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Assembling the spaces in between

 

My first memory of Fort Totten is Lindsay’s smile beaming at me from the front walkway as my taxi coasted down the road; then walking up the stairs and seeing you all, with your welcome packets laid out atop the generous harvest table. Little did we know that this table would later become a metaphor that would close our weekend discussion with thoughts on how diverse perspectives influence common ideologies (thank you Bryce).

As I waited for my flight at LaGuardia I could not help but feel thankful for embarking on the Urban Forests and Political Ecologies conference (an event that had cost me two years away from dissertation production), if only that it brought Lindsay, and by extension all of you, into my life – I felt a surge of closure and redemption. When Lindsay first mentioned the idea of an Emerging Scholars’ workshop, I had no idea what to expect or that it would leave such a profound impression. And simply put: I miss you all already.

I keep thinking that if I build a memory palace of our weekend I won’t forget: the cozy Fort, speckled with Tulip trees, Silver maples and signs for FDNY, that became our home for three nights; the generous availability of groceries (and… tea) at all hours of the day and night; research plots at Kissena Park, walking solo to the sensory hum of mosquitoes and loamy scents in the Allen Pond Park trail system, listening to your stories about attachment to objects, honing a keen eye to usage at Marine Park with a partner; learning about water rituals at the shoreline; watching movies at night; listening to your personal stories and having the space to share my own; climbing over the mystery pipe-mountain at the beach and hearing Gillian play the banjo; and finally, exploring methods of collaborative storytelling about Sandy on the Rockaways and pondering the lingering question – how do we tell a story with a million people?

I have an affinity for walking through cemeteries and imagining what other peoples’ lives are like, the vastness of that small unassuming dash between two calligraphed dates and what it means to live fully and unencumbered by limitation (physically, mentally, socially) – I’m still trying to figure out whether that’s possible. I started my own work wanting to tell true stories of people, citizen-labourers, climbers, in the iconized and contentious vertical vegetation of this thing called “the urban” – but what I quickly learned was that no story is true or untrue. I once wrote my own eulogy to determine whether my own ideals of who I was, were accurate; then proceeded to try and live the way I’d want to be remembered – I’m still a work in progress. And so, my memories of this weekend weave together as vignettes to compose our narrative, our dash; I want to couple this with music to help me remember these feelings, but the song has not come to me yet – though I imagine something from Blue Rodeo would be appropriate; like nights from tree planting camps watching the orange light from the fire dance across friendly faces.

During our final discussion about reactions and reflections, it became abundantly clear that a central theme to our experience was finding solace in camaraderie and trust. I enjoyed getting to know you all; more than I could have hoped. One of the main goals of this workshop was to nurture a network of young scholars, devoid of hierarchical posturing. As participants, and engaged contributors, I feel we succeeded in realizing this uncommon, and oft-longed-for space in academia. As I reflect on our weekend, it is infinitely apparent that much consideration and thought was put into curating the overall experience with the sole request of “being all in” (I love that) and surrendering all external distractions to ensure that all our participation was focussed, respectful, and inclusive with no assumptions of common language, or perspectives. As a result, the ebb and flow of shared ideas in a safe environment offered much needed emotional support and intellectual stimulation. This experience has filled me with the confidence to move forward with my own work in unexpected directions from an infinitely inspiring and supportive group.

After all, things taste better shared.

I have never been very good at saying goodbye. The depth of finality in that emotion is uncomfortably overwhelming; I suspect because it leaves me feeling vulnerable. So let me say this: you all humble me with your openness, your quick wit and generosity, both in time and in sharing your stories. We spoke of the naming of things, and because identity construction is such a large part of my work and self-consciousness, I could not help but feel a profound sadness as I watched the Fort disappear in Nate’s side-view mirror as we pulled away. I found myself longing for a rewind dial or a fast-forward button to our next encounter – recognizing though that our interactions may not be the same. I feel like if I keep posting photos and writing snippets of our shared journey on Facebook or Twitter, the lasting breadcrumbs will keep it at the forefront of a reality I want to experience continually – not just once. It should not be so difficult or surprising for social science scholars to find a connection with others, and yet…

And now, as I return to my corner north of the border, I find myself scrolling through photo essays to relive the beginnings of the journey on which we have embarked together and look forward – in the spirit of a true fellowship (and I can’t help that my brain is tugging at tendrils of Tolkien and Dead Poet’s Society). I am excited that we will continue our dialogue beyond this weekend, by collaborating as an international team, to contribute to ways of knowing and sharing knowledge, and fostering transdisciplinary learning in urban natures. There are great things ahead and I am privileged and thankful to know you all, and to work with you.

This is how our story begins…

Reflections on our first Urban Natures Workshop, “Engaging Social Science Perspectives from Emerging Scholars” – June 5-8, 2014 – NYC Urban Field Station, Bayside, NY