The Edge Effects editorial board brings you a handful of recommendations based on the most interesting stuff that’s come across our desks, screens, and speakers over the last month (or so). From books and articles, to podcasts, music, and film, we’ll keep you on the edge.
At the recent Tales from Planet Earth festival, the film Angel Azul highlighted the stunning work of underwater sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor (also featured in a previous Edge Effects post by Rob Nixon). Taylor’s art is both haunting and hopeful—even as his human figures submerged underwater carry messages of anthropogenic environmental change, they serve as artificial reefs that provide habitat for tropical species and lure tourists away from more ecologically sensitive locations. This month, I recommend browsing Taylor’s images of his incredibly beautiful installations.
Beauty isn’t a word that normally comes to mind when conjuring industrial landscapes. And yet the vibrancy and textures of these landscapes can be magnetic, forcing us to confront the cognitive dissonance in an iridescent pool of toxic waste or the webbed canals of a water treatment plant. Orion Magazine explores this tension in both photo and prose with its recent piece “Water Maze” by Craig Childs and D. Bryon Darby. It pairs well with this essay by environmental journalist Sarah Gilman on her encounter with with the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.
Many of you know the environmental writer Rebecca Solnit for her astonishing California history, River of Shadows, or her elegy to walking, Wanderlust. This month, the San Francisco writer is at it again: in a pithy, pitch-perfect essay for Harper’s October issue, Solnit asks “the mother of all questions.” Why do so many people insist that they know the right way for a woman to live? “We talk about open questions, but there are closed questions, too, questions to which there is only one right answer, at least as far as the interrogator is concerned.” I’m not alone when I urge that Solnit’s piece remains as satisfying as it is provocative.
One of the things that keeps the environmental humanities interesting and fresh is the focus on interdisciplinary research. Such research isn’t easy to do well; when literary critics began to play fast and loose with ecological metaphors in the late ’90s and early 2000s, for instance, they were smacked down in Dana Phillips’ acerbic but necessary book, The Truth of Ecology. So I share this article from Quanta Magazine with the caveat that I don’t yet know what to do with it. But I am fascinated by its central concept, “critical slowing down.” Critical slowing down is a theory of what happens in complex systems, from ecosystems to emotional moods, as they near tipping points. Essentially, the resilience of a system to disruptions becomes more precarious as a tipping point is approached. This has potential implications for how we can predict and prevent various environmental disasters, but I’m also curious whether it’s visible in literature. Do we see critical slowing down as fictional characters near crises, for instance? And what would it mean if we did?
“Bioart” is a thing. The authors of a recent paper describe it as the creative use of molecular biology to both enhance scientific practice and reflect on biotechnology’s social implications, all while blurring disciplinary and experiential boundaries between art and the life sciences. One example they point to is Brandon Ballengée’s evocative images of deformed frogs, in which he chemically stains the amphibians to open up new views into the animal—not to haunt the viewer, but to produce empathy. Yet bioart is hardly a new thing. Alexander Fleming—the biologist who discovered penicillin in 1928—made paintings by inoculating lab plates with different microbes (bacteria and fungi) that were differently pigmented. And so, what’s the environmental history of non-human life employed as art?
Have you ever walked down the street and wondered about the lives of the people you see? Who is that man in the window? What is the woman on the stoop thinking? With One Block, an amazing digital storytelling project by New York Magazine, you can learn the personal stories of 62 residents of a single block in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. This isn’t merely about fulfilling curiosity, but about telling the story of neighborhood change through collective daily experience. The block, once entirely white, then entirely black after redlining in the 1940s, is in the midst of gentrification; home prices have nearly doubled in the last five years as more and more white residents move to the historic brownstones. Take some time with the old and new neighbors of MacDonough street, and come away with a greater understanding of this city’s changing urban geography.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney
My pick this month is the film The Maker, by journalist Ben Mauk. He’s a writer from Baltimore currently living in Berlin. It has everything you (or at least I) could want: cloud seeding, climate change, and revenge. The short is his first foray into the medium. You can watch it yourself below—and read more of his writing here.