Ecological Horticulturist Rebecca McMackin To Speak at Parrish's Landscape Pleasures - 27 East

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Ecological Horticulturist Rebecca McMackin To Speak at Parrish's Landscape Pleasures

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Rebecca McMackin will speak at Saturday, June 10, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill for the Parrish's Landscape Pleasures symposium. 
 COURTESY REBECCA MCMACKIN

Rebecca McMackin will speak at Saturday, June 10, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill for the Parrish's Landscape Pleasures symposium. COURTESY REBECCA MCMACKIN

A leafcutter bee on a sunflower.   REBECCA MCMACKIN

A leafcutter bee on a sunflower. REBECCA MCMACKIN

Monarch butterflies on Solidago, commonly called goldenrod.  REBECCA MCMACKIN

Monarch butterflies on Solidago, commonly called goldenrod. REBECCA MCMACKIN

The crew at Brooklyn Bridge Park. REBECCA MCMACKIN

The crew at Brooklyn Bridge Park. REBECCA MCMACKIN

Brendan J. O’Reilly on May 25, 2023

Former Brooklyn Bridge Park director of horticulture Rebecca McMackin, an advocate and practitioner of ecological horticulture, will be among the speakers at the Parrish Art Museum on Saturday, June 10, for the museum’s annual Landscape Pleasures symposium.

Ecological horticulture is an approach to gardening and land management designed to beautify spaces while simultaneously improving the environment and providing habitat and nourishment for wildlife. It considers how living things interact with each other and what humans can do, or refrain from doing, to best support those interactions to play out as nature intended.

At the museum in Water Mill, McMackin will share the concepts and methods behind ecological horticulture and explain how Brooklyn Bridge Park is proof positive that ecological horticulture works.

“There are these incredible dynamics happening all around us,” McMackin said during a recent interview. “There are butterflies, caterpillars eating the leaves of their host plants. There are bees pollinating native wildflowers. There are birds gathering the fibers from specific plants that they know — that they’ve come to have these relationships with — to build their nests. And a lot of us have just forgotten how to see that stuff.”

She said her hope is to remind people that these magical dynamics are happening all around them.

“Not only is it wonderful to support these dynamics but it’s also really important,” McMackin said. “We’re at a very difficult time in Earth’s history, between climate change and biodiversity collapse. The level of environmental destruction is really unprecedented, and it can be incredibly overwhelming.

“But with ecological horticulture, there are very simple things that we all can do — even if we just have plants on our windowsill that support these very beautiful dynamics. And it’s important to do these things, but it’s also a gift for ourselves. It brings this level of connection that a lot of people are missing in their lives. And it’s good for ecology — but it’s also good for the soul.”

Ecological Horticulture Successes
 

McMackin said the most thrilling elements of Brooklyn Bridge Park are the successes of the approach to design and management.

The successes are observed in the presence of native insects, birds and other wildlife that had been absent from Brooklyn for decades prior.

One example McMackin pointed to is the two-spotted lady beetle. It is a tiny ladybug that lives in catalpa trees and hadn’t been seen in New York State for 30 years, she said. She believes the two-spotted lady beetle returned because it eats tiny aphids on catalpa trees, and the park does not spray pesticides on its trees to control aphids. “We were allowing their food source to thrive there,” she said.

Another insect population thriving in the park is the great golden northern bumblebee, a species that is critically imperiled, according to McMackin. “This is a bumblebee that is very sensitive to pesticides and the diseases from agriculturally managed bees,” she said.

For this species, cities are a refuge from environmental destruction that they cannot handle, she added. “So many of us think of cities as really environmentally destitute, and these stories really show that urban ecology is just very different.”

She said the difference between an environmentally destitute city and a verdant, biodiverse, healthy city is a design choice, an investment choice, and a choice of how labor management is prioritized.

The park also welcomes many grassland-adapted birds, she noted. One of Brooklyn Bridge Park’s management methods is to only work on its grassland ecosystems after rare migratory sparrows have passed through, so the birds are not disturbed. This is an example of an ecological horticulture practice, but it’s not a practice that all public green spaces adhere to.

“What we think of as taking care of land is often just this continual disturbance cycle that interrupts the life cycle of so many animals,” McMackin said.

Soft Landings
 

One practice that is gaining popularity, McMackin said, is called “soft landings,” which involves planting gardens under trees, like oak trees, which host more than 900 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars. She noted that most of those caterpillars drop to the ground to complete their life cycle. In a natural system, they drop into a layer of leaves, wiggle down and metamorphose in the duff. But in managed landscape, leafs are removed and turf grass runs under trees right up to the trunk.

“These caterpillars are still on our oak trees if they’re in a park. They’re still on oak trees in our backyard, they’re still in the oak trees on the sidewalk. And so, oftentimes, these chrysalises, or pupae, are dropping into an environment that is a death trap. And they’re either getting raked away on a lawn or washed away on a sidewalk.”

“Soft landings” is a simple design intervention that prioritizes the life cycles of animals that make an environment healthy, she said.

Making Brooklyn Bridge Park
 

Brooklyn Bridge Park is an 85-acre park — with 16 acres of woodlands, meadows, salt marshes and other types of gardens, not including turf — built on defunct shipping piers originally erected by the Port Authority in the 1950s.

The piers fell into disuse shortly after they were completed because new ships were introduced that were too big to make it that far up the river, and there wasn’t enough land behind the piers to manage the infrastructure, McMackin explained.

“They were literally just warehouses and parking lots, essentially, for decades, and then the city started looking at developing them,” she said. “And, of course, the residents of Brooklyn Heights recognized that if that happened, it would likely be skyscrapers and nothing that they would want in their backyard.

“One of the beautiful elements of Brooklyn Bridge Park is that it started as a community initiative by people in the area — in DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights — who wanted to preserve open space and create green space for the city,” she said.

McMackin joined Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2011, soon after the first piers opened to the public, and spent 11 years there. She explained that the park is a mile and a half long on the coast of Brooklyn, built in phases and “planned ingeniously.”

“They opened up here at the north and a pier at the south, and then I came in right after they opened both of those piers,” she said. “And then, over time, we built out the rest of the park.”

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., a Brooklyn landscape architecture firm, designed the park.

McMackin said that one of the reasons the park works so well is that after each section opened, they could watch how it grew in and how the public used it, and they could take in those lessons and apply them to the next sections.

McMackin stepped down from her position at Brooklyn Bridge Park last summer, though the park continues to be the focus of her speaking engagements. “It remains without a doubt the best way to illustrate the work that I do, which is teaching people how to design and manage land for beauty and ecological functionality,” she said.

Loeb Fellowship
 

McMackin left the park after she was selected for Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Loeb Fellowship. After the fellowship concludes next month, she plans to craft new presentations less focused on the one park and more on public, urban landscape and residential landscape.

“It’s just been such a gift,” she said of the fellowship. “We are nine people who are all mid-career practitioners who are involved in the design of public space in some capacity.”

The group includes a designer who examines library functionality and democracy, the designer of a calculator for landscape architects to manage the carbon footprint and sequestration of their design over time, and developers who are working to change the way development happens to support people rather than just turn a profit, McMackin said.

“It’s just these people who are all really trying to change the world,” she said. “They’re all very curious. And being among them for a year has been a treasure in and of itself.”

The fellowship also afforded her the opportunity to research the history of ecology, ecological horticulture and gardening in the United States. “For some reason, I’ve become a history buff, which I never thought I would,” she said. She’s also been exploring land rights of Indigenous people in the United States and “looking at ethical pathways forward.”

The fellowship also allows her to take any classes she wants at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been studying terrestrial ecology and ecological restoration, and through the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard she took a class on public narrative — “essentially how to tell stories that inspire people to take action, which is something that I care deeply about, both by getting people to engage in creating the world that they want to see happen and also just telling a good story.”

The fellowship has provided her with the time and space to think about the things she is interested in, she said, and it’s been an amazing respite to think deeply about where the movement is going, where it came from and her role in it.

At the end of the fellowship, McMackin and her husband, Christopher Roddick, the head of arboriculture at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, are moving to the woods of Connecticut, the state where she grew up.

“I am so eager to get back to just my own gardening practice — not just designing gardens,” McMackin said. “My passion is really public space. It’s really designing and managing public land for everybody. I’m a big believer in the ability of horticulture to change people’s lives and the importance of shared space in the public realm. But I very much just want to have land that I can work on and test out ideas and plant combinations and watch these things and do the work myself.

“I’ve been directing other people gardening and designing for a very long time, and I’m excited to get my hands dirty again.”

The Parrish Art Museum’s Landscape Pleasures weekend begins with a symposium featuring conversations with Rebecca McMackin, Raymond Jungles and Charles A. Birnbaum on Saturday, June 10, from 9 a.m. to noon, preceded by a continental breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Self-guided garden tours will be open on Sunday, June 11, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with access to multiple South Fork private gardens.

Tickets to Landscape Pleasures, including the symposium and garden tours, are $250, or $200 for Parrish members. Visit parrishart.org/landscape-pleasures-2023.

McMackin will visit the South Fork again on Sunday, October 15, at 2 p.m. for the Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons’ lecture series at the Bridgehampton Community House. Visit hahgarden.org for more information.

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