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How To Do Everything with Jenny Odell
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Episode 1
How To Do Everything with Jenny Odell
This week, Marcos talks with Jenny Odell, an artist and author of the book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” O’Dell talks about birdwatching, the repose of Oakland’s bustling Morcom Rose Garden and why seeing a Wilson’s Warbler always puts her in a good mood. Human Nature is sponsored by BetterHelp and our listeners get 10% off their first month of online therapy at Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Marcos Trinidad 0:00

[Ex Manana music plays] Hey, what's up. From LAist Studios, this is Human/Nature. I'm Marcos Trinidad. Every week I'll invite you to get out into the nature of your neighborhood with the help of people who see the world a little differently. Today, I'm gonna have a chat with author and artist, Jenny Odell. But before we get into that, I want to tell you a little bit about myself, and why I'm making this show. [nature sounds] [birds chirping] I'm from Los Angeles, or if you want to be more specific, Highland Park, a small community in Northeast LA. Growing up here, the LA river was basically my extended backyard. It was a place I could go to hang out with my friends, or just get some time alone and listen, and watch. I'd see Cormorants on the telephone wire, and sometimes I'd see an Osprey come by and snatch up a fish. And even if I didn't realize it at that time, all of those hours spent by the LA River, that was me learning how to connect with nature, even in the middle of a very urban place. So I guess it makes sense that today I'm a conservationist. I run a nature center in Debs Park. It's around the corner from the very first home I ever lived in. And my days are spent helping other people notice that nature is all around them, too. Here's the thing. I traveled all over the world, to places way more nature-y than LA. I've had the privilege to study trees in southeast Alaska, backpacked through Siberia, even spent a few years in Germany when I served in the military. And I could be working in some remote forest, but I'm not. [Ex Manana music plays] I'm here in a city, because it means I get to meet people where they're at, already in nature, even if they might not realize it. That's why I'm making this show. Because to me, the best part of being in urban nature is sharing that with my community. So this is an invitation to reclaim your intention and see yourself as part of an urban ecosystem. Starting today, with someone who has written a book on how to do exactly that. I'm speaking with author and artist, Jenny Odell. Can you introduce yourself?

Jenny Odell 2:21

Yeah. So I am Jenny Odell. I am a writer and an artist. I'm based in Oakland. I am a everyday birder, I guess. Sometimes I call myself an involuntary birdwatcher, because it used to make me late for class when I was teaching. It was like not a decision that I made. I would just kind of get stuck [laughing] looking at birds.

Marcos Trinidad 2:41

It happens, and it's so funny that you mention that. It's like the- I guess I wouldn't call it a [Marcos Trinidad laughing] a casualty. [Jenny Odell laughing] But it's, it's just one thing you have to get used to anytime you're dealing with a birder or birdwatcher that, if you're outside mid-conversation, everything will stop and you'll follow the bird that comes in. So what is your favorite bird today?

Ah, I'm so glad you said today. I feel like you understand that there is no [Marcos Trinidad laughing] [Jenny Odell laughing] favorite bird. Right? Yeah. Okay. My favorite bird today is a Wilson's Warbler.

Oh, Cool! Check this out. I saw a Wilson's Warbler this morning.

Jenny Odell 3:23

Oh, wow! Amazing. There's just like something about how they look that it's like impossible to remain in a bad mood if you look at one. I don't know, it's like they're just like the happiest looking bird. And looks like they have a little toupee.

Marcos Trinidad 3:35

Right. A toupee or a little hat.

Jenny Odell 3:36

Yeah, exactly. And um, I went on a hike a while ago. We parked, and I heard one right outside the car. And then I was like I pointed at it was in like a tree. I was like, look, oh, my god, it's Wilson's Warbler! And then as I did that, it literally flew up and like, landed on the rearview mirror and was like looking in at us. And I was like, ahhh! [Marcos Trinidad and Jenny Odell laughing] I was not expecting that. Like, it was just one of those moments where you're like, like, I'm all like, pointing to it. It's far away. And it's like, oh, you asked about me [Marcos Trinidad laughing], like, here, let me show you what I look like.

Marcos Trinidad 4:08

It's like, on note. That's so cool. So Jenny, if you could tell us a little bit about your book, How to do Nothing. Uh, for any of the listeners that have not read the book, give us a little snapshot of what they'll be getting into.

Jenny Odell 4:24

So I think in the book, I was trying to combine two realms of thinking that I don't ordinarily see talked about together and I hadn't thought about in tandem really, until writing the book. And then one is at the sort of more technology side, which is the attention economy, you know, social media, advertising, media in general, things that are designed to keep and hold your attention. And then on the other side, I was thinking about ecology, you know why I had this need to be outdoors and be around other forms of life. And at some point, you know, after the 2016 election, I, I started to link those things together at the level of metaphor. I think that there are things in ecology that can help us understand things like the attention economy. You know, like we understand that in ecology, like a monoculture is very harmful, that complexity and nuance are good things. Um and that it's actually quite hard to define individuals in an ecology, right. Like there's many relationships, but not necessarily like bounded entities. Um, one of the things I think that was like really inspiring to me about things in ecology and birding in particular is, you know, not only the level of attention that something like birding takes, extremely minute attention, right with with all of your senses, but also, this idea of, [Ex Manana music plays] I think I call it difference without boundary that you see in ecology, like I, as a person who's biracial, like I found that very, like a nice sort of model of the self. It's true that things can be different. But it's often hard to draw like a really hard line between them, there's like always this kind of exchange back and forth. And in the book, I use the example of like an atmospheric river to talk about that, where the rain is always coming from somewhere else, the air is always coming from somewhere else. So I would say yeah, it's a strange book, because it's like the first half of it is about mostly digital technology. And then the second half of the book is a lot of stuff about birds and plants. That may seem like an odd combination. But I think part of what drove me to write it was that I saw that there were a lot of parallels there.

Marcos Trinidad 6:28

After the break, Jenny and I talk Bushtits, bird buddies, and how nature might actually be closer than you think. [break]

One thing that I really appreciated you talking about is that deep listening, and how you go into a space, and you open the senses up, and you open yourself up to observation. I know you particularly call out the Rose Garden, which I found really awesome, because it's in this urban area. Can you talk about that experience you had?

Jenny Odell 7:07

Yeah, so the this rose garden that I talked about in the book, I always have to distinguish it from, there's the Berkeley Rose Garden, which is also very nice. It is not the same as the Oakland Rose Garden. The Oakland Rose Garden is much more closer to like a main drag that has a lot of businesses on it. Um so it's much more of that kind of like surprising, like pocket of, I don't know, something different that's like in the midst of a very urban space, which is why I like it. [Ex Manana music plays] I mean, it's not very big, but it's very dense. So if you sit there for any amount of time, it's like, even if you're not a bird person, like you're going to notice the birds. There are a lot of Hawks there. Obviously lots of Scrub Jays being kind of obnoxious, a lot of Titmice, Juncos, White-Crowned Sparrows, just like a lot of little guys. The way it was designed, it really invites you to notice those things.

Marcos Trinidad 7:55

Yeah, the reason why I resonated with that so much is because it was an urban space. One thing that I've really spent a lot of my time doing, especially with communities that surround me, is making sure they know that nature exists all around them, that nature is not just something you have to go to, like, it's not something you need to get in your car to drive to. You can literally walk outside and you're experiencing nature if you're open to noticing things. So, how would you I guess, describe maybe the responsibility of artists or creators in the urban environment, on how to connect people to those things, because you're talking about, it could be designed very intentionally on creating that experience.

Jenny Odell 8:48

Well, I think a lot about like the concept of like lenses, right? Literally and metaphorically. So literally, a friend just gave me a hand lens a couple months ago. It's like it just like a 10x lens. Yeah.

Marcos Trinidad 8:59

Oh, yeah.

Jenny Odell 8:59

Like my world was just, like, changed [Jenny Odell laughing] forever. [Ex Manana music plays] Um, and I always laugh because like, people I know who are like, not super into looking at plants. I will like, I will like gush about this lens. And I'm like, man I like, everything I look at like on my block is just so surprising. And they're always like, yeah, okay, like, how surprising could it be? And then I like show it to them. And they're like, shocked. Right? And I love it too, because especially in an urban space, right? It's so small, you can literally look at sidewalk moss, and it's very fascinating. And then you're like, oh, right, like this is nature. But I think if you sort of take that as more of a metaphor, if you give people things to look for. What if you spent the whole day you know, trying to notice birds or you spent the whole day trying to notice really old trees, and then you ask someone to sort of go through their day and just pay attention to that, is a kind of lens. It's like a filter, right? And, you know, obviously like organizing like group walks can be really helpful, because you have someone who's, has that filter and they can point out those things. You know, I do a lot of birding alone, but there's a lot of joy in like sharing your excitement with someone else. I have this one friend who if I see a bird for the first time in real life, not in Sibley, he is the first person that I text. Within five minutes, I will text [Marcos Trinidad lauging] this friend, right? And it's like-

Marcos Trinidad 10:18

A bird, buddy.

Jenny Odell 10:18

Yeah, that was really big during the pandemic, because he lives in San Francisco. I live in Oakland. You know, he and I are obsessed with Bushtit nests. Because they look so weird. They're like around right now, actually, there's like one on the corner of my block. Like, we just like, will super excitedly text each other [laughing] whenever one of us sees one. And then we'll like update each other on the progress of the nest. So I think there's something really nice about a group of people who are noticing things together.

Marcos Trinidad 10:44

Yeah, I could totally see that. Now, for the folks that do not know what a Bushtit nest looks like, it doesn't look like any normal nest, not what you expect. It's kind of this like conglomerate of all sorts of material that are fine from, you know, dryer sheets to lin lint, twigs and spider webs in this weird, almost like uh, how how would I explain -

Jenny Odell 11:13

It looks like a sock. I would say it looks like a sock.

Marcos Trinidad 11:15

No, totally like a sock! [laughing]

Jenny Odell 11:18

Yeah. [laughing]

Marcos Trinidad 11:19

And it's like hanging upside down. [laughing]

Jenny Odell 11:21

Yeah, just the other day, I saw one getting some cobwebs from someone's roof. That's like a really good example of something where - they're hard to see, but if you're looking for them, and you're like, you're really looking for them, and you really care about them, like you will start seeing them.

Marcos Trinidad 11:36

Yeah. To me, a lot of it was also looking at nature and opening yourself up to nature in this way that we're not judging nature, or the spaces. And I think that piece is so hard, because if you go check out the redwoods, or you're in Yosemite, and you're just struck by the beauty and just this vastness, like how open it is. And then you go back home and like, yeah, I have some trees on my block, but it's not the same. We automatically start to judge what is good and what is like, what is good nature and what is like...

Jenny Odell 12:19

Or like real nature. Yeah.

Marcos Trinidad 12:21

Real nature, right. To me that that's also a lot of being able to understand our attention and how we direct it, but also these other feelings and these thoughts that we have in placing judgment. What would you look at as a practice of non- judgmental observation when when you go out into nature, and looking at how to direct your attention?

Jenny Odell 12:51

I think sometimes our relationships to the places where we live can be a little bit like if you're in a long term relationship, and you kind of start to take someone for granted. [Jenny Odell laughing] Right? Like, [Marcos Trinidad laughing] like um, I think this can happen with anything you're familiar with. It starts to seem like a thing and not a process. And so it's like this task of how can I see the process again? For me, like, you know, my, this book that I'm currently working on is about time, so a lot of it has to do with time and change. And I think, for me, especially during the pandemic, choosing an area to visit very often, and trying to be really attentive to change, you know, flowering, but also like, how are these trees doing? Are they healthy? You know, what birds are migrating through here? And just like really kind of unfreeze it in a way where it doesn't feel like a postcard. It feels like a real, living place where things are changing. There is a park that I have gone to hundreds of times during the pandemic. I mean, I don't want to know how many times have been there. I go almost every day. It's like a half an hour walk from here. But I, I always visit it with this attitude of like, what is going to be there today, kind of like what state are the buckeye trees going to be in today? Like right now, I'm like, are they flowering yet? Because I'm I'm really obsessed with that smell. So I'm just like waiting for this event, you know?

Marcos Trinidad 14:04


Jenny Odell 14:05

You know, like the way the birds interact with them is going to change [Ex Manana music plays] and I have some sort of familiarity with those processes, but I can't really predict them. It's an act of relationship to something that feels a little bit more like a someone, right, like that has its own sort of reality and like actions that it produces. [break]

Marcos Trinidad 14:29

Looking at the seasons, and understanding you know, because I talk to a lot of people about California natives, and California native plants go through a process. And, if we don't understand that process, if we don't know when they're flowering or the fact that a lot of 'em are gonna dry out, look a little crispy. [Jenny Odell laughing] And some of them do look like weeds. It's, we don't have this relationship with them and it sounds like what you're doing is being able to go to a place over and over, you're able to see or experience that process. I always tell people like, you know, you have to love the crust of the bread as well, it's like you don't just get to appreciate the flowers or apply this lens, that it's supposed to be this way all the time. And when you start to understand that, when that flower dries out, and the pollinators have done what they do, birds come in to eat those seeds, and they start to do what they're doing. Um so it's a very different inter-interaction and understanding. [Jenny Odell lauging softly] So can you tell us a little bit about your new book?

Jenny Odell 15:42

Yeah, I can't get into too much detail, because it's not coming out until February 2023. I will say it logically follows How to do Nothing. Because there is actually, you know, quite a bit in How to do Nothing about time. [Ex Manana music plays] Like this wish that like time would not all seem like money. And I also talk about bird time [Marcos Trinidad laughing softly] and bird space, especially with migratory birds, but just really all birds. They'll teach you that, like time and space, are so intimately connected. And that actually, like the separation of time and space is like that's already just a very Western, recent sort of construct. You know, like birds look different based on where they are and their migratory journey. Uh, or they'll look different, you know, if they're further inland, like there's all these kinds of entanglements of like time and space. And so the second book is kind of just trying to both talk about uh ways of realizing the kind of artificiality of like clock time, like calendar time, but also seriously, try to think through like, the privileged piece of that, which is like, you know, the fact that time seems like money isn't a choice for a lot of people. You know, so it's this kind of like, trying to both gesture, like outside of the clock, but also talk about like, what that means for someone to even be able to do that. And how could we make it easier for more people to not have to just live psychologically on clock time so much. -- I wrote the proposal before the pandemic started. So I was not anticipating things like, you know, people getting really into birding during the pandemic, because they're like,

Marcos Trinidad 17:17


Jenny Odell 17:17

Looking out their window at home, [laughing] you know?

Marcos Trinidad 17:21

I was super stoked that it was one of the recommended tasks because you can keep your distance with people. [laughing]

Jenny Odell 17:28

Totally. One of the things that I found when I was researching the like uptick in birding activity was that eBird reports of suburban species were up quite a bit. Okay, there's people who hadn't been looking at birds, and now they're looking at birds. But then there were also people who would ordinarily maybe go out of their way to see like, quote, unquote, like special like, you know, a species of birds

Marcos Trinidad 17:50

Rare birds.

Jenny Odell 17:51

But now they're s, yeah, they're stuck at home. So they're now like looking at like a Steller's Jay, I don't know, just like this kind of backyard,

Marcos Trinidad 17:57

The backyard birds. Yeah.

Jenny Odell 17:58

And I actually really love that because it kind of goes back to what I was saying about like taking something for granted. Like to give an example, I've seen, you know, Crows on my block for six or seven years now. For the first time ever, a couple of weeks ago, I saw like Crow mating behavior. I looked it up. And apparently, it's like not very commonly seen. I even knew that when I saw it, it was like something weird is happening here. Like this Crow's like wiggling its tail. And then this other Crow came over and had like a giant piece of trash in its beak it was like wiggling his tail too. And I was like, I don't know what this is. But it seems [Marcos Trinidad and Jenny Odell laughing] important. Um, and so there's this kind of like, I don't know, if you're looking at the same sort of species, day after day, like, you actually don't feel that you have more of a grasp on sort of like who they are. It's like, actually, what ends up happening is they become more and more deeply mysterious.

Marcos Trinidad 18:50

Rght! It's like you find out so many new things. But then with that, you start having all these extra questions,

Jenny Odell 18:59

More questions. [laughing]

Marcos Trinidad 19:00

Yeah. So when we look at this through the urban nature lens, is there anything you would say to to the listeners, or any tips that you would want to give in in being able to get to a place where you can appreciate where we are and how to experience those moments?

Jenny Odell 19:26

Yeah, one really sort of concrete suggestion is uh the app, iNaturalist, which I don't know if you use that.

Marcos Trinidad 19:33

I do.

Jenny Odell 19:35

I wanted something like that to exist for so long before it came along. I think it's like the most utopian like app [laughing] that was ever made. Because I mean, that's an example of something that's on your phone. You know, you can take pictures of of plants and if you can get a photo of an animal it also can help you ID those but I usually use it for plants. Spring is a great time to use it because things are flowering, makes it easier, basically will like give you some suggestions and then you can choose one. If you're lucky, like in this area, a lot of people use it, it'll be confirmed or something else will be suggested. And I've noticed that there are certain users that will tend to confirm certain types of plants that I put in there, where I'm like, this person just really cares about like, toyon or something like, I, just just sort of people have their, like pet plants that they clearly are, like, [laughing] watching out for?

Marcos Trinidad 20:25

Definitely. The ones that they're following.

Jenny Odell 20:28

Yeah. I mean, I still use that a lot. But I remember you know, years ago, that was a really big stepping stone for me in terms of just trying to get my bearings. So I think a lot about this idea of like getting your bearings, before you even can get really granular. There's kind of a bigger, broader sense, like, am I, what watershed am I in? [Ex Manana music plays] You know, what type of desert am I in or, you know, just

Marcos Trinidad 20:50

A sense of place.

Jenny Odell 20:51

Yeah, yeah. There's like lots of great books, you know about that stuff. But there's also just a lot of amazing just content that you can find online. Like, if you're just asking the question to begin with, you will find so much.

Marcos Trinidad 21:04

Jenny, thank you so much for all the time you've spent with us today. And just sharing everything uh that had gone into your book, and just your perspective - I, I really value that. And, and I love this idea of remaining teachable throughout these experiences because then you learn so much more and what's cooler than constantly being able to learn these things over and over again. So I really appreciate you.

Jenny Odell 21:32

Thanks so much for having me.

Caroline Chaplin 21:33

[Ex Manana music plays] Human/Nature is hosted by Marcos Trinidad and produced by Carla Javier and me, Caroline Chaplin. Kelly Prime is our Story Editor, mixing and engineering by Parker McDaniels with help from Sean Quarry-Campbell. Ex Manana composed our music. Doris Anokhi Munoz is the music supervisor. Human/Nature is a production of LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding, with art by Christine Tyler Hill. Special thanks to Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orosco, Michael Cosentino, Neha Shaida and Fiona Ng. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. That's all for this episode of Human/Nature. We'll see you next week.