Tag Archives: Natural Discourse: Fire! (2016)

Unforgettable Fire! Natural Discourse 2016


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I usually have at least a hazy impression of the origin lands of the plants in my garden. Drawing from the five mediterranean climate regions for low-rainfall plant inspiration and choices as well as arid and semi-arid regions keeps my garden well stocked and me endlessly entertained. Island plants will always fire my imagination, whether from our own Channel Islands or faraway Madeira and the Canary Islands. The lands of aloes, whether Somalia, Madagascar, South Africa, the home of the protaceae family, Australia and South Africa, this is the stuff road trip dreams are made of, and I indulge in such daydreams frequently. Much closer to home, however, there’s this inexplicable blackout in my mind for a desert that is the botanical font of so many plants in my garden, a region bigger than California, the “largest desert ecosystem in North America and the third most biologically diverse arid region on Earth.”

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(all photos courtesy of Mark Briggs and Natural Discourse)

As she’s done since 2012, Shirley Watts assembled a mesmerizing group of speakers on topics related to the transformational powers of fire, including a couple other personal favorites, “Birds, Fire and the Chaparral” by Erica Newman, and William Fox on “Fire, Art, Environment” (“I basically look at how artists manifest human creative interactions with natural-built and even virtual environments, and I bring that stuff back to the museum,” which would be the Nevada Museum of Art.)


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Mark clarified the acronym does not allude to the WWF Superstars of Wrestling. I’d love to have this T-shirt.

Mark Briggs’ talk at Natural Discourse October 1, 2016, (“Using Fire as a Tool to Bring Back the Rio Grande/Bravo along the U.S.-Mexico Border,”) really helped flesh out this remarkable Chihuahuan Desert region for me, the land of peyote and so many agaves, dasylirion, opuntia, ferocactus, ocotillo. The U.S.’s complicated relationship with our southern neighbor and the heated political demagoguery this campaign season can color so many of our perceptions, even to the point of draining a land of its unique physicality in the popular imagination. Only recently have the border crossing restrictions put in place after 9/11 been lifted.


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The binational team, with Mark Briggs center, in the red ballcap


Mark Briggs, through the World Wildlife Fund, has been working with a binational team on the river that forms the boundary between the two countries, called the Rio Grande when it flows in the U.S. and the Rio Bravo when in Mexico. The specific task Briggs’ talk focused on was the eradication of Arundo donax from the riverbanks, using first fire and then herbicide on regrowth, to restore its broad and shallow optimal habitat conditions. The giant cane, with which I am regrettably personally very familiar (removed fall 2014, and I wish I’d had the use of a flame thrower), alters the river from a habitat-friendly configuration of broad and shallow to the antithetical, habitat-stifling configuration of narrow and deep.


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‘Big Bend Century Plant,’ Agave havardiana, Big Bend National Park, to zone 7

The Chihuahuan Desert’s northern reach extends into New Mexico and Texas, but two-thirds of the desert lie in Mexico.
The Rio Conchos and the binational region of Big Bend is the geographic focus of the World Wildlife Fund’s work in the basin.

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The Rio Grande/Bravo basin is 607,965 sq. km, twice the area of Arizona
3,034 km from headwaters in southern Colorado and upper Rio Conchos to the Gulf of Mexico

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I so agree with this fellow’s opinion of the giant cane. I gave the thumb’s down to Arundo donax too for my zone 10 garden. And they say tetrapanax is difficult to contain? Ha!

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Hotsprings, Big Bend National Park, showing the river choking on the lush growth of giant cane.

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The “Los Diablos” team at work on the giant cane.

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A portion of the river painstakingly restored.

I had already seen The Atlantic’s video on the fire-fighting team Los Diablos which Mark included in his presentation, and you may have too, but it’s worth another look.

N.B. You can catch up with more of Shirley’s work with Natural Discourse at the upcoming “Digital Nature,” which promises to be a magical evening at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden Oct. 22 & 23, 2016.

Natural Discourse: Fire! 9/30 & 10/1/16

I’ve lived long enough to have experienced the dispersal of information about plants move from paper to the computer screen, and it seems I rarely have the sense anymore that I’m cut off from an essential stream of information on one of my favorite topics. But in other important cultural, scientific, and political matters, I often feel that with the digital floodgates open on seemingly every topic and opinion, many vital issues fall prey to a lack of inflection or emphasis and are thereby deemed irrelevant in the popular imagination. Yes, platforms like the TED talks help give marginally popular issues a voice, but for those of us always scanning the sky, the land, thermometers and rain gauges, I do feel our concerns are woefully underrepresented in popular media. And what’s incredibly frustrating is that these concerns of ours are not narrowly personal but important and central to everything we love (life!). So when programming like Natural Discourse came along back in 2012, I immediately sensed this is the focus that’s been lacking.

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Photo above taken by photographer George Bennett, when fire was threatening the 747 Wing House in the Malibu hills.
The house, designed by architect David Hertz from the wings of a decommissioned Boeing 747, is on the site of Tony Duquette’s Ranch, which itself was destroyed in a brush fire in the 1990’s.
When fire was menacing the Wing House in 2013, George was on site with his camera. He has been invited him to show us these stunning images and recount this close brush with destruction.

Shirley Watts has brought Natural Discourse, an “ongoing series of symposia, publications, and site-specific art installations that explores the connections between art, architecture, and science within the framework of botanical gardens and natural history museums,” this year to the Huntington on September 30 and October 1, aiming her intensely curious, curatorial mind on a subject of both regional and timely importance. Apart from record drought continuing in the West, July has been pronounced the hottest month on record, and our notorious fire season has leaped its usual seasonal boundaries and has morphed into an ongoing conflagration. The subject of fire is, well, hot. If ever there was a time to shout Fire! — this is it. Fire in all its guises, destructive, regenerative, inspirational, will be discussed by a fascinating group of scientists and artists at this year’s Natural Discourse at the Huntington September 30th and October 1st:

Friday evening from 7:30 to 8:30:
John Doyle, Jean-Lou Chameau Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems at Caltech. His talk Fire and Life, will highlight Southern California’s particularly complex relationship with fire.
Mia Feuer, artist, Assistant Professor of Sculpture at CA College of the Arts, will talk about her work at the tar sands in Alberta, CA.​​​

Saturday from 9 to 4:
Thomas Fenn, Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Ancient Pyro-technology. Tom is an archaeologist who specializes in examining early technologies. His research combines chemistry, geology, archeology, cultural anthropology and history. He will talk to us about the history of man’s discovery and use of fire.
George Bennett, photographer, will talk about fire at the Wing House in Malibu
Erica Newman, fire ecologist will talk about biodiversity in chaparral and what to expect with fire and climate change
William L. Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, will talk about fire as an outdoor spectacle and as art in the environment.
Sara Hiner, musician and Eric Elias, pyro-technician, will talk about their collaboration on the fireworks at Hollywood Bowl
Mark Briggs, river ecologist with the World Wildlife Fund’s Rio Grande/Bravo Programs will talk about controlled burns on the US/Mexican border

I do think it’s incredibly important to support this unique programming (written in my best, silkiest NPR/PBS-solicitous voice), and it’s just been made easier to do so.
Prices have been reduced; tickets can be ordered here.

Los Angeles, if ever there was a discourse designed specifically with you in mind, this is it. Come support Natural Discourse. I’d love to see you there.