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I Am A Weed

How does the nature we find in and around our city reflect who we are?

There are two approaches, generally speaking, one can take when dealing with habitat conservation in urban areas. The first and most common is an attempt to return to the historical habitats that were found in the city long before it had been built. In this approach, native plants are protected and natural systems, like streams and fields, that have been disrupted by city infrastructure are attempted to be restored. This is undoubtedly a noble effort.

Another approach, however, is to accept that cities are new and unique environments, therefor nothing can be native to a city. Of course life is resilient and these new environments have been successfully colonized by a mix of historically native and non-native plants that have been able to survive despite the harsh, polluted conditions that cities provide. These plants are characterized by their abilities to be both flood and drought resistant. These traits make them well-suited to life in the shallow cracks of a sidewalk or building, which get flooded during a rain and, with no soil to retain the water, quickly become dry until the next shower. The collective term for this kind of flora is “spontaneous plants.”

phoebe urban slants blue closeup I Am A Weed

Spontaneous plants offer a plethora of services for the urban environment. They, like all other plants, filter the air to provide us with oxygen while reducing the carbon imbalance of cities. Spontaneous plants supply green cover which in turn reduces the heat island effect and increases storm water retention. They create habitat for insects who become food for birds. Some even have the ability to remediate contaminated soils by absorbing heavy metals. And they provide greenery in otherwise gray and barren urbanscapes.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, introduced by Edward O. Wilson, asserts that humans hold an inherent bond with living systems. “Biophilia” literally means love for life. Our love of plants and animals, it is suggested, evolved from our dependence upon them for survival. Simply being around plants brings us pleasure so we protect them, and in doing so, we are also protecting food sources, shelter, and habitat for animals we might eat. This love can have a substantial impact on humans when they are exposed to nature. Studies have shown that people who live close to green spaces tend to be happier than those who don’t. Hospitals that look out onto greenery or that have images of nature in their rooms have faster rates of healing. Unsurprisingly, properties that have trees or are located near parks are worth more money. So it would seem that spontaneous plants are beneficial for urban areas because they fill in the cracks, literally and figuratively, with greenery. Yet many people do not see them this way.

Spontaneous plants can go by another name: “weeds.” Their presence is often seen as a sign of decay, poverty, or neglect. They are actively sought out for removal, even when their absence means an empty patch of gray.

During an informal interview with David Seiter, a visiting professor at Pratt Institute’s program for Sustainable Planning and Development and the principal of Future Green Studio, Seiter described the value of spontaneous plants in this way (I’m paraphrasing): Remember when you were a child. You would search for dandelions and make a wish while blowing away their fluffy white seeds? Or look at some of the fanciest restaurants in Brooklyn; you can see dandelion leaf salads on their menus. But when a dandelion sprouts up in a backyard, people are quick to pull them out or douse them in herbicides. How can something with so much value– a food source, a plaything, a bright yellow flower– be looked upon with so much disdain?

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Seiter explained that society seems to find worth in things that are difficult. A garden of roses takes time to grow, requires careful attention, and must be watched with an anxious eye as its fragility makes it ever so prone to destruction. When we grow a rose successfully, we are proud. Meanwhile, the real hero here is the dandelion who has adapted to the harshest conditions, who can grow in seemingly impossible places with no help. Dandelions and other spontaneous plants don’t just survive, they thrive. It’s incredible really. But they are dismissed, despised even, for their independence and tenacity.

As Seiter recounted these thoughts, I felt a twinge of emotion stir inside me. I kept thinking, he is describing me. 

I would not be the first to make this connection. Look at Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The author likens the struggle of an immigrant family in Brooklyn to the Tree of Heaven, a common non-native and invasive weed in New York City. The plant struggles to find its place. It is neglected and trampled upon. But once it takes root, it puts up an inspiring fight, and despite the odds, eventually flourishes into a beautiful and imposing tree.

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For those of us who are living and thriving in New York City, we can all look back on our struggle to take root. In the most obvious sense, think about apartment searching and how difficult it is to find your space in the city. Then there is the search for resources: money, food, air. We had to adapt to the harsh conditions of the city: pollution, noise, suffocating crowds, the heat, the cold. I’ve watched as friends have come and gone from the city, unable to “hack it,” and I’ve known many others simply too scared to try. We are the non-natives who have invaded and thrived.

And isn’t that what New York City has always been about? When I hear a native New Yorker claim ownership of the city, I admit I scoff at them. Were their parents or grandparents not immigrants? Aren’t immigrants the ones who built this city? Indeed the urban environment, especially that of New York’s, is a unique one that is constantly changing and growing and adapting. Nothing is static in the city and that is the way it should be; that’s progress. A dandelion is to a sidewalk crack as a hipster is to Williamsburg. It’s theirs now.

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 So how do we better incorporate spontaneous plants and all their benefits into our city? Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at Arnold Arboretum and author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, said, “I consider ‘weed’ to be a politically incorrect term. There is no biological definition of the term weed. It’s really a value judgment.” Certainly a change in perception is needed. As I was walking through Carroll Gardens this afternoon, I overheard a four year-old boy admonish his father for casually trampling a weed that had sprouted in the sidewalk, “Daddy, you’re stepping on the plant! Look out!” This child was seeing the plant as equal with all other plants, which he knows not to stomp on. He had not yet been taught by society that some plants have lesser value.

Why do we spend so much time and energy trying to green our cities with supposedly native or cosmopolitan plants who can’t hack it when there are so many plants that will willingly take their place? Why do we overly invest ourselves in removing spontaneous plants when they provide us with so much? Why do we devalue any object of nature?

More importantly, if these attitudes can be overcome, how do we prudently incorporate spontaneous plants into our cities? I do not believe by any means that these plants should have free reign. Surely a place like a graveyard or a government building overrun with weeds would send the wrong message. Still it is something we should consider.

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Red Hook is my favorite Brooklyn neighborhood and is an excellent example of how spontaneous plants can bring life to an industrial wasteland. Take the above photo, for example. Without those plants, the dilapidated building would have a more foreboding and, quite frankly, ugly appearance. Their presence stirs a biophilic response in us. The success of life juxtaposes the death of a building. It reflects the burgeoning aesthetic of the 21 century which is characterized by an attraction to things that are vintage or down-to-earth (i.e. the wealthy hipster who dresses like a hobo.) I urge you to take a walk to Fairway or the Valentino Pier in Red Hook. Look out for walls of Queen Anne’s Lace lining chain-linked fences, then try to tell me that that is not beautiful.

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15 eragrostis pectinacea alewife 13sm 500x500 I Am A Weed

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By Malone Matson

Photo Credits:

  • http://urbanplants.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-in-the-unlikeliest-places/
  • http://www.peterdeltredici.com/index.php?/contact/gallery/
  • http://www.flickriver.com/photos/cavanimages/4460203563/

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6 comments to I Am A Weed

  • Heather Y.

    Malone,this is a sweet essay. The examples and comparisons are well drawn and connected. In other words the writing is so good I wish I could endorse (more of) the premise. I can’t.

    Oh, like you, I have some sensible limits to my advocacy for native species: once I had a long conversation about invasive and non native species with a woman who kept on saying “okay, but must I give up my domestic cat?” Well, no, not only because I love cats myself ( I have three) but because cats, despite being naturally very good breeders and predators, are also prey. They can be controlled by other species when they get out of the city. I keep my city cats indoors to protect them from disease and malevolent humans.

    Heck I grow Dandelions in containers to harvest the tap root easily, and I have Queen Anne’s Lace out front- I whack it down if it shades the Day- Lillies. But should a species live in the city just because it can? Ailanthus? Eucalyptus, the fire ball tree? Phragmites, that chokes our park ponds? The insects like ALB that could kill every tree on the east coast? The Dutch Elm fungus that
    destroyed an important source of food, wood, and employment (the American Chestnut)just because somebody brought a resistant tree to NY Botanical Garden? Those walking fish from Aisa, the snake head fish, a favorite food in many neighborhoods? I have nothing a preference for fresh food, but don’t bring a fish that gobbles up all the others, (then walks to the next lake) to my continent unless it is freeze-dried!

    I, too, am a weed in your sense.I did not grow up here. I am also your basic environmentalist voter and nature lover, and I would never have moved to a big polyglot city like NYC if I didn’t love the diversity of people and culture-still exciting!

    Prudence is good. We city dwellers are alive and we need life around us.It makes us better humans. A friend told me his urbanized nephew cried at the sight of grass. Grass! It was too weird for him! The antidote for this is surely more children who would be shocked that Daddy stepped on a plant.

    Many plants and animals can integrate into the cityscape. People, as we know, are adaptable- and welcome.

    But in the case of destructive invasive plants and insects and diseases,(like the ones I listed), I say kill ‘em all.
    I am a Marine.

  • Malone Matson

    Thanks for the kind words, Heather!

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I should have been more clear that I do not advocate all invasives by any means. I think I begin to address this in the second to last paragraph when I ask how do we responsibly integrate these plants into our cityscapes. I intend to do a post next week on brown roofs and brown fields which are one answer to this question.

    -Malone

  • Gennaro Brooks-Church

    Not disagreeing, the way I say it is natives are good because they offer the largest connectivity to other plants and animals. The tree of heaven for example offers less connections than a native oak. Since there are enough natives that like the many kinds of ecosystems in a city it makes sense to remove non-native and replace with native.
    No matter where the plant is from it can be invasive. An invasive plant is like a influx of a certain kind of people who displace others. This happens all the time and isn’t received kindly:
    Blacks displacing Dutch in Harlem
    Now money is replacing the poor in Harlem (which usually falls along race lines as well)
    A city seems diverse from above but often a city is special because the diversity stays in it’s own space and does not get out of whack in relation to the other life forms.
    For example Chinatown etc. We want to keep Chinatown Chinese, which actually in isolation is to reduce diversity in that area, whereas when seen in context keeps NYC diverse.
    This is the difference between diversity that merges so much to where the lowest common denominator becomes the dominant voice, as in bland and useless mainstream media.
    The key for me in city planning, city planting, ecosystem creation and any other design process, is to find the balance first of all, which means invasive element need to be kept in check. Then you find the combination of elements that produce the highest quality of life for those involved individually and collectively.
    This is not easy not perfect. It has an ebb and flow.
    But in this scenario I am not sure the Tree of Heaven, for example, has a place in NYC since it’s lack of biodiversity and over-competitive habit will push out other more diverse and web-like plants.
    For the same reason I don’t think Walmart has a place in NYC. It offers little value to local economy, is very aggressive towards smaller stores and its alienating one-stop-shopping is not native to NYC’s eclectic mix of unique stores that require moving through a community as you shop.

  • Heather Y.

    Gennaro,
    I Love your Walmart/Tree of Heaven analogy, but it’s the CONNECTIVITY that is the real issue…brilliant.

    I had mentioned the American Chestnut in my rant not only because it is a bit personal (I am one-quarter Kentuckian) but to acknowledge the multiple connectivity of that magnificent tree into human life and culture as well as its profound connectivity within its native environment. The good news is that the American Chestnut Foundation will soon be able to offer and deliver resistant trees for the Governor’s mansion lawn of every Appalachian state from Maine to Georgia, and eventually the wild lands. These trees are back- bred and tested for as much native Chestnut genetics as possible and still be immune to the fungus.
    That connectivity stands a decent chance of being restored. Of course the young trees will have to be protected against wild hogs, another thoughtless import.

    It would have been SO much simpler and easier if the darn fungus tree had been turned back at the port of entry- same with ALB, zebra mussels,snake head fish, starlings, sparrows, Ailanthus, and so on.

    joke:
    Walmart is to Tree of Heaven as Tree of Heaven is to overpaid trend following rich hipster wannabees who displace the original loft dwellers along the G train?
    cheers
    Heather

  • Heather Y.

    Malone, I am looking forward to your brownfield article, and believe me, I go around humming the folk standard “God Bless The Grass” as much as anyone.

    Although to tell the truth I hate mowing and I am trying to replace all the grass in my front yard with hardy low grow-no mow plants of one kind and another, OR “secret food plants” that most people think are merely ornamental.

    Urban life IS complicated…( grin)
    Heather

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