I’m part of the performance

My seed-laden airplane in the Finger Lakes

As I sit in our family room with the laptop, I watch robins and chickadees land on our brick patio to gather bits of burlap and downy seeds and fibers from temporary flowerpots, and then fly off to build nests. We’ve got a lot of nests in our yard this year, and two catbirds yesterday were opening flapping around in our birdbath, which I’ve never seen before in the two decades I’ve lived in the Rochester area. Normally those slender gray birds are secretive, shy and usually stick around enough for only a quick drink.

It’s been looking like a great year for birds around here, so that’s partly why, yesterday, I drove down into the Finger Lakes, and found my way to an overlook above one of the gorgeous valleys that surround the Canandaigua area, about an hour south of where I live, and I tried to launch some of Jennifer Wenker’s paper airplanes into the great wide open of a sunny spring day. She’d made the paper by hand, impregnating the pulp with wildflower seeds. I’d been hoping to film the slow descent of my aircraft to the bottom of the valley, but the wind—as I’d feared—was not going to let it happen. Not matter how I aimed them, they made a sharp turn and headed north or south, along the line of the hills, or else they did a U-turn and flew back over my head. One made it far enough down to do the job it was made to do—dissolve in the rain and let the seeds drop into the soil and germinate. Ultimately maybe a few of the seeds will provide food to birds in the area. That the idea, anyway.

It happened to be the morning of Mother’s Day when I did all this, and I hadn’t thought of it at the time, but the act of launching these seeds was a mothering thing to do: trying to offer food to smaller, more vulnerable creatures. It was also my first act as a performance artist. In a way, Jennifer’s project is an open-ended invitation for anyone to become a conceptual/performance artist on behalf of the environment. She makes the paper. But it’s up to you to fold it into an airplane and sail it off toward some receptive patch of soil where it might grow into food for birds whose resources for nutrition grow scarce in places where farming and lawns and human landscaping have taken over. Jennifer made the airplanes as a project to complete her MFA at University of Cincinnati this year. She was inspired to create this campaign in response to a USDA program for poisoning “nuisance birds”:  “Bye Bye Blackbird” in which, she says, 2 billion birds were poisoned in 2009.

My attempts to get  planes to fly accurately into places where their payload could sprout taught me a few things I’m sure Jennifer had in mind when she hatched this project. First of all, you become aware of how resistant the land is to any incursion of new life, at least when it’s the cargo of small triangular aircraft. It gets stuck in the little twigs. It flips around and lands on gravel. It snares in tall grass. Most of the soil is already occupied—and a sunflower or thistle seed has to be lucky to drop into a tiny patch of available, sunlight topsoil. And that was in the wild of a New York State park. I came home and decided to aim another plane directly into a berm in our backyard where all sorts of untended and usually unwanted things will often grow. But it was, proportionally, a very small area in what is essentially a homestead packed with grass, flowers, trees, or mulch. Even so, plants still appear where I least expect them. I see how seeds can find places to grow on their own every year: strawberries that pop up in the brick walk to our front door—somehow having made their way from behind the garage—or new Shasta daisies three or four feet from the parent cluster. And the weeds always find a way. But the welcome volunteers are few and far between. More than anything else, this project has shown me that I had to drive quite a way to find a place open enough for the seeds I was offering. The closer you get to home, the more you realize how other forms of life often have to find a way to live despite the presence of people.

4 Responses to “I’m part of the performance”

  1. Jennifer Wenker

    Dear David, I love the way you have continued to understand and continue this project. You have so poetically permitted the seeds of this idea to disseminate through your personal introspection, writings, actions and sharing with others. You have facilitated “drifting” which is exactly what is needed from a seed. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
    In love of Nature,

  2. Kristol Charles Faucheux

    David, I came by this post via the wonderful Ms. Jennifer. She is a Sorority Sister of mine and was my roommate in college. Since you’ve met her, you know this project is So her, and after reading your post, it has really touched something within me too. As soon as I read it, I contacted her about getting some of this paper for myself. Well actually for my two boys. They LOOOOOOOVE paper airplanes, and they love ALL things nature. I would love to be able to capture them, through my lens, as they launch their own little “wings of life”, and learn about it’s meaning. Jennifer told me to contact you regarding acquiring a few sheets. If you could let me know how to go about doing this, I would appreciate it.

  3. dave dorsey

    Kristol, I’m so happy you replied to the post. I know it’s ridiculous that I haven’t thanked you until now, but I’ve finally solved my spam problem and can sort out the genuine comments from the bogus. I appreciated hearing from you.

  4. It was worth every one of the 825 miles at represent

    […] him the next day. We got together right after the event at Suzie Wong’s for a late dinner with Jennifer and Randy Wenker, and laughed our way through two more […]