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The space we live in is one of friction, of hybridity and entanglements. Anthropologist Anna Tsing writes “Everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option.”[1]

More than any other beings or artefacts, plants allow us to enrich our understanding of the complexity of space and time. “Plantlife is a geological layer of the earth.” Once wrote botanist Léon Croizat [2]. Plants migrate, they form networks, they are part of international postcolonial supply chains.[3] Scientists have even nicknamed the mycorrhizal networks — these underground networks that ensure the balanced transfers of water, carbon, and nitrogen between plants — the wood wide web.

We live in a planetary borderland. A space of flows, where sprawling infrastructures of communication are “connecting people” while at the same time always more fences, always more militarised walls are erected to forbid trespassing. We live in a global integrated economy, feeding and fed by segregated sociospatial archipelagos. Plants and mushrooms show us the way, they teach us how to trespass, how to flow, how to thrive.

In her book The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing follows matsutake, the most expensive mushroom in the world. In doing so, she links the industrial forests of Oregon to Japanese palates. Its popularity in Japan, its emergence and rarefaction, is interwoven with several temporal layers of colonisation, transferred nostalgia, and industrialisation.

Matsutake grow in our ruins. These “wild” mushrooms can only exist in forests that humankind exploited and then abandoned. Matsutake are “wild” because no one knows how to “cultivate” them, but they can only exist in the aftermath of humanity.

In his study of Berlin Brachen, geographer Matthew Gandy also engages with that aspect of “ruins”. [4] Ruins and borders. Brachen are urban spaces left “fallow” by the destruction of the second world war and its chaotic aftermath that led to a city divided between East and West.

The Brachen are an assemblage of varied interconnected narratives: historical, cultural, botanical, architectural. They might look empty, or even ugly to some, but they host an immense variety of lifeforms. They are rich, and the stories these plants tell are that of Berlin and Berliners.

Salsola collina for instance, is a small shrub that arrived in Berlin at the end of world war two with the second Ukrainian army whose panje wagon carried hay and animal feed for their horses. As the hay was laid out for the animals, Salsola collina “escaped”. In the following years, it thrived in the Brachen around Ernst-Reuter-Platz. There is also Senecio inæquidens, narrow-leaved ragwort, which came to Germany with wool shipments from South Africa. It spread along the Rhine and arrived in West Germany and then East Berlin about 20 years ago.

These Berlin biotopes are especially diverse on their edges, as they connect with one another — from parks to Brachen, streets to railway tracks. The boundary is a place of exchange, of communication and hybridisation. It is a place of thriving life. Those spaces around us, that we categorise too quickly as “natural”, or “urbanised” are the results of a myriad of entanglements, migrations, conflicts, meetings.

Plants and their study bear striking and painful similarities to discourses on humankind and migration. The taxonomy and the semantic choices reveal deeply encrusted narratives on what is pure, contaminated, native, indigenous, invasive. For instance, all plants that have arrived in Europe after 1500 are considered neophytes, or non indigenous. As Susanne Hauser explains [5]:

We are dealing with an ideologically marked terrain. The identification of plants and people who are welcome. And the opposite […] those not welcome. There are simple yet persistent metaphors and it’s a difficult, difficult terrain. […] There is an earlier expression coined in the 1920s that is not so politically charged and that I prefer: “adventive plants”. Plants that arrive.

As they became in or out of fashion, certain plants species have been welcomed, cherished and then discarded, qualified and requalified. This is for instance the case of Japanese knotweed, Reynoutria japonica, an “invasive species” in the United Kingdom for instance, that grows through asphalt, where other plants cannot go, most especially in the crevices of buildings and along train tracks. [6] Yet in 1847, it received a Gold Medal from the Society of Agriculture and Horticulture of Utrecht, in the Netherlands as the most interesting new ornamental plant of the year.

Humankind and flora are engaged in an intimate and complex relationship. The scale of plants and mushrooms migration is varied and escapes our established well-identified patterns. By understanding and admiring plants, their capacity for survival, their relation to space and architecture, their “contaminated diversity” that is at the same time “ugly and humbling”[7] we find inspiring leads to, perhaps, answer the question: How will we live together?

Justinien Tribillon
April 2021

[1] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2017), 27.

[2] Léon Croizat, Space, Time, Form: The Biological Synthesis (Caracas, Venezuela: N.V. Drukkerij Salland, 1962), 90; cited in Nigel Clark, ‘Urban Granaries, Planetary Thresholds’, in The Botanical City, ed. Matthew Gandy and Sandra Jasper (Berlin: Jovis, 2020),34.

[3] Susanne Freidberg, French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age (New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4] Matthew Gandy, Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin, 2017.

[5] Gandy, Natura Urbana, 33'05''.

[6] Livia Cahn, ‘Rhizome City: Tracing Knotweed through the Soild of Brussels’, in The Botanical City, ed. Matthew Gandy and Sandra Jasper (Berlin: Jovis, 2020), 185–95.

[7] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 33.