Maria Thereza Alves

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Seeds of Change: New York - A Botany of Colonization


Seeds of Change: New York - A Botany of Colonization, 2017

water paintings, texts, linen paintings and potted plants

Over 400 species of plants, mostly European in origin, were growing on ballast grounds throughout New York and New Jersey, from where they have spread further since. Ships arriving with ballast over the last few centuries were responsible for introducing much non-native flora to the East Coast of the U.S. So much so that botanist Viktor Muhlenbach writes, “Combing ballast grounds [...] for the appearance of new plants was a popular botanical pastime of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Earth, stones, sand, wood, bricks, and whatever else was economically expedient was used as ballast to stabilize merchant sailing ships in relationship to the weight of the cargo. Upon arrival in port, the ballast was unloaded, carrying with it seeds native to the area where the ballast had been picked up.

Seeds of Change unearths historical ballast sites and ballast flora. It is an ongoing investigation of ballast flora in numerous port cities. Projects have been developed for Marseille, Reposaari, Dunkirk, Exeter, Liverpool, Bristol, and now New York.

When New York was a British colony, British commercial regulations stipulated that commodities could only be imported via England; likewise, ships from the colonies were allowed to sell their goods in just a few foreign ports. Thus the colonial ships based in New York would return home completely in ballast rather than plod the seas to England because only there would they be allowed to pick up goods.

The added complexity of trade along the East Coast expanded the likelihood of ballast flora arriving in New York. Between 1732 and 1763, for instance, the majority of the ships sailing from St. Augustine in Florida, which was then a Spanish colony, to British New York left “in ballast.” Ballast and seeds could have arrived from any point of the vast Spanish colonial empire.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of ballast arrived in New York City each month. Take June 30, 1900, when 7,584,000 tons of ballast reached the city’s ports from a range of destinations — Colombia, various Caribbean islands, Venezuela, British Guyana, the “Chinese Empire,” the Dutch East Indies, Japan, and the British Cape Colony in today’s South Africa.

Accumulations and processes between different beings including the land make a place specific. Earth itself becomes a witness and provides testimony of the multispecies relationship of “place-making.” Architect Charlie Hailey observes that, “... ballast collapses distance: how else can we reckon thousands of miles of geography, terrain, city-states, nations, and natures?”

In New York topographical particularities, specificities, and relationships were literally crushed. Water was banished: rivers, creeks, streams, and ponds were drained, filled in, or covered over. Non-linearity was banished with the leveling of hills, nooks, crannies, niches as well as gullies and ravines. Marshlands and swamps were considered an affront to the settlers, and were filled in. Among the Guaraní in South America it is unfathomable to remove a hill as it would result in a change of the currents of air. In New York City, a hill became a street or material to be used to fill in a swamp. The river was defined as a set of potential real estate plots, and pieces were sold to be filled in: converting water to land to property. Thinking forests were made dumb as their mycorrhizal networks were severed.

Middle East scholar Laleh Khalili writes that, “Landscapes were harvested of ballast, looted clean of sand and shingle and rock. [ ... ] This resource extraction transformed landscapes in ways that have been forgotten.” Hailey further reminds us that, “discarded ballast spawned landscapes born of displaced materials from far-flung lands.”

However, this is not a question of reconstruction of a lost landscape or purity but of acknowledgement of the present we all find ourselves in.
As we walk we are, at times, 33 feet above the place that was a New York for many more spe- cies than ours. River silt, Native American relics, household and industrial waste, ecological wreckage, hills torn down with earth removed for tunnels, and ballast was used to level New York, and that began quite early in colonial history — 1646.

By 1790 New York was the most important port in the country due to its central location in relation to the North American colonies. It connected Europe to the West Indies, and later also the Midwest via the Erie Canal, and later still via the rails arriving in New York at what is today called The High Line.

Contrary to our ideas of mercantile shipping practices of the Atlantic triangular slave trade, it was more profitable to return in ballast than wait for sugar, rum, cotton, etc. especially during the early days of colonization as this freed up the ships to sail to Africa more quickly and pick up more slaves—“cargo” that was four to six times more lucrative than colonial goods. Slave trade was the cornerstone of the New York economy, much of it via the West Indies. And the transport of bodies in ships required ballast to offset their movement. In New York, ships arrived from England with ballast material such as English flint, iron, and earth, and from other areas of the world with ballast consisting of large chunks of coral as well as coral sands from the Caribbean, volcanic sand, bricks, stones, and rocks. Much of England, specifically chunks of Devon, Cornwall, Poole, and Bristol ended up in New York.

While elsewhere solid ballast was slowly replaced by water in the 1920s, in New York, solid ballast continued to arrive well into the early 1950s. During World War Two, for instance, the U.S. Navy shipped weapons to the Allies, with boats returning in ballast as no goods were available. After World War Two, American ships brought goods to devastated Europe and, again, would return with earth or now also war rubble as ballast. Upon arrival in port, the ballast was unloaded, carrying with it seeds from the area where it had been collected. And lots of ballast was used as landfill throughout the boroughs of New York City, hence for example the name “Bristol Basin” where East 25th Street meets the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive along the banks of the East River.

“Displanting humans and plants are elements of the same multispecies colonial endeavor,” says philosopher Tomaz Mastnak as he argues for the importance of “botanical decolonization.” But in New York we are also faced with a colonized earth. Let’s begin by looking at these plants that both indicate ballast ground and are witnesses to the submersion of New York into a colonialized earth. As such, they teach us that we are in spaces of coloniality which, however, must not become the sole defining feature of these places. At the same time, we must acknowledge that these are landscapes of violence.

Mastnak calls for attention to “place-based” relations between plants. People must be placed within the context of how that place, its flora and the geographic specificity are constituted by settler-colonialism. Geographer Omar Tesdell echoes this when he argues, “that scholars must examine how wildness, nativeness, and agroclimatic suitability are scientifically constituted with and not apart from colonial conquest.”

Art historian Wilma Lukatsch reminds us that, “Things come and have a walking history. And when we think of earth we do not think about traveling. There is history in soil.”
Colonization is built into the very earth of New York. A process of decolonization must begin on the ground.

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