Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wild Weeds and the End of the City

David Seiter with Future Green Studio, Spontaneous Urban Plants: Weeds In NYC

The very name “weed” implies a plant doesn’t belong. We use it to describe dandelions in a manicured lawn, or crabgrass in a tomato patch, or sunflowers in somebody’s cornfield. We rip them up by their roots, spray them with noxious chemicals, and otherwise seek to destroy them whenever they appear. But what if our conception of weeds is all wrong? What if weeds represent the future of nature, and hope for our changing cities?

“Spontaneous Urban Plants” began as an Instagram hashtag specifically spotlighting New York’s thriving untended gardens. Red Hook-based landscape designer David Seiter became interested in how plants flourish without human attention, even despite human opposition, in the midst of humankind’s vast built environments. This book mixes the best elements of policy manifesto, wildlife identification guide, and and coffee table art book, for a product that could have implications, and consequences, far beyond Seiter’s Brooklyn home base.

Despite being one of Earth’s most densely populated places, Seiter writes in his introduction, New York dedicates approximately one-fifth its land area to parks, greenbelt, and other dedicated nature. (Compare two percent of Shanghai.) But nature doesn’t remain politely confined to cultivated spaces. Sidewalk cracks, untended lawns, abandoned factories, and other disturbed soils provide sustenance for massive arrays of plant life. New York’s wild and untended plants, under Seiter’s camera, have a lush, edenic abundance.

Aided by his Future Green Studio collective, Seiter has made a dedicated study of the way plants refuse to obey human limitations. He makes a persuasive argument that, for many city children, untended weeds are the first, sometimes the only, nature they’ll ever see. Goose grass and pokeweed may annoy urbanites who believe sidewalks should remain flat, grey and lifeless. But many city kids discover nature through weed growth—and discover how nature remains uncontrollable.

Ailanthus Altissima (Tree of Heaven) in its common urban environment
But this isn’t some romantic paean to nature’s abhorrence of vacuums. Weeds aren’t only good for their own sake; Seiter argues that unintended weeds contribute materially to city life. Some control stormwater runoff and prevent soil erosion. Others make good food for wildlife, and even for humans. Some weeds have medicinal properties. Some weeds even restore soil seemingly irredeemably damaged by human callousness. A thriving urban landscape has measurable human benefits beyond their superficial annoyance.

But to receive these benefits, we must reëvaluate what makes plants weeds. Many landscape designers have a romantic attachment to “native” species, and expunge plants imported globally, like red clover or Tree of Heaven. But Seiter contends, with substantial evidence, that many “native” plants are ill-suited for urban environments. Frequently, plants categorized as “invasive” and treated with massive sprayings of Roundup (a chemical so dangerous, it requires hazardous waste disposal) are better-suited for city soils.

Following his reasonably brief, but informationally dense, introduction, Seiter transitions into two-page spreads on individual plant species. This includes three photographs of common weeds in their urban habitats, with detailed descriptions of their foremost benefits and liabilities, identifying characteristics, and most common growing conditions. This includes the ecological benefits individual plants provide, and their human benefits, like how edible or medicinal they are. Seiter makes an engaging introduction for urban foragers, amateur botanists, and others.

He also makes a charming art book. He takes pains to show plants in their most beautiful conditions, though those conditions aren’t always pretty. When he shows us Virginia pepperweed growing through a sidewalk pothole, flowering silk trees reaching long branches over a concrete wall topped with razor wire, or Queen Anne’s Lace in the shadow of a Coney Island roller coaster, we understand nature and man-made space exist in tension. Hint: nature always wins.

Seiter isn’t naïve regarding nature. He realizes many plants aren’t always beneficial. He acknowledges when weeds provide what he calls “ecological disservice,” like spreading allergens or choking out other plants. For most weeds, this means acknowledging a mixed nature: milk thistle can quickly overtake urban meadows, but it also provides the only sustaining food for monarch butterfly larvae. Some plants aren’t mixed. Seiter has an entire chapter on plants like ragweed, which just need uprooted.

This book focuses on plants of New York specifically, and the American Northeast more generally. Don’t use this book to forage edible weeds in Minneapolis or Fresno. But it isn’t just about one narrow area. Seiter exhorts readers, regardless of their place, to reconsider their relationship with weeds, and with untended urban nature. Because humankind, and our spaces, don’t exist alone. We’re part of nature, and someday, if we’re lucky, we’ll return whence we came.

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