Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar – Feral Landscapes: Ecosystems in a Concrete Jungle

Webinar – Feral Landscapes: Ecosystems in a Concrete Jungle
October 27, 2021

Amanda Sciandra:
All right. Hello, I'm Amanda Sciandra from the National Museum of Natural History. I'm a brown-haired woman wearing a bright pink shirt, sitting in front of a full bookshelf and a window with a plant. And onscreen is an image of an overgrown fenced-in urban lot in New York City, a photograph taken by tonight's guest, Ellie Irons, and the date and time of tonight's event: Feral Landscapes: Ecosystems In A Concrete Jungle. Thank you for joining us.

As people continue to trickle in, I will go through our standard housekeeping notes for those of you who are new to our programs. First, closed captions are available by clicking the arrow next to the CC button on your Zoom toolbar. We'll open up for audience Q&A after the conversation, but feel free to submit your questions at any time in the Q&A box on the Zoom toolbar. And that Q&A goes by so quickly, so please help us out by submitting your questions as you have them. That'll help us get to as many as possible. And if your question is for a specific panelist, please let us know when you submit it. All right, let's get going.

This discussion is the second of a series of talks this fall and winter with artists featured in one of our current exhibitions, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect On The Age Of Humans. If you joined us for the first session with photographer David Maisel, thanks for coming back. If this is your first event of the series, we're so glad you're here and hope to see you again. If you're curious about the rest of the series, follow the link in the Q&A.

Tonight's featured artist is Ellie Irons. Ellie will be in conversation with Stella Tarnay, the founder and executive director of Capital Nature and cofounder of Biophilic DC. The discussion will be moderated by Scott Wing, curator of the Unsettled Nature exhibition. Scott Wing is a research geologist and curator of paleobotany at the National Museum of Natural History whose research focuses on fossil plants and the history of climate change between 70 and 40 million years ago, the last part of the age of dinosaurs and the first part of the age of mammals. As a curator he's responsible for the Mesozoic and Cenozoic fossil plant collections at the Smithsonian, was part of the core team that designed our new fossil hall, and most recently, is a co-curator of the subject of tonight's program, The Unsettled Nature: Artist Reflect On The Age Of Humans exhibition.

If you return for other events in the series, you'll see Scott as a moderator again in December. Scott is going to tell you a little bit more about the Unsettled Nature exhibition before introducing our guests, Ellie and Stella. Thank you to Ellie, Stella, and Scott and to all of you for joining us. Scott, I turn it over to you.

Scott Wing:
Thanks very much for that introduction, Amanda. It's a pleasure to be with everyone this evening, and also to have Ellie Irons and Stella Tarnay here. As Amanda said, Ellie is one of the seven artists who are included in our unsettled nature exhibition. Before I introduce Ellie, I want to take a few moments to give you an overview of the exhibition, which will be on view through March of 2022. It's the result of a curatorial collaboration between myself and Joanna Marsh, who's the head of interpretation and audience research at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I don't believe the Natural History Museum has ever previously hosted an art exhibit, but it was something I was certainly eager to give a try. After all, even natural science exhibits are as much about stimulating visitors to think as they are about imparting specific pieces of information. And art has a very long history as a powerful method for getting people to think.

The full title of the exhibition you see here is Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect On The Age Of Humans. That phrase, "Age of Humans," or the Anthropocene epoch, as some of us are proposing in a more scientific way, is meant to capture the idea that humans now influence all the systems that we used to think of as natural. Ecosystems, climate, the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, those are all processes we used to think went on out there in the natural world. But ecological and evolutionary and biogeochemical studies tell us that we are part of those systems. We're certainly dependent on them, but we're also finding out that there's no part of nature, if you will, that's pristine, if by that you mean that it's uninfluenced by us.

Using a geological term like Anthropocene epoch also emphasizes that our influence on Earth is going to be persistent. It's essentially permanent. That's a sobering thought, but also one that forces us to redefine what we mean by nature. So it's our feelings, those of the featured artists as well as those of the viewers and you, that are unsettled, as well as the processes that we're used to calling nature.

One of the ways these artists provoke thought is through the juxtaposition of beauty and damage. This image behind the title here by David Maisel is an aerial photograph of a waste pond in a Nevada mine. And if we take another look at a David Maisel image, this is one of a copper mine spoil system in Chile. Both these images have an abstract colorful pattern that might be beautiful at first glance, but of course they're also places where humans have devastated the plants and animals that live there. The striking colors and bold shapes draw you in for just long enough that you begin to think about these landscapes before you're repelled by, perhaps, knowing how they got that way.

Another of the artworks in the exhibit, Bethany Taylor's work with yarn that was applied to the museum's walls illustrates some of the intricate connections amongst organisms in an ecosystem, but also some of the events that threaten them. The satellite image, the black and white image, that's on the left wall there, is a satellite image of superstorm Sandy, one of the first highly destructive storms to hit the US coast that scientists clearly identified as having been made more probable by human-caused global warming.

Dornith Doherty's X-ray of a blight-resistant potato might have a kind of geometric quality to it, an interesting kaleidoscope-like image, but it reminds us both of our agricultural ingenuity, and that we're able to breed blight-resistant tomato breeds, but also that monocultures are inherently vulnerable, and that much of the human population depends on just a few crop species.

This image is of Andrew Yang's composition, for which he recovered seeds from the crops of birds that died after striking urban windows. He planted those seeds, and it's kind of a melancholy tribute to an ecological interaction that has been interrupted, and represents billions of interruptions like that, that happen every year, as birds hit windows or are preyed upon by cats.

But nowhere in this exhibit are you more likely to rethink your notions of nature and beauty than when viewing the work of Ellie Irons. These photographs of urban lots might cause you to ask yourself a slew of questions. At least they did me. Is a tidy concert patio with a nice umbrella to be preferred to a mass of weeds? What are these weeds doing there? Do they support other organisms? Do they reduce stormwater runoff? Cool sidewalks? Catch air pollution? Would the same lots support native species? Does that matter? Well now we can speak with Ellie directly.

Ellie Irons is an artist and educator working across media, from watercolor paintings to unlawning experiments. She combines socially engaged art and ecology fieldwork to explore how humans, and more than human lives, intertwine with other systems. Recent work involves collaborations around spontaneous urban plants, also known as weeds, including cofounding the Next Epoch Seed Library and the Environmental Performance Agency. She's currently a Ph.D candidate in arts practice at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, researching forms of artistic practice that cultivate plant-human solidarity.

It's now my pleasure to introduce Ellie Irons, who will share more about her work.

Ellie Irons:
Hi, Scott. Thanks so much for that introduction. I'm going to go ahead and share my screen here, so give me a moment. I'll just get this launched. There we go. One more second. All right. Thanks again for that introduction, and thanks so much for the whole Unsettled Nature team for making this possible today. I'm really happy to be here. Thanks to [Naimah 00:10:05] and Amanda for amazing work behind the scenes, organizing and facilitating. Of course Scott, for the co-curating. And Stella, I'm so glad to have you here today also for those on-the-ground perspectives on urban nature in DC.

So I've titled my talk today ... Go back one slide ... Feral Landscapes and Ecosocial Art: Learning With and from weeds on damaged land. If any of that sounds mysterious, hopefully it's going to make a little more sense in 10 minutes or so.

I'm talking to you today from Mohican land. It's land currently known as Troy, New York. It's a post-industrial town full of weedy plant life. We're right on the massive, magnificent, and deeply polluted Mahicantuck River, also known as the Hudson. It's about two hours north of New York City by train. And I'm interested, as an artist and a human, in investigating, understanding, and being guided by the agency and expertise of plants. And as you heard in my bio, I'm particularly interested in weedy, disturbance-oriented plants, who are experts at taking the first steps towards healing damaged land. Like this capped brownfield in Troy, right on the river.

I think of my practice as ecosocial, in that it combines aspects of urban ecology, ecological art, and socially engaged art. That just means art that takes social interaction as a primary medium. Alongside those influences, it also considers plants as active agents in the work. So this interest has been shaped and informed by feral landscape typologies, the work that's included in Unsettled Nature.

I started this project about six years ago, and for it I document so-called vacant land over time. Charting how living land and its inhabitants are impacted by the pressures of urban living. This project, in turn, emerged from another practice, one that first introduced me to the agency and wisdom of weedy, urban-dwelling plants. I come from a background in painting and drawing, but also a long interest in environmental science and ecology, which I studied as an urgent.

So around nine years ago, I started harvesting spontaneous urban plants, also known as weeds, to make watercolor paint. In addition to making paintings about the plants I harvested from, I started teaching others how to do the same through walks and workshops. After years of working solo in the studio as a painter, focused on themes around environmental degradation and extinction, this project helped me connect directly to the living landscape right outside my studio doors, and it brought the socially engaged component of my work to life.

Doing the hands-on research for this work alongside others helped me see that I could continue to paint and draw, while also doing what I've come to think of now as public field work in urban habitats: drawing attention to their value and their vibrancy. And I've found, over the years, that attending to and interacting with overlooked, underappreciated, and even at times actively exterminated plants, brought up lots of fraught questions around belonging, nativeness, the agency of plants, the agency of the land. It was these complexities and frictions that propelled my interest forward, sending me out into the field again and again.

As I got to know the plants I was collecting from, I learned that they were cosmopolitan beings. This painting shows pokeweed, native to the lands now known as the southeastern United States, and it has migrated, following the flows of commerce and human migration around the temperate world. So we see bits of pink in South Africa and Australia, and in the cities of Japan. While Asiatic dayflower, represented in blue, was originally from Japan, where it was cultivated for pigment. It's migrated to the United States where it lives in cities, and is also gaining notoriety as a superweed in Roundup-ready soybean fields.

I certainly could've called this project my weedy pigments project, but the term "feral" floated to the top for a few reasons. For me, using a term generally associated with animal life helps center plant agency, which I hope also helps dismantle this hierarchical sense that some humans are above and outside of nature. What I refer to as exclusionary human supremacy. Additionally, these feral beings exist somewhere between our common assumptions about what is wild and what is domesticated or cultivated. So they trouble this Cartesian, Euro-western tendency to think and act in binary divisions, like the nature-culture divide.

Sure, this Asiatic dayflower grew without being directly planted by a human, but my lifestyle, and that of others like me, makes their existence possible. The pressure contemporary western and global elite lifestyles place on the planet, from the dense built environment to the warming client, renders life impossible for the coastal cord grass that used to grow in this spot 500 years ago. This is in Brooklyn, and very possible for this tough, weedy wildflower, who is tolerant of heavy metals and herbicides, and somehow can grow out of the side of a building.

Spending so much time in these liminal feral spaces, by myself and with other interested humans, led me to start to tune into how they ebb and flow over time. I started documenting them more systemically, which launched my Feral Landscape Typologies Project. Through this project I've learned more about how, in an era of rapid urbanization and biodiversity loss, it's really important to understand who lives in fragmented, polluted, and disturbed sites, and how. So we know what we lose and gain, at whose expense and to whose advantage, as they come and go.

When it comes to the green beings among us, perhaps most obviously, but still totally miraculous, when allowed to flourish, they turn sunlight into food. And as Scott mentioned, they have some other affordances. They break up impervious surfaces, stabilize and build soil, mitigate the urban heat island effect by cooling the air, reduce stormwater runoff, capture airborne pollutants, and perhaps even aid human mental health through subliminal exposure to green space. And they do all this despite, or in some ways because of, the incessant human tendency to disturb and re-disturb the landscape.

Here's a meadow full of disturbance-oriented wildflowers, who are considered native in Brooklyn. White snakeroot, goldenrod, horseweed, living behind a chain link fence, and framed by introduced, and in some contexts invasive, Japanese knotweed, tree of heaven, white mulberry, all flourishing in mid-autumn. This was October 10, 2015, to be exact.

This is the same plant community in spring, May 29th of the following year, when the site was "maintained" in the most brutal way possible, with a tractor. It was then left fallow, and it started the cycle of recovery and renewal. Here it is in July a few months later. The disturbance-oriented plants, those weedy ones who are best at jumping into a crisis, they stabilize and build the soil until other less rapidly growing, less sun-loving, maybe less hardy plants, can join in. So we get the kind of flux you see in the work from this series that's included in Unsettled Nature.

Like this series, which documents this triangular corner lot. Much of the so-called vacant land in the city can be found in these awkward leftover spaces that are hard to build on, like these little triangular slices. So that's part of my typology, figuring out and sorting the types of land that are left vacant.

In the case of this lot, didn't stay vacant, it goes from a feral forest to a patio and parking lot over a period of a few months. And of course this version of this land here certainly has affordances that the feral forest didn't have, and it shouldn't be the responsibility of individuals to fill the city with green space. Lack of green space is an environmental and ecosocial justice issue, and it needs to be addressed systemically as well. Regardless, the value of these feral spaces as they come and go tends to be unrecognized and unrecorded.

And of course the approach to maintenance and stewardship in these spaces remains a question: when do we do more harm than good by treating certain plants as the enemy? What does an ethic of care rather than control look like when it comes to relationships with living, damaged land? Can more humans tending the land help disrupt some of these vicious cycles of disturbance and violence?

Of course my Feral Landscape Typologies Project doesn't answer these questions necessarily. For me its strength lies more in unsettling and interrogating these issues, generating questions. But those questions have animated a range of projects that I continue to work on, from my ongoing lawn re-disturbance Laboratory collaboration and Next Epoch Seed Library Project, to an unlawning project in collaboration with Seeds, Time, and Weeds. To my work with the artist collective the Environmental Performance Agency, a multidisciplinary group that focuses on environmental policy, plant agency, and multisensorial public field work.

Across these projects, bare landscape topologies and the others, we're searching for ways that context-specific, careful and attentive work with weedy plants and disturbed land, can contribute to the struggle for ecosocial justice in these rapidly changing urban environments. These are places full of unsettled relationships between humans and other living systems and beings. Thank you.

Scott Wing:
Thanks so much, Ellie. Before we get going, I just want to remind the audience that you should feel free to ask your questions in the Q&A box that's found at the bottom of your screen at any time. We're keeping track, and we'll get to as many as we can after the conversation. At this time I'd also like to welcome Stella Tarnay to the virtual stage.

Stella is cofounder and executive director of Capital Nature, a Washington DC area nonprofit with a mission to bring nature into people's lives. Before founding Capital Nature, Stella was lead facilitator and cofounder of Biophilic DC, a civic initiative that engaged local policy makers, designers, and citizens with nature-based approaches to community wellbeing. Educated as an urban planner, Stella has over 25 years of experience in green building, public education, and creative innovation for a sustainable world, including her role as Washington DC's first policy officer for green building in the Department of Energy and Environment, Biophilic Cities Network, and facilitator of the Washington DC area Citizen Science Network. We are so glad to have her as part of tonight's conversation.

So welcome Stella, I can see you now. I just wanted to kick off with asking Ellie a question, and then I'll follow up with one for Stella. Ellie, I wanted to know how you feel about these weedy lots. We all have thoughts, things that we maybe think we should think about them, or ways we think we should feel about them, but do you sort of feel like, if it's green it's good, and that's enough? What's the emotional ...?

Ellie Irons:
Yeah, that's a great question. Of course I'm going to say it's complicated, and it exists on many registers. I have a real affection for these spaces despite all the trouble they come with. They are varied, and some of them come with a lot more trouble than others, so I'll put that out there in front. I think for me, I moved from the west coast to Brooklyn, and I had been on a landscaping tour, and I felt so hemmed in by the city. These plants really .[connection interrupted].. plants and the spaces they led me to were what allowed me to stay in the city and stay an artist. I think I would've just left and done something else.

In that way I really do think of them as teachers. They allowed me to begin to see, and really begin to break down, the binaries in my head, telling me that I had to go out of the city to find so-called nature, and showing me that it's right here. It may not be perfect, but that reflects my own relationship to the wider world right now, which is that I'm complicit in a huge range of destructive aspects of the way some humans and the rest of the planet exist together.

I'm really interested in what it looks like to live with somewhat wild, if you can even begin to use that term, but somewhat less managed plant communities in the city, given that we often don't have the resources, certainly not in Troy, we don't have the resources to tend, at a municipal level, to a really wide range of diverse, healthy green space. We get a lot of lawn, otherwise.

Scott Wing:
That seems like a great place to bring Stella in. Because with Biophilic Cities and Capital Nature, you seem to be embracing nature as part of the built environment rather than something that's outside of it. So I'm wondering, is it hard for you to leave behind these sort of, I guess, older ideas that maybe now look naïve, about pristine nature? Is there a tension there?

Stella Tarnay:
That question is for me, Scott?

Scott Wing:
Yes.

Stella Tarnay:
Wonderful. Well it's great to join you in this conversation. I can't wait to see the exhibit. And Ellie, it's really wonderful and interesting to see your work. I especially love your EPA agency.

Scott Wing:
Thank you.

Stella Tarnay:
I think it's probably a bit more innovative than our local EPA, though they do really good work.

I think secretly, I never loved pristine nature in cities. But I think if you live in urban areas long enough, you kind of grow fond of weeds. Because it's kind of the nature that's there. Of course we're lucky in Washington D.C., and certainly in New York, where we have sometimes, or quite often, well-tended parks, or well-tended gardens, and we appreciate those. But there's something, even from years ago there was something, somehow so honest about walking by a patch of weeds. I kind of felt like the weeds and I were one, that we were a little rough around the edges, a little scrappy, and that was probably the state of most of us human beings that were living in that urban environment, as well as the state of the weeds. So pristine nature and cities never kind of went together in my mind.

Scott Wing:
Yeah, I love this concept of rough spaces, and maybe getting some joy out of the parts of our cities that are waste in the common view, but in fact maybe kind of inspiring in their own way. I also love Ellie's idea that, and I say this as someone who studies plants, they're our teachers. Because I think that's really true.

Another thing that's come up in your work, Ellie, but this is for either of you, we use the term invasive species often to mean a species that is able to make its way in highly disturbed settings, or other rough spots. I'm wondering, what's the difference between a weed and an invasive species in your mind?

Ellie Irons:
Yeah, again complicated, but a great question. That's something we think about and talk about a lot, with all my collaborators. I'm not going to deny that there are plants in the urban ecosystem that act invasively in some context, but for me it really is context-specific, and it's about a kind of look at what else is happening in the site, and is this plant actually acting in a way that is preventing enough other life that could potentially flourish from flourishing. So often it seems like what comes to life with these so-called invasive species is that it's a broad, systemic issue that we've got going.

I was reading about the insect collapse recently, and talking with someone who was very, very concerned about the role of invasive species, introduced species, and insect collapse. And I was looking at a recent Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences piece about it, and it's called Death By 1,000 Cuts. Which is horrendous, that's a really poignant and upsetting title, but they have an infographic in there that is like 30 things that are contributing together to the insect collapse. So it's really looking, for me, when we think about as a plant, weedy is an invasive, what else is in the system that's making it hard for the plants we might deem to be more desirable to exist there? And do we have the means to change that? And if not, maybe this beautiful meadow that we're looking at right here, where somehow goldenrod and white snakeroot are managing to live with the most reviled of so-called plant invaders, which I have great respect for, not weeds.

I guess I also like the term weedy because I feel like it's a bit of a reclaiming from a derogatory history, and I admire aspects of weediness. It allows me to have these conversations by bringing it up.

Scott Wing:
Let me follow up with a question for Stella. On the policy, or action side, I guess, not policy, are there cities that are taking a more intentional approach to resurrecting ecological functioning within urban centers? Places where you would think, if there's someone listening who lives in a town or a city where they don't see that going on, are there places where it is, that could be models?

Stella Tarnay:
I think most major cities now have some pretty interesting restoration programs. Certainly here in Washington DC, we see a lot of local gardeners, residents, who are transforming their yards into these multi-species native gardens. But also the city's bioswales that are responding to stormwater conditions are also often native gardens.

I think New York City has done some fantastic work in terms of bringing in native landscapes. When I think of the southern portion of Manhattan, for example, there has been incredible restoration work, bringing in native indigenous plants and combining them with an urban kind of a landscape. So I think New York has been doing good work.

San Francisco may be ahead of all of us, they've been doing really innovative work, both in making their city bird-friendly, and also making their city kind of open to the ecology, the natural ecologies of that region. But I think almost every city in the country is attempting that work, which is encouraging for me, of course.

Scott Wing:
Stella, I think your video might be off. We can hear you loud and clear, so I know everyone heard what you were saying, but I'm not sure if your video is turned on.

Stella Tarnay:
Ah. So my camera is on.

Scott Wing:
Okay, well maybe somebody can troubleshoot that, and if not, we can hear you fine, so I'll just make sure to loop you into the conversation even if I can't see your face.

I kind of want to get into something that we've brushed on a little bit, but I'm interested to hear how you both think about this. I heard a podcast just today that was thinking about, what are the ruling metaphor for our dealing with climate change, and sort of more generally, human effects on the environment. The podcast director said that we often think of this as a sort of D-day, we have to win the war to stop climate change, to stop extinction, to stop human modification of the environment, and made the comparison instead to basically saying, that's not the way we should be thinking about this. This is not a do-or-die, we are going to win in the next year, or 10 years, 50 years. He compared it more to Dunkirk, which is like a strategic retreat. Live to fight another day.

I was thinking about that in the context of urban natural settings, or semi-natural settings, or functional ecosystems, and wondering whether part of what we're doing is basically saying urban areas will have some ecosystem functions. They won't be, maybe, the ones we would ultimately like them to have, they may not be places for the reproduction of native species, or at least not very many of them. They may not be as diverse as we'd like. But keeping them going is more important than worrying about whether the species there are natives or not. I'm just sort of curious, we can maybe start with Stella, and I don't know, is that how you think about this? It's sort of a long, maybe it is a strategic retreat, but that's better than giving up.

Stella Tarnay:
It's funny, those military terms kind of don't resonate with me at all, so maybe Ellie and I could come up with some other kind of language. But I do kind of wonder at what's possible for us as the human species, and how we can learn to live in a certain kind of tentative harmony with the natural world, given everything that we're doing to the natural environment. I know there's so much concern about climate change, and I'm certainly engaged with that, but it does feel like biodiversity is just starting to get the attention that it deserves. I'm really excited by EO Wilson's Half Earth Project, for example.

One of the questions I ask myself is, how much of the natural environment of the world can we hope to preserve in our urban environment? How much is possible? And what do we need to learn from the environment to be able to make it so? And somewhat, perhaps, counterintuitively, when I think of indigenous landscapes such as the heritage that Ellie mentioned, I wonder, how much can we learn about the indigenous landscape practices of pre-Europeans that could inform what we do in our cities to preserve biodiversity in the face of climate change? For me it's an open question, but I like to think of it as a project we're all working on rather than a battle.

Scott Wing:
Yeah.

Ellie Irons:
Yeah.

Yeah, thanks for that Stella. I definitely tend to veer away from the military language, and feel like it colors the interaction with plants as enemies in this way that turns them into commodities or trash very quickly. And I also often, that was a pretty short talk, but often when I introduce my work, I will talk about what you just mentioned, the long history of myriad indigenous cultures around the world that are evolving and active today, and are not frozen knowledge systems, but are knowledge systems that adapt to the moment.

Urban indigenous traditions, they're alive and well, and I think there's a lot we can learn from the landback movement and other movements, for figuring out how to take some of the - reciprocal is the way some indigenous thinkers describe it (Robin Wall Kimmerer, who's Potawatomi, has certainly brought that kind of ethic, I think, into the public imagine in a beautiful way with Braiding Sweetgrass), so trying to think through, for me, how plants are partners in figuring this out, and even if I decide I don't want as much knotweed in ...

when I was on a conference call recently this weekend where someone had it in her backyard, and she said, "I don't want this in my backyard." And trying to think through, well, what does harm reduction look like? When we decide that this is not a relationship that's working in this moment, what does it look like to really think carefully about what the least violent .[laughs].. knotweed's really challenging, because it thrives on disturbance. We've got this image of it going to the trash here, and people are very afford to put it in the compost, because it lives for a long time. I actually have some that I harvested for a drawing, and everything else that was in this bouquet died, but the knotweed is fine. So trying to get it out of your backyard by pulling it out and ripping it out, it will come back. So there's these whole regimes for extirpating it, but I think involve more harm than it's worth. So I try to keep really carefully about the context specificity of being in a war or being in a partnership.

Stella Tarnay:
Ellie, I really respond to your use of the world violent when you described that remediation of that lot. I was silently screaming as you showed the progression to the empty bare earth cover. I think one way that we're asked to do things a bit differently, both from indigenous traditions, but also from scientists and from artists, is to just take the time to observe. The kind of quiet listening and observation and looking can teach us so much about what can live and thrive in cities. And before a park agency or city agency goes and cleans up a lot, right, mows everything down, we have so many cases of this here in Washington DC, trying to give places the look of care, when really what was needed was a little bit of attentiveness and quiet observation, and some patience, to understand the system that that lot is a part of.

Ellie Irons:
Yeah, that's so true. Thank you for that. You never know what novel relationships have formed either in those spaces that are overlooked.

Stella Tarnay:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Scott Wing:
I think it would probably be good now to take some questions from our online audience. The first one I have up is from Kendra to Ellie. "I'm interested in how you elevate the value of feral landscapes in the neighborhoods in which you find them, and the ways you connect with neighbors. What suggestions do you and Stella have for how we in other urban neighborhoods can help our neighbors see the value of feral landscapes? How do you suggest we do this?"

Ellie Irons:
You want to jump in, Stella, or should I? I guess that was for me. That question for me.

Stella Tarnay:
I just realized, if I switch my camera you all could see again.

Ellie Irons:
It's nice to see your face.

Scott Wing:
It's good to see you.

Ellie Irons:
Yeah. This question is a huge part of what I'm researching, is how to orient folks away from plants, period, being in the background, or being furniture, or being disposable, or just decoration. That's the other side, we can appreciate them as decorative. Then when it comes to the feral or the weedy, you've got an even heavier lift, which is part of the reason I'm interested in those ecosystems. Because I feel like if I can get there with those plants, it's more possible. But to get to your question, I think it really does take being outside in the landscape a lot, and demonstrating the kind of care and reciprocity you want ... it's like a modeling project, and that makes it really small scale that is human to human.

We have experimented, that's the public fieldwork piece, being outside, being accessible, demonstrating care for these, "What is she looking at, what could she possibly be doing," when you're down on your hands and knees looking at a plant in the tree pit. But we have experimented with ways of taking that further, so signage, we do a lot of plant chalking. You probably have seen people doing this, like species names. We try to go a little farther with the chalking and say, "Plant labor is happening here," and mention some of the special qualities of the plant-human relationships that might be possible were you to let dandelion thrive.

So for me it really, I guess it's a balance between human-to-human-to-plant connection, and facilitating ways for that to happen.

Scott Wing:
I'm wondering, is there any interaction that sort of stands out in your memory? Do you have any favorite moment that you were working, you were photographing, or you were in a feral landscape, and a neighbor came up to you and said, what?

Ellie Irons:
So many good ones. One of my favorites was, I was collecting dayflower, and someone came up, she was like, "What could you be doing? Oh, I thought you were collecting plantain." She was actually there to collect broad-leaf plantain, which, she said she was frustrated it wasn't growing in her backyard. She was from the Dominican Republic originally, and she was like grandmother age, and we were having kind of a broken Spanish-English conversation. She was digging up broad leaf plantain from the tree pit to take to her backyard, because she uses it for mosquito bits and other medicinal purposes, and she was fascinated to learn about dayflower, and we kind of compared the blue and ... It was moments like that. So that was a kindred spirit.

But there are plenty of moments where it's a little heightened, I'm like, "What, I don't like this place, why are you here," and then talking through what's happening. Asking questions usually, like, "What have you seen here, what have you observed in this place?" Open-ended conversations where I just let the enthusiasm for plants ebb.

Scott Wing:
Stella, do you have any sort of tricks for interesting people in these perhaps sometimes forgotten or ignored spaces in cities?

Stella Tarnay:
It's not quite an answer, but it's an interesting one, that we have this same problem with native gardens now. That when we plant, intentionally, the goldenrods and the asters and the native plants, our natives who walk by them might interpret them as being feral lots. Because they're a little scruffier, they kind of grow the way they want to. So part of the advice we're given now is to actually put signs by them to designate that it's an intentional landscape. So isn't it interesting how more acceptable it is to have this kind of weediness as long as it's intentional, but there's still discomfort with seeing those lots when they're perceived as being unintentional.

Ellie Irons:
Yeah, for sure.

Scott Wing:
Something that I've found, I'm very fortunate at the Museum of Natural History, the wonderful people at Smithsonian Gardens plant all sorts of fascinating plants around the building, but there's a pawpaw tree. For anyone who doesn't know what a pawpaw is, it's one of the largest fruits of any native Native American tree, and they're quite strange-tasting. I love them. But I go out there in the late summer and collect them, and usually some visitor to the museum will stop and say, "What are you doing? What are you picking up?" Then I get to tell them about pawpaws, and how they might have been dispersed by mammoths or mastodons or some other megafauna. There's a whole discussion. But I think just curing people of plant blindness, this is a really important thing that we can do with any vegetated space in the city.

There's another question here from Barbara. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that feral nature is not necessarily native. Can you discuss the pros and cons of advocating for native plant life versus feral plant life? Is it a choice, or do you do both?"

Ellie Irons:
Do you want to start, Stella?

Stella Tarnay:
These terms are interesting, aren't they. Feral, wild, weedy, intentional, unintentional. I don't know, they're so full of meaning, when the plants are who they are, what they are, they do what they do. The labeling makes it so weighty to come up with an answer. I think it would be foolish to assume we can have an ecologically balanced native mythoplantic landscape here in Washington DC in the middle of our city. So I think we do have to become more flexible about what we accept in our landscape, even if we do have the intention of, if we were rewildling the city, which is a movement that I certainly support. But it is a question of, how do we balance that? And then the plants will do what they do anyway, so we can try through our human interventions to create that balance. So then something will come up in the crack of a sidewalk and will just insist to live. So I think we need to, at some point, also allow for lack of control, even while we try to restore the urban landscape.

I don't know Ellie, what do you think?

Ellie Irons:
Yeah, I think I'm with you. I think that so much of it, for me, comes down to resources and equity, and how we're looking at what plant-human partnerships have to offer to a broad population of people living in an un-heretofore-existing landscape. I mean these are ... The term "novel ecosystems" comes up in certain ecological western science discourses about the fact that even a plant that was considered native, pre-colonial, before the extreme landscape transformations that have happened can now act invasively in the city. Not that this is the case with seaside goldenrod, but seaside goldenrod, from what I understand, has adapted to coastal areas, but now does well in places that are a little bit warmer and more humid because they're cities, and it doesn't mind road salt. So it's flourishing in places not historically its habitat, but it's considered native to the northeast.

So again, I think it just so much comes down to context, and also our ability to provide as close to healthy ecosystems for humans and plants to exist in together. That's what cities are, they're places where humans exist in dense numbers, and how do we fit more than human life in with that? I keep coming back to Robin Wall Kimmerer's concept of species loneliness, and that's what I was feeling when I first moved to the city. I was surrounded by a bunch of humans, but I was lonely for ... biophilia right? It's the biophilic cities. I was lonely for a lot of other kinds of interactions. Yeah, I will advocate for all of it.

Scott Wing:
I have an even more practical question, which is for both of you, from Max. "How do you get larger cities to permit private landowners to re-wild their land by altering their codes regarding lawns and so-called weeds, I'm finding that a primary reason most people feel they have to mow and trim is some kind of code that says, you have to keep your yard down. You're not allowed to let it go. Have you encountered that? And how do you deal with it?

Stella Tarnay:
Funny you should ask. Because just two weeks ago, on a call with the Biophilic Cities Network partners group, we get together once a month and we share experiences, our presenters was from Toronto, and there's a professor in Toronto who also decided to rewild a corner lot, which was a very problematic lot, and really the only way to handle it was through some kind of native recapture of that landscape. She was called on it by the city, and she was fined, and she decided to take the city of Toronto on as a cause. She and her graduate student got the local ordinance to change so that the regulations became much more specific in a way that allowed healthy native landscapes to grow as they needed, but still kept the restrictions for the kind of mono lawns. So that those could be cut back if you really wanted them, but that people who had the native restorative landscapes, now by right rather than by exception, were able to maintain those. And they're hoping that their model ordinance can be spread throughout North America so they can be used by residents just for that cause.

Scott Wing:
Fascinating.

Ellie Irons:
Yeah. That's great, I've been following along with that a little bit too. I think I follow that professor on Twitter. We have the same thing in Troy, where we have not managed to change our ordinance, and it's draconian and old, and the city will show up and cut down your asters if they don't like you.

Scott Wing:
There's another question here from Jessica, and I think also from a couple of other people. They're sort of interested in your work process, how you go about starting a project, and if you could on the way by, explain a little bit more of the term ecosocial justice?

Ellie Irons:
Sure.

Scott Wing:
People want to know how you do what you do.

Ellie Irons:
Yeah. One, probably ... Well both of those are kind of hard questions. I think I do tend to retroactively look back and able to realize, whoa, that plant showed me this project, which is cool. So pokeweed, I feel like, showed me that I could do my feral pigments project by me reaching out and touching it on a hot September day in New York City and getting pink dripping down my hands. It's toxic by the way, but not toxic in that way. Then I think also, the bubbling up of interest in plants has kind of pushed me along.

I do tend to follow, collaborations are huge, so discovering these wild urban plants as feral- not feral, or whatever term you want to use, for these weedy plants- they pushed me into a whole other realm of work, so my work became socially engaged, and through that, I met a whole bunch of collaborators, and their skillsets tend to push projects in certain directions. So the Environmental Performance Agency came about partially because the EPA was being dismantled under Trump, it was founded in early 2017. But also because we had an environmental engineer, someone who'd come from that field, a choreographer, an artist interested in unlearning practices, and all of us passionate about plants, so it just became clear that we should do interventions around policy.

I have other series of work that have just happened because I'm in the field a lot, and I start noticing a pattern, and I get curious about it. I describe it as interdisciplinary and research based.

Scott Wing:
I think ...

Ellie Irons:
Oh, I didn't get to the ecosocial question, did I? I just mean environmental justice and social justice are never separate. Don't separate them, smoosh them together, and take plants seriously as part of your social framework.

Scott Wing:
Right. I think we just have time for a quick answer to, a lot of people want to know what you're up to right now, from both of you. Stella, could you start, and then we'll get that from Ellie, and then we'll have to sign off.

Stella Tarnay:
Sure. I'll try to be quick. I invite everyone to check out the CapitalNature.org website. We're trying to make the nature of our urban area more visible and accessible to people, so we have a regional calendar, we plan to grow that. We'd love to do a nature podcast of Washington nature. And also, we're promoting citizen science and forest bathing . So my partner Ana Ka’ahanui, who co-founded Capital Nature with me, is growing a wonderful forest bathing practice, and we hope to continue to do that right here in the middle of our cities.

Scott Wing:
That's great.

Ellie Irons:
That's beautiful.

Scott Wing:
Ellie, what's up with you right now?

Ellie Irons:
I am just about to defend my dissertation, so that's like the main thing [Scott laughs 00:55:33]. That's happening November 9th, it's going to be public and online. You can join my newsletter at my website, EllieIrons.com, and I will be sharing the information for it there. I also have an exhibition up with the Environmental Performance Agency at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. I've got some weedy yoga mats and some audio files you can take to think about if knapweed should be introduced as an expert to the EPA. Things like that.

Scott Wing:
The idea of doing my thesis defense online in front of a large number of people gives me a slight feeling of ... I can't imagine trying to do that when I was defending my thesis decades ago. So my hat is off to you.

I think we are just bumping up against the end of our time. I would like to have people join me in thanking Ellie and Stella for being with us tonight, and I'd also like to give special thanks to those who made today's program possible, our donors and volunteers and viewers like the people who are on this call right now. All of our partners help us to reach, educate, and empower millions of people around the world, today and every day. So thank you so much for all that you do.

The next featured artist in our series will be Andrew S Yang, and he will be in conversation with Ann Lewis and Stella Tarnay. You can find a link to register in the question and answer box below, as well as where to find more information about the series and the exhibition itself. We hope you'll join us for the rest of the series. Now of course the museum is open, if you're in the area you can go and see Unsettled Nature in real 3D molecular glory. You don't have to do it online.

We also want to keep an eye out for other programs that we're doing online, because there are lots of them. You'll see a link to a survey, and we hope you'll take a moment to respond to that. We're very interested in your input. Thanks again, and hope to see you next time. So long.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with artist Ellie Irons aired October 27, 2021, as part of a series of conversations with artists featured in the exhibit Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

For years, interdisciplinary artist Ellie Irons has explored the indomitability of plants. In a concrete-laden corner of Brooklyn, she has been making watercolor paint from the weedy plants that thrive in the city, and has also used photography to document what she terms the "feral landscapes" they inhabit, tracing the ongoing cycles of growth, maintenance, decay, and development that characterize these urban green spaces.

In this conversation with co-founder and executive director of Capital Nature, Stella Tarnay, moderated by co-curator of the Unsettled Nature exhibition, Scott Wing, Irons provides an overview of her Feral Landscape Typologies project, exploring how urban ecology and so-called "vacant" space intertwine to create vibrant, dynamic habitats in dense city settings. 

Host: Amanda Sciandra, a public programs coordinator at the National Museum of Natural History.

Unsettled Nature: Artist Event Series

What is "natural" in a world where the human imprint is everywhere? In the new exhibition Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans at the National Museum of Natural History, contemporary artists challenge viewers to think about the changes we make to our planet. Join us for a series of conversations with them on the power of art to illuminate our relationship with the natural world. September 2021 – March 2022

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Topics
Life Science
Exhibit
Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans