Acqua Alta and Feral Houses

35_374742138358d45c18d8 Yesterday my family and I enjoyed one of the last idylls of summer: a beach party on Lake Michigan. We dined on barbecued ribs and drank wine from plastic cups while our children played at the very edge of the surf. They did not, however, enter the water because it was too cold to swim. Usually August in Chicago is sweltering, but this weekend the highs never reached 70 degrees along the lake. In order to keep warm we huddled together in small corner of the beach that still had sunlight in the late afternoon. The lake level is 12 inches higher than normal, and waves lashed against the steel piers built to prevent beach erosion. The host of the party said she’d already lost half her beach to rising lake levels.

Meanwhile, three hundred miles to the north in Land O Lakes, Wisconsin, drought has drained some lake levels as much as 12 inches.

What a strange, unsettling summer this has been. The economy pulled back from the brink of disaster, which is good news, but it’s still a shambles. Here in the Midwest we appeared to get a break from global warming during this chilly summer, yet nature seems more screwed up than ever before. Nothing seems normal. Venice, the most ecologically vulnerable city in the developed world, builds flood barriers to no avail; the city still faces the prospect of a nearly perpetual acqua alta.

There’s probably no more emblematic set of images for this time of economic and ecological disaster than James D. Griffioen’s series of photographs, “Feral Houses.” The term “feral house” is perfect. Griffioen’s photographs, taken in and around Detroit, show the true, surrealist face of the American suburb: small plots of domesticated nature that have become neither nature nor culture.  Griffioen’s feral houses have no use value, exchange value–no value at all. They’re not even “green” in the ecological sense.

Griffioen photographed only houses; trees grow inside abandoned buildings in downtown Detroit as well. The entire city is turning feral.Detroit once furnished the sinews for the largest capitalist machine in the
history of civilization, yet its viability lasted barely a few decades. The city came and went in less than a hundred years. Griffioen captured the city as it disappears.

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