Wild Yeast


I see the snow out­side, and they tell me: that is three inch­es of snow. I look at it and see how some patch­es are bare, how some are heaped a foot high. I think about how I could read the topog­ra­phy of snow­fall as the vis­i­ble index of each of the forces that made it – gusts, obstruc­tions, and so on. 

If such a scene is a mes­sage, it’s a lossy one. But it at least has the advan­tage of offer­ing itself again on any sim­i­lar occa­sion, telling you every time that some­thing is being missed. The gap between snow as we are told to read it and the snow we actu­al­ly step through tells us that there is some­thing we are not account­ing for. 

In the same way, the nag­ging gap between the ren­dered plan and the result­ing land­scape has a mes­sage. It tells both of the end­less res­o­lu­tion of land­scape as a medi­um, and of the habit landscape’s mate­ri­als have of steer­ing their own way. Plot­ting syn­thet­ic ink on white paper does not very accu­rate­ly mod­el the sit­u­a­tion. If I think about how to cre­ate, or just to effect change, in such a sit­u­a­tion, I will reach for the arts of taste more than those of sight. 

It isn’t acci­den­tal that the rhetorics of sus­tain­abil­i­ty, of her­itage, of dig­ni­ty in mate­ri­als, have all con­verged over the last few decades on the world of food – it takes less of an argu­ment to accept that a habit of respect in the care of ani­mals and plants trans­lates into the health of human bod­ies. Cre­ation in such cir­cum­stances is a work­ing-with, some­thing that rec­on­ciles human desires with the desires of the avail­able partners. 

If a cer­tain sort of land­scape design cooks a site, ren­der­ing it once and for all for humans to con­sume, it is as pos­si­ble to fer­ment a site as well – even to make a liv­ing cul­ture like yogurt, at once a prod­uct and an envi­ron­ment. To do so requires a set of steps that seem more or less mag­i­cal – a con­junc­tion of unlike­ly part­ners, entered into a series of alchem­i­cal rites. And while it is tempt­ing to think of out­comes here as being cor­rect or incor­rect, oth­er alter­na­tives are possible. 


What makes the yeast Bret­tanomyces dif­fer­ent from its cousins? The Sac­cha­romyces, added to wort to make lager and ale, make for quick and pre­dictable results under a vari­ety of con­di­tions. But Bret­tanomyces digests and out­puts in wide­ly vari­ant ways, sneak­ing in to pro­duce notes rang­ing from bacon to sad­dle leather. Added on pur­pose, it takes its time. Or it may as eas­i­ly sneak into a vat where it was nev­er sup­posed to be. Off batch­es come with the ter­ri­to­ry. No one quite has the mea­sure of it yet. 

Talk to som­me­liers and vint­ners about Bret­tanomyces, which is just as hap­py to drift into a wine cask. It is uni­ver­sal­ly a fault, says one; or it has its place in cer­tain her­itage reds, says anoth­er; or to a third, it is a gold­en fron­tier of inven­tion to play in. Most agree that under a cer­tain thresh­old the yeast is innocuous. 

Read enough about it and you start to sus­pect that Bret­tanomyces is usu­al­ly tak­en to sug­gest the pres­ence of the site of work behind sweet­ness, behind a pleas­ant sat­u­rat­ed gold. 


Every land­scape is open to haz­ard. What would it mean to cul­ture, to rot, to fer­ment a land­scape? I mean, I guess, what would it take to show that you were doing it inten­tion­al­ly? To brew a land­scape, and make it look as though it had been brewed, to spur a desire for such a place? To achieve that, you would have to reach beyond design, beyond writ­ing your mes­sage across the site in let­ters big and small. You would instead go around col­lect­ing, con­ven­ing the land­scape from what­ev­er set of mate­ri­als would cas­cade togeth­er, would inter­act to form a com­mu­ni­ty; and such a com­mu­ni­ty would have to be some­thing dif­fer­ent than the sum of its part. Ide­al­ly, you would walk out of it with a rev­e­la­tion some­how borne from what seemed at first to be the site’s stub­born atten­tion to wrong detail – a mossy rail, a patch of poke, a splat of berries in bird droppings. 


Michael DeForge pub­lished his com­ic Birds of Maine on Insta­gram before issu­ing a com­mer­cial ver­sion on paper last year. In the com­ic, birds have fled from the earth to live on the moon. They live with­out scarci­ty, liv­ing off an end­less­ly regen­er­at­ing worm. They cre­ate var­i­ous eco­log­i­cal inter­nets to com­mu­ni­cate, inter­nets that seem a lit­tle unset­tling because they do not fol­low the dic­tat­ed rules of human com­mu­ni­ca­tion – that mes­sages are dead depic­tions of human thoughts. 

In inter­views, DeForge comes across as a stan­dard-issue despair­ing left­ist, which makes the actu­al work yet more of a mir­a­cle; it is res­olute, cheer­ful, a pool of hope. It demon­strates what it wants to uphold, in part by under­cut­ting itself; it says I’m not pure,” I’m not right,” I don’t know.” The first pan­els of many strips build up an argu­ment, only for a final joke to gen­tly let the air out of it. Oth­er times, the speech bal­loons dis­ap­pear entire­ly, and you are left with the flat psy­che­delia of DeForge’s images, where birds become icons most­ly lost in the web of their surroundings. 

DeForge’s lunar com­mu­ni­ty is fer­ment­ed from the one Ursu­la K. Le Guin described in The Dis­pos­sessed, an anar­chist cul­ture that has depart­ed in protest from a high­ly unequal plan­et. Le Guin’s peo­ple serve as a de fac­to min­ing colony for the plan­et they spurn, trad­ing the moon’s mate­r­i­al for their own inde­pen­dence. Their soci­ety is in near dan­ger of over-form­ing itself, rely­ing on rigid com­put­er­ized sys­tems to hold off hier­ar­chy. In adding in fer­ment as one of its oper­at­ing prin­ci­ples, DeForge’s cloud­cuck­ooland neat­ly solves that prob­lem. Like Le Guin’s lat­er cre­ation, the Kesh, DeForge’s birds are not exact in their archives; once left, their prod­ucts grow, merge, shrink, and stink. 


I show my stu­dents Clément’s Gar­den in Move­ment and warn against it. No one can see this, I say, no one can repeat this. It has no form. If you have the chance to do some­thing, you should do some­thing def­i­nite, and not wait at the edge of the prop­er­ty line for some­thing to hap­pen. But then, I nev­er show them the pic­tures of the work­ers busy cut­ting paths in the gar­den – because I don’t have any. 

For once, I could let go of what is to be done?” I could instead say what is pos­si­ble here?” Who has the abil­i­ty to read a fer­ment­ed text, or lis­ten to fer­ment­ed music? But any gar­den is fer­ment­ed, if only by virtue of the seeds that have blown into it, by virtue of the limbs that grow and break from its trees, and most of all virtue of the peo­ple busy around its sides. 

(January 2023)