Over recent years, in a rapidly gentrifying, concrete-laden corner of Brooklyn, I’ve been making watercolor paint from the wild plants near my studio. In the process, I’ve emotionally and physically entangled myself with a shifting pattern of transitory greenspace. Cobbled together from untended street verges, decaying parking lots, and trash-filled vacant lots, this fractured landscape has been my un-whole, un-wilderness refuge. I’ve gotten to know its inhabitants as individuals, learning their rhythms, textures, hues, and—gradually, through research—ecological and cultural histories. In short, I’ve fallen in love with a bunch of weeds, which is where the controversy arises.
Based on growing evidence for the role of greenspace in mental health1 and the importance of plant life for a slew of environmental services2 (including temperature regulation, air quality improvement, and soil stabilization), the plant community I work with is beneficial and should be embraced. A small but growing cadre of defenders respectfully refer to these plants as “spontaneous urban plants”3 that inhabit “novel ecosystems” which are in urgent need of further study.4 Proponents for this camp can lean towards the techno-utopian,5 but many also have a pragmatic approach to the present with a prioritization on social justice and biodiversity.6
These spontaneous plant-enthusiasts comprise only a small portion of the people I encounter. To the average city-dweller, and compared to their cultivated counterparts, the species I advocate for can appear “messy” and unrefined: flowers that are too small, seed pods that are too big, thorns that tear clothing, roots that reach into brick and asphalt.7 They may seem indicative of disrepair, of indolence, of a community down on its luck or still climbing towards peak gentrification. It is perhaps this sensibility that drives building superintendents and maintenance crews out into the streets to “clean up” (massacre) these plants on a regular basis.
Deriding weedy species from another perspective are a mix of conservation biologists, dedicated community gardeners, horticulturists, and botanists who have devoted their lives to studying, propagating, and disseminating plants. On first glance, I have much in common with this community: they are also fascinated by the photosynthetic, which they see as essential and underappreciated components of urban ecosystems. But for this group as well, the plants I work with are (largely) persona non grata. This stance derives not from a repudiation of their aesthetic character or fear of their socioeconomic implications, but from a study of their biological heritage and physical capabilities. These plant nativists point out that my beloved weed community is full of aggressive species introduced from other parts of the world. These non-native species threaten the remains of a historical ecosystem that this group believes should be restored to a pre-Columbian state.8 For this camp, the novel-ecosystems concept is a sham that encourages lazy conservation practices and worse.9
My practice is located in a controversy extending beyond how pretty or palatable any given weed might be. The battle swirling around novel ecosystems, restoration, and preservation digs deep into the Anthropocene dilemma, asking us to reevaluate our understandings of nature, aesthetics, the health of ecosystems, and the boundaries of ecology. I’m grateful to be involved and I’m mulling it all over. But in the meantime, I’ll be gathering plants and making paint, if I can get there before the weed whacker and the herbicide.
- Kardan, O., Gozdyra, P., Misic, B., Moola, F., Palmer, L. et al.:, “Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center”, Scientific Reports, Nature Publishing Group, July 9, 2015.
- Breuste J., Schnellinger J., Qureshi S., Faggi A.: “Urban ecosystem services on the local level: Urban green spaces as providers.” Ekologia (Bratislava), Vol. 32, No. 3, p. 209-304, 2013.
- Del Tredicci, Peter. “Flora of the Future: Celebrating the botanical diversity of cities”, Places Journal, April 2014. https://placesjournal.org/article/the-flora-of-the-future/
- Marris, Emma. “The New Normal”, Conservation Magazine, June 2010, http://conservationmagazine.org/2010/06/the-new-normal/
- Collier, Marcus J. “Novel ecosystems and social-ecological resilience”, Landscape Ecology, Volume 30, August 2015.
- Wilen, Cheryl A. “City Weeds: Managing Pesky Invaders in an Urban Landscape”, Weed Science Society of America, http://wssa.net/articles/wssa-urban-weed-challenges/
- Fitzgeralda, Judith M., and Robert E. Loeb, “Historical ecology of Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan, New York”, The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, 281-293. 2008.
- Simberloff, Daniel, Murcia C., Aronson, J. ’“Novel Ecosystems” are a Trojan Horse for Conservation’, Ensia, http://ensia.com/voices/novel-ecosystems-are-a-trojan-horse-for-conservation/, Jan 2015
ELLIE IRONS is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. She works in a variety of media, from walks to WIFI to gardening, to reveal how human and nonhuman lives intertwine with other earth systems.