Below the Surface: Maya Lin and “Becoming-With” Nature

This essay is adapted from an assignment in the Colby College course Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience, taught by Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities Christopher Walker. 

Maya Lin’s Interrupted River: Penobscot initially drew my attention due to its immense presence in the room. Spanning an entire wall and spilling onto the ceiling, the green marbles expand far beyond the expected confines of a canvas. I photographed Lin’s piece for future reference before leaving the museum, and for a couple of the photos I used flash. The flash highlighted the imperfections in the coating of the glue as dark lines and swirls, reminding me of the less visible features of nature. Below and within the Penobscot River numerous physical and chemical processes take place. The river is fluid and in motion. The pocked marbles and pooled glue in Interrupted River: Penobscot gesture toward the complicated and sometimes unseen interactions that take place at every level of a river ecosystem. There are numerous components of nature that humans do not fully understand.

Detail shot of Interrupted River: Penobscot by Maya Lin in Occupy Colby. Photo courtesy of the author.
Detail shot of Interrupted River: Penobscot by Maya Lin in Occupy Colby. Photo courtesy of the author.

The work engages with visibility and invisibility in the natural world, two ideas that appear in work by the scholar Kate Wright. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, Wright studies the intersections among environmental activism, environmental philosophy, and community engagement. In a 2014 article in the journal Environmental Humanities, she explores the concept of “becoming-with”: the idea that humans must attempt to learn from other species to better understand their own lives and the greater connection to the world. While we may not physically become another species, we can better mitigate climate change, for example, by considering the perspectives of other species. To do so, we must make ourselves familiar with points of view that may feel foreign.

Recognizing and embracing the unknown play roles in Lin’s art and Wright’s work. Wright suggests that by understanding that humans are not inherently better than other species, we can start to comprehend how other species and environmental forces are deeply interconnected. Once we’ve acknowledged this, humans will be able to become-with other species and the natural world. Ultimately, this builds a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world, thus allowing humans to better approach difficult environmental questions and concerns. Wright acknowledges that there are natural processes outside of the initial lens of human view and encourages us to interrogate them further. Similarly, Lin’s installation urges viewers to consider hidden, natural processes.

Installation shot of Interrupted River: Penobscot by Maya Lin in Occupy Colby. Photo by Luc Demers.

The belief that humans are intrinsically superior, stronger, and/or more powerful than other species constitutes the idea of human exceptionalism. Wright points out that humans are small and live within the confines of earth, making us no more or less exceptional than anything else on the planet. She writes that there are “life and death stakes of failing to recognize connectivity, feedback loops, interdependence, and vulnerability.” Interrupted River: Penobscot suggests more understanding of the inability to so fully comprehend the natural world. By thoughtfully depicting human intervention (such as dams) as absences or gaps in a connected array of marbles, Lin represents the perspective of the river rather than that of humans. The river persists despite this intervention and will continue to do so. The piece points to the resilience of nature in the face of human interference.

As Wright says that we ought to “become-with” other species, Lin’s installation emphasizes the need for more personal reflection and inquiry. The subtleties between these may seem minute but are important. Wright’s claim that human exceptionalism must be addressed by acquiring a deeper understanding of the water implies a human obligation to actively learn more about the river. She believes that all humans must take a more active stance in order to mitigate such things as climate change. Lin’s piece, on the other hand, may cause viewers to reflect on their own personal actions. By identifying the effects of human intervention within the magnitude of the piece, Lin asks how much human intervention is acceptable. Is any more human development too much? Can the river sustain a little more? Lin forces her audience to ask these questions through the simple display of what has already been done.