Edgy Stuff: June 2015 Recommendations
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.
The strawberry reigns supreme along California’s central coast, my birthplace and present location. It carpets the grounds from You-Pick farms along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway to the acres of densely-packed fields of the Salinas River Valley. Urban areas, too, are strawberry-covered; its likeness adorns the lampposts and newspaper stands in downtown Watsonville. Miriam Wells’s remarkable book, Strawberry Fields: Politics, Class, and Work in California Agriculture, has helped me to untangle the berry’s complicated presence in the region, and to better understand why one of my oldest friends (a daughter and granddaughter of fieldworkers) shakes her head at the You-Pick farms. Wells’s book is more than the story of strawberries in California, however; nearly twenty years after its publication, it is an important and relevant read about farm labor—a still-too-invisible sector of our food system.
I just spent a week at my family’s river cabin in the Oregon Cascades. Despite the summer temperatures, firewood for the stove needed to be stacked in the woodshed and dried in preparation for winter. The writer Michael Branch plays with the art and craft of tree harvest in this lively essay as the latest installment in his series, Rants from the Hill, a blog of The High Country News. His refreshingly colloquial and witty commentary is balanced by a thoughtful exposition of tree harvest as a complex practice of stewardship. As the summer solstice passes, Branch’s artful engagement with wood cutting as a counterintuitive seasonal activity felt somehow appropriate.
Just in time for summer wandering, this electronic field guide to Madison’s 140-acre Forest Hill Cemetery offers ample excuse for leisurely strolls along shaded park pathways. Authored by graduate students in this year’s CHE Methods Seminar, the website surveys everything from the geology of this 1830s romantic rural cemetery to a Mary Roach-esque description of the labor involved in moving a body from place of death to final interment. Most striking to me are the collision of spiritual traditions present in Forest Hills: Native American effigy mounds appear alongside military graves in striking juxtaposition.
Having just returned from the biennial meeting of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), I keep thinking about the opening plenary by Stephanie LeMenager, entitled “Still Being Human: Notes for an Everyday Anthropocene.” LeMenager traversed a range of topics, from the rampant “branding” of the Anthropocene, to the rise of cli-fi, to the affective impact of species extinction. One of her most intriguing claims, however, was that literature allows us crucial access to “intergenerational memory.” Such memory emanates from the accumulation of human “skillsets” and “long-term residencies in place” that, animated through literature and “curated” by critics, are every bit as empirical as other forms of knowledge. Yet such memory also transmits literature’s artfulness: its comedy, its pathos, its imaginative exploration of human psyches and cultures. Bringing both aspects together, LeMenager concluded, requires “serious play”—a gutsy and refreshing recommendation for a troubled era.
Every day, many of us make some sort of search using Google, and often it’s for a particular kind of image. Maybe we’re prepping a slideshow for a class, and we want to show students a scene of some distant place. Turns out, the algorithms that sift through the web’s images to pick out particular features (say, “Chinese pagoda”) and return them to you upon your search are opaque not only to you or me, but even to their designers. Google’s engineers recently conducted an experiment where they took their “artificial neural network” algorithms that had been “trained” to recognize specific landscape features, and showed them images of random noise. Out of this randomness, the algorithms picked out and enhanced aspects they were designed to find, and over many iterations, at once produced beautifully surreal landscapes and also helped Google understand their code better. I’ll spare more details about how the image search code works, but learn more about these algorithms here, and check out a fascinating gallery what kind of landscapes they’re dreaming of here.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney
I’m in the midst of moving, which at the moment means packing up all of my books. As a collector of vintage and contemporary field guides, I’ve enjoyed the chance to thumb back through manuals on identifying everything from scat to seashells. Acquiring guides specific to Wisconsin and the Midwest was critical to my sense of feeling at home and understanding my surroundings when I moved to Madison four years ago. Now headed back to New York, I’m looking forward to breaking out the books specific to natural history and taxa of the Northeast. So I very much enjoyed this recent piece by Helen Macdonald, reflecting on her own and the historical use of identifying birds as a way of knowing the world, both at home and abroad.
I recently finished Jenny Price’s celebrated Flight Maps from 1999, and I can’t stop thinking about her brilliant analysis of the plastic pink flamingo (which sadly made recent news). Through the story of the ubiquitous “unnatural” lawn ornament—from its origins in postwar plastics production and mass suburbanization to its associations with class- and generation-based landscaping aesthetics—Price reveals American consumers’ close, but often hidden, connections to nature. I am currently visiting my parents’ home and have become acquainted with a new colorful avian friend in the backyard (at right). I can’t help but wonder what Price would say about this “unnatural” lawn bird, made of brightly painted, recycled oil drums (most likely from Mexico, but maybe from Zimbabwe or Haiti). What might this rooster (and those other unreal American birds) tell us about the twenty-first century American consumer’s relationship with nature?