The Pheidole morrisi is a species of ant whose existence in New York’s Long Island tends to be confined to the area under power lines. The limitation of this animal life to fragments of land that happen to be spared death-by-concrete struck Andrew Yang, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), as quite poignant. In urban environments, we now look for and find wildness only in spaces that have been specifically designated for nonhuman purposes.
The disruption of the existing animal life in urban landscapes became an area of interest for Yang when he was a Ph.D. student studying biology at Duke University. His study on the response of P. morrisi to seasonal fluctuations in food availability brought him to the insects’ disturbed habitats. The effect of human activity on these ants is an example of a greater trend: human interference with nature has led some scientists to propose a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which there no longer exists any nature untouched by humanity’s influence. Yang, a scientist and an artist, whose work in both fields has focused on issues of urban ecology, thinks we might be in this epoch now.
Back in 2010, Claire Pentecost, one of Yang’s colleagues, was reading Charles Darwin. A photography professor at SAIC, she came across a passage where Darwin claimed that he scraped mud off the foot of a seabird, and from that mud was able to grow seventy different types of plants.
Pentecost told Yang about Darwin’s discovery. “I thought that was such an intriguing story,” Yang said. “But I found it actually kind of unbelievable—seventy different kinds of [plants] coming from the mud of this one bird.”
How do birds and seeds typically interact? Flowering plants and their seed-y fruits attract hungry birds who eat them and transport the seeds as they pass through the birds’ bodies. The locale for the interaction of birds and seeds would therefore be the birds’ stomachs. Yang, also a Research Associate at the Field Museum of Natural History since 2009, was familiar with the museum’s bird lab, where the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (CBCM) brings dead, migratory birds—and their stomachs.
Chicago was built in the middle of an avian flyway, a network of routes by which birds migrate. The skyline presents birds with a navigational challenge. During the day, they take the transparency of the glass windows on skyscrapers to indicate open space. Or, they mistake the reflection of a tree in the glass for the real thing. At night, birds are drawn to the light inside these buildings.
“Birds have evolved over millions of years to pay attention to lights at night as navigational aid,” Yang said, and the illuminated buildings create what he calls a “false celestial beacon.”
The CBCM volunteers wake up at dawn and scour the city in search of birds that have flown into the mirrored glass buildings that populate the Chicago skyline. Those found alive are brought to wildlife rehabilitation centers. The not-so-lucky ones are brought to the Field Museum, where they are catalogued and dissected, their skeletons and skins put into the museum’s collection. Before Yang became involved, the birds’ stomachs and guts were thrown away.
“It’s kind of a tragedy,” Yang said, “because in some sense the birds are recouped as these museum specimens, but these seeds are lost to the garbage.”
David Willard, collections manager emeritus at the Field Museum, was in charge of cataloguing and identifying the birds. Per Yang’s request, he began to save the stomachs for Yang to dissect.
The project that developed, “Flying Gardens of Maybe,” was the connection of the two strands of Yang’s experience: his background as a scientist and his work as an artist.
Yang’s parents, both scientists, kept a lot of animals—cows, horses, chickens, goats, cats, and dogs. At a large pond near his home in rural Massachusetts, he spent time interacting with fish, frogs, snakes, and insects, the animals to which he eventually dedicated much of his academic work. “We spent a lot of time fishing in that pond, spent a lot of time keeping animals near us as pets,” Yang said. “Everything from tadpoles to snapping turtles.”
His interest in the arts evolved concurrently. “My mother would bring my brother and [me] to art classes at the local art museum,” Yang said. “They had classes for children, I think as early as five years of age, and that left a really big impression on me.”
In college, Yang studied biology and chemistry while making visual art on the side. Perhaps counterintuitively, the opportunity for creative work seemed greater in the biochemistry department than in the arts department. After his freshman year, Yang spent the summer doing research. “They invited me to stay the whole summer and pursue my own biochemistry projects in their lab, and they paid me a stipend to do it,” Yang said. “I was like, ‘Wow. This is the best art studio I could ever have.’”
Art and science had always struck Yang as more similar than different. The two seemed to complement one another; they had a unified form of inquiry. “[Biochemistry research] wasn’t dissimilar from the way I think about art in terms of experimentation and form and the use of techniques to try to discover something new,” he said.
Now, as a scientist and associate professor at SAIC, Yang is a bit of an outlier. “I came to SAIC with a particular interest as someone who makes art,” Yang said. “Other people have come with an appreciation of or interest in art, but not necessarily with the goal to also produce artwork.”
In a piece written for City Creatures, an anthology of creative and critical pieces focusing on urban wildlife, Yang describes the virtues of artistry and ecology in collecting urban insects. He writes, “Today, many artists are less interested in traditional notions of ‘beauty’ regarding the work they make and more concerned with the possibility of creating situations that challenge typical expectations. The artistic opportunity is to orchestrate images, objects, and circumstances that can draw us into greater awareness of the ways we take our daily experiences for granted.”
Since 2012, Yang has been collecting the seeds from these fallen birds’ stomachs, cleaning them, and cataloging them. He has one box for the seeds taken from each individual bird. The collection of these containers forms a seed archive.
There are two routes for the seeds at the moment. Some seeds are mixed in with commercial bird feed and put in bird feeders, in hopes that they might be eaten again and returned to the landscape as a restoration of the disrupted botanical reproductive cycle. Other seeds are replanted in ceramic pots made by Yang. The pots are a new vessel for the seeds, glazed in a form that evokes the feathery pattern of the bird from which the seeds came. Seeds retrieved from a cedar waxwing are replanted in a pot glazed with yellow and tan swatches. Seeds retrieved from a white-throated sparrow are replanted in a pot with dark brown streaks, intermingled with whites and grays. And seeds retrieved from a Swainson’s thrush are replanted in a pot with a caramel-colored upper half and a gray-and-white lower half that mimics the bird’s spotted underbelly. About fifty percent of the seeds that are planted will sprout.
In addition to the feeders and the replanted seeds, “Flying Gardens of Maybe” also features postcards and photographs of symmetric arrangements of seeds in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French naturalist style. The distribution of the postcards beyond the exhibit is another representation of the seeds flying again. There are also photographs of fallen birds that Yang himself has encountered while walking around the city.
The birds, to Yang, are more than just individual animals—they are the flying gardens.
“When we think of the bird, we think of it as its own autonomous creature, but the bird is also a flying garden because [it] is carrying plants within its body,” Yang said. “When I plant the seeds, I have multiple seeds and plants growing in one flowerpot. Every creature is, in that sense, a plurality.”
The idea of “maybes” comes from the role of happenstance in the project: the bird colliding, the bird dying, the seeds sprouting. “One could ask, what’s the real point of replanting the seeds, or putting the seeds in the bird feeder? Because what are the chances, what ecological or biological impact does a few seeds being redistributed into the landscape really have?” Yang said. “That’s true in one sense.”
But Yang’s training in evolutionary biology also makes him think otherwise. “The fact of the matter is,” he said, “all the biodiversity and all the life that exists in the planet today is the consequence of something that was almost completely improbable actually happening. So that involves taking a step back on the spatial and temporal scale of things and taking seriously the fact that everything about life is a ‘maybe.’
“These seeds, fundamentally, are about possibility. As improbable as these possibilities are, they happen, and the existence of all forms of life on earth, including ourselves, are a testament to that ‘maybe’ coming about and reaching fruition.”
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