Recently I read of a neighborhood group who dedicated themselves to restoring their local outdoor space, a stretch of weedy canal-side land kept blissfully free from further development by pollution. They were, explained the article, making ecological improvements. Before-and-after photographs showed volunteers tromping on tall grasses and plants, and later tending to a few Home Depot-style outdoor shrubs planted in a barren bank of mulch.
It feels mean to criticize such decent, civic-minded efforts, yet the photos made me cringe. What resulted from the improvements seemed far less verdant than what existed before. Those unkempt, untended weeds were full of life, giving home and shelter to insects and small animals; and the land was wild. Sure, it was just a vacant lot — but such is the nature of wild in a megacity. Nobody tended it, nobody directed it.
Wildness as a value has fallen into disfavor among some conservationists. One hears a disdain for wildness: nothing is pristine, therefore nothing is wild. But to be wild isn't to be unimpacted by human activity. Wilderness is undirected, uncontrolled. It's where life continues regardless of what we do. Not outside the human sphere, but not within it, either.
On my corner is a vacant lot. It's maybe 40 feet on each side, and despite the march of gentrification down Bedford Avenue and up Myrtle, nobody's built anything there. Bordered by a concertina wire-topped fence, the gate locked, it's inaccessible; people throw trash inside, and street garbage accumulates in unsightly drifts on the outside, but it's left alone.
Each spring the lot is fast overgrown by weeds, that derogatory label we give to plants guilty of thriving, particularly in conditions — compacted soil, disturbance, dehydration — we've created. I use the term, too. It was in the Weed Atlas of NYC that I learned their names: stinging nettle and lamb's quarters, clover and curly dock and purslane, crabgrass and ragweed and mugwort, and most of all horsetail, which by mid-summer forms a hip-high forest. Morning glories climb and cover the fence. Bumblebees buzz from flower to flower, climbing in and out until the blossoms close in afternoon. Rats move through the brush. Sparrows gather there in the morning, our songbirds, and calling insects sing at night.
Unglamorous species, all, but wild. Give me a rat in the weeds over a snow leopard in a zoo, a horsetail patch over the High Line's manicured, unnatural nativity.
Early this spring I thought I might grow something in the lot. A pollinator garden, I hoped, packing dozens of mud balls with lovely-sounding seeds — agastache and penstemon and linaria, sunflowers and moonflowers, black-eyed susans, foxglove and lupine and teasel — and late at night tossing them over the fence. In coming weeks I watched the field. My flowers failed to grow, which was disappointing but gave me a new appreciation for the lot's life, for all that did grow so dense and rich.
Then one afternoon, that life was gone. The plants were cut to bare ground, the morning glories torn out. The trash had been hauled away, and along the fence were black plastic boxes of rat poison — as if that would control rats anyways, and as if environmental point sources of neurotoxins were any better for the neighborhood. The land was, to my eyes, despoiled, my neighborhood's wildest and most beautiful place destroyed. My heart ached.
Shortly thereafter I went away for several weeks. When I came back, a new generation of weeds was already shin-high. The morning glories were well up the fence, growing so fast they'd climbed the weeds, too, and for a while the lot was a field of their blossoms. Within two months the weeds were tall again, the morning glories splendid; my flowers still didn't grow, but no matter. They didn't belong. The lot is verdant. The trash is back too, but that's peripheral. The bumblebees feed, the sparrows sing each morning.
Image: Brandon Keim/Flickr