If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.
― Leo Tolstoy, Essays, Letters and Miscellanies
Our categories are important. We cannot organize a social life, a political movement, or our individual identities and desires without them. The fact that categories invariably leak and can never contain all the relevant “existing things” does not render them useless, only limited. Categories like “woman,” “butch,” “lesbian,” or “transsexual” are all imperfect, historical, temporary, and arbitrary. We use them, and they use us. We use them to construct meaningful lives, and they mold us into historically specific forms of personhood. Instead of fighting for immaculate classifications and impenetrable boundaries, let us strive to maintain a community that understands diversity as a gift, sees anomalies as precious, and treats all basic principles with a hefty dose of skepticism.
The picturesque and rugged high plateau region of northeast Ethiopia is a difficult land to settle. Most rivers in the north of the country flow west, finding themselves part of the Nile, while the few streams flowing through the northeast often dry up in the summer months. Villages here send their women and children to find and carry home water from shallow, unprotected ponds. These people walk for miles to procure scanty water that is frequently contaminated by animal and human waste, parasites and disease, knowing that their success or failure is the life or death of their family and community. It’s a heavy burden, physically and emotionally, and leaves little to no room for realizing individual potential or creative endeavors. The struggle for survival is everything.
An international team of architects, artists, sociologists, filmmakers and designers called Architecture and Vision, based in Italy, has come together with a plan to help harvest water from the air, freeing women and children for new pursuits and making the future of these communities more secure. The project is called “Warka Water”, named after a giant species of Ficus tree that provides gathering spaces for villages in the region. People meet under the Warka to learn, to make decisions, to share and to celebrate civic and religious events. The Warka is a symbol of village life, and this symbol itself is in danger. Ethiopia has lost 60% of its woodlands over the last 40 years.
By studying desert animals and plants the team has identified shapes, surfaces, materials and coatings that will help condense water from the air. The natural water collecting systems of cacti, the properties of spider webs, beetle shells and lotus flowers have come together with the structure of termite hives, as well as local architecture and basket weaving to produce the Warka Tower, a sustainable and relatively inexpensive means of collecting water.
The tower consists of a bamboo exoskeleton for support, a mesh textile that collects moisture and a water tank for storage. The newest version, Warka 3.1, also includes a canopy around the structure that provides shade and shelter from wind, increasing stability and humidity. Rotating mirrors have been added on thin, flexible antennae on top of the structure. Aesthetically, these reflect sunlight and moonlight and dance in the wind. Functionally, the mirrors discourage birds from flocking to the tower, where they would foul and drink the water produced there.
Warka 3.1, made principally of bamboo, hemp and bio-plastic, is projected to cost near $1,000 American dollars per tower and is designed to be built with simple tools by a team of four or five people. It is easily maintained without advanced and expensive machinery and leaves little to no footprint on the planet. Lovely, culturally relevant and useful, a single Warka Tower can provide up to 100 liters (over 26 gallons) per day. The structure weighs 60 kg (over 132 lbs) and is 10 m (over 32 feet) tall. You can read more about the design here.
It is inspiring to see what can happen when people pool their creativity together to benefit the community. Is there anything you can do where you are?
Sam van Aken is head of the Sculpture Program at Syracuse University, and perhaps sculpture is the backbone of his creative endeavors, but the body of that work integrates technology, art, imagination and skill in surprising combinations. He’s explored popular culture through oh my god, a wall of stereo speakers that emit recordings of that phrase ranging from the ecstatic to the terrified, and Multiple Deaths of Willem Dafoe, thirteen old style television sets playing an array of death scenes featuring the actor and incorporated into a funeral arrangement. He’s also done performance art, recreating the journey of Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Becoming Roy Neary and the confusion resulting from the 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds in i am here today…. Over the years he has developed a surprisingly practical, as well as artistic, interest in plant hybridization.
This trend began with a relatively traditional sculptural project called Hybrids. Van Aken made fanciful artificial fruit, such as an apple fused with a strawberry and an orange fused with lemons, and displayed them on shelves mounted to poles designed to imitate the form of DNA helix. The intention was to spoof the whims of modern humanity, especially when it comes to the reshaping of our own food. Eden was the next step, inspired by various literary sources, including the Bible, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. This experiment involved the grafting of actual plants, in this case vegetables and fruits. Eggplants were produced on tomato vines, tomatoes on pepper plants, and cucumbers from watermelons. New Edens was a similar experiment, featuring fruit trees and orchids. The centerpiece of New Edens is the Tree of Forty Fruit, a grafted fruit tree producing forty kinds of stone fruit, or fruit with a pit, including cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines.
Video via TEDx Talks on YouTube
In sculpting this amazing tree through chip grafting, van Aken learned that he could produce something that was not only beautiful, but useful. He was able to preserve native, heirloom, hybrid and antique varieties that are no longer in production. Our agricultural system emphasizes ease of preservation, size, beauty and uniformity over taste, and many worthwhile cultivars are dying out because they aren’t a commercial success. Due to the popularity of New Edens, van Aken is sculpting trees for locations around the country. It is a detailed and labor intensive process that takes years. The design requires knowledge of blooming time and local growth zones so that the tree will thrive in its new home.
Yes, the almonds were a success and are featured on newer trees.
What an amazing testament to the power of art to change the world around us!