Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with community, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He holds an MA and a BA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is a former chair of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He is Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.
This page: A parallel text for Meadhbh O Connor’s exhibition Biosphere at Monster Truck Gallery, Dublin, by Sean O Sullivan.
The test tubes hanging from the gallery ceiling are host to a vine called larger bindweed. This vine arrives in late springtime, staying throughout the summer to sprout white flowers shaped like trumpets. Its roots grow deeply and quickly, usually as far down as four metres. It will twine its way around other plants, always growing counter-clockwise, pulling them down towards the earth. Its leaves look similar to arrowheads.
The vine disperses its seeds from small spherical capsules; these can remain viable for up to thirty years, and end up mostly in roadsides and ditches. Over time, aggressive self-seeding has made bindweed abundant enough to spread from Europe throughout Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. It is a wildly successful species, and therefore, biologists classify it as a harmful and noxious weed.
Today, field biologists are fairly well accustomed to the idea of a ‘weedy’ species; in fact, they apply the term to plants and animals alike. Examples include fire ants, maleleuca trees, boll weevils and rock pigeons. Rather than signifying that a species is simply unwanted or useless, as a more colloquial definition of the word suggests, these truly weedy species display a particular style of adaptability. They will invariably operate to simplify their own proliferation: “They reproduce quickly, disperse widely when given a chance, tolerate a fairly broad range of habitat conditions, take hold in strange places, succeed especially in disturbed ecosystems, and resist eradication once they’re established. They are scrappers, generalists, opportunists. They tend to thrive in human-dominated terrain because in crucial ways they resemble Homo sapiens: aggressive, versatile, prolific, and ready to travel.”1
This sort of rough, practical living may seem sensible, that is to say that broad dispersal, toughness and flexibility are the sort of behaviours that we might put in place to ensure our own survival. But invasive species such as bindweed possess a rationalist tendency towards self-advancement that leads to their systemically emplaced hegemony, the sort of weedy dominance that cannot be uprooted. This dominance displaces the ability of a far more diverse subset of biological entities to reach maturity. And while the proposition of biological success sounds appealing, a successful species is more often than not a hegemonic one, and is only empowered on these caustic terms.
In a normal situation, most flora and fauna will gradually fade away when they cannot cope with the disturbing presence of an outsider. Not because they are a weaker species, but because they are unused to a particular type of aggressive systemic infiltration – the sort that will unbalance a broader ecology to achieve its own ends quickly. Environments that are without such weedy predators are the most diverse, the most balanced, the most likely to advance at a reasonable pace without becoming homogenised by one or two aggressive creatures. It might be logical to suggest that the corroding advancement of a weedy species will lead to a disastrous environmental simplification, but beyond this thought it is impossible to determine what the eventual effect of their consistent systemic action will be. This is true even in cases where an entire system’s behavioural dynamics can be explained by mathematical formulae, it is true even when the system has been specifically built to only produce one predetermined outcome. All systems will eventually produce inexplicable results.2 This concept is called chaos theory, and it explains why it’s so difficult to get a reliable five-day weather forecast.
The eradication of a weedy aggressor does seem like a worthy task, and one with an idealistic reward. After all, fire ants and rock pigeons are only successful because they somehow managed to best the system; they deserve to be taken down a peg or two. I think back to Don Quixote who, old and infirm, lost his grip on reality and bound himself into an imaginary knighthood. Somewhere in the midst of chapter eight he valiantly charged into a duel with thirty or forty windmills, which he mistook for long-armed giants.3 This sort of existential leap was common enough for him; in fact, throughout the whole book the only thing that is sure is that Don Quixote will have misinterpreted his allies, his adversaries and himself. These situations always ended violently, and never weighted his desire to root out oppression wherever it arose. I don’t think it mattered that he was always beaten by his own irrational mind, because his belief in virtue was more important than any virtue he might have actually possessed. Rational thought would have destroyed his soul. As it would for the silverback, or for the birds of paradise or for any other species that we might respect enough to make sustainable – ironic, considering that it is we who are the ultimate bombproof species, the weediest weed. Perhaps the most sensible reaction to weedy species is the rejection of reliance on systemic action, and of the power of such rationalistic advancement. After all, according to the laws of physics there is no rational system. There simply cannot be a rational system, and any attempt to sustain one in endurance will fail.