I’m the kind of guy who dreads winter’s arrival, but eventually gets his boots and Sno-Seal out and starts to really enjoy the cold weather. There’s something about adapting to the seasons that after the initial shock, can be really comforting. I find it’s all about accessories. That wooly winter beanie that doesn’t leave my head; the simple pride in a pair of rugged gloves, or the ritual of strategic layering; they all make me feel like I’m a capable human who can use tools to defy or even embrace the weather, no matter how extreme.
Thinking about this the other day reminded me of a story I wrote about a very different kind of experience in adapting to the elements. Two summers ago I jumped a fence and spent a night with a group of artists, environmental designers, and other warm weather explorers all camping out on Waterpod, a flat barge that had been turned into a kind of mobile scientific sculpture dedicated to a post-apocalyptic idea of sustainable living. Here is my diary of the experience.
STATEN ISLAND, NY (Aug. 2009) A woman from Harlem—in her dress and stilettos—pushed bike pedals to power a blender full of margaritas. A homeless man asking for change in Manhattan instead gave a dollar to what he considered a very worthy cause. Governors Island required serious sea legs, and thus far, Staten Island has thrown the best welcome party.
These are the stories from residents of Waterpod, the art project and cooperative community experiment charting a voyage around New York City this summer. Some who have heard tell of the strange barge, covered with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, bountiful gardens, and a variety of ever-changing sculptures and art installations. It is a tribute to and exercise in sustainable living to the fullest. It’s also part of Atlantic Salt Maritime Festival in New Brighton on Saturday.
But I wanted to know more. What was the daily grind? One of Waterpod’s lessons is surely to learn by doing, so I spent a night on the vessel to know more about its mission and its short but exciting history.
What follows is a brief diary of my experience.
I hoof it to the Waterpod as the sun begins to set. Taking the gangway down from the pier onto the barge, I see that things are bustling. Residents and project director Mary Mattingly’s brother, along with a few visitors, are building and repairing various parts of the ship’s living systems and working areas. Waterpod’s materials are almost all recycled — be it the heat-seamed canvas from old billboard ads covering the large dome or the walls for the living quarters, taken from the sets of soap operas.
Ian Daniel, 27, Waterpod’s curator, tells me that every morning offers a new project and a new chapter in the barge’s aesthetic and functional evolution. He points out that Waterpod is first and foremost a piece of art, and its concept is futuristic. It is an imagination of both fears and hopes; the scarcity of resources, and the promise of more people using agricultural knowledge. A student of permaculture — marrying agriculture with ecology — Daniel says, “We’re stereotyped in every way. People either think we’re artists who don’t know what we’re doing on the water, or that we’re weird dirty hippies for growing our own food.”
The stereotypes don’t really bear out. Tonight’s crew are artists, engineers, gardeners, and volunteers. Most eat pizza, have real apartments, and even “like to get manicures.” Carolyn Morris of Brooklyn lost her job several months ago and now spends Mondays and Tuesdays taking photos and helping out. “I stayed a week, and next thing you knew, I was back,” says Ms. Morris, who moves art collections. “The Waterpod has given me something wonderful — today, I was playing with the squash.” Special needs kids and school groups of all sorts come to Waterpod, sometimes spending several hours at a time, drawing their own version of the vessel or playing with the chickens, which are a big hit. “You have to empower people to do their own things,” says Ms. Mattingly. “Instead of telling people what to do, asking them how to do it makes this a learning experience for all of us.”
Artist Alison Ward, self-admitted “ship chef,” has cooked up a tasty vegetarian meal: Summer squash with goat cheese and basil fried in eggy batter over a wood-burning barrel, rice and mushrooms from a Staten Islander, and a fresh salad of tomatoes, radishes and herbs. Almost the entire dinner has come from the boat.
Discussion around the table continues, interrupted only by the gargantuan container ships passing by. Everyone stops to gawk at one with a bridge like a fortress. People seem to agree that the Staten Island spot, extra nautical and quiet, is the favorite so far. Residents are opening up, some say for the first time, about the seasonal project’s challenges and its uncertain future. Is it art, or activism? It is both.
That Waterpod is accomplishing its goal of inspiring dialogue about how we live seems obvious, but can it help to face challenges of consciousness, in the developed and still-developing world? Ms. Ward talks about the lack of forest in parts of Ethiopia. Mayra Cimet, a confident (and at least tri-lingual) 22-year-old from Mexico who found Waterpod on the internet after coming to New York and has pretty much been on it ever since, talks about the Aztec’s hanging gardens. She notes how something as simple as a chimney for rudimentary stoves in India could prevent eye irritation, but changing hearts and minds, and centuries of culture, is always a challenge. It’s obvious the residents bring a wealth of worldly experience to the pod, but also that it’s a delicate social experiment. Ms. Ward admits to being tough in the kitchen, and an accident earlier in the evening that broke a pipe in the greywater system, which recycles everything from sink water to urine into tanks that feed the boat’s plants, was another brief and stinky setback in a summer of battles.
Dinner has finally broken up and people are getting ready for bed. At least, everyone but Ms. Mattingly and Daniel, who will work on their laptops until 4 a.m. on the Waterpod’s immediate future stop in the Bronx. Ms. Cimet stops by my spacious and comfortable guest room and tells me that an old tugger named Mike, whose boat is moving the pod around over the summer, has taken a liking to her fascination with knots. She shows me “The Ashley Book of Knots,” a bible for those in the know, and a particularly special gift from Mike: A worn wooden belaying pin used for nautical rope work. “Right now, this is my most prized possession,” Ms. Cimet beams.
A trip to the bathroom — the most rustic of the boat’s facilities with a place for urine and a different spot for feces, which will be “dry composted.” But drifting off I realize: (A) the guest bed is huge and comfortable; (B) this room is much cooler and as large as my 3rd floor apartment’s bedroom; and (C) I could totally get used to this.
I’ve woken up. The sunrise coming over East New York is just broadening its pink glow. The hens at the front of the boat are making hilarious morning noises. No “‘cockadoodle-doos,” of course, because they’re hens.
Everybody’s up. Watering the garden before the sun gets too high in the sky helps make sure the plants’ sustenance doesn’t evaporate too quickly. As we set about that chore, I’m amazed at how much is grown in the boat’s four beds, which use a symbiotic planting method called “companion planting.” Other hydroponics systems which use simple technology and water pressure, and special “sub irrigation planters,” which take the water directly to the root system through a tube, grow exponentially faster in a smaller space, like an urban kitchen. Before a breakfast of fresh eggs and herbs, Ms. Mattingly talks about tackling the problem of a new troublesome insect on board, which digs into squash stems and lays eggs. “It’s really cool; we get all these ecosystems out of nothing, coming to a floating barge.”
I say my farewells as the hens, let out for a morning constitutional, are slowly herded back into their pen. It’s a beautiful day already, and I feel foolish leaving a barge on the water to a cubicle and florescent lighting. It strikes me that these residents are not extreme or “out there,” that their method of revolution is simple and open, and that most of all this summer, they are happy and lucky; the Waterpod is a nice place to live.