Maintenance as care at the Environmental Performance Agency (EPA)
By EPA agents, andrea haenggi and Christopher Kennedy
The Environmental Performance Agency (EPA) is an artist collective founded in 2017 and named in response to proposed defunding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Appropriating the acronym EPA, the collective’s primary goal is to shift thinking around the terms environment, performance, and agency - using artistic, social, and embodied practices to advocate for the agency of all living performers co-creating our environment, specifically through the lens of spontaneous urban plants, native or migrant. This piece is a reflection on the ongoing presence of rats in our urban weeds garden in Crown Heights, Brooklyn . The story is told nonlinearly through observational field notes, research, and critical commentary on the politics of pest management and rat-human relations.
Field Note: August 20, 2017
Today, we buried a “toxic” rat in the EPA garden.
Despite our initial hesitation, we view this as a performative act of remediation.
The choice not to place the rat in the trash was not an easy one. We at the Environmental Performance Agency (EPA) did not want to leave a toxic urban street rat on top of the soil, nor did we want some other animal to eat it, or to allow the soil in our lot to be impacted further.
We also did not want to outsource the problem to a landfill, “out of sight, out of mind”. With the act of burial on-site, it would remain on the property, interred with the rocks and cement and iron and plastic bags and the rubble of a residential building that was most likely demolished in the 1960s. We marked the spot with a sprig of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).
We knew the rat had been poisoned because it had white powder on its hind quarters and behind. Caesar, not the Roman emperor, but our landlord’s state licensed pest control expert had dumped an anticoagulant rodenticide in one of the nearby burrows. An anticoagulant is a blood thinner such as coumadin, which is widely prescribed to prevent strokes in people with arterial blockages. It was a rat poison before it became a common medicine and Caesar told us that rats who ingest anticoagulants will stumble around for a few days, disoriented and become increasingly weak, before they die.
A healthy rat, Caesar told us, needs borders – fences, walls, street curbs, buildings – to orient themselves. A rat is a creature of habit, and will run along the same path many times, leaving dark greasy track marks, urine and droppings along the route to communicate with their sisters and brothers.
The EPA headquarters is a former garage and “vacant” lot in Central Brooklyn on Pacific Street between Classon and Franklin Avenues. For the past four decades, the area has been home to a variety of auto repair shops, small manufacturing facilities, and sidewalk mechanics. However, in recent years, pressure from developers has displaced many of these merchants. In early spring there was a big change on our block: a depot for old yellow school buses was suddenly cleaned and the cracked weedy ground leveled and surfaced with asphalt. It is now a truck rental business. The lot next door, separated only by a corrugated metal fence, also became an outdoor party space. The landlord also ripped out the innards of a bar that had been running in the shanty formerly occupied by Soldier, a tire repairman, leaving garbage and debris. The same landlord also evicted Milton, a truck mechanic who had been on the block for 15 years, and ripped apart his shanty.
As each site is disturbed, the rat population has in turn responded by relocating or finding new spaces to thrive.
Field Note: April 28th, 2017
As EPA artist andrea (haenggi) started her morning routine of observing and moving with the urban weeds, she noticed a patch of mugwort disturbed and possibly eaten by a small mammal. Andrea started a text chain with Ellie Irons another EPA agent to get her opinion:
After the exchange, they decided to just observe the disturbed site and leave everything as it was.
Field Note: June 1, 2017
A month later we witnessed rats running back and forth along the gate. Meanwhile, further disturbance to lots on the block continued. Garbage from an adjacent rental hall and a nearby beer garden mounted on the sidewalk. Another vacant lot across the street was also rented by a carting company, to store private garbage trucks.
In most cultures, rats are viewed as undesirable, dirty, and often labeled as pests. The term rat is also synonymous with a number of derogatory phrases. We call people a “rat” when they deceive us (eg. “rat them out”) or when they do something nasty (eg. “you dirty rat”). However, our experience at the EPA has inspired some caution in making these assumptions. We’ve begun to consider how humans are complicit in our vilification of the world’s most successful mammal, and also how increased development and urbanization have both facilitated and accelerated the disturbance of rat colonies and systems for generations. More importantly, we see our interaction with rats as a larger extension of our shared ecological crisis and collective dismissal of the shared challenges we face.
Field Note: June 6, 2017
In early June, EPA agent Catherine Grau and andrea began to notice the effects of ongoing disturbance and displacement in the neighborhood. We saw rats scurrying through the garden, yet again.
Looking closer, we uncovered a series of holes and tunnels that straddled the corrugated metal wall on the eastern side of the urban weeds garden. As each site is disturbed, the rats relocate and find new spaces to establish their colony.
According, The NYC Department of Health (2017) there are six different “Active Rat Signs”, which we slowly saw evidence of throughout the summer:
1) fresh tracks
2) fresh droppings
3) active burrows
4) active runways and rub marks
5) fresh gnawing marks
6) live rats
And so we debated: what to do? Should we save them, should we try to trap them? After some contemplation, Catherine and andrea began to fill the holes with rocks, cement and chicken wire in an effort to redirect the rats. Yet, tunnels re-appeared and the rats continued to present themselves. In the process, we learned that “to smell a rat” is not just an expression. When you dig up the soil around a rat tunnel, there’s a distinctive odor. It’s a stench easily confused with rot and decay – deep, dank, dark, and puzzling.
We decided to check-in with neighbors, and investigate changes in surrounding lots that had been disturbed. As we peered into the sites bordering our garden, we began to speculate that the gentrification of the neighborhood resulted in a redistribution of the rat population, with the main rat burrow in our neighbor’s site. Eventually, we called the landlord who sent an exterminator named Caesar.
The Norway rat or street rat is a familiar sight for most New Yorkers. With an estimated population of over 2 million in New York alone, rats are considered to be one of the most successful mammals on the planet. (Mosendz, 2014)
While one would assume the Norway rat is indeed from Scandinavia, most scientists agree the genus Rattus of the Muridae family actually appeared about 3.5 - 5 million years ago in Northern Asia. Since its rise the genus has undergone 2 incidents of speciation, with about 50 species within the genus today. The etymology of the Norway rat also has a curious history and origin. Several common names have been used over time including the brown rat, wharf rat, common rat, street rat, or “Hanover Rat,” used since the early part of the 18th century. In 1769, British naturalist John Berkenhout began using the common name Norway rat or Rattus norvegicus, speculating that the small mammals had arrived in England by hitching a ride on cargo ships from Norway in 1728. (Hanson, 2003)
We now know the Norway rat is not native to Norway, but is most likely from a region along the North China and Mongolian border. Today this particular species is found in many parts of the world including India, Japan, the Mediterranean and North America. As human settlements spread across the globe, Norway rats began to cohabitate with humans and settled along migratory routes. In times of famine, rat catchers were even known to hunt and harvest the small rodents for food.
According to scientists like Jason Munsi-South (Bradley, 2015), we still do not have a complete understanding of how rats evolved from a bioregional mammal to an unwanted human companion. Although the Norway rat is now found in habitats across the world, they rarely move far from their colonies and may spend their whole lives within a 600-foot radius. This gives us some insight into what could potentially be the rats “birthplace” along Pacific Street, and how displacement impacted the colony.
In reflecting on our experience, Catherine noted our struggles with the rats are perhaps a mirror of how we respond to ecological crisis, assuming a defensive position and privileging short term and intensive responses -- dumping chemicals to rid of an unwanted pest, placing the waste elsewhere, or even blowing it up. Yet, what would it mean to take a long-term perspective? To address the rat issue in concert with the neighborhood, to imagine a long-term gesture toward care, maintenance, and cultivation of multispecies life and entanglements? While we may not be able to answer all of these questions, we at the EPA are dedicated to creating space for more life, especially in this time of extinction. We invite you to join us as agents for multispecies alliance -- visit us online at environmentalperformanceagency.com and we’ll see you in the streets!
Field Note: September 12, 2017
Since writing this initial piece the rats have re-appeared. For two weeks EPA agents have noticed rat carcasses in the garden, dismembered and found in a small patch meant for mycoremediation. Measuring 1 square foot, the site is covered with sawdust from a furniture company down the street and inoculated with pearl oyster mushrooms. We speculate the EPA Garden has now attracted an owl or hawk who perhaps views our little mushroom patch as a dry grassy habitat that is perfect for nightly or early morning feeding. With this new development, we certainly have evidence of even more complex ecological interactions inside our urban weeds garden. Stay tuned for more updates on the continuing rat saga!
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Zimmer, C. (2017, October 27). How the Brown Rat Conquered New York City (and Every Other One, Too). The New York Times retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/28/science/brown-rat-new-york-city.html
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