The Resistance of the Echo & la Eco-resistencia

| | ,

A sound artist and documentarian befriends and honors the plants and animals living in a San Diego canyon.

by Francisco Eme

This story was reported and written as part of BorderLore’s Culture and Climate in Community program, with funding from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation.

 My backyard is a canyon.

More accurately, a piece of a canyon, in Southern California, close to the border with Mexico.

The ClimateLore logo, featuring a yellow sun with the words "ClimateLore" in yellow.

After living for a long time in a small apartment on a busy street in San Diego,  my wife and I moved to a house at the top of this canyon five years ago. I thought I’d finally be able to let my cats live outside. For several weeks I let them wander, but soon they started bringing home squirrels, birds, and lizards. This seemed to me an imbalance. The other species had been there first. They belonged there. Did my cats? 

Coyotes were active both night and day, and I soon realized my cats could easily become prey. I started taking them outside only on leashes, keeping them away from both prey and predators. 

At first I saw the canyon as just a dry, steep slope surrounded by miles and miles of concrete and houses. But then I realized it was a green corridor, one of the few wild spaces within the city supporting so much wildlife and so many native plants. 

Young coyote in a desert canyon
Young coyote in the canyon. Photo by the author.

So far, I have counted over one hundred animal species in the canyon—among them are hawks, vultures, orioles, owls, raccoons, possums, rabbits, gopher snakes, king snakes, ring-necked snakes, black widow spiders, monarch butterflies, painted lady butterflies, and orb weaver spiders. 

Any relatively undisturbed area in a city can be a refuge for wildlife, where fauna and flora can still exist in some kind of balance, resisting the negative impacts of human civilization.

But In Southern California, more and more canyons are being overrun by invasive plants and weeds, trash, and pollution. And the housing crisis means more and more canyons have become common places for houseless people to camp.

What will happen to us if we’re destroying the system we belong to? What happens to the human spirit if we are disconnected from our natural surroundings? And how does this urbanization affect our animal neighbors?

Consider, for example, the coyotes.

A 2019 study by the National Park Service in Los Angeles examining over two years of coyote scat found remnants of human-made objects including work gloves, rubber bands, condoms, and other plastics. Another study found pieces of baseballs, shoes, and furniture inside the stomachs of coyotes killed on roads. Other studies show urban coyote diet is made up of fruits from ornamentals fruit trees, domestic cats, and both human and pet food. 

Even though my house is more than a mile from the nearest golf course, I have found several dozen golf balls in the canyon behind my house. I imagine the coyotes brought them.

Two young adults looking at golf balls and igneous rocks, an exhibit detail.
Golf balls and igneous rocks. Exhibit detail from “The Resistance of the Echo & La Eco-Resistencia,” Mesa College, 2023.

Soon after I moved to “the canyon,” I decided I wanted to take care of it. For me, caring and advocating for urban wild spaces is a rebel act of resistance against what too often feels like the voracious monster of urbanization.

When I realized that the wildlife was mostly attracted to areas of the canyon where native plants grow, I started looking for advice on how to grow more native plants. I went to native plant conferences and took classes and invited gardeners to the gallery I run in San Ysidro. I started thinking all the time about native plants and how to grow them. I watched probably every YouTube video and read every website on native plants of Southern California. I bought books about gardening. I started doing bonsai.

The advice in these resources was simple, but the work was difficult. Get rid of weeds and invasive species. Pull weeds every year before they seed. Plant natives. I did this in a small area first, and the results came soon. More birds and more insects visited that area of the canyon, close to my house. 

By the time the pandemic hit, all I was doing was playing with plants. It was an obsession. I had this need to be outside and get dirty and move my body. I disengaged from art and music. I remember thinking, maybe I’m done with art. I had no desire whatsoever to make a song, paint, do audio. I just wanted to grow things.

Maybe it was in my blood. I grew up in an apartment in Mexico City. There wasn’t a lot of space to garden, but when we went to my dad’s house in Oaxaca, the place was full of trees and plants. When my parents retired, they filled their patio with plants, and my dad spent every day gardening.

I started buying trees and started growing them from seed. I bought a lot of trees. I spent thousands of dollars on trees. I sold some of them and made bonsai from others. Native trees like oaks, tecate cypress, palo verde.

In time, I started noticing cycles—the blooming and fruiting seasons. California fuchsia in fall. White sage in spring. Jojoba nuts fall and winter. Elderberries feed thousands of birds all summer. I noticed how plants become dry and brown in fall, but after the first rain, in winter, the canyon turns deep green. Spring comes strong after all the cold winter rains. The canyon becomes an expressionist painting, colored flowers everywhere. In summer, there’s a loud symphony of insects at night. The return of spiders signals the return of fall in October. 

The silhouette of two people against a projected thermal image of a coyote.
Thermal image of a coyote. Mesa College, 2023

Maybe documentation is also in my blood. In time, I started an Instagram account for the garden, sharing photos of my plants and trees. Slowly I started to reconnect with that practice too, documenting my surroundings, making media, recording audio. I started to think about making an art piece about the canyon and these plants. 

I started by drawing figures. I imagined them as ceramic pieces that could function as speakers through which to play audio. I wanted a shape that could handle the acoustics, that could amplify the sound and travel it. I had recordings of coyotes in the canyon. The sounds are thrilling, and I wanted others to hear them in the same way.

I worked with a ceramicist, Evan Lopez, to make the pieces. The ceramic figures ended up as these beings, vessels. They look a little like characters from a manga movie. Or like a shrouded being. Perhaps it was an unconscious homage to Joseph Beuys, the performance artist who spent a day in 1974 inside an enclosed gallery space with a wild coyote. He began the piece covered in felt and later walked around shrouded within it as he communed with the animal.

A ceramic sculptures on a pedestal & digital audio. Exhibit detail.
“The Calling.” Ceramic sculptures & digital audio. Exhibit detail from “The Resistance of the Echo & La Eco-Resistencia,” Mesa College, 2023.Mesa College, 2023.

I thought about how to bring aspects of the canyon and my relationship to nature to a gallery space. I have taken many photographs with trail cameras and videos with thermal cameras. I began to imagine a space to represent these relationships. Images, sculptures, audio recordings, and found objects.

But how would I represent the trees?

Some years ago, I was driving in my neighborhood, and I saw workers cutting down trees. My neighbor was taking down all the trees and shrubs in his yard. He replaced them all with fake grass. That day, I stopped an asked if I could have them. One of them looked already like bonsai, because they’d cut all the branches; they’d reduced the tree. But another one was huge. That one eventually died, but I had it in my house for two years and eventually I saw that it had the shape of a heart.

From this tree, I made an altar. On the altar I put things I’d been collecting from the canyon. The skull of a cat, rocks, photographs, dried and dead insects, ceramic pieces made with clay from the canyon that I fired them in a kiln I made myself—with the help of YouTube videos—from a huge tin can.

It became an altar to the canyon, for the trees taken down, for the plants and insects killed there. For all my feelings. With the altar, I was saying thank you, I’m sorry, I love you, I miss you.

Tree altar, a hanging sculpture that resembles a heart, an exhibit detail.
Tree altar. Exhibit detail from “The Resistance of the Echo & La Eco-Resistencia,” Mesa College, 2023.

My main medium as an artist has been sound. I am making sounds even when I’m making images. With the canyon, I was thinking about the echo—saying something and having it bounce back again and again with less and less energy, until it disappears. That, to me, is a form of resistance. The canyon is saying, “I’m here.” Its echo never disappears. It comes back.

I have also thought a lot about the ecology of the canyon. How it is fragile but resists destruction through the resilience of plants and animals. I call this “the ecology of resistance” or the eco-resistance. I imagine someday all the animals organizing as rebels to take back what we as humans have taken from them.

A friend of mine calls the coyote the true punk rockers. They live with us in society, but they are the outsiders. They can eat your pets, but they are also so beautiful. The coyotes are resisting along with me.

Every day is different now because I’m aware the changes in the canyon and in my garden. I know what time of year it is. I pay attention differently. I feel more connected. I’m waiting to see if the lemon tree is going to fruit or if the peach tree going to flower. Is it snake season already?

Scenes from the author’s exhibit, “The Resistance of the Echo & La Eco-Resistencia,” Mesa College, 2023.

Francisco Eme is an artist and music composer from Mexico City currently living in San Diego, CA. Art, society, technology, and science merge in his practice. He was a member of BorderLore’s 2023 Culture & Climate in Community cohort.

An excerpt of Francisco’s multimedia exhibition, “The Resistance of the Echo & La Eco-Resistencia,” appears in Tucson at Snakebite Gallery, located in 174 E. Toole Ave., Tucson Arizona. From May 11- June 7, 2024.

Leave a Comment

Skip to content