There's a short film among the 32 about Glenn Gould where the Canadian pianist walks into a truck stop and sits alone at a table. The background noise—conversations between truckers, a waitress taking orders, breaking off a relationship—comes forward like counterpoint from a Bach fugue. Among the scatter, Gould is a gatherer, one who notices. For many of us, this is a rare experience, this act of paying attention (odd mercenary verb). “You missed that,” writes Alexandra Horowitz in her book, On Looking: A Walker's Guide to The Art of Observation. “You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.” Until a few of us walked across a small section of this campus on Tuesday, we had thought the campus pristine. Forty-five minutes after we started, we had filled three black plastic bags full of cups, sandwich containers, straws, bags, styrofoam bits, a blue flag, a pink tassel, one pink rubbah slippah, a sour and dirty melange of objects that washed up on the shores of our campus (as Allison Cobb puts it). What we consume, consumes us.
On Wednesday, a dozen students and faculty sat around this heap of trash; we made fellowship of it, talked about our connections to it. Allison Cobb, who works as a writer for the Environmental Defense Fund in Portland, Oregon, takes walks in her neighborhood and picks up bits of plastic. She takes photographs of plastic, labels bits of it, “desire,” “fear,” “grief.” She does research on her trash, considers her relation to it, thinks about networks of connections between us and our disposables. To some extent, she argues, we are plastic, because we have ingested some of what we threw away; it comes back to us by way of fish and birds, even our beer. We throw plastic away; we don't mourn its loss. Allison, whose book, Greenwood, detailed history and reportage of a Brooklyn cemetery that my grad students loved, will read from her ongoing project, Autobiography of Plastic.
Steve Collis comes to us from Vancouver, British Columbia, where he teaches at Simon Fraser University's Burnaby campus. Like Allison, he is obsessed with the materiality of networks: he is currently involved in protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline that runs from northern Alberta's tar sands to Vancouver. Kinder Morgan, a Texas oil company, means to tunnel through Burnaby Mountain on the way. The protests have been so successful that Steve and his colleagues are being sued for $5.6 million dollars in damages by the corporation. In this work, Steve has allied himself with indigenous groups whose land is being desecrated. His own poetry finds connections to the land by way of the commons, land that is shared, rather than parceled out to the highest bidder and then made into a luxury condo in Kakaako. A recent book, DECOMP, co-authored with Jordan Scott, follows on a project of placing Darwin's Origin of Species in different bio-regions of B.C., then picking them up a year later, tracing their natural decomposition.
Brian Teare grew up in Alabama, and has lived in Indiana and California before his current stay in Philadelphia, where he teaches at Temple University. At Temple, he asks his students to research their watershed, find out where the water they drink comes from. In his poetry, he meditates on nature, sex, dying, the big issues. He is author, most recently, of the beautiful book, Companion Grasses. He engages a natural world ruined by human beings in this passage from “Susurrus Stanzas.” Read page 20.
What we consume, consumes us. We desire, fear, grieve over what was once contained by plastic, but stays on this earth as an empty, permanent, impermeable, container. But what we notice perhaps does not. To pay attention is not to consume but to honor and to release, not to say “this is ours,” but to let go of our need to grasp: On your next walk across campus, pick up one of these containers. Spend some time with it. Think about its relationship to you and your friends. Then let it go, in a bin.