Grafting in the Time of the Pandemic -- notes from radicle nodes. March 2020
Finding each other outside: Growing a radical gardening network on Lenape land
I wanted to connect with other people who talk to plants. It is exciting to exchange outside of your profession, expertise & experience. It is easier to take up a dream with consent of the land rather than authority, access to public space & free time. Radical gardeners formed out of my loneliness & dissatisfaction with conventional relationships in school & work. A few years ago, I had the ability to act, I needed more wild growth in concrete & I wanted to share gardening for mental health. I called a public meeting to build free food & medicine garden beds on the sidewalk. Food & medicine should be free, & I enjoy experimenting with possibilities of food & health autonomy. Our small group of gardeners meet when we can to share gardening resources, free food & skills. We built a free seed library & host free plant & harvest giveaways out of an anarchist space in Brooklyn. Our tiny group leads to larger networks of radical herbalists, guerrilla grafters, anti-capitalist artists, queer fermenters, squatters, migrant workers, free food farmers, foragers & prison abolitionists. Our loose networks bloom & go dormant but are made up of close friends & strangers that can offer ongoing support in the day to day. When we think of networks we may imagine a political ad for grass root candidates that can mobilize powerful masses. I resist the need to follow a non profit model of expansion & recognition. I’m interested in intimate
connections that surprise & inspire me in my daily interactions. I am inspired by the horizontal underground networks of ostrich ferns, the mycelium spreading through the city. My interactions are beyond human, inclusive of the land I occupy, Lenape here in NYC, & the plants & fungi we share our spaces with. As the corona virus spread around the globe, my gardening friends were my first responders. Do you need anything? How are you? We set up free seed & plant start tables throughout the neighborhood, as city approved composting & green thumb gardens officially closed. The wilds in city parks called me, I was able to escape the constant sirens by staring into trout lily leaves & harvesting pheasant back mushrooms in the rain. We planted paw paw seeds by a sunken pond. Sharing space & supporting each other’s liberation requires reciprocal relationships. Our radical gardening project embraces mutual aid & free exchanges, removing the confusion of ownership & payment. Embracing a diverse ecosystem can be challenging. Our abilities & risk levels differ, our past experiences & future needs vary. Under capitalism, free time can look like a privilege, physical actions are for the able bodied. We can all dream of other worlds, experiences without competition or compromise. Our little free food & medicine gardens on the sidewalks were destroyed by the city to plant uniform trees. Our plants thrive & wither, we collect seeds for next year. Our gardens go to the weeds & are called abandoned. Often activist projects mirror capitalism, feeling the need to prove successful at a large, constantly productive & expanding scale. In an industrial environment there are plenty of toxins to uncover. Community gardens can tread the tired path, performing civilized duties like endless fundraisers, constant consumption, bureaucratic meetings, restrictions & weeding out the unrecognizable. Guerrilla gardens, whether in tree pits or abandoned lots are created as they are needed, here in New York they have been built by immigrants, squatters, mothers & people of color for decades. These precious green spaces are continuously destroyed by the city & gentrified by lock & key organizations with annual budgets & an approved monoculture vision. The right way of doing cuts off new growth, alienates new gardeners & anyone outside of neo liberal culture. Our networks are limited by our smothered imaginations when we reproduce the prisons we are trying to abolish. There is joy in the undoing, the still life resting, our skill shares admit failure while honoring past resilience. Gardening is my meditation, getting lost in the wild is my routine.
-Emmeline (Radical Gardeners NYC)
Into This Gaping Net
Into this gaping net, words
weave my onliness—praise
and undying tenses, emptiness
threaded by your story to mine—
larval silk, knitted polyester,
tortured cotton, roughspun hemp,
stripped leather, hers to his to
theirs—all we are, shared gut,
teeming foreign homeland.
– Lisa Wujnovich
As our individual selves become overgrown by the ever-adapting, trailing vines of our family unit, we have learned to re-tool our relationship to independence. Our childless past selves remain as the core solid rootstock, ready to receive scion that will bear the fruit of our future. “Our” continues to grow. Who will join us? We’re always looking around, asking, inviting, heckling others to explore outside of their comfort zone so we can get the hell out of ours. Parts of ourselves are pruned to become abundance for others. Grafts will fail or succeed with our earnest attempts at experimentation. We are playing with nature; she is playing with us. Sometimes we slip and cut our thumbs. We forget to take notes. Lots of times success feels like a miracle. We’re losing parts of ourselves to propagate the productivity of our collective future. That urban orchard. Visits to that wild apple tree with the sweetest, ugly fruit. That Franken-prunus of various stone fruit. The network of support at our feet keeps us and our children flourishing above ground. The meals left on our stoop. Leaf collection in the minivan. Teaching toddlers how to shovel shit. Late night and early morning, we ask each other, “Are we doing this right?” When you become a parent, you become starkly aware of your need for interdependence. You learn to nudge your neighbors for help. You exchange pleasantries with Trump supporters in the grocery store because of a cool tractor shirt. You outstretch your roots in every angle. Your needs are fed by your senses. You learn to survive creatively. You drag the kids and call it a field trip. We scream, we cry, and run to trees for guidance. Sometimes, when we’re smart enough, we ask for help. The fertility of a dynamic root system is supported in mysterious ways when warm sunlight and playful wind make the leaves dance.
– ACET (Azure and Christian)
Radical Power in Ruderal Spaces
Ruderal (ruin) ecologies constituting brownfields, industrial wastelands, highway verges etc. offer a novel context for the reconfiguring of human and nonhuman biota outside the mainstream relations of capitalist exchange. Ruderal ecologies are out of control, weedy, rapidly producing ecologies that tear through, ‘invade,’ travel, and disturb. Ruderal ecologies emerge from sites of human disturbance: in rubble, ruins, in waste spaces. Ruderal ecologies are often opportunistic combinations of native and ‘introduced’ species who make use of all possibilities for transportation that the 21-st century can offer, quickly reproducing, rapidly spreading seed, breaking up or binding together soils, offering nutrients, and playing host to insects and other outcasts of modernity. These ecologies are migrants, sometimes healers, sometimes dangerous. They are barely seen landscapes, operating as terran vague (spaces we see but don’t see, a confusing landscape just beyond the grasp of our understanding).
We identify radical power in ruderal spaces. Here, we offer some musings on the ways three ruderal plants operate as nodes that generate evermore complex resistance networks in literal and metaphorical undergrounds.
Some of the most recognizable organisms in the terrain vague of the American northeast, such as Japanese knotweed ((Polygonum cuspidatum), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and the coyote (Canis latrans) are in fact hybrids–self-assembling comings together of multiple species into a single yet contingent corpus. The Oriental bittersweet, much disparaged for its viny rampancy, is not a singular identity but a hybrid between an immigrant Asian species and the closely related indigenous American bittersweet; the first subsuming the slower-growing latter, not killing it off exactly but absorbing it and dispersing a combined identity into a much wider range of territory, particularly to places that disturbed by the capitalist metabolism. This bittersweet ‘superorganism’ has highly social roots that negotiate mutually beneficial partnerships with indigenous soil fungi increasing the uptake of nutrients – a hyperorganism of two vines plus a fungus coming together to overtop surrounding vegetation.
The fluidity and seething rampancy of ruderal spaces constitutes a form of magic, the sheer force of which can intimidate those for whom nature is something to be controlled. The ruderal is a space of immanence– its very left-behindness giving it power. The impenetrable thickets of knotweed erupting through alluvial fans of roadside trash repel and resist enclosure. In the UK, the presence of knotweed needs to be disclosed prior to the completion of real estate transactions and can be a factor in reducing the price. Thus, through its exuberant unstoppability, knotweed works against primitive accumulation at the heart of capitalism. Like the bittersweet, the knotweed entity presents as an amalgam of more than one species, the most common form being a hybrid between Japanese (Polygonum cuspidatum) and the giant knotweed (Polygonum sachalinense), an arrangement affording the resultant hyperorganism ‘superpowers,’ judging by how tenaciously it occupies disturbed ground.
Pyrus calleryana travels to the United States from Vietnam and China at the turn of the 20th century. The Bradford cultivar, among others, was made sterile for the streets of Washington DC as an ornamental, posing as docile and idealized street tree; but when other Callery relatives haunt nearby the small dry fruits fill with potent seed and get spread by birds. These varietals now travel uncontained, sprouting quickly and spreading fast across the disturbed landscapes of the mid-Atlantic, manifesting a range of phenotypic diversity, interbreeding, sometimes growing thorns. The ruderal callery runs rampant now; its relatives have helped liberate it from the strange confines of ornamentality and sterility, a strange phenomenon co produced by science, market and the state, deeply linked to the erasure of the commons.
Consider the rootstock as adaptable accomplice, co-conspirator in ecological liberation and solidarity. Consider the scion branch as stick, wand, staff, as gesture. A scion grafted onto the ruderal Callery gestures to the possibility of new multispecies commons in our midst, while still firmly rooted in the violence of the past. The graft here operates as a consensual partnership between species or cultivars, partnering to regenerate fecundity and fruit.
We think the wild, sometimes thorny Pyrus calleryana can be rootstock to any number of climate vulnerable pear varietals. Since it is so adaptive, taking root in all kinds of soils and changing conditions, it could be a perfect host to species that aren’t so quick to respond to dramatic temperature changes, and disturbance. Can we eye the pears grown to the south of us, and begin to graft these neighbors onto the Pyrus calleryana? And when pears are so often sold as exotic commodities, inaccessible to the poor, can the Callery offer a people’s pear — more accessible and adaptable in rural and urban food deserts that are so often nearby?
The ruderal to us is immanent, full of possibilities for our conjuring and invocation, a place to explore alliances between the familiar and the strange. Grafting is one such gesture of engagement. We seek partnerships between the feral fruits erupting from the rubble of the wasteland and the leafless scions we gather at the fading of another winter. The unions we attempt are contingent on the will of the participants. With luck, the pear twig might be suckled by the branch of a scrubby mountain ash or bear its fruit from the crown of a hawthorn.
-Margaretha and Oliver