Where The Wild Things Are: Adam Anderson & the wonder of our living world

Photo courtesy of Adam Anderson

If you’ve ever taken a stroll by the Providence River and found yourself enthralled by a field of sunflowers glowing in that golden summer light, then you’ve experienced the wonder of Adam Anderson, director/founder of landscape architecture studio Design Under Sky.

Since 2016, the sunflower field, known as 10,000 Suns, has grown on a parcel of land that was once a section of I-195; now, it’s a parcel of land slated for development. An apartment complex will go up where the flowers once grew. That might feel like such a loss, but Anderson sees things a little differently.

“I think there’s part of it that’s kind of beautiful,” he says. “It becomes a story of Providence for the people who got to see it and experience it, and when those people see the new buildings they’ll be like, ‘Remember when that used to be a sunflower field?’ And someone else will be like, ‘What? Really? Whoa.’ I think that’s kind of nice.”

In addition to his work as a landscape architect, Anderson teaches at RISD and is also a writer. In fact, he started Design Under Sky in 2008 as an outlet for his writings about landscape design, wilderness, the anthropocene, botanical counter terrorism and the definition of nature, to name a few. By 2014, his online journal of thought-provoking essays evolved into a landscape design studio that interweaves the wonder of wilderness into its work. 

“I think we now are sort of programmed to find wonderment in the technological,” says Anderson. “But I very much find it in the living world, by just looking at a flower. I feel like I have the sensibilities to be freaked out and amazed at how impossibly interesting and complex the living world is, and I very much have an interest for people to discover that.”

Wilderness plays a central role in Anderson’s work. He himself has a no-mow garden, which is a mix of red fescue and clovers he describes as a “textural carpet.” He loves the ephemerality of bulbs, of tulips and daffodils, how they pop up in spring. 

“I also have lots of seed mixes I’ve planted, so random things kind of come up, like goldenrods and lupines. And then there’s a lot of weeds that grow up too, that I keep. I like when the pokeweed comes up and grows wild, I just let it go in the summer.”

In partnership with INFORM Studio, Anderson is currently at work on the Roger Williams Park Gateway and Visitor Center. With its entrance on Broad Street, the gateway begins as an urban pavilion then transitions into an urban garden with meadow-like plantings, meandering paths, log bridges, a rain garden and a treetop tower. The idea being: the farther you walk, the wilder it gets.

“My projects are a little more on the wilder side to maybe subconsciously or consciously try to change a little our perception of the image of nature… By having wilder things within the city, does that bring us a little bit closer to that? I guess it’s a change in what we accept as an aesthetic and a step in the direction of increasing the sensibilities of feeling wild.”

And that is what Anderson’s work accomplishes:, it informs our connection to wilderness and satiates a desire for the wild.; Hhe imbues the city with pockets of wilderness that compel even technophiles to look up from their screens and get lost in a meadow. 

“The Living Edge project I did was a small thing. But when you go to it you’re sitting in a pretty wild meadow, you’re immersed in something, and it helps you;, you feel a little bit of displacement in the city, which I think we all need. Anywhere we can squeeze that in is beneficial.”

This displacement is part of the distinct feeling of experience ofing wonder in an urban wilderness. There’s a blurring of the lines, a marriage of sense and sensibility, a marrow-deep acceptance of humans as part of nature, as engineers with great minds capable of creating their own landscapes. TAnd there is also a sorrow that comes from looking back wistfully and recalling what was and no longer is; b. But if you look for it, you’ll see a breeze sift through the tall grasses, and the reflection of a meadow move like waves against glass windows, and wild shadows dance across concrete and stone, and then, that distinct feeling of wonder will return and any sorrow for the past will evolvehave evolved into a curiosity for the present.

“When people say ‘nature,’ really they’re just talking about the living world in general, and that can exist sort of anywhere… So for me, it’s felt very freeing to dismiss this idea of the separation between those things., Iit frees up the possibilities for looking at how we can really start to intermingle and integrate and, you know, become something different.”

To learn more about Anderson’s projects and to read his writings, visit designundersky.com.

The Nature We Build Around Us: A conversation with Connor Burbridge of Nuts & Bolts Nursery Co-op

(image source: Nuts & Bolts Nursery Co-op)

With hopes that March melts February’s freeze and April’s showers again bring May flowers, Motif’s Sean Carlson interviewed Connor Burbridge of Nuts & Bolts Nursery (374 Farnum Pike, Smithfield), a cooperative housed at the permaculture nonprofit Revive the Roots. Opened in 2021 as a worker-owned nursery specializing in edible perennial plants, Nuts & Bolts is working to build an alternative food system that combats climate change, increases biodiversity, and promotes social and economic equity. Before getting your hands dirty with yardwork this spring or wiping them clean of responsibility, review the University of Rhode Island’s searchable guide to locally native plants and the small, sustainable steps to take in your own neighborhood

Sean Carlson (Motif): It can be easy to think of “nature” as a defined place like a park or preserve, a destination within set borders. How should we consider this concept?

CB: The funny thing about nature is that it reinforces this idea that it’s separate from us, or that we’re above it. But humans have shaped the world for more than 200 thousand years. Even today, parks and forests are usually heavily managed by government agencies. Nature is the world we build around us, whether cities made of concrete and metal or neighborhoods full of trees and soil. There are complex interactions between rural areas, suburbs, and cities, with a flow of people, goods, and raw materials going back and forth between them all. We should choose and shape what nature we live in, and our co-op chooses to work towards one of biodiversity, sustainability, and equality.

SC: What would you suggest to those who’d say they aren’t gardeners or naturalists?

CB: There’s nothing wrong with starting small, experimenting, and making mistakes. Everything is a learning process. Start on a smaller scale with lower maintenance plants, like mint or basil in a planter, and get to know how to identify and use some common edible “weeds,” like dandelion or mulberry. Ask questions of other gardeners or growers and maybe check out events or workdays at a local community garden. One secret is that a lot of plants die, even for the best gardener or farmer. It’s okay if your plants don’t end up producing vegetables. It’s okay if you get too busy and your garden turns to weeds. Keep trying. Eventually, you’ll learn to be a better observer and let the plants teach you. There are many ways to grow. You will find edible and useful plants everywhere. Maybe there’s something growing in your local park that you won’t know is useful until you start gardening and paying attention to the ecosystem.

SC: For reasons of cost and convenience, many readers will turn to larger retailers for gardening supplies. How can they leave the best possible footprint?

CB: There are many incredible local nurseries and plant centers across our state, and I hope that people will give them a chance. Our nursery in Smithfield, for example, is small but we are deeply rooted in the community and support local grassroots projects. We will help people with whatever they’re dreaming up for their backyard food forests or however they’re hoping to experiment. Even if people think they don’t have a green thumb, we will be sure to get them started with the right edible plant. We want to see people growing food because it’s good for their health, their happiness, and their families. Grow food. Make art. Our belief is that we can build a regenerative culture and a caring community in the face of climate change. You won’t get all that at Home Depot.

SC: The concept of nativism is commonly associated with policies against immigration. Do you ever worry about the language of native plants and invasive species?

CB: An important thing to consider around native plants is that first we are on native land. Calls to restore historical plants to an ecosystem without addressing the issue of Indigenous people’s rights to their ancestral homelands is a deep injustice. The Indigenous people of the northeast woodlands had, and still have, incredibly complex systems for managing whole forests and rivers by understanding the connections within an ecosystem. Now, people can identify more corporate logos than they can plants, so part of the problem around invasives stems from a lack of awareness and poor ecosystem management practices. If we listened to Indigenous people, our perspectives would be different, the solutions would be more nuanced, and we would better recognize the relationship between environmental issues and social injustice.

SC: How can more mindful stewardship of the land outside our doorsteps help us all?

CB: Ultimately, everyone comes from a family and culture that at one time or another was based around farming and living in connection to the land. People might be 100 years removed from that culture but that connection is still there. Gardening and growing food can actually teach you so much about yourself and the world around you. In Farming While Black, a book reflecting on the experiences of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY, author Leah Penniman writes about the importance of connecting to your ancestral traditions through food and farming. This is important work for us white folks as well. Throughout history, many European farming peoples were kicked off their lands and forced to move into crowded cities. Part of the work to heal the wounds of white supremacy in particular is to rebuild these cultural connections to the environment and food, and address the harms done to ecosystems and cultures around the world.

The Rhode to Revival: RI permaculture group Revive the Roots fundraising to stay rooted

Shortly after graduating college, I got an invite from an old roommate to visit a piece of land he and some friends had acquired to begin working on an agricultural venture, which he called Revive the Roots. After driving up the dirt road to an old farmhouse, I met a handful of people brimming with excitement about this huge project and kept hearing a word that, until then, seemed entirely foreign to me: permaculture.

Permaculture is an agricultural school of thought based on adopting arrangements from natural ecosystems and applying them to land development and designs. It’s not just about working with the natural environment around you, but making sure that it can flourish for years to come and enrich the ecosystem. This philosophy has been embodied in Revive The Roots since its inception in 2011 and they’ve grown a lot since then, both literally and figuratively.

While establishing themselves as a permaculture epicenter in RI, Revive The Roots has put a huge focus on community engagement going beyond thinking green. They host a myriad of programs from classes on sustainable growing practices to cooking and arts classes. All these take place at the Mowry Commons in Smithfield, a historic house that serves as a headquarters, and is made possible through a lease with the Town of Smithfield and the Smithfield Land Trust. 

Unfortunately, this arrangement proved unsustainable. In 2019, the Town of Smithfield decided that they could no longer lease the property to Revive The Roots, and offered to sell it to the organization for $415,000. Securing these funds is pivotal for the organization to continue. The property not only serves as their headquarters, but also provides living quarters for core team members who work on the property. Revive The Roots has been working diligently to raise the money: through grant applications and donations, they are slowly approaching their goal, but are still at risk of not reaching it in time. With 401Gives, an RI statewide day of philanthropy coming up April 1, they are hoping to reach new sponsors and gain the crucial funding needed to continue.

 “We see ourselves having a presence here in perpetuity. We’ve invested so much of our work and efforts and grant funds into the property;, it’s been a 10-year investment. This is really just the start,” said Hannah Martin, Revive the Roots board member and community builder.

Strides toward Sustainability: Zero Waste PVD takes initiative to mitigate RI waste issues

At Zero Waste PVD, volunteers collaborate to reduce excess waste by focusing on activism, policy development, and legislative work. They host reusable bag giveaways, and recruit handy volunteers to sew reusable bags, and advocated for PVD’s plastic bag ban. Deborah Schimberg, chairperson of the organization, explained that the group strives to minimize the problems of waste and climate change by tackling issues from both an advocacy perspective and a hands-on perspective. Take, for example, neighborhood clean-ups. “We are trying to straddle both and allow everybody who’s interested to be involved.” Schimberg said. 

Schimberg and her team started ZWP when she was on PVD’s Environmental Sustainability Task Force. It was here that she learned about the city’s environmental issues: “We have a very low recycling rate in PVD,” she told us. Shimberg and her team of volunteers realized that there weren’t enough organizations educating society about issues such as recycling and compost. They set out to change that. 

One of ZWP’s major projects is food waste diversion. Schimberg explained that the RI Central Landfill in Johnston is expected to reach its capacity in 2034, which will create a major problem for diversion as all of the new trash in the state will have nowhere to go. In an attempt to help divert the waste, ZWP created nine community food waste collection sites around the city. According to Schimberg, the more collection sites, the more convenient composting will be; additionally, as compost makes for a great fertilizer, this project can have a substantial positive impact on the environment. 

Schimberg has heard reservations from restaurant owners and residents about bringing composting into their daily lives. “The biggest problem is that … we all want life to be easy and [composting] is more complicated than we’re used to.” She elaborated that people are concerned about keeping food waste in their home due to rodents or odors, or they don’t have the space. What they don’t realize, Shimberg explained, is just how easy and inexpensive it is. 

Despite some resistance, Schimberg has noticed that more people have been getting interested in environmental issues. “The number of people involved continues to grow because there is a hunger to do something.” ZWP is feeding that hunger with practical projects.