential for accidentally in-taking a toxic plant is quite daunting, I imagine in the future I could be more well versed in plants identification - edible and inedible. This potential future knowledge and confidence calmed my fears. One of my favorite parts of the trek was when Wild Man Steve shared with us a sample of one of the recipes in his cookbook. He took some plain-tasting leaves, baked them with some garlic and spices, and turned them into a delectable treat. I look forward to further investigation of this cook book and his app. Since the class we have successfully spotted Sarsaparilla on the Highline and many instances of Wood Sorel. Even the times we don’t see anything we know, I strongly value the new reason I have to take a closer look at my surroundings.

Since this adventure I have learned that foraging is not the answer to our methods of acquiring food, as I discussed in the previous section. But I do find the parallels in reconsidering our food palette, recipes, and feeling of resourcefulness in a similar vein to permaculture, with the primary difference being the tending of the land and reciprocity between plant and human. While foraging may not be a sustainable practice for sourcing most of our diets, it is certainly a valuable skill to have as we shift away from industrialized food. Knowledge of plants in the context of foraging can easily be applied to permaculture.

30 DAY REWILDING CHALLENGE

More recently I begun a 30 Day Rewilding Challenge. I am currently on day 9 and have so far had challenges including "Skying" (or watching the sky for an extended period of time) and Barefooting.

It has been remarkably difficult to do some of the challenges. Days get so hectic in design school that the only time available for going out to a natural space is late at night. And in the city, going to park and sitting by yourself at night does not seem like a safe thing to do. Further, even with parks like the Highline, Madison Square Park, and Union Square Park relatively close by, they are not sufficient for completing all of the challenges. One of the challenges was about wandering and getting lost. This may be feasible all the way up in Central Park or any of the other more sprawling green spaces, but you can't really "get lost" in Union Square. You can't really even get lost along the streets of Manhattan unless you go downtown past Soho where the streets aren't gridded.

 

Moving forward I aim to continue my 30 day rewilding challenge, as well as academic and literary research. There are a couple more books that I hope to complete to enhance the story I would like to paint about rewilding, particularly Daniel Quinn's "Beyond Civilization". I also will be incorporating user research interviews to aid in my design process. Finally I'd like to discuss perceptions on thriving versus surviving as this perspective shift is key to reducing fear of rewilding. After completing the book I'm currently reading "Becoming Animal" I'd like to also reflect on spirituality and rewilding.

Jenna Witzleben