Just as the decision of what to keep and what to throw away might generate disagreements at home, throughout the city archivists and librarians each exert their own vision of what deserves to be preserved, and why. Here, urban forester Georgia Silvera Seamans interviews artists and conservationists Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco about their project to save the weeds. In the Next Epoch Seed Library, Irons and Percoco catalogue, circulate, and store the spontaneous plants that tough it out through harsh urban conditions and human antipathy, aiming to preserve species in the event of environmental cataclysm.
If the world were to experience a globe-spanning disaster, surviving humans could re-start agriculture with the seed stocks stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Housed in Norway, the “doomsday” seed vault is a collection of collections, the backup seed gene bank to 1700 component banks across the world. According to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which operates the seed vault for the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, it is the “ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply.” Seeds deposited into this system are proprietary. Like a monetary bank, each deposit remains the property of the depositing country or institution, and seeds are only released to their depositors through a security protocol known as the Black Box System.
Rather than long-term insurance, the Seed Savers Exchange and other community-based seed collectives work for food security and sovereignty, meaning the right of people to sustainable food systems that produce healthy, culturally appropriate food. Like the Seed Vault and gene banks, the Seed Savers Exchange preserves copies of seeds in freezing conditions underground. But while the Seed Vault removes seeds from their contexts to preserve them, the Exchange practices in situ conservation: The seeds are not only saved, they are grown. This form of conservation is explicitly social: the saved plants are edible, and conservators document the human dimensions of seeds’ origins. And in contrast to gene banks’ private access and tight regulations, conservation networks like the Seed Savers Exchange encourage sharing.
There was neither a doomsday vault nor a seed-saving network for weeds, until Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco founded the Next Epoch Seed Library (NESL) in 2015. The “next epoch” is the Anthropocene, an unofficial classification for the geologic era in which we now live, one indelibly marked by human activity — and resulting in the environmental conditions in which the weeds self-propagate and thrive.
Irons and Percoco are artists, so NESL began its life as an art project. Both women were working in parallel on projects using weeds, responding to what they call “junk spaces.” For Percoco, that included making sculptures from found objects in woodlots, and weaving with phragmites collected in New Jersey. Irons created paint pigments from weeds she harvested in Brooklyn. In 2015, they began to jointly pursue their interests in “junk species” through the creation of a seed library. At first, they thought collecting seeds in a box would suffice. But an invitation to create a site-specific exhibition of the work induced them to “scale up.” In 2015, for No Longer Empty’s “Intersecting Imaginaries” exhibition in the Bronx, Irons and Percoco catalogued and displayed seeds they had collected from plants growing spontaneously in and around the Grand Concourse. Since then, display and participation have been key aspects of the library’s basic operational framework. The collection was exhibited in six art spaces in New York and New Jersey in 2016.
To date, the NESL collection catalogues about 60 weedy species — roughly half of the total species Irons and Percoco have observed in the greater New York metro area (out of 222 documented wild urban plants in the Northeast). The terminology of “weeds” is a complicated one; the category is a cultural designation and does not have a botanical meaning. It is sometimes used to signify a species as introduced or invasive, but neither quality is inherent to weedy species. Irons and Percoco use the word because the plants they collect are commonly perceived as such, but also because they want to generate discussion about the values we assign to plants. “Weeds serve their own purposes,” Percoco argues. In its cataloguing system, NESL has designed an icon system to designate seed characteristics including origin (native or introduced), use (pigment producing, edible, medicinal), and environmental benefit (remediation). One icon designates plants as “valuable independent of humans.” It’s not for NESL to justify weeds’ existence within a hierarchy of usefulness; Irons and Percoco consider themselves “stewards and holders” of weedy species.
On a data collection visit to the BQE interchange at the corner of Sands and Gold Streets, Irons and Percoco counted 56 species of weeds. This Brooklyn parcel is the most diverse location they have encountered yet. Plant ecologist Sasha J. Wright casually corroborated the site’s species richness on a visit with Irons. Irons and Percoco also collect seeds from sites such as vacant lots, sidewalks, highway interchanges, superfund sites, under-utilized and abandoned infrastructure, and “vanished landscapes,” like a waterfront site in Hunter’s Point South that was redeveloped into luxury condominiums.
At its core, NESL’s operations are the same as other decentralized seed exchanges: They circulate seeds. In addition to the two artists, the project had four original contributors, but the contributor base and the seed collection have grown rapidly through community participation. Irons and Percoco also consider the seeds themselves as community members. At first, seeds were stored and distributed in envelopes handmade by Irons and Percoco, but they’ve since switched to premade ones, recently opening their second 1,000-envelope box. Each seed packet is labeled with species name, common name, date collected, collector’s name, and location. The packets are stored in boxes and then integrated into exhibits and installations. In between installations, Irons or Percoco safeguard the seeds at home.
Recently, Irons and Percoco have begun experimenting with “deep time” storage — not unlike the Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s frozen archive — to safeguard seeds for centuries. For an initial pilot, they designed and buried a ceramic seed storage vessel inspired by a clay vessel excavated from First Nations land in Wyoming, which contained viable 850-year-old squash seeds. Dirt collected from five to six sites in the city composed the ceramic for the NESL version. In another experiment inspired by grander conservation efforts, NESL developed an urban variation of Crop Wild Relatives (CWR), the focus of a climate change adaptation project managed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. CWR are the wild cousins of domesticated, agricultural plants; for the Swale “floating food forest” project, a participatory, mobile sculpture active around the city last year, Irons and Percoco designed a CWR mix that included curly dock (related to buckwheat), prickly lettuce (related to lettuce), and Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot).
Part “art project” and part “semi-functional institution,” NESL has embraced the experiential and participatory dimension of its work. Unlike other, more straightforward seed exchanges, the NESL collection includes media made by the organization, like brochures, movies, photos, and customized seed packets. The first pamphlet, titled “So I’ve got these seeds… Now What?”, provided seed holders with three “possible futures” for seeds taken from the collection: conversation starter, mini weedy sanctuary, and guerrilla restoration. Other channels of community engagement include group seed processing, collection walks, workshops, and participatory exhibitions. This year, NESL launched an Open Access Curriculum with three “experiential exercises” to introduce concepts of plant migration and communication as well as the language humans use when they talk about different types of plants.
NESL has largely existed as pop-ups, but for the near term, the NATURE Lab, part of the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, NY, is providing storage and semi-public access to the library. Irons has been hosting open hours this fall and will do so again in the spring. NESL will continue to expand to fill gaps in our knowledge of weeds and to provide opportunities for meaningful access to this urban flora.
Below, Anne and Ellie share a few of their favorites from the NESL collection.
We were collecting at Snake Hill, which is in the Meadowlands, and we came upon a hillside underneath the I-95 highway. There was a viney plant growing on it and it looked a lot like tomato, smelled like tomato, and we realized it was tomato. It seemed different to us than other tomato plants we had seen in gardens, more sprawling. Especially in the second year we went back, it was just all over the place.
They are actually cherry tomatoes. We fermented them, because I read you are supposed to do that with tomato seeds, and then washed them and got them to grow the next year. We asked, “What were these doing here?” Maybe someone threw their sandwich of the side of the highway or something. But then at Wave Hill, the guy who wrote the Meadowlands book came into our studio and started talking to us and he suggested that probably there are a lot of wild tomato plants growing around solid waste processing facilities.
There is plenty of that going on in that area. Sewage overflow.
It’s one of my favorite sites, and I know it’s not a weed, but it’s a volunteer.
It was acting weedy there. It was sprawling all over the ground, over the whole area. So much of these plants is about how we shape them, prepare them to grow in our gardens. It was acting totally differently there.
People have asked us: “You’re harvesting these seeds from these toxic sites. Are they good to eat the next year?” And there are still questions about that but so much of the produce we consume has been through such rigmarole in terms of the genetics of the seed that I don’t know. There’s research going on right now about epigenetics and trauma and can you think of the plant as having experienced this really difficult environment and encoding it and is that something you want to consume or not.
The seedpods just dry out, and you touch them slightly, and they pop open and little tiny yellow seeds rocket out of them. You walk through [a fallow cornfield in New Jerusalem, PA] and they just go, “Pew, pew, pew.” And they get all over your shoes. You don’t usually think of plants as launching things. You think of them as moving slowly. This is a very quick movement. It’s such an ingenious way of spreading itself around.
I already was kind of obsessed with that plant and there is a whole fascinating cultural history with it. When I saw that it had such an amazing looking seed, I got really excited. I like having the dayflower plant out in the world, having these seeds in the collection, and then having this image of the seed that you wouldn’t usually get to see. And I like the act of using that kind of high-science technology on a weed seed. It’s a gesture of solidarity with the weed. “Yes, we are going to coat you in this micro layer of gold and take you into this vacuum chamber and scan you.”
One of the things that I like about the way we printed it is that it puts the seed on the same scale as the human.
Even bigger. It looks like a planet.
In the same way that we are trying to think in scales beyond individual human lifetimes or capitalist timeframes, we may be getting a window into this massive scale that that seed has. Using a tool like that is a way into seeing a whole world that I couldn’t see otherwise. And hopefully developing a new empathy or consciousness for this humble little seed that can then become a superweed potentially, if we grew it in the right context or a dye plant or food.
I love the Jimsonweed, the moonflower. It’s so alien looking. It’s really recognizable once you know what it is. It’s got this dangerous-looking seedpod, for one thing. And it grows in the weirdest places. I just find it magical to see where it is going to pop up. It gets away with growing on Sixth Avenue in and among some planted, very purposeful beds. In Snake Hill there was this bizarre grove of it growing where nothing else seemed to be able to grow. It formed almost a monoculture mat on the path. And a year later we went back and it was gone.
It is actually dangerous, in terms of being poisonous, but also being psychedelic. A biologist told us it is illegal to collect those seeds in large amounts and package them in the state of New Jersey. It’s weird to think about how these things are everyday and pop up all over the place and are also regulated depending on your intention.