Extinct in NY

Subtle Life in the Anthropocene: An Afterword

With Michael Wang’s Extinct in New York, a project to nurture a selection of plant, algae and lichen species that are known to be historically from New York City but are no longer found growing wild in any of the city’s five boroughs.

Exhibited at LMCC's Arts Center at Governor’s Island, NY, September – October 2019

Photos courtesy of the artist

Imprints of the low light greenhouse units archive indelibly on my mind’s eye, and I think of what they say about forgetting. How erased, revised, overwritten histories signal doomed repetition. I mark it down to enact a continuity.

Michael walks Sarah and I through the gallery housing his exhibition. On our walk, we peer through incubation tanks of moss and lichen dangling from a branch of hemlock, damp with vapour pumping the likeness of fog to replicate the habitat the species once relied on to survive. Michael tells us what the topography of Manhattan— from the Lenape word Manhatta, meaning “hilly island”— used to be like. He says that the island was once dense, lush and wet, with fog rolling in on a lake that has since been filled and flattened to build up the Lower Eastside.

We turn to a tucked corner of the gallery space where Michael gestures to his botanical drawings of extinct species perfectly encased in glass. Plants that once grew in what’s now Crown Heights, or millionaires' properties on Staten Island with their long driveways and high walls. Photos document the relative present sites. He calls this an assisted living facility for plants. These tanks, their obvious artifice, contain the conditions allowing life that has been otherwise displaced through domination and other, subtler means of extinction. They don’t say by whom.

This constructed return feels strange and precious. These are our dead ones: brought to life in a built underworld, haunting the Anthropocene.

The discomfort makes me curious.

This is not the sweet relief of escape to Nature; no silent nod from the Mother that everything is forgiven, that she will still hold us. Neither is it the shock of documented devastation and total catastrophe flooding, crashing, and burning through our feeds. These are small, whispering messengers. Tended and coddled to survive in an untenable climate.

Michael tells us that following the exhibit’s close, these plants will be invited to root in places around the city that might sustain their survival, and I strain to imagine. I am confronted with the disciplining effect of colonial logics that delimit my capacity to dream, to even envision these plants blooming in the toxic New York City air, to take root in this soil where it’s a wonder anything goes on living.

Weeks later, I sit with Lois, my friend and teacher on the dangers of revisionist history and the necessity of the living archive as an ecology of knowledge and poetic lineage. From across the desk in her home, in Fort Greene, she talks to me about the wild, vacant lot next to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the 1970s, where they used to raise roosters for cock fights and roast whole pigs when it was too hot to turn on the oven in summer in Alphabet City, but you’d never guess it now. What’s new strikes what was there before.

To write about the extinction of plants is to bear attention to the legacy of colonial domination over Indigenous knowledges and ways of being in reverence. The arrival of humans to New York City is not innocent, and it is not equal. To write about extinction is to contemplate who settled here, and why. To what ends. Who held power, and who was subjected to that power. Who came here by choice, and who was forced, and what else between.

And so,

With a mind to the complexities of migration, imperial reach, and colonial settlement that have played into the making of this city, and the plant life that has been altered, destroyed, transformed in the process, I want to pull our focus in.

I want you to notice, with me, the significance of this particular intervention. To recognize the persistence of life. What is indicated here. Before consuming any more thought on the matter, I want to perceive what’s here.

Amid such aggressions. Amid demands all on all sides to do better, produce more, consume more, learn more, work harder. There is subtle life growing. Being nurtured, and tended to, and cared for. There are ways of being that are slow. Delicate. There are ways of holding one another this way.

To look honestly and directly at climate disaster is overwhelming. Is devastating. It feels impossible to take in and consider with real, sustained sensitivity. I listen to the news and dissociate. Close off. I don’t know how to handle it.

And to write in response to the catastrophic data I am exposed to. I fear reproducing the disdainful criticism, the compulsion to action, the swift judgments demanded by those positioned with enough wealth and comfort to look down on those who can’t afford to make righteously imposed, environmentally sustainable, individual consumer decisions.

Michael affirms that "Extinct in New York" is not a eulogy, nor a wishing-away: that there is important human history here, too.

It is painful to recognize that some human lives are seen as valuable and others dispensable, a waste of resources.

With care work on my mind, I go to see an elder whose labour, intelligent passion and poetry was foundational to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which is now under threat of erasure. He is being kept in a rehab center uptown. An assisted living facility for humans. Another place to enclose those we are unable to look after in a natural, integrated environment.

On the subway ride uptown, a Black man rants through the car shouting his discontent with racial inequities in America, and we collectively shrink. I close off, thinking of how proximity to illness provokes fear of my own mental state slipping under.

Curiosity shuts down, and I stop perceiving, I stop writing.

Text by Alisha Mascarenhas


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