Saving Weeds One Seed at a Time, with Environmental Artist Anne Percoco

I meet artist Anne Percoco outside a formidable-looking Jersey City high school, set among some of the busiest streets in the city. It’s an unlikely setting for the beginning of a nature walk, but finding wilderness amidst concrete and blaring car stereos is Percoco’s speciality.

She’s taking me to a favorite spot of hers — an abandoned commuter train line — to collect weed seeds for one of her current projects, the Next Epoch Seed Library. The project is a seed library for the Anthropocene: a collection of seeds that have proven their mettle by surviving in some of the harshest conditions humans can throw at them.

“This project is about recognizing the new landscape we live in. Weeds can be the only green there is in cities,” says Percoco. She’s not making art about “pure nature,” as she calls it, referring to pristine, National-Parks-postcard-esque landscapes that for many of us are the default image of “real” nature. Rather, she’s interested in the interplay between humans and nature — nowhere more concentrated than the urban environment.

We walk down a steep, blacktopped hill and are ushered into what can only be described as a canyon — but instead of being worn away by millennia of rushing water, this one was blasted out in the early 20th century using a quarter of a million pounds of dynamite. Within steps, we encounter a fascinating plant with turquoise berries that looks like it originated in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Neither of us can identify it, but Percoco is sure that her collaborator on the NESL, Ellie Irons, will have an ID, so she grabs some samples. (It turned out to be Porcelain Berry.)

As we pass through the first section of the canyon, we move through a teeming cloud of mosquitos. They surround us for a hundred yards or so, and Percoco kindly slaps of few off my forehead in between seed collections. We come upon a Tree of Heaven, or ailanthus altissima, with plentiful seed pods, which she gathers.

Do a Google search on ailanthus altissima and you’ll get thousands of articles on the invasive nature of these trees in North America, and various ways of eradicating them. Able to thrive in poor soils and grow up to two feet per year, ailanthus altissima is especially hated for its sometimes foul odor, and its ability to chemically suppress the growth of other nearby plants. 

With the majority of the plants in the tunnels probably on the invasive species list, I ask Percoco her feelings on the question of invasive plants — a plant is considered invasive when it’s nonnative ( or “alien”) and able to cause harm, whether to the environment or humans. There’s something about this distinction that always makes me feel a little icky.

The question of invasive plants comes up a lot in Percoco’s work on the NESL. She admires the weeds and invasives for their adaptability. “A weed is just a plant that’s not wanted…These are plants that have grown in rough conditions, even Superfund sites. They don’t need tending.”

We admire self-sufficiency, ambition, and bootstrapping so much in people — it’s interesting that we don’t admire those tendencies in plants.

We enter the first tunnel, cavernous, long, and dark. I wonder if bats may winter here. We emerge through something of a waterfall. There’s runoff from the road that’s constantly dripping, creating little pools. When we emerge, engulfed in green, there are no mosquitos — perhaps they were a guard against trespassers.

The hug of green in the canyons is humbling. The train tracks are still here, and there’s some graffiti. This place has been touched, even shaped, by human hands, but it is decidedly wild. The presence of invasive plants, some of which are also designated as “noxious weeds,” feels like a poetic defiance.

People are no longer in charge here, despite having blasted out the rock over 100 years ago. And there’s something comforting about that. Maybe because it makes me feel like maybe we, humans, haven’t totally ruined everything. Or maybe just that we aren’t as important as we like to think.

Percoco agrees: “Seeing nature taking over a constructed space makes me think of larger time scales, thousands of years, collapsed civilizations, the Mayas, post apocalyptic stories like Riddley Walker…Thinking in larger time scales makes things like the election seem a little less important, which is definitely comforting.”

We pass through several more tunnels, the landscape changing slightly in each microclimate. One is swampy; one has snakes. We come to the end of the line, and emerge from underneath a graveyard on route 9 (I won’t smash you over the head with that metaphor) and climb a hill of gravel and fill dirt, which has given over to a variety of tall grasses. We explore for a few moments, startle a rabbit, and climb the steep embankment to the road.

This walk has felt like journey through the biomes — rainforest, mountains, prairie, and ending with the desert along the highway. Even here, though, things like lamb’s quarter sprout from the cracks in the pavement. At the gas station across the street, someone has planted a hideous pattern of juniper and golden euonymus, and I ask Percoco if there are there any plants she hates. She shakes her head. Not even poison ivy. I feel bad, and send the gas station plants my apologies.

I think that’s a big part of what draws me to Percoco’s work: the lack of judgement. She is hesitant even to point out when weeds are edible or medicinal — because it feels like a justification, a reason we allow them to live. Why can’t the very existence of these plants be enough? Why must they do something for us? “The human point of view is not the only valuable point of view,” she says, as we pass a number of tiny, controlled, front stoop gardens. 

Her recent project, #TreeSpeech (of which I’m a participant) plays with the question of perspective directly. For this work, Percoco solicited city residents to tweet on behalf of a neighborhood tree. In adopting the non-human point of view, Percoco is encouraging participants in what she calls a “whimsical experiment in empathy.” There are dozens of tree/human chimeras tweeting around the city, discussing issues of ecology and environment, neighborhood gossip, in addition to raising awareness of the city’s tree canopy.

And that canopy includes weed trees like ailanthus altissima. According to opentreemap.org, a site used to catalog trees (including the participants in TreeSpeech), there are over 2,000 of these trees in Hudson County, NJ. The number may be much higher, as reporting is incomplete. The county is also home to 660,000 human residents.

Anne Percoco on our weed walk.

Anne Percoco on our weed walk.

I ask Percoco a final question: Are humans the ultimate invasive species?

She answers empathically, “Yes.”