Next Epoch Seed Library

Ellie Irons and I are collaborating on a new project: Next Epoch Seed Library.

Ellie posted our project description and call for participation on Medium. Check it out! We’ll be launching in March and hope to have a varied collection by then with many different species, locations, and contributors represented.

She also had some very pragmatic words on why native species are interesting but not all that great or important or helpful.

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Now some of you may be thinking: this seems like an enjoyable, innocuous activity…sort of…but should we really be gathering and promoting the seeds of weeds? Aren’t they ecologically damaging? Aren’t they a nuisance? Good question! I ….Yes, weedy species are aggressive, often not “native”, and can be prone to altering the composition of delicately balanced, historically relevant ecosystems

BUT: maybe what we need more than historically relevant ecosystems (those that mirror a past ideal of a bio-diverse, well-functioning environment), are living, breathing plants that are up to the task of dealing with the shit-storm we’ve created. Thriving plant communities come with loads of ecological and social benefits. Is it really worth raging against the geographical pedigree of a plant introduced 200 years ago if it’s functioning to stabilize soil, feed late season pollinators, generate oxygen, cool the ground, and improve human mental health? Sure, there are villainous weeds out there (think Kudzu), but it’s all context-based, and plant communities that suffer from being overrun by a weedy villain are often not in the best shape to begin with. Or so I hear from some of the ecologists I’ve grilled on this topic.

In the end, humans have made inaccurate assumptions so many times about so many things, that I’ve decided I’d like to (in general) fall on the side of life. If something has a will to live, I’d like to give it a chance. And these weeds certainly have that in spades. If you’re unconvinced, or want more evidence, I’ve enjoyed and been edified by the sources below over the past few months. As noted by Stuart K. Allison, landscapes decimated by human activity can be restored to their “original historical trajectory” without being returned to “their exact historical past”. This is my point exactly: ecosystems can still be functional with new mixtures of plant communities. Let’s not waste human energy, time, and herbicide fixing something that’s already working. We have bigger fish to fry.

Photo taken by Ellie in a former parking lot in Providence, RI.

Seed Library Proposal with Ellie Irons

Composite

We are drawn to the range of resilient life forms found in neglected urban and suburban landscapes. the contrast between carefully planned and maintained landscapes and spontaneous spaces provides a filter through which to contemplate questions of wilderness versus civilization, biodiversity versus “nativeness”, and the idealized versus the “natural” .

Our proposed project looks closely at plants that tend to live in close association with dense human populations. Growing where others can’t or won’t, the plants held in our seed bank are those best adapted to live in the long shadow we throw on the landscape. Recasting these “weedy” species as companion plants for Anthropocene age, the project draws parallels between the characteristics of successful spontaneous plants and patterns of human population growth and flux in globalized cities. We are encouraging viewers to look at the overlooked and to be aware of how our value systems interact with both humans and non-humans.

We would like to create an interactive library of seeds gathered from wild-growing plants in the Bronx. Anyone can take seeds to plant or add to the library.

It will include:

1. A central piece of furniture built largely from locally scavenged materials. This would be a card-catalog style structure with many small drawers where the seeds are organized and labelled for easy access. A peaked roof will symbolically connect it to the outdoors.

2. A “work table” with envelopes and supplies for adding seeds to the library, plant ID books, a map of the Bronx with sites where we gathered seeds indicated.

3. Photo and video documentation of our process of gathering the seeds.

4. Live plants in pots on the table, at window sills, and on the floor.

5. A project website including an online catalog of available seeds as well as further documentation of their gathering. We will encourage visitors who take seeds to email us photos of their growth.

Problem Plants Video

Here’s a video of the Weediness panel organized and moderated by artist Ellie Irons at The Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture at Silent Barn in Bushwick, NY on the evening of Monday, January 19th.

Other panelists:

 

 

Dr. Amy Berkov is a tropical ecologist who made a mid-life career change from art to science. She moved to the East Village during the “Good Old Bad Old Days,” when every vacant lot was an unsavory dump full of promise, and her experiences as a community gardener inspired her interest in plants and the finely-tuned interactions that they have with insects. Dr. Berkov is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the City College of New York (CUNY), an Honorary Research Associate at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), and an Associate in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Her research program focuses on the evolutionary and community ecology of neotropical wood-boring beetles— especially those associated with trees in the Brazil nut family, which are icons of old-growth Amazonian forests. She also has an abiding interest in the insects associated with the amazing milkweed that she grows in her garden plot at 6th Street and Avenue B Garden!

Miriam Simun is a research-based artist interested in implications of socio-technical and environmental change. Working across mediums, she makes creative disruptions: objects, images and experiences that that poke, provoke, and re-imagine existing systems. She has exhibited internationally and her work is supported by Creative Capital, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Her most recent project, Agalinis Dreams, emerged from a 6-month investigation into the biology, chemistry, history and politics of the Agalinis Acuta, New York State’s only federally listed endangered plant.

Dr. Sasha Wright is a Plant Biologist and Theoretical Ecologist committed to addressing ecological problems through research and education. She is currently working on several projects involving how plants interact in extreme environments. She is originally from Whidbey Island, WA. She went to Beloit College (WI) and studied Environmental Biology with the guidance of Drs. Yaffa Grossman, John Greenler, and Robin Greenler.  She then worked as a GIS Technician at the National Park Service in South Florida.  She has conducted field research from the Serengeti National Park, to native Wisconsin prairie, to Tropical dry forests in Panama and European grasslands. She loves working with students to reveal the exciting undiscovered elements of the way the natural world works.

142.7 Trillion Problem$

This great panel discussion happened at the CSAA, and Ellie wrote this piece: Problem Plants: Nativeness, Biodiversity, and Urban Flora in the Anthropocene.

Also, Radiolab recently produced this segment: How Do You Put a Price Tag on Nature? which was all about coming up with dollar amounts for the services of nature. As an artist-who-is-also-a-bookkeeper, I imagine balance sheets of “assets” (not sure what the liabilities would be), invoices from swamps to coastal communities for flood prevention services, and bees to Chinese apple farmers for pollination labor…

Apparently the total value of all of nature is $142.7 trillion.

There’s one problem with this, as Jad counter-argues: Nature is priceless, no? Or in deep-ecology speak, living things are intrinsically valuable, not limited to value calculated from only a narrow human perspective.

Weeds, apparently, have a negative value. Some people pay to have them removed.

At the panel, we were all talking quite a bit about various types of value that weeds have…

In one slide, Dr. Sasha Wright proclaimed, “Biodiversity is beautiful.” Aesthetic value. She also emphasized how weeds generally make an ecosystem more resilient in the face of natural disasters.

Miriam Simun told us how the Agalinis acuta flower, the only federally protected plant in NY state derives its value through scarcity, and how loads of resources are spent nurturing and protecting it.

Ellie extracts value in the form of pigments…distilling their essence in a way.

Dr. Amy Berkov told the story of how milkweed is valuable to its beetle, and visa versa.

 

Photo by Donald Cameron