This is the sixth installment in the Synthetic Pretenders series examining the proposed CaliforniaTrust Framework within the context of synthetic biology, eugenics, and the Spanish mission system.
Part Two: Apocalypse, Mind Files, and Interplanetary Promises
Part Three: The “Magic” of Radio-Eugenics and Holographic Twins
Part Four: Ritual Gaming and Berggruen’s Transformation of the Human
(Follow-Up Interview with Leo Saraceno, Silicon Icarus’ 53 Degree Podcast)
Part Five: Elite Views on Automated Law and Vending Machine Democracy
The exchange went something like this:
Can you lend a hand on Sunday? There are a few new members of our tree tender’s group, and they want to work on the street trees in the middle of Spring Garden. I know it’s Father’s Day, but we could really use the help.
That was the ask by an acquaintance of many years over a cider at Lloyd Hall last Friday. I’m no longer affiliated with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, though I did do the tree tenders training many years ago. The weather was supposed to be lovely that day, and so even though I’m rather out of shape I reluctantly agreed. At the appointed time I grabbed my spading fork and pruners and headed out.
On the short ride over, the future of public gardens came up. I said they’d be alright, after being incorporated into pay for success “wellness” deals – you know social prescriptions, wearables, and citizen science impact metrics. They asked for more information, I hesitated, but then they asked again. So, I began by telling them about the need for new debt products after the mortgage crisis, that this time around it would be debt for public services tied to data-driven behavioral protocols. I tried to explain that wellness and mental health would be associated with urban greening, but after a couple of minutes I saw they’d already mentally checked out. So out of politeness I paused and let the conversation slide back to the crooked politician who’d help set up a community garden and married a younger woman after he finished his jail sentence…was he still alive?
Because that’s how we manage social interactions when the most crucial concepts that will shape the future for the world’s children are simply too big and awkward to discuss. Lean into irrelevant trivia. After the politician, it was family traditions with Halloween candy. Look for the comfortable rut. And here I am left sitting on the story no one wants to know about – the one where well-intentioned horticultural clubs may one day take a terrible turn towards eugenics and eco-fascism. I just hold my tongue and look out the window until we arrive then hop out to scope out the site.
Spring Garden Street is a wide avenue that cuts across the city. There’s a median of varying width. Some segments have what passes for “grass” in the city – it’s green at least. Most of the stretches are bare concrete. These dozen trees were in the barren section east of Broad Street – a mix of ginkgos and honey locusts planted three years ago and not thought about since. The tree pits were large, about five or six feet across and exuberantly overgrown.
That’s the thing about the concrete jungle; rugged life cannot be tamed. Each crack fills with silt and debris and in them seeds of possibility arise. In the squares into which these trees had been planted were rich ecosystems of “weeds” with a liberal sprinkling of decaying plastic litter. I stepped up to one of the squares. It was a ginkgo. I surveyed the soil and saw the delicate, bobbing heads of purple wild onions and stolid prickly stalks of teasel and soft grasses, now buff, going to seed. I made a nice bouquet of them and then set it aside to start work loosening the soil and pulling up the surrounding vegetation. It’s stressful for city trees to try to survive in dead soils, auto exhaust, baking heat in the summer, salty snow in the winter, not to mention EMF pollution and geoengineering particulates. These specimens were holding their own.
The goal for the day was to get the tree pits under control so the trees didn’t have to compete for water, and it would have a tidier appearance for passersby. I’d been told the initial plan was to chop up the vegetation in the pits and use it to mulch the trees. We didn’t have any mulch, and with the size of the pits and the number of trees, a lot would be required.
I did my first tree that way, pulling out the trash, loosening the soil, overturning the roots of the “weeds,” chopping the bigger bits into 6-8-inch segments. I even found a few seedling oaks. I laid a low mulch ring around the edge of the pit away from the trunk, where it could slow rainwater run-off and channel moisture towards the tree. Then I moved to the next pit with a honey locust, which was a slightly different ecosystem, shadier. This one had vetch in it, a nitrogen-fixing legume that’s often used for a green manure. So, I set to work with the pruners making piles. Extracting the roots of the teasel, used in Chinese medicine for the kidneys, took some diligent work with the spading fork.
As I was finishing up the woman who’d asked me to come pointed out that the adjacent square was empty. The original tree hadn’t made it. She said maybe we could put the baby oaks there once we’d cleared it out. I looked over to where I’d placed the seedlings and my bouquet, and they’d vanished. All the vegetation had vanished, stuffed into bags along with the trash. My face fell as I looked out to see six tree pits behind me now totally exposed, bare soil. The grey, dusty squares firmly defined by their white cement setting. It felt like the weed equivalent of urban renewal.
I felt a wave of domination come over me – a disrespect for an ecosystem that had found a way to thrive for three years in a space no human cared about. Then one day, well-meaning people decided to put things straight. They arrived with tools and bags and in a few hours had erased most of the life from those squares.
My friend told me she’d changed her mind, and that a tidy presentation was the priority. It was “her call.” There were no firm plans for mulch to be applied. No one had considered that the July and August would bake that grey silt into a hard surface into which no water will penetrate. The ecological roles of the “weeds,” the minerals they’d brought up from below how their roots had added to the microbial ecosystem under the trees, carried no weight. They were simply “trash.” To the tenders of tidiness, the job was to make things look presentable. The function of urban ecosystems, the honoring of the life of the weeds and the beings that lived in and among them didn’t matter.
I’d been there about an hour and a half, and I could easily have stayed another hour, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. This acquaintance, the wife of a scientist, could have graciously proposed an A/B experiment where my couple of tree pits could use the mulching technique and see what the outcome was. That didn’t happen. So I said my goodbye and turned to walk home. I passed the younger woman who had organized the day. She said her partner had told her to talk with me about the plants and the mulching. So, I laid out my thought process, primarily about the stormwater run-off and the way the bodies of the weeds would enrich the soil as they decay. There was no way those tree pits were going to stay weed-free. They’re in a dynamic city environment with minimal care. The “weeds” were always going to be back. As far as keeping things “presentable” I mentioned how we, as a society, have been working to shift outmoded ideas about the utility of homogenous turf lawns considering the toxic impact of lawn culture on the environment. Maybe it was time we used the same lens on city ecology? Who gets to say which life has value and which doesn’t. As I said this I pointed to an abundant bush of chicory on the other side of the street. It was glorious.
I think she understood where I was coming from. Maybe I planted some seeds. It could be my reaction had to do with understanding that many of the early eugenicists came out of horticulture – breeding within a colonial mentality of scientific management. For me, today at least, that is what the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society founded in 1827 represented.
I walked home with my spading fork. On the way I passed the magnet school my child attended for eight years. I honestly thought I was doing the right thing sending them there. Now, I’m not so sure. After graduation, asbestos was found. I’m not sure about all those years swimming in that culture of scarcity, competition, and meritocracy soaked with a pervasive low-level anxiety.
You don’t know, until you do. Then you try and do better.
There was a yew hedge in front of the school. In defiance of the deep shade, a single dandelion, gone to seed and still intact, waited for my arrival.
I blew those seeds across the mulch.
Be the weed.
Be the medicine the world needs, even when you face rejection.
PS: This is the link to the 2020 annual report of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. If you look through it, it is easy to see how the wellness narrative and social impact metrics are being woven into the story of urban horticulture and public space. The fact that we seem to be unable to engage in meaningful discussion about the potential pitfalls of social prescribing tied to wellness and decarbonization and IoT data is a problem. People need to be willing to put in the time to understand what I’m trying to tell them. It matters.
Part Seven: Computational Life and Industrial Design Erode the Boundaries of Our Being