For this social practice collective in Lubbock, Texas, the mesquite tree has become a charismatic icon for water conservation and urban afforestation.
I met up with artist Travis Neel at Site Four of the Mesquite Mile one overcast October day in the Heart of Lubbock neighborhood. Great-tailed grackles watched from the rooftop as Neel, dressed in hardy work pants and a knit cap, pointed out the native grasses and cacti flourishing along the berms and swales he and his team had contoured around four transplanted trees—three honey mesquites and a netleaf hackberry tree. A rain barrel and a curb cut allow rainwater that would otherwise flood the streets—a perennial problem in Lubbock, not to mention a waste of precious water—to infuse the site.
The Mesquite Mile is a collaborative socially engaged art and ecology project started by Neel, his long-time partner Erin Charpentier, and design collaborative Kim Karlsrud and Daniel Phillips, along with members of the community and work-study students from Texas Tech University. Both duos have worked collectively for many years and in many different places.
Neel and Charpentier engage in a participatory art practice that draws on the histories of utopian architecture, social critique, and the idea of “radical imagination” to “reimagine new ways of being together in the world, and developing sites for that to exist,” Neel explains. Artist and designer Karlsrud and landscape architect and urban ecologist Phillips, in their creative practice Commonstudio, started with community-engaged design work. “Over the years, [it] has funneled into ecological interests, urban ecology,” Karlsrud says, and now focuses on “socio-ecological spatial interventions” that resist the notion of the tragedy of the commons.
Landing in Lubbock, Texas in fall 2020 for university teaching jobs during the depths of the pandemic, the couples found each other. Phillips says, “one of the ways we engage with a new place or new city is walking around trying to understand what makes it unique, and what usually follows from that is an idea about a project that could happen.” Inspired by early American collective living and communitarian experiments, they began a shared domestic housing collective, buying a house together—as an art project—and living under a shared set of values and ideals.
In many ways, the culture of Lubbock, and of Texas writ large, is antithetical to the notion of common, shared space. Everything in the state, it seems, is privately owned. The Mesquite Mile seeks to redress the lack of public space in the urban sphere by working with private spaces (i.e. front yards) to integrate pedestrian pathways and contribute to the urban streetscape. The project aims to transform the street-facing landscape architecture of the Heart of Lubbock neighborhood—a one-square-mile tract of land in the middle of the city—from drab, thirsty lawns to thickets of native plants suited to this region.
They landed on the honey mesquite tree as a “charismatic icon,” Neel says, “and that’s when it clicked, opening up the floodgates to these other conversations.”
“It’s a bit of a Trojan Horse,” Charpentier says.
Once they received a grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance for artists working for social change, they were off and running.
I heard this story as we sat around a table in the Agriculture Pavilion at TTU, sipping on what they called a “Llano latte,” a sweet but earthy drink made from ground mesquite beans, named for the region. The mesquite, though native, is considered an invasive weed, a maligned spreader with an ultra-deep taproot. The plant grows with essentially no water, it’s spiky, and cows get stuck in it. Ranchers hate it. “It’s one of those interesting examples of a native invasive,” Phillips says. Under circumstances related to human land use, mesquite exhibits invasive behavior, thriving, for instance, in overgrazed areas. “It’s a symptom of disturbed land,” he adds.
But the mesquite is a beautiful tree. Feathery leaves provide gentle shade; their seed pods are edible. “The idea was, what if we could just strike this bargain between urban and rural?” says Phillips. Mature trees could be taken from ranchlands, where they are considered pests, and transplanted to the urban core, where they offer value, in a process of “assisted migration.”
A video produced by the group shows the process, with a mesquite in a truck-hauled tree spade traveling by farm roads to arrive in the city. It’s not the easy way to spread mesquite, that’s for sure. “The act of doing it is poetic and performative,” Charpentier says. “It’s a conspicuous gesture,” Phillips concurs. One immediate benefit, however, is the companion plants around the tree come with it—native grasses, cacti, and flowers, which should be growing everywhere in this region—and are thriving.
So far, six sites have been planted—about an acre of land. The project is scalable and multifaceted, including work on creating a public permitting process with the city for curb cuts to harvest rainwater. An essential part of the Mesquite Mile relates to connecting with the community—from the ranchers who loathe the mesquite to neighbors who could benefit from it. “Building stewardship into the project is a big part of it,” Neel says. “Social resiliency is built into the relationships and the networks.”
The mesquite emerges as a figure that represents the radical imagination necessary in times like these, for everything from food sovereignty to drought defense. “[Mesquite] has proliferated, survived, adapted post-colonization,” Charpentier says admiringly. “I think it’s symbolic of resilience.”