Garden City

The Botany of Urban Desire

Sarah Bergmann's Pollinator Pathway combines art, ecology, and urban planning. Just don't call it a bee thing.

By James Ross Gardner May 1, 2014 Published in the May 2014 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Mike Kane

On one of those hellish Seattle afternoons in March, when you’d swear the rain was falling up (into your nostrils, whipping your eyes), Sarah Bergmann stepped out of her Jeep Cherokee and onto Columbia Street, home to the Pollinator Pathway project, her multi-disciplinary art installation.

The concept: Convert the planting strips on the street from Kentucky bluegrass rectangles into intricately designed thatches of mostly indigenous plants that attract native pollinators—birds, butterflies, bats, some bees—thereby connecting the mini ecosystem of verdant Seattle University with that of tiny Nora’s Woods, a park at 29th Ave in the Central District.

The thing about this wet, squalling day in March is that it was the first time Bergmann, a painter and designer, had visited the neighborhood since November. It’d been a rough year. A car crash had popped her leg out of its hip socket, leaving her bedridden for months.

So it was with some apprehension—about just how much things had deteriorated—that she drove to Columbia Street and revisited the Pollinator Pathway. This early in the year, the 20 planting strips (out of an eventual 60) converted into gardens wouldn’t look the way they do in late spring and summer, when it seems as if someone has flicked a switch and the neighborhood blazes in Technicolor. Pink Armeria maritima (or thrift), purple Nootka lupine, red columbine, early blue violet, yellow wooly sunflower. And in the air, a noisy, dive-bombing throng of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Today she knew the gardens would be silent and colorless, a denuded simulacrum of a painful, cash-strapped year.

Then again, the project was borne of pain. Back in 2006, Bergmann worked in the New York office of an environmental ad agency, designing for the likes of Walmart and, for one campaign, studying up on pollinator colony collapse (bees had begun to disappear at an alarming rate) when her life began to collapse too. Her mother, a painter and sculptor who’d inspired Bergmann’s art, died of cancer. Then Bergmann had a tumultuous split with her life partner. And she lost her job—all within a few weeks. But the most poignant thing? 

It fell from the sky on a Manhattan street.

A bird landed at her feet. The chickadee had collided with the window of a skyscraper and lay stunned and limp on the sidewalk. Bergmann carried the bird to nearby Central Park and set it on the grass. The moment spoke to her, the crash of nature and urban life amid her own cavernous losses. 

She turned back to Seattle—she’d received a degree at Cornish—and conceived of the Pollinator Pathway. It would be a piece of art that combined community, entomology, botany, design, and urban planning. With the right native plant species she would attract the pollinators that had long since fled or struggled in cities—birds, bats, bees, butterflies, moths—and reintegrate them, blurring the lines between nature and urban life. 

She chose Columbia Street because of its gem, Nora’s Woods, a quarter-block lowland forest crawling with native plant species. A mile away sat Seattle U, known for diverse botanicals and themed gardens. To connect the two mini ecosystems, she approached homeowners one by one and slowly convinced them to surrender their planting strips—the space between the sidewalk and street—to the project. She consulted botanists and entomologists and drew up a list of some 50 plants; the homeowners could cross off any species they didn’t like. Bergmann and her volunteers designed each individual plot and planted the gardens with the expectation that the homeowners would maintain them.

Bergmann scored grants from the city, an invitation to install a portion of the project at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, and a Genius Award (along with $5,000) from The Stranger newspaper in 2012. 

But perhaps because of widespread coverage of colony collapse, the media often framed the Pollinator Pathway as designed to save honeybees. (One local publication wanted to photograph Bergmann in a comical bee suit under the headline “Bee Huggers.”) In fact, bees are a fraction of the thousands of pollinator species the project is designed to attract. Plus, common honeybees aren’t native—and they aggressively edge out other pollinators, including some of the 800 to 1,000 native bees believed to hum throughout the Pacific Northwest. So when Bergmann talks about the project, she’s quick to point out: “This isn’t about the bees.”

There are other challenges. Homeowners can’t or won’t always keep up their end of the bargain. People divorce. People die. Their gardens revert to dirt heaps. Bergmann worried about that as she slipped out of her Jeep to inspect the gardens in March.

There were a lot of dead plants, yes, but she was surprised by how well many had fared. She bent down at the first rectangular plot and ran her hand over the thrift, a low-lying plant that, when it bloomed in a few weeks, would resemble a warm pink blanket. It was colorless now, but it appeared healthy. 

Bergmann looked up. A smile curved across her face. “Want to see some more?”

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