“M for Mitigation” is an essay from an exhibition catalogue published in conjunction with Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin’s exhibition, M for Membrane. The exhibit was installed at Glyndor Gallery in Wave Hill, a botanical garden in the Bronx, NY. Notably, Wave Hill overlooks the Palisades Cliff in the Hudson River Valley.
The day of the government shutdown is a day like any other for those that lived and re-lived for centuries. Birds sing to their lovers. Perennials reach for more moisture. The remaining horticulturalists maintain the gardens and pluck fallen leaf litter for the new bulbs to bloom. The sprouts would suffocate without this human mitigation but they wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t planted them in the first place. Many areas of the Wave Hill garden, if not all, are man-made.
We are, like materials, constituent. Cardboard, stainless steel, human skin, atmospheric content, microbial cloud. Every matter has become a substrate for intelligent proteins. We classify the virus’ behavior as parasitic. Our efforts for division — entrances for bacteria to permeate into our house, into our body, into our nuclear family — eroded the day we decided our senses exist as a separatist network. A mud dauber wasp spreads a virus to various spiders to dull them into surrogate mothers and hatch the wasp’s eggs on its behalf. When the carriers of the disease are non-human, we classify this behavior as a blessing.
Walking down the garden, I recited:
The view that I witness today, across the Wave Hill Estate overlooking the Palisades.
The view that they witnessed that day, across the New World overlooking the Palisades.
The view that they witnessed that day, across Lenape Land overlooking Muhheakantuck.
The type of rock that forms the Palisades is diabase, an igneous rock. Appeared 225 million years ago, the rock has witnessed our infinite testaments. Native American nations — Sanhikan, Hackensack, Rantan, Tappan — use the cliff for shelter, observation, and protection. They name the cliff “Wee-awaken,” rocks-that-look-like-trees.1 When a Dutch traveler sailing on the Hudson observes the volcanic rock, he records seeing “beautiful hard stone as white and as clean as I have ever seen.”
Four-hundred-year-old trees are harvested, sold, cut, and stripped during the industrial expansion for the railroad industry. Many of these trees become plantation houses in the South. The Carpenter Brothers dynamite 1000 cubic yards of the Palisades cliff a day to make building blocks for New York City. The governor of New York forms the Palisades Interstate Park Commission and purchases 737 acres of land to preserve the iconic, scenic view of the Palisades. The landscape is immortalized by the Hudson River School and becomes a weekend yacht getaway for the NYC bourgeoisie. George Perkins, the founder of Wave Hill, invites J.P Morgan to join the commission and buys out the Carpenter Brothers. The displaced quarrymen continue their business up North in Rockland County. Carpenter Brothers is still in operation today and Glyndor House and Wave Hill, a public garden to the city of New York, is where I install my solo exhibition, M for Membrane.
Quantum physicists looking at the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) note that the visible matters surrounding us — the stars, the trees, the galaxies, even the Palisades — make up only 4 percent of the total matter and energy content of the universe. Of that 4 percent, most of it is in the form of hydrogen and helium, and only 0.03 percent takes the form of heavy elements. Of that 0.03 percent, Europeans came to accumulate all that white marble, to be then carried by Black and child labor to make roads and foundations of New York City, where I have become an immigrant-settler in this millennia.2 I too am a recipient of this fetish and my family is a host of this possibility. At the end of time, when the universe has inflated so much that it has reached a point of non-life according to laws of thermodynamics, with absolutely no possibility of life for us, our efforts to control the uncontrollable and rehearse the indeterminable — the manicuring of gardens, the dynamiting of marble, the extracting of fossil fuel — will shiver to death as well.3 The body, the origin of everything we know, is made to disappear.
It is no coincidence that I am unable to find any indigenous microbial growth on the Wave Hill grounds. I steam rice and buried it deep into the leaf pile and can’t find any detectable mold growth feeding on the rice after a week. Leaf mold naturally exists in undisturbed leaf litter piles and 2 to 10 billion microbes live in 1 gram of leaf mold. Chemical pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides annihilate the biodiversity, population and vigor of these microorganisms. General Electric has dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of coolant fluids, polychlorinated biphenyls, into the Hudson River. In cultivating indigenous leaf mold and organic matter found in the soil, I urge the microbes on this land to wake up from their sleep and find their Mother. Some microbes wake up from thousands of years of dormancy to be fully active again.
Christopher Bivens, who leads the compost initiative at Wave Hill, gives me a private tour of the various compost piles. Leaf litter is collected from the gardens. Dry matters mixed with organic food waste and fallen branches are left to decompose. Insects, midge larvae, and worms burrow, ingest, defecate, and oxidize the nutrient-rich garbage. Bioturbators become ecosystem engineers. The last stage of the compost pile is left to fungi that recycle and break down toxins and nutrients. Only then, underneath the leaf litter of this compost pile, I see indigenous mold microorganisms inoculated in the soil, masses of branching fungi threading through the micropores. I collect some leaf litter, handful of soil, and 3 hyphae nuggets. I carry them back home.
I sing along a witch’s rhyme:
100 parts water
1 part salt
1 part indigenous mold microorganism (IMO)
3 hyphae nuggets
1 part potatoes
Unusual amount of bacterial flora on hands
3 days of ferment
100 + days of solemnity
Transient contact between materials where anything and anyone can be a host
The body and the soil, hosts to and hosted by trillions of bacteria, become one substrate, one organ. Back home, I feed the mold an intensive diet of water and starch. I ferment the leaf litter, soil, and hyphae nuggets using a combination of water, salt, and potatoes. Everything I have harvested from the land is returned back to the soil as a nutrient-rich fertilizer in the growth forest of Wave Hill. I cover the area with a tarp to allow optimal humidity. Microbes awake from their sleep. Fungi drink the probiotic tea. Finally, I close the loop. Over time, maybe a week, a month, a year, or a decade from now, the area will be full of vigorous fungal hyphae filaments, strengthening ties between young and old plants and trees in the regrowth forest.
Thousands to billions of fungal root tips (hyphae) form a mycelium network.4 Mycelium then partners with plants and tree species to form a decentralized communication network. In their union, plants and trees provide carbon to their mycorrhizal (fungi, mykes, roots, and rhiza) partners. And in turn fungi provide phosphorus, nitrogen, water, zinc, and copper. Without these tendrils, electrical, hormonal pulses and communication between trees stop. One tree that suffers from a parasitic virus is unable to carry its message to the nearby trees and boost the production of their defensive chemicals in time. It foresees genocide. Without fungi, trees cannot defend themselves against the monoculturalism caused by years of chemical fertilizers, deforestation, urban disturbance, and fracking.
Founder of JADAM Farming5 Yongsang Cho writes that we have no knowledge on how species relate to other species to form this complicated micro-ecosystem. Cho emphasizes that we must resist the classification of good and bad bacteria, because this division is inevitably linked to commercial motivation and we humans simply do not know the difference. Narrowing down microorganisms reduces the pool of nutrients available for plants that result in imbalance. Commercial mycorrhizal products and opportunistic fungi displace local fungal strains; bacteria aren’t materials for optimization, but a matter of symbiosis. In a teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more bacteria, protists, insects, and arthropods than the number of humans who have ever lived on Earth. Cho explains,
Modern science knows almost nothing of this world. JADAM does not select a few ‘good’ microorganisms and use them. JADAM embraces the whole microbial diversity by using leaf mold; this way, you can use microorganisms that have adapted to the local environment.
What does it mean to be indigenous to a place? In the creation story by the Iroquoian-speaking peoples, Skywoman falls from a hole in the Skyworld and the animals around her dive deep into the ocean to bring her mud. The Skywoman spreads the mud brought by the muskrat and spreads it across the shell of a turtle. Moved by the extraordinary gifts from the animals, she sings and dances and her feet caress the earth. The land grows from the mud on the turtle’s back; the whole earth is made. Together with the animals’ gifts and Skywoman, they form what we know today as Turtle Island.
Indigeneity is in the leaf molds in nearby forests, hills, and mountains. It is in the mycorrhizal networks that allow trees to speak to one another. It is in the leaf litter that piles over the centuries to become edible cultures. These plants then inhabit our stomachs and we absorb their waste in divine symbiosis. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, explains that “becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it”.6 She reminds us the Skywoman is an immigrant of Skyworld herself, and that the “original immigrant became indigenous.”
On Turtle Island, land, air, water, and rock continue to be classified as resources for capitalist expropriation. These resources are then privatized, collected, and discarded. The natural world and terrestrial bodies become isolated units. We then assemble into individuals, family units, Nation, State, zones of private property, and disciplines of labor. Despite the enclosure of common land and her body, Skywoman transgresses these boundaries and remains a host: she produces what she consumes and regenerates what she absorbs. She is a witch. She is the source of autonomic and empathic power, procures life and death, and the hidden alchemy of things and matter. Likewise, queers, healers, abolitionists, communists, socialists, and vagabonds are all witches, embodying everything that capitalism fears most. To be a witch, to be indigenous to land, to cultivate the commune is to embody a source of power and all the preconditions to destroy the rationalization of the colonial world.7
Where do we go from here? Plants expressively host pockets of microbes as green limbs. Humans expressively host microbes as gut feelings, as skin, genitals, gastric lining, mouths, and atmospheric clouds. Our bodies are already and always in the presence of the Other.8 How do I make myself available as a dwelling place? I ferment the soil and listen in close proximity to that somatic space. By doing so, I distribute myself and learn the feeling for the organism, what it has to say to me. The space that holds my sustenance and decay all at once. The trees will sing poetry and the fungal hyphae roots will whisper about the time where their ancestors were cut down, annihilated, cared for, and nurtured. And those that lived and re-lived for centuries will continue to grow.
1. Native American tribes and nations of the Algonquin Eastern Linguistic Group, the Munsee, who settled along the Hudson south of Albany, Mahicans, to the North, called the Hudson “Shatamuc”. The Munsee speakers formed bands known as Highlanders or Wappingers, and were further identified by their locale — Wappinger, Kichtawank, Sinsink, Weichquaeskeck, and Rechgawank (Yonkers, the Bronx, and Manhattan).↩
2. In the early 1900s, significant numbers of Black Americans moved to Haverstraw from the South (Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas) to work the brickyards in the Hudson River. They constituted nearly 60% of the brickyard labor force.↩
3. The WMAP not only gives the most accurate glimpse of the early universe, it also gives the most detailed picture of how our universe will die. The universe is expanding, pushing the galaxies apart at ever increasing speeds. If this antigravity force continues, the universe will ultimately die in a big freeze and all life will be inconceivable as proposed in the laws of thermodynamics.↩
4. Today, more than ninety percent of all plant species depend on mycorrhizal fungi. Mycelium makes up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Globally, the total length of mycorrhizal hyphae in the top ten centimeters of soil is around half the width of our galaxy.↩
5. JADAM is an indigenous agricultural theory and practice founded by Yongsang Cho in South Korea. It is now an open-source global network of farmers invested in food justice and agricultural sustainability who provide ultra-cheap, organic methods of cultivating microbial diversity in the soil. In attending to the health of the soil, JADAM supports plants’ fungal relationships.↩
6. Robin W. Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2013), 17.↩
7. Silvia Federici writes in Witch, Witch-hunting and Women that “the ‘rationalization’ of the natural world – the precondition for a more regimented work discipline and for the scientific revolution – passed through the destruction of the ‘witch.”↩
8. Approximately 8% of the human genome is made up of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) and nearly 50% of the human genome is made of transposons, referred to as “jumping genes” that can move and integrate to different locations within the genome.↩