Miliann Kang: Taking stock of what’s missing, with a prod from environmental visionary Maya Lin

Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014


MAYA Lin is frozen in most people’s memories as the 21-year-old Yale student who won a national contest for her design of the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial in 1981. Her vision of two V-shaped black granite slabs, angled into the earth with the names of the deceased soldiers engraved on them set off a hailstorm of controversy.

Asked to defend her proposal before Congress, Lin stood true to the integrity of her design. Responding to protesters’ wishes to insert a 40-foot flagpole at the memorial’s vertex, she countered, “That would be like putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

Lin’s design ultimately shifted the paradigm of what a war memorial should be — not a display of triumph but a place of mourning and reflection. In her own words, captured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” she explained, “As you read a name, or touch a name, the pain will come out. And I really did mean for people to cry. That you can then …turn around and walk back up into the light, into the present. But if you can’t accept death you’ll never get over it ... so what the memorial is about is about honesty.”

I took my 14-year-old daughter to hear Lin speak at Smith College last week. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was blown away. While I knew Lin had gone on to design the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., and other high-profile projects, I was not aware that she had become a pioneering environmentalist. She has used her signature, understated style not only to raise awareness of habitat destruction but to rethink the fundamental relationship of humans to nature.

She has built couch-like pods covered with grass into the sides of hills, and modeled skyscrapers after coral reefs. She has inserted a simple wooden slope into the corner of a large lobby, gently disrupting the flow of people in business suits, hypnotizing them to take off their shoes and lie down under the potted trees.

It would have been easy for Lin to rest on her laurels or shrink back into the woodwork. Instead she has used her fame and success to forge ahead with new purpose and aesthetics. In the packed, darkened Weinstein Auditorium (several other halls where the event was simulcast were also filled to capacity) Lin took the audience on a tour of her most challenging memorial yet — an homage to the planet and its lost species and plants.

This memorial takes the form of a website – Rather than presenting more bleak information about climate change, Lin employs beautifully haunting short videos to impress a sense of loss, urgency and hope.

In “Unchopping a Tree,” the camera provides aerial views of some of the most iconic parks in the world accompanied by the amount of time they would disappear at the current rate of rainforest deforestation — Central Park, 9 minutes, Ueno Park, 1 minute, Champs de Mars, 1 minute.

Then she poses the question, “If deforestation were happening in your city, how quickly would you work to stop it?” The video ends with a tree, in slow motion, reversing its fall.

Lin closed the evening by assigning the audience homework. She has set up a map on the website for people to click on a location and record the changes they have seen there since their childhoods.

Dutiful student that I have always been, here is my response to the assignment.

What is missing?

Bees were everywhere. On hot summer nights in St. Louis when the sky turned green and the tornado warnings would sound, swarms of bees moved through the air like brown plastic grocery bags blowing through a parking lot, turning in on themselves, hitting the ground then charging up toward the street lights.

Luckily I was not allergic, as I was stung often. Today I have to search for a stray buzz buzz in an isolated flower bed. It’s been years since a bee came close enough for me to swat it away. I never thought I would long for those fuzzy black-and-yellow bodies let alone to feel their sharp sting. The flowers must be bereft, like abandoned lovers longing for a last rendezvous.

What will my own daughter write in response to this question 40 years from now? I shudder to think what may be missing by then — will she say she misses the maple trees that lined the bike path, the raspberries and basil we picked at the Food Bank Farm, the robins which returned every spring and built nests in our gutters? Or will she write that she misses being able to walk outside without an oxygen mask, to get clear water from the tap or to see green outside her window?

How bad will it get before it gets better? Will it get better?

What would it take for my daughter to be able to write, “When I was a child, the icebergs were melting, the forests were being cut down, and animal and plant species were disappearing faster than anyone could count. But then people stopped fighting over who owned the natural resources or who was causing the problems and they started working together to protect the earth.

“So today my children can swim in rivers, drink from lakes and eat the fish they catch without a care, and the temperature is more like it was when my grandparents were children. I even have to worry about my children getting stung by bees every day of the summer, which is not nearly as long or as hot as I remember it.”

Miliann Kang is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and is the author of “The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work.” She offers her thanks to Nerissa Nields’ Writing It Up in the Garden group, where this piece was written.


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