“One day I turned over a stone,” Sam explains, “and the rest is history.”
When we turn our minds to aspirations of healthy eco-systems, images of clean and running waters, verdant mountains (still with their tops), woodlands, songbirds, well-traveled corridors for animal migration, honey bees, bats who’ve outlived the white-nose fungus, and humans (and not too many of them) who know their proper place and role . . . I will speak only for myself here . . . but when I think of healthy eco-systems, the Bronx – I can say this unequivocally – has never popped into my mind.
So, when my friend Lisa plopped a book on my kitchen counter – not just a book, but a graphic novel – entitled The Pollinator’s Corridor, it sat there for days, untouched except to clean around it; soon it became part of the furniture, like the mail basket, the begonia, and the colander for the day’s harvest from the garden. Until one day, I looked at it and said to myself, “What’s this?” And “Where did it come from?”
I lifted it from the counter and took it upstairs to my desk. I read it four times over a space of two hours and had no sense whatsoever of the passage of time.
The Pollinator’s Corridor (Volume One) is the story of a vision, parts of which are beginning to find flesh in many of our urban areas, although not quite with the brilliance that is laid out here. It’s the work of a young mystic and prophet, visionary and artist whose name is Aaron Birk.
The book begins with a Prologue, Terra Incognita, earth unrecognized, land disguised, land masquerading as something else. Land, none the less, and the land in question is the Bronx. It’s a simple enough beginning. A young boy, out for a run with his dog, throws out a ball on the end of a rope – a game of fetch. The dog doesn’t come back. The boy searches and searches, calls and calls, and, in tears, “Where’s my dog?” Most all of this in graphic images.
The boy spies his dog, who has made a discovery of a sort. It’s a rock, and through his tears – minutes before of grief, now of relief – the boy turns it over. And discovers the denizens of the under-the-rock habitat, dozens, maybe hundreds of them: worms and ants and beetles and fungi and spiders and pill bugs. And these are only the ones visible. Edward O. Wilson would probably put the number well into the millions.
Eight years slip by, and the now adolescent sits in a biology class; these are the teacher’s words:
The naturalist’s tools are curiosity, observation, and the ability to make connections. You will develop a working knowledge of our region’s inland and coastal ecology, investigating climate variance, succession theory, and the evolution of species. You will address critical issues in nutrient transport, soil and water conservation, and habitat loss.
The first and obvious response is from Gretta,
“Sorry, Dr. Benzing, I feel what you’re saying and all, but what’s the point? This is the Bronx. People are dying in the streets, and you want me to crawl around in the woods with a magnifying glass? I don’t get it. How is ‘biodiversity’ supposed to keep my brother outa jail?”
How indeed. Although I want so badly to give away the whole story, what I really want is for you who are reading this to contact Aaron Birk and buy at least ten copies of this astonishing book! In a nano-second, Dr. Benzing takes on science (lost its way) politics (ditto), the gas, oil, and coal industry and their lobbyists, and British imperialism! Dr. Benzing ends his diatribe with a call to ethics, accountability, and a sense of purpose.
I have to say, my biology class didn’t look much like this!
Gretta’s question remains, and this time it falls to Sam, the same Sam who had turned over the rock, to make the connection – Gretta’s brother with restoration ecology, native plant gardening, urban beekeeping, and community agriculture.
Dr. Benzing’s pairing of Gretta and Sam shouldn’t surprise any of us. But what should not only surprise us but set us on fire, is the “what happens next?” And what happens next – I am NOT going to reveal the “hows” and the hope; the biological and geological science of the Bronx; the history and power and abuse of privilege – white privilege in particular – in a city whose disrepair, poverty, violence, and hopelessness, is the very stuff of which urban re-development is made; the unlikely but life-giving intricate interrelationships and interdependence between Sam – Sam with his night visions – Gretta, his partner, an urban squatter whose name is Natasha, and a couple of city cops.
The last chapter of Volume One is called Terra Firma, and it offers a vision, a pragmatic vision of a pollinator’s corridor, an underpass following the path of a mass transit overpass, replete with indigenous plants, plants chosen to allure the bees and butterflies, insects, river to river, a reclamation dream, one which there is every reason in the world to accomplish.
In the words that frame the unexpected embrace between Sam and Gretta, “We can do this.”
We can do this!