“Subnatures are primarily experienced as aspects of the seemingly subhuman conditions of contemporary urbanization and its subcultural peripheries…Subnatures are those forms of nature deemed primitive (mud and dankness), filthy (smoke, dust, and exhaust), fearsome (gas or debris), or uncontrollable (weeds, insects, and pigeons).
“Weeds are those plants that get in the way of the programs, agendas, or desires that we project into spatial constructs.” – David Gissen
Vacant lots and urban voids (such as the one photographed above) offer some of the most prominent urban examples of David Gissen’s definition of the subnature of weeds as described in his latest book. If left alone, weeds will spontaneously colonize vacant, unused or derelict spaces in the city, even if the surface is paved. The seemingly aggressive temperament of this subnature engenders a wide variety of landscape maintenance and extermination regimes that attempt to control out-of-control weeds.
One example of this in Portland is the 2 acre urban void at SE 10 Ave and Belmont, previously documented by F.A.D. here. The land has been vacant for years, and has developed its own renegade dynamic ecology:
When this subnature is deemed too feral, it is periodically tamed and cut down, like this:
Similar to countless other vacant lots, this sub nature is controlled through periodic tractor mowing. The mowing regime essentially locks the landscape in a closed circuit of time, or a state of arrested development. Whenever the community of plants, insects and birds emerges toward a more advanced state, the complexity is cut away and left to start up again. Like periodic burning, the clear-cut keeps the landscape as a perpetual urban weed prairie, or grassland devoid of trees. The plants that have colonized and remained on this site are well adapted to the local climate, crappy post-demolition soil, and the maintenance/removal regimes.
But what if we let it go for 5 or 10 years…? Would the first order weeds be replaced by more robust 2nd order woody weeds. Would an Ailanthus forest emerge?
In the spirit of Gissen’s Subnature, F.A.D. and fellow co-conspirator have explored and attempted to engage with the subnatural ecology on this site. F.A. D. has been documenting the yearly growth patterns in conjunction with the rhythms of maintenance regimes for the past three years. In 2009 we decided to test the openness of the ecology by experimenting with inserting something else into it: Helianthus annuus, or the common sunflower. We chose sunflowers because they are easy to grow and because they complicate the idea of a weed subnature: sunflowers are simultaneously considered productive (both a food and alternative energy source), are also sometimes considered a weed (because they are so adaptable and can grow just about anywhere where there is sun and warmth), and they are widely aesthetically appreciated. Sunflowers are also heliotropic, which we hoped would add another dynamic time element to the installation.
Last spring we hand-seeded the two acres with 6 pounds of live seed (far more seed than should have been required to seed the entire site) in parallel rows to highlight the ‘productive’ or agricultural overtones within the derelict weed ecology.
At the time of seeding we had an opportune combination of sun and rain and adequate soil temperature–what we thought were ideal conditions. We watched from spring into summer and not a single sunflower emerged (luckily, the field was not cut down until later that summer). The installation was a complete failure, yet the result was just as interesting as if we had seen a field of sunflowers. The community of plants and other organisms on this site demonstrate a remarkably cohesive and competitive structure, leaving little room for the introduction of other opportunists. Was it the weeds that out-competed the sunflowers, or the many birds we discovered on the site finding and eating the seed, or something else? We will likely never know.