By Elyas Bouallegui (Spring 2022)
This blogpost attempts to illustrate the molding of space by human and non-human inhabitants as they work to serve their own motives in similar ways within a shared space. Specifically, I will be telling the story from my perspective through observing and interviewing a frequent and longtime visitor of Huntley Meadows Park, the largest non-tidal freshwater wetland in Northern Virginia.
Before we dive into ways space is shaped, I think it is important to identify reasons behind shaping space. Land has value, whether it be intrinsic or extrinsic, and in order to get the most “use” from it, the land is shaped with that specific purpose in mind. That being said, there are different uses for the same land depending on the objective of the “Space Maker.” Looking at Laura Ogden’s ethnography of forest patches in Baltimore, she finds that one of the driving factors for the change in the distribution is land ownership. Furthermore Brittany Kiessling finds through interviews with EPA members involved in cleanups that their efforts are largely based on stakeholder input such as: state and local organizations, people of both rural and urban settings, and policy. Which stakeholder has the most influence changes depending on the current needs of each project, but it is necessary to accommodate and work together with these stakeholders to create a valuable space. Both of these ethnographies demonstrate that space is shaped dependent on who is involved and valued in the decision-making process.
While there is acknowledgement of stakeholder opinion in the shaping of the environment, who is and is not considered a valuable stakeholder varies. Oftentimes there are unheard or silenced voices when deciding how to shape space such as Indigenous voices. Because of the widespread belief that humans can claim or own land, including the plants and animals that come with it, it becomes property, creating a perception of malleability to suit the desires of the owner. Thus, the owner can disregard outside opinion, leaving voices such as those of non-human inhabitants to go unheard or ignored. As I’ll attempt to demonstrate, shaping space is not a human exclusive process, non-humans can play the role of “Space Maker” in a very similar manner. However, the goals are often conflicting and create battles for space rather than collaboration.
How Space is Shaped?
Once a space is claimed, it is time to shape it for better utilization. This means removing objects and beings from within that space that take away or interfere with the space’s potential “value”; The process of removal provides the opportunity for a new use of the space to optimize “value.” At Huntley Meadows Park, there is a large emphasis on the value of space for the park goers which is evident by the signs advertising the amazing photography opportunities and unique experiences of the park. Therefore, the park is transformed with visitors in mind with the main goal being accessibility to the “wild” of the park. To facilitate this, trees and marshland are removed or built on top of to make way for the construction of boardwalks, visitors center, parking lot, and walking paths. That is not necessarily to say wildlife are not considered in the transformation, conservation efforts such as nesting boxes are posted and largely the “wildlife space” is respected (More on this later).
Humans are not the only ones who can transform a space, just look at what beavers can do! I have visited Huntley Meadows for over a decade and not once have I seen a beaver, but you can tell they’re around by the work they do. Beavers are a major keystone species, shaping the wetland through damming. There are parts of the park that are now submerged in water that were once walkable and at times and parts of the boardwalk have been completely overtaken by dams. Aside from dams, the beavers make lodges that can house other species that occupy the park such as otters and muskrats. Furthermore, if you look to the plants, you can see flattened paths caused by beavers’ tails or trampling by other animals. Just as humans create structures and paths, other animal species do the same with different purposes and objectives.
After the space is transformed by the space makers according to their preferences, it is time to decide who and what the space is for. Huntley Meadows has a very clear division of space, walking paths are for the people, the wetland and forest is for the wildlife, and the boardwalk is the grey area where the two meet. The signage posted throughout the park will let you know who belongs where, whether it is directly stated by signs telling you not to leave the path or rules put in place for courtesy of the wildlife. For example, you can walk your dogs, run, and bike on the paths through the forest but not on the boardwalk. The grey area of the boardwalk considers the proximity to “wild” space with these rules, but allows people a closer view, so long as they abide by them. However, not everyone respects these designations; people will break rules and animals and plants will sometimes appear on the human paths. In all fairness, it is difficult for the non-human inhabitants to understand our designations, given that they cannot read, and therefore must learn through our reactions. Alongside allocating who belongs where, what the space is used for is also determined. In addition to the previously mentioned rules, certain structures are put up indicating the space’s purpose. Large machine measuring tools marked scientific spaces and nesting boxes marked areas for conservation.
While non-humans do not typically put up signs and make rules, they do designate space through their presence. Simply existing in a space is the way non-humans claim land. Oftentimes animals will get defensive when humans or even other animals try to encroach on their space. Even plants will sometimes make claims to human space by growing in spite of disturbance, although humans are more likely to remove this form of ruderal ecology. Largely, non-humans are able to designate by claiming and controlling space.
After transforming and designating the space the next step is maintaining that space through control. As this is a shared space with different entities trying to act as space makers, it is important to keep one another in check and may the dominant force win. With different goals in mind, parties tend to disagree on how to transform the space. The beavers at Huntley Meadows have taken interest in some of the human claimed space, and so they started to knock down trees and dam over the path and at times the boardwalk. To keep the space under control, fences were put around trees bordering the walking route to prevent beaver work, further designating this as an anti-beaver space. For wildlife that are not natural builders like the beavers, they decide to claim pre-built space as their own. Walking around the park I watched two geese block the boardwalk path, flapping their wings and honking at anyone who got near as a warning not to go further. Some park goers conceded the space while others took a stand and fought for it as they approached the geese, determined to get by one way or another. Not all control is man vs. nature, some nature is deemed worth protecting. A large fence was put up to keep deer away from a certain area of vegetation with a sign telling the visitors to compare the state of the plants before and after the project. The fence was put up in 2008 and expected to thrive by 2010, and over a decade later the fence is still up.
Who Shapes Space?
There are both human and non-human space makers oriented by differing values and preferences. Although they do not always share common goals, largely, they seek to shape and control the space in similar ways.
But who’s vision is more important?:
Depends on who you ask! This post is not to say that the human transformation of space is wrong or bad. Parks hold a lot of value whether it be educational through programs, research, and observing a “natural” ecosystem or even just recreational for people to enjoy and feel interconnected with nature. This shaping helps us appreciate and value the park more so than if it were inaccessible. Park regular, Rachel Bouallegui noted in our interview that “[The county] was planning to build a highway…Huntley meadows, it takes up a big space where they wanted to build roads through there, and people had to fight for it, you know, they had to talk to lawmakers and try to change things and go to community meetings.” This demonstrates that the park means something to those who use it to the extent that they were willing to petition lawmakers to protect it. People would not be as inclined to stand up against it had the park not been accessible to them, allowing them to form a connection with it.
I simply believe that non-human inhabitants should be considered high value stakeholders, just as much as any person would. It is easy to disregard them as they cannot communicate the way humans can, but they do communicate. In Despret’s book, she has a section titled “D is for Delinquents” in which she explains how animals actions may have more intention than we think, and they can often act in resistance and revolt. Humans are such a dominating force that it is difficult for non-human “Shape Makers” to ignore our voices, and easy for us to ignore theirs. They must hear us through our actions, and we owe them that same right, especially as we often claim land that they felt already belonged to them.
I believe that there is a happy intermediate where both the values of humans and non-humans can be respected, especially in spaces we share. It all starts with listening to what the animals are saying, because despite their lack of words, they speak. If we can listen, understand, and respect the values of those we share a space with, we can come together to make our parks a space where we truly are one with nature.
Brittany Kiessling, Keely B. Maxwell, Jenifer Buckley (2021) The sedimented social histories of environmental cleanups: An ethnography of social and institutional dynamics, Journal of Environmental Management,Volume 278, Part 2, 111530, ISSN 0301-4797, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2020.111530.
Bouallegui, Rachel. Personal Interview. April 18, 2022.
Despret, Vinciane, et al. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? University of Minnesota Press, 2016. DOI:10.5749/minnesota/9780816692378.001.0001
Ogden, L.A., Aoki, C., Grove, J.M. et al. Forest ethnography: An approach to study the environmental history and political ecology of urban forests. Urban Ecosyst 22, 49–63 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-018-0744-z