A LETTER FROM MY FRIEND JEFF CLARK:
About five months ago, on May Day, the local community joined together to seedbomb the acre of Water Street at the corner of River Street and Michigan Avenue. The little clay balls were handcrafted by children from Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor elementary schools, as well as several adults in the community, who were eager to take ownership of this little, neglected plot of land at the heart of our City, and bring new life to it. These “bombs” contained 8 species of native grasses, and 27 species of flowering plants. And, judging by what’s going on in the field right now (September 4, 2013), some community members also fashioned their own seedbombs with common, non-native annuals like cosmos, cornflower, and sunflower.
Not only was the seedbombing and the potluck feast that followed it a genuinely pleasurable and radical (from the Latin radix, or “root”) experience, we’ve now got a blooming commons.
This morning before work I drove by the field to transplant little and big bluestem, nodding wild onion, ironweed, and red-osier dogwood from my garden, and was happy to encounter the following things in blossom:
Purple Love Grass
And this was in addition to the aforementioned cosmos and sunflowers. If you look closely, you’ll also find Bearberry (arctostaphylos), blackberry, raspberry, Chokecherry, nasturtium, and marigold.
What Mark and I and all the Commonists (ranging in age from 1 to 80) involved in this meadow restoration wouldn’t have been able to predict is that shortly after May Day, public art would start to crop up in the deep gorgeous lot directly behind the adopted meadow. The Ypsilanti Freeskool, in cahoots with a handful of other local artists and activists, erected a meandering cairn of pieces of the rubble and stone that fills the lot. This was followed, in turn, by all kinds of raw, spontaneous field art, including a lovely hut that’s currently serving as a kind of Information Center, free library, and meeting space. One intrepid sculptor fabricated a dynamic tree of hay, wire, rebar, and concrete. Then, in August, some Freeskoolers and I erected a 12-foot-tall pyramid of cedar beams, which with rope suspends a large piece of humanmade rubble sourced from the lot.
There’s much to say about the creative making-use of neglected—neglegere: “not chosen”—public space; I’ll spare you, convinced as I am most of you know the factoids and testimonials regarding these kinds of community actions and transformations; but I would only point out a personally beloved fact, which is that on a majority of my visits out to the meadow to look after it, or to the sculpture lot, I encounter strangers—black and white—in the act of interacting with something out there. I’ve had friendly conversations with elderly men taking a lunchbreak from fishing the Huron, and with young Washtenaw Community College students who heard this was a place they could make an open-air sculpture.
After unloading my car this morning of plants and tools, I saw that the simple, lovely little bench someone had anonymously crafted of wood and placed in the seedbomb meadow had been uprooted and overturned. While setting it back into place, I glanced out into the sculpture lot and noticed the cedar pyramid was no longer standing. Walking out towards it, I then saw something awry at the little hut (it had been ransacked, and a fair amount of its contents ruined, or strewn about, or submerged in the rain barrel).
Naysayers might say, “What did you expect?” and I don’t know that I’d waste time trying to argue that vandalism wasn’t a distinct possibility from the get-go. Instead, what I’d like to do is invite all of you who are interested to visit these Commons (the meadow and sculpture lot) and, in being there—either as a creator, an enjoyer, or both—assume the responsibility of also being a caretaker. There are so many ways to be a tender of the Water Street Commons, from making art; to studying the species of butterfly, bee, and bird (a few Eastern Kingbirds were snatching insects from the air above the meadow last week); to transplanting native Michigan plants and grasses from your own garden into the meadow; to watering and caring for the plants that are already there; to installing foodplants; to making art; to helping implement the Ypsilanti Zen Center; to pulling spotted knapweed; and best of all: to picnicking at the end of the day.
Actually, that isn’t best of all. Best of all: just visit. Behind you a wilderness, and before you a busy city street. Being alive and active in the intersection of these two kinds of space is personally (and maybe even publically?) reinvigorating.