We are continuing our series profiling the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Metamorphosis. Learn more about the Metamorphosis volume here. Click this link to order this and previous volumes.
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Donald Strauss contributed an interview to Whole Terrain’s Metamorphosis volume, and he also contributed the essay “Night Ridazz” to our ((r)e)volution volume. That essay was based on research for his doctoral dissertation in environmental studies at Antioch University New England entitled “Ridazz, Wrenches, & Wonks: A Revolution on Two Wheels Rolls Into Los Angeles.”
Founder, professor, and chair of Antioch University Los Angeles‘ (AULA) urban sustainability masters program, Strauss introduces us to one of his students and her capstone project, AlleyUp, in the current volume’s “Space to Place: An Interview with Stephanie Speights.” Strauss and Speights discuss the metamorphosis of her neighborhood’s alley from a regular city alleyway to a place of community through her project.
Strauss conducted the interview for Metamorphosis, and now it is his turn to be interviewed. We asked him about his own projects, as well as what drew him to share Speights’ work with us.
Whole Terrain: In what ways does your academic work as the chair of the master of arts in urban sustainability program at AULA relate to Whole Terrain’s emphasis on reflective environmental practice? How about your personal interest in urban organic farming?
Donald Strauss: It’s in the Antioch DNA to at least aspire to be a reflective practitioner. Certainly, it was emphasized in the Antioch University New England environmental studies doctoral program, and we encourage our urban sustainability students in the same way. Reflection is just part of what we do.
One of the great things about the work in urban sustainability is that it demands that you reflect on urban places in much the same way that a naturalist might focus on wilderness. We are urban naturalists, and part of our work involves breaking down conceptual barriers between the built and the wild.
Urban farming is similar, but it is practiced at a considerably smaller scale than traditional farming in a different kind of place. A different kind of attention is required. We’ve spent a great deal of time just “growing soil,” as a former student of mine likes to say. I’m farming in a county that was, until the early 1950s, the most productive agricultural county in North America — a fact that makes most local people gasp upon hearing it. Despite that, the soil profile has been terribly compromised. Bringing that back to life is a rich experience that brings with it a great deal on which one can reflect.
WT: What do you see as your contribution to the environmental movement, or how do you see your work affecting the way people view the world?
DS: If I have made a contribution, it would be in the form of trained practitioners who have entered the struggle to improve the human role in the biosphere. I have found it particularly vexing to challenge the ways in which we have traditionally seen the world. In the more privileged parts of the world, that view is obscured by a nature-culture separation paradigm that is particularly insidious and nearly intractable. It’s dualism or binary thinking at its worst. Natural is good; unnatural is not so good.
I ask students to consider the idea that there is nothing that is not the natural world, that we are no better than bees or beavers. In fact, we are bees and beavers with a major attitude problem. We see ourselves as “apart from” rather than “a part of,” as Jenny Price likes to say. I would turn it up a notch and say that we see our selves as superior to and possibly a little resentful of this thing we call “nature” or “the natural world.” This is nothing new, but it is something I feel is terribly important. Everything in a city, everything in that UPS truck delivering our latest purchases from Amazon, like everything in a forest or an ocean, is composed of the same atoms that arrived here and formed a great swirling dust cloud 4.5 billion years ago — not the same types of atoms, but the same atoms. So what part of what we are walking around in is not nature?
Perhaps if we could see ourselves as just another part of the whole — no better, no worse than a beaver or a bee — we might make better use of our brief stay here. Imagine all 7.5 billion of us caring deeply for this thing that we are simply a part of. Hats off to William Cronon for raising some of these issues, particularly the separation of nature and culture and the construction of wilderness in the contemporary global-north psyche.
WT: In Whole Terrain’s Metamorphosis volume, you interviewed Stephanie Speights regarding her masters capstone project, “AlleyUp,” creating a sense of place and community with the neighbors in the alley behind her home. I’m sure you’ve overseen many capstone projects. What was it about this project that sparked an interest to write about it for Whole Terrain?
DS: Whole Terrain has always been about reflective practice and place-based writing. I’m not sure if it wandered into the city before my piece on LA bike culture several years back. Rowland Russell had the wisdom to open that door.
Stephanie’s project touched on something I’ve been interested in since I discovered environmental historians. LA is made up of a vast coastal plain that is bifurcated by a transverse coastal mountain range. Most of that plain and much of those mountains have been paved over. Stephanie set out to peel back a tiny bit of that asphalt covering the land, to see if a community might grow up out of the dirt. She brought people and place-as-land together in a way they had not been together before, and it worked. What’s not to love about that? Stephanie is now teaching this stuff in a community college near her alley project.
WT: How do you hope the interview you shared with us in Metamorphosis impacts those who read it?
DS: I know that people see possibilities in cities. It’s happening in The Bronx and Brooklyn in New York, it’s happening in Detroit and Milwaukee, and it’s happening in LA. I hope that more people will see more possibilities. I hope that they will see them in small-scale urban places, suburbs, and megalopoli.
Stephanie Speights’ project embodies those possibilities. It illustrates and demonstrates principles of urban sustainability. Stephanie has shown that we can build community around rediscovered land, people, misplaced place, soil, and it doesn’t take much else — maybe a little food, drink, and art. Her work brings nothing but value to the people and the places she touches. That’s priceless!
Bio: Donald Strauss is founder, professor, and chair of the master of arts in urban sustainability program at Antioch University Los Angeles. He holds a PhD in environmental studies from Antioch University New England, with a focus on narratives of individuals and groups in urban communities and their relationships to the natural, and the social and political ecosystems with which they interact. His dissertation, entitled “Ridazz, Wrenches, & Wonks: A Revolution on Two Wheels Rolls Into Los Angeles,” is an examination of the spontaneous emergence of a bike culture that has played an unlikely role in the transformation of regional transportation policy and the cultural life of Los Angeles, California. He also serves as Climate Change Presenter with The Climate Reality Project, founded by The Honorable Albert Gore. Prior to assuming his role as chair of AULA’s urban sustainability program, Donald was a member of the core faculty in the AULA Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies Program, where he directed the creative writing major area of concentration.