When obedient trees in curb-lawns and grates become the urban intention, What should we call these “other” spaces: Feral?
Snaking through Beacon Hill on the lightrail, or riding a swaying bus along Lake Union or across the West Seattle bridge, I let my attention drift to the greenspaces squeezed between the rest of our built, zoned, busy & burgeoning cityscape. The ravine, the greenway, the undeveloped lot, the steep slope, the guard-railed embankment. Here a jogger ducks into the greenery on a trail, there and there and there are signs of humans finding all sorts of uses for relatively wild, unmonitored space.
When they are full of undesired plant species, beer can carcasses, heavy metal runoff, What should we call them: Broken?
Mostly, what I can see from these vantage points are maple and fir trees dripping with English ivy, ravines filled and brimming over with Himalayan blackberry, empty lots guarded by ramparts of Japanese knotweed. My botanist’s brain has the desire to name: Hedera helix, Rubus armeniacus, Fallopia japonica. Each a listed noxious invasive in King County and western Washington, but also some of the plants I got to know best, first, in the towns and cities I called home.
When they are the last ecological hold-out for habitat, filtration, respiration, erosion control, Should we call them by their monetary value?
Daydreaming from a bus-seat, I remember how much time I spent as a kid totally immersed in the spaces shaped by these plant familiars. Always an experiential learner, I became acquainted with their quirks and qualifiers: sharp; bitter; poisonous; sweet; delicate. Later, formal learning brought other qualifiers: native, invasive, noxious. Then: economically costly, infeasible to remove, degraders of the ecosystem. As I relocated into increasingly urban neighborhoods, I found invasive plant species dominating nearly every untended space; ecological baddies running rampant spoiling parking lots and pavement cracks.
When the city lack adequate housing and the banks of onramps fill with tents, What should we call them: out-of-bounds?
The desire to name can be a tricky one. A not entirely subtle valuation sneaks in alongside formal labels and concepts, of “wild” and “natural” as good. A kind of ecological self-loathing; the human influence as corrupting. The field of ecology can be found grappling with this conundrum. One voice urges us to reconsider the value of “novel” ecosystems as symptoms of global change make it clear that returning to some historical state is not an option; while another voice asks, if these changes are not corrupting (from loss of biodiversity to changes in fire cycles and the entire shape of landscapes), than what argument do we have left for making any effort to stem such changes?
When city officials feel compelled to chip off pieces, parcel by parcel (pixel by pixel), What should we call them: the tragic commons?
Lightrail doors jolt open and shut, shuttling my co-commuters to their destinations. The knotweed fortress across Rainier Ave is in bloom, a transitory pollinator paradise squeezed between stacks of tires. As much as we desire black-and-white distinctions, good/bad labels, the natural world has rarely embraced or upheld a binary. In order to truly engage, we are asked to wander the in-between, the grey areas where what “good” is complicated and context-dependent. We are required to confront false dichotomies when and where they sneak in (your shrugged-shoulders complacency, your “but what’s the point”). This confrontation, engagement is critical; and it starts with as simple a thing as attention and curiosity, a refusal to write off the slivers and swaths of greenspace, a going and a looking for something to consider.
When we look in and deeper, and not away, What names will we find for them, then?
Get involved: Check out stewardship programs (Backyard Habitat Certification, Pollinator Pathways), urban restoration efforts (the Green Seattle Partnership) and more.
Katarina Lunde is a plant ecologist and writer from the Seattle area. She holds a MS in Botany from Oregon State University, and has a particular interest in how humans relate to and manage invasive plant species. She currently resides in Portland.