By Lune Ames
December 27, 2019
I rubbed a yellow tulip tree leaf on my cheek, softer than a rose petal. Sure, I had gotten this close to a leaf before, but mostly by accident when I’ve walked into branches hanging over the sidewalk. As I smelled it, a memory returned of probably the last time I willingly invited a leaf this close to my face: I was a curious young girl who loved to climb the red Crimson King maple in the front yard of my suburban childhood home. One day, I ate one of its leaves.
Decades later, I found myself at an experimental 25-course feast, where the menu included cedar and pine needles. Before eating tree parts and an array of other organisms, Madeline Schwartzman’s interactive performance, Face Nature, put 55 guests in touch with playful curiosity. “We’re so worried about climate change,” she began the performance by saying, “but I have this secret feeling that getting you closer to nature, even in the way of holding something for a minute, does something.” As humanity grapples with impeding global catastrophes, Schwartzman wonders about small-scale gestures through Face Nature, a series of workshops, classes, social media posts, and other performances. She studies perception–particularly how humans sense through objects, as when the brain incorporates the prongs of a fork as an extension of the body when eating. But instead of focusing just on utensils, plants themselves can become an extension of one’s body, not for consumption, but in multispecies communion.
As part of the second annual Montclair Design Week (MDW), which ran from October 18-27, 2019, Face Nature acted as a “blessing” to the Sup-Communal Dinner, a multisensory feast crafted by local chefs, foragers, artisans, and designers in Montclair, a suburb in northern New Jersey. Inside a raw, industrial event space called The Annex at 18 Label, Schwartzman invited guests to entwine themselves with leaves, branches, twigs, a paper wasp nest, and each other before partaking in the meal. The performance was a palette cleanser, dissolving preconceived ideas of what constitutes nature in the suburbs. It prepared us for the coming courses, each of which challenged notions of cultivation, food, and cooking. Architect and founder of MDW, Petia Morozov, told the magazine Edible Jersey that the dinner was about “discovering and making deep connections we have with place through all of our senses.” Morozov is also a member of SPURSE, a design collective and MDW sponsor that has hosted over a dozen similar experimental dinners across the globe, some of which are traced in their cookbook Eat Your Sidewalk (2017).
A dining table comprised of several thick wood slabs from a downed tree wound like a snake through the middle of The Annex, long enough to fit all 55 guests. Sustainable florist Studio Nectar curated “tablescapes” of chestnut tree limbs, dahlia bouquets, and pine twigs. Beneath the table laid other branches and leaves that Schwartzman collected in the days leading up to the dinner. A canopy of hydrangea hung overhead, and shoulder-height displays of cattails and fountain grasses dazzled. Here, the weed was indistinguishable from the flower. The difference between ornamental and wild dissolved as seemingly disparate elements coalesced.
Schwartzman explained the importance of facial expression in Face Nature, describing how “if you Botox your smile, it can lead to depression… I sort of use nature as a vehicle for studying these things.” Face Nature unfolded in a few stages, from the personal to collective. Schwartzman invited guests to walk around the table and select a piece of nature from the floor. Individually, we were to use all our senses to interact with what we chose. One woman blew a leaf as a whistle. I overheard another woman tell someone, “You have to lick it.” A third woman used a bundle of dead leaves as a dry brush on her face. “Feels good, right?” someone said to her. With a soft grin, she replied, “The rustling is nice, too.”
After my own tulip leaf encounter, Schwartzman directed guests to connect with a partner using that same item from nature, asking, “What would you do to another person with it?” causing people to giggle. I walked up to a stranger, and instead of asking her name, I recommended that she feel my leaf. She let me touch her cheek with it and gasped at its gentleness.
Schwartzman then asked us to connect with a group. Guests, whose ages ranged from 21 to 85, formed clusters. Six hands reached upward together, devising a tower of maple leaves, bark, twigs, and seedpods in one gathering. In my group, bark became a foundation on which each of us built layers of nature. Finally, Schwartzman asked all guests to form a network. Groups huddled closer, branches and arms extended from each to forge a root-like entanglement. This connection through plants disrupted notions of domestic and wild. In suburbia, most everything green—lawns, parks, gardens—is tamed. The wild is weeded, or else remains on the periphery. But in tandem with the coming feast, Face Nature blurred these distinctions.
Though Face Nature incorporates the whole body, Schwartzman’s work is largely concerned with the evolution of the human head, which she posits in her books See Yourself Sensing (2011) and See Yourself X (2018). But her inquiries into facial expression reach beyond the human to probe the exchange of energy and matter. Schwartzman continues the inquiries she nurtured in See Yourself E(x)ist, a solo exhibition held at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery (December 7, 2017- February 18, 2018), in which she explored humanity’s uncertain future in nature. Her ongoing studies examine the gestures of how an ecosystem adapts to stabilize.
Becoming familiar with the ecosystem in which one lives is a starting point. After the Face Nature blessing, guests sat at the winding table and the 25 courses commenced. First served from the menu titled, “Montclair Transverse,” were four small rocks, each dipped in herbs, dried mushrooms, and clay. Guests sucked on one stone, then sipped locally distilled vodka from clay vessels made by design firm Homa Studios. Each flavor evoked different layers of the Earth. As courses progressed with ingredients like pickled knotweed, river silt, foamed corn and tomato juices, and sous vide local deer, I thought about what constitutes a neighborhood and how organisms communicate. I wondered about the information they carry to my gut bacteria, a sort of local gossip that I’m not privy to.
The dangers of consumption became foregrounded, too, particularly soil contamination where these ingredients are found. Dandelions growing out of sidewalk cracks, pebbles smoothed by runoff in a trickling brook, deer thriving off berries in nearby parks. Becoming a fellow creature feasting on the land in which I live reinforces my accountability to its ecosystem. Like trees that use fungal networks to distribute nutrients to other trees in danger, Face Nature’s multispecies network prompts questions about which communities are most affected. The enormity of the environmental crisis becomes a more tangible sliver. In the act of eating a foraged meal, I digested these questions anew.
Face Nature took place on October 24, 2019 at 7:30 PM at The Annex at 18 Label, 22 Frink Street, Montclair, NJ 07042, as part of the 2nd annual Montclair Design Week (October 18-27, 2019).
Lune Ames (Class of 2020) is a writer who was raised in the Midwest and is now based in New Jersey and New York City.