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The Many Challenges of Dining with Animals

A bee "pulls up a seat" at the dinner at Marble House Project in Vermont. (all photos courtesy the artist)
A bee “pulls up a seat” at the dinner at Marble House Project in Vermont. (all photos courtesy the artist)

ALBUQUERQUE — Last June, Catherine Harris and her family were at the tail end of a rocky 23-day working vacation in northern Denmark when a bee stung the older of her two children, a daughter who fell to her knees and began shaking her head in pain.

Harris, a professor of art ecology and landscape architecture at the University of New Mexico, organized the trip around a conceptual landscape project she calls Trans-species Repast Family Dinner. The goal was to begin conceiving of built landscapes that invite domesticated animals to join humans, actually and metaphorically, “at the table,” and Harris says that the episode with the bee sting was, in a word, “transformative” — it changed her conceptualization of the project. After speaking with Harris, I wondered if it also represents a missed opportunity to confront the ways in which animals are already very much subjects of human landscapes.

After attending the Land Shape Symposium in Hanstholm, Harris’s plan was to travel by bicycle to three farms where she and her family would eat with various animals. At Tolne Gjæstgivergaard and a farm in Mylund, they would eat with chickens; then, at Sodring Bygade, they would share dinner with bees. At each location, Harris would build an actual table for the dinner based on materials she found on-site — which ended up being recycled wood floorboards with oak branches for legs; woven willow branches tied with willow bark; and an oak slab with stumps and pegs, respectively.

As one might imagine, the animals participated to varying degrees — the chickens in Mylund ran into the woods as soon as they were set free — but Harris was prepared to adapt. For instance, at an impromptu dinner with horses before the official farm tour began, she recognized that the immediate barrier between human-animal relations would be the physical walls between them — the pens. She reconfigured the pens to allow the horses to roam more freely and the meal seemed to go better.

Harris's family, in the foreground, eats with horses after the Land Shape Symposium in northern Denmark.
Harris’s family, in the foreground, eats with horses after the Land Shape Symposium in northern Denmark.

However, Harris was considerably less prepared to deal with the climate and the humans. Before she and her family even arrived at the symposium, persistent rain and wind had them all doubting the feasibility of the trip. Bicycling in uncomfortable weather is bad enough for a couple of adults, but imagine dragging two pre-teen children through it as well. “Then there was the day we rode all afternoon on the sand on the seashore, which I had imagined would be beautiful, and it was, but it was slow going for the kids and it took all the patience in me and beyond me to keep us going, ” Harris explained by email. “We made up jokes and songs and walked and talked for about 20 kilometers as the sun forever set. It sounds bucolic, but it was agony in some ways. It’s agony to have your beloved son complain every step of the way.”

On another occasion, Harris said, she broke down screaming and crying after a bus nearly ran over her son.

Everyone was on edge. Harris and her family pulled up to Sodring Bygade, the last farm, and leaned their bikes against a wall. The beekeeper invited them to watch him extract honey from the honeycombs with a centrifuge. The last to park her bike, Harris arrived at the centrifuge to find her daughter on her knees, reeling from a bee sting. Once they managed to pull the mangled remains of the dead bee out of the child’s shirt and hair, she recovered quickly, but the damage was done. Everyone was afraid of eating with the bees. Thankfully, due to the cold weather, very few showed up once the table was made and the meal prepared.

Harris, meanwhile, began to accept the failure of the project in its Danish iteration, deciding that her goals, which relied on an anthropocentric view of animals, weren’t necessarily the goals of the project. “I realized I had been much more interested in connection and emotional identification with the animals,” Harris said, “but that experience shifted it to a more open idea about connecting with the landscape, with the animals as intermediaries or emissaries from the landscape around us.”

A bee "pulls up a seat" at the dinner at Marble House Project in Vermont.
A bee “pulls up a seat” at the dinner at Marble House Project in Vermont. (click to enlarge)

The shift in purpose also led Harris to focus more on bees as a metaphor for systems of knowledge production or politics. The concept of the “hive-mind” is also worth considering, she said, within the context of climate change and diminishing resources that pit the general good against the individual good.

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who tell artists what they should have done, I think the connection between the centrifuge and the bee sting could have produced a more drastic transformation, turning the project into a way to witness, confront, and possibly counter the ways in which bees and bee behavior have already been exploited by industry and even the military. The centrifuge must have been stressful for the bees, considering that the process kills larvae trapped in the combs. Harris said she was also aware that the chickens had been conditioned by relationships that ordinarily put them and the products of their bodies on the table. But she didn’t take the next step in trying to understand how animals don’t just lack agency in the landscape of a farm, but also, more broadly, exist solely within the boundaries of human-constructed environments.

The position bees occupy seems ambiguous because they have a reputation of being “wild” or uncontrollable, but we also depend on them for food. The centrifuge is only one small-scale example, however, of how they have been industrialized. Beekeepers also ship beehives thousands of miles to pollinate various crops or to, say, hang out at an art show dinner such as the one Harris has planned for tomorrow night at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. Furthermore, University of California, Berkley professor Jake Kosek has demonstrated that scientists at Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico — where the atomic bomb was created — have used bees to collect radiation samples around the site, and they have actually trained individual bees to detect chemicals found in land mines. Officials in the US military have even designed combat strategies around swarming, and they’ve created whole fleets of drones operated by a single pilot based on the cooperative labor of bees and other insects.

For the October dinner with bees in Santa Fe, Harris will expand this three-module table into an 18-module "honeycomb."
For the October dinner with bees in Santa Fe, Harris will expand this three-module table into an 18-module “honeycomb.” (click to enlarge)

A confrontation with the militarization of bees may be more than we can expect from a landscape project, but it is precisely in these landscapes where recovery is possible. Where better to think about designing human systems that benefit bees, as well as other animals, than in the environments where they meet? In the spirit of Harris’s project, how can human systems designed to benefit animals, in turn, benefit humans? In other words, what can we learn about, say, our impact on the planet or our negotiations with each other by tending to the needs of animals?

Harris does seem to be asking some of these questions, at least through the evolution of the project. After Denmark, she and her family did a residency at Marble House Project in Vermont, where Harris made a table out of a marble slab with salvaged barn trusses and post legs. This time she planted sour cherry trees around the table and set it the night before dinner with plants and flowers for the bees. The bees showed up “enthusiastically” the next day, Harris said, which of course makes me wonder whether it would ever be possible to eat with truly “wild” animals, like mule deer or black bears.

“If you imagine the landscape as the table,” Harris said, “and you are eating the same foods, very quietly, in a place that you’ve made to welcome the wild animals, are you not inherently eating with them?”

It seems like a rhetorical question, but it’s inviting a conceptualization of a social space that animals and humans can share — a fitting project for the field of landscape architecture.

Catherine Harris’s Trans-Species Repast is on view at the Center for Contemporary Arts (1050 Old Pecos Trail, Santa Fe, New Mexico) October 9–December 26, with dinners taking place on October 9 (with bees) and on November 22 (with turkeys). There will also be a special solstice dinner on December 19.

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