Monday, May 11, 2020

The presents we get for being a bit less productive

By Marjorie Smith, Associate Principal



I have been shocked at the natural world’s immediate gifts to us for being just a bit less productive and busy in the last few months. 

For starters, there are the four monarch butterfly chrysalises dangling from my front porch. While my neighbor has been growing milkweed for years, we have never seen the larvae or chrysalises. Why this year? Did the milkweed put out a bit more nutrition with the cleaner air and a bit more care from its now underemployed tender? Was the larvae’s journey across our driveway, from milkweed to porch, more successful because we now rarely use the car? Have chrysalises been forming on our porch for years and we were too busy to notice?

And then there are the song sparrows outside my desk window, alighting from the hibiscus. They are so loud that colleagues on conference calls also enjoy their song. Did they always create such a beautiful cacophony? Are they thriving with less noise and air pollution? Or is the change only me — do I tune-in now that there is less distraction?

And how about the red valerian absolutely blanketing the Albany Bulb. I don’t remember ever seeing so much green and wildflowers at this park that my sweetie loves for its playful impromptu artwork — before, I always lobbied instead for trails in the hills with “more nature.” 

And we hominids have also been contributing to the joy: sidewalk chalk art, murals on boarded-up store fronts, and the paper maché basketball players at Grove Park’s closed hoops. No commission, no buyers, and no sellers for this art. The unauthorized installation at the Berkeley park was a gift to the community from an artist who wanted to invigorate the space with a surrogate for the all-day movement that recently filled our urban landscape.

Of course, such gifts are not a new phenomenon, nor is the appreciation of being quiet and still. I am suddenly paying attention, but the wonders that I’ve just noticed have long been stewarded with care and attention. My neighbor has been tending that milkweed, in a narrow trough of soil, for years. Save the Bay ensured that the Bay edge, where the Albany Bulb sits, was not completely filled and developed in the sixties and seventies. During the nineties and aughts, unremunerated artists transformed the Bulb’s concrete construction debris with their whimsical creations.

While we talk a lot about going back to “normal”, I do not want to go back to blinding productivity. I find it easy to question the best way to go about building a world that makes more space for natural processes and our own appreciation of them. Was red valerian, a non-native, the right thing to plant at the Bulb? When you are reclaiming a garbage pile, does this matter? Was it right to evict the informal artist residents from the Bulb to increase public park access? Yet, despite all of the doubts, I am certain that we must apply ourselves to the big goal of making more space for nature, art, and whimsy and we must take the time to see and listen to these phenomena. And, this means that we may simply be less productive.