Unruly Earths

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3 minutes of reading

Unruly Earths are miniature, jar-based landscapes, whose contents shift and change with the addition of sediments and liquids over time.

I began making these little worlds because I yearned for a sensory understanding of the phenomena of climate change. Intellectually, I understood the relevant science. However, technical knowledge did not help me grasp my one-small-body connection to climate dynamics. Without sensory understanding, I found myself captive in narrow reactions. This captivity was emotional. Whenever I saw warming-related news, fear, panic, or grief would tug me out of the day-to-day: twisting in my stomach, catching in my throat. It was also professional. My work engages the design of landscapes, and design is visual at its core. How could I address climate change when I couldn’t envision climates? I needed to reckon with my stuck-ness for emotional and professional reasons.

I needed a creative outlet for strong feelings and new ways to perceive movements of air and terrain. And so, I began making Unruly Earths.

I am trained as a landscape architect, accustomed to drawing and making models to understand existing sites and imagine their transformation. With Unruly Earths, I take model-making in a different direction. Rather than studying a physical site to be designed, I explore unbound landscape conditions. I watch formations of varying sizes and tempos: bits of wood and glass agglomerating, clumpy then diffuse, fast then slow. I track material fluxes and flows: Sand and air falling through viscous layers then rising again.

To make a model, I pour, scatter, and spill: layering a variety of sediments and fluids into a jar. Then I watch: I observe combinations and formations, adding more and more sediments and fluids in response to what emerges. Lastly, I record: The jar’s contents accumulate and change over time, and I document what occurs. Though my “site” of study is very bound, the contents often appear limitless—sometimes miniature, sometimes massive. I catch visions of occurrences not easily perceived by humans, yet essential to life on Earth: cells pulsing through veins, geological formations, movements of gases through air.

Working with these models shows me things I haven’t seen before, reveals material relationships that I did not previously understand. So far, two discoveries excite me the most.

The first is pragmatic. As I had hoped, the material movements in Unruly Earths do enable me to better perceive complex shifts and flows. With this new way of seeing in hand, I can begin to visualize carbon moving through Earth’s airs and grounds: churning, settling, churning again. I am beginning to adapt this visual language to carbon’s earthly movements in order to share this novel climate sensibility with others.

The second discovery is a true surprise. For, though this project started as a study of earthly phenomena, cosmic realms appear too. Occasionally I see other planets: rocky surfaces in odd atmospheres, swirling movements of Earth’s neighboring gas giants. More surprising still is that outer-space formations sometimes appear as well. Upon seeing the first released images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, I felt a shock of recognition—a material kinship between my little earth-jar worlds and the telescope’s views of distant dust thrown off by stars.

Here, then, is a curious fact: Everyday materials let loose in a jar can at once conjure viscera in our bodies, a thunderstorm on the horizon, the pressing transformation of soft earth into rock, and visions of intergalactic matter. How is this so? I have only a glimmer of an answer, itself a mere echo of something humans have understood before (millennium-old Buddhist stupas, for one example, remind us so). Long known, elided by modernity and technology, it is newly vital today.

The glimmer/echo is this. Relationships among varying spatial scales are not merely nested and multiplicative (leaves on a tree, trees in a forest). There is also a coherence of action between scales. Sediments in a jar, Webb photographs: These portraits of particle bodies capture what small bits do when they move with each other. Colliding, cohering, bumping, releasing, particles together form meta-phenomena exquisite and strange.

From this perspective, it is not so important that jar, climate, and cosmos are of different sizes; not even so important that they are made of the same cosmic stuff. Far more essential is that they behave the same, acting in consonance, across registers. This means that climate change is larger than us, yes, but also smaller, because particles rubbing are particles rubbing: in our lungs, across continents, in space and at home. Same particles, same rub. All things, from microscopic to cosmic, are bound together through shared characters and qualities of relationship.

In other words, not only are we made of stardust—we behave like it too.

  • Margot Lystra

    Margot Lystra is an artist, scholar, and teacher of landscape design and theory, based in Ithaca, NY.. Margot adores Earth's livingness, is fascinated by its complexity, and yearns to grasp Earth's transformations as it warms. She believes that making and sharing novel Earthly visions can better equip people to navigate rapid environmental changes. And so, she makes art: to glimpse planetary phenomena anew, to share those glimpses with others, and to offer attunement to climate and land.

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