Et in Arcadia Ego

MKWeed Festival

Towards an ecocritical theory of urban wildlife


The old struggle between nature and culture is trivial, except in that sense that human beings want to see differences where no differences exist. Some people call this contextualization: at the beginning there were only signs which can be turned into symbols by uploading „meaning“. Here we go with a little bit of decontextualization about the idea behind urban nature. First thing to accept is the fact that there is not only one kind of nature in the city, if you agree that there is a difference between the gardens, the fields, the forests, the waste-lands and the MiddleKingdom. The plantecologist Ingo Kowarik distinguishes four kinds of urban nature:

  1. Leftovers of the original nature – all kind of forests on the edge of the city; some might be original cultivation areas but now its only cryptoforests and biotopes.
  2. Agricultural nature – the typical landscape of the farmers with all the weeds inside
  3. Symbolic nature – the innercity gardens and green spaces
  4. Urban-industrial nature – the weeds and plants that grow around by themselves. The Middle Kingdom.

So, now there is a considerable fact about nature in humans view, that influences every kind of ecological thinking and environment protection – to protect one kind of nature, you have to kill another one. To protect the wine or potatoes, you have to kill the weed. To protect the biotopes, you have to control weeds, agriculture and human made gardens. To save the symbolic nature of parks and gardens, you have to control every kind of intervention (which means not only weeds, but also humans who walk there, make a barbecue, bicycle or leave their trash and so on).

The first notice is a semantical one: Nature isnt nature by itself, nature is what the mankind call nature. And in a sense, its that anthropocentric factor that is the origin of ecological protecting. What kind of nature is worth to protect? In relation the third kind of nature after Kowalik doesnt seems to be real nature. Its more like an antinature. The symbolic picture of arcadia as representation of a harmonic together between culture and nature. The ultimate spectacular image. I noticed that the cultivated grass in parks as good as the borders of ivy (Hedera helix) are a good way to keep the nature of the forth kind out. There are not so many weeds growing on a meadow or between ivy. Its more like a placeholder for our imagination, really magic. And there is another interesting point about the third nature – their motives seems to be more economical than ecological. The origin of urban parks are the gardeners as architects and artists. The science of landscaping is linked to a thinking that is made merely in galeries and screens than in „real life“. All those environmentalist screaming for „more green!“ doesnt realize the fact, that it is this semantic sign, that forms their perception of nature.

Maybe it sounds a little bit after poststructuralism (even if I am really inspired by the ideas of Deleuze and Guitarri), but the one big thing is, that every kind of reality is only a representation of our art to control things around us. The artifical biotope that looks really naturally. The parks suggest an image of nature in the city. The farming fields as a home for rare species and plants. Fancy fairytales. The only kind of nature environmentalists seems to ignore is the forth one; and it is that kind that is closest to the „real“ nature: the WEEDS.

In a book about urban ecology I read that until the sixties botanists ignore weeds in the city totally. The environmenatlists do it still today. But the city as nature is a home for many different kinds of plants, that couldnt exist in those areas without humans intervention – all the neophyts, the typical weeds and urbanophile plants. So the first thing on the long to-do-list towards an ecology of mind (how Gregory Bateson called it) is the realization of that semantic structures and images. If you go out for a weed-walk, looking for traces, you find that every intervention has their motives that are related to humans view on nature in economical and ecological senses. The tulips are there for a special reason. The black nightshade grows their for a special reason (which is an medieval agricultural one). Even the lawn is there with a special story.

The horticulture lives from idealized images of nature. A lawn full of flowers with big and healthy trees around, sometimes edible herbs and fruits, exotic plants that relax the stressed city soul. The geograph Gerhard Hard asked once some interesting questions about the typical park-lawn. Most of the pocacae-species grown in a park are archaic artefakts, and they normally grow on poor soils. Resulting from agrartechnology with their fertilizing products the lawn disappeared from his typical habitus and get really rare, until the horticulturist began to grow them in the city-parks. Thats somehow absurd. The areas where you can find the parks in a city are often enough the most expensive plane in the whole city. Why take they an almost extinct plant and grow it on the most important places in their cities?? You possibly know yet, that the answer goes hand in hand with a lot of hermeneutic activity about idealism and ideology.

The ornamental gardening needs Idols, and from the beginning of european horticulture in the seventh century (the medieval period was concentrated on herb- and monasterygardens) it was the arcadian motive, that gave an image for the pastoral idealization of nature. So, the idea of arcadia as the place the lage dor celebrates itself isnt that new; you will find it in the poems from Vergil and the whole bukolian poetry but as everything from the good old time it returns in the renaissance as an image for the golden age. So there was the arcadian and pastoral literature / painture and it took only some time until they began to perform their motives directly in the cities gardens. Intersting is the idea of the renaissance arcadia: the rich landlord become sick from the society with upcoming industrialization and hides itself in the village under the sheepers. He also become a sheeper and live a free life with nature. Point. Thats the image the horticulturalists want to transform in the city. Get out of the sick society.

This image is the heart of the city park – a place for relaxation and recreation after the hard work in the stinky and loud city. At this point, the gardener (or even the garden-department) become something like an Alchemist, because they deal with idealized nature (as good as Gold as the idealized metal); not only nature but a strong elixier from it, concentrated and presented for the city-dwellers. Hard stuff! There was it, the perfect symbol of nature, considered from a distance that ignores all the hard realities about wilderness. And a direct consequence from this idealized nature in the city was the abolish of weeds – in a material way with lots of Round-up and weedkiller and also in a mental way by ignore the natural origin of weed.

In the aesthetic dimension of gardening the weed becomes something like a optical shocker, an archetypical incarnation of the trickster. It does what anarchists were looking for since a few centuries – finding holes in the map. Places to live in the controlled and straight towers of babylon. But, as the three other dimensions of city-botany, its related to humans, and wouldnt grow without his intervention in that way. The ruderal vegetation on train-stations and in waste lands belongs somehow to the people in the city as good as the plants they cultivate or bring their for arcadian sunshine. Maybe its that point Michael Pollan admits: they domesticate us as much as we domesticate them. Or its Batesons idea of a folk-science, forming a new matrix of our understanding about ecology. Maybe its a bricolage of everything about it. But that one point seems important_ the middle kingdom belongs to us!

So far for my theoretical understanding of the Middle Kingdom.