Environmental Artist, Activism Protect Nature

Patterson Clark’s least favorite invasive plant is Japanese stilt grass. That’s because he hasn’t figured out how to use it in his art. Boiling it yields weak brown ink. Its fibers don’t make for strong paper. It’s not even good for fuel. “It got over here as packing material. If that’s your best use, you’re a pretty sorry little plant,” he said wryly.

I met Clark, a hyper-local plant patriot and environmental artist, over coffee, a brown brew whose use no one questions. American country music played in the background as he spoke about his mission to rid the world—at least the wooded area around his studio—of alien weeds. With authority and training from the National Park Service, he frees native species by harvesting invasive plants in a section of Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park. Then he makes art out of them.

By day, Clark creates science graphics for the Washington Post. So think Clark Kent and Superman—for nature. Even their names are half the same.

Back in Arkansas, our Clark majored in biology, a broader field than his father’s botany. After studying conceptual art and painting as a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts, he got caught up in the art of journalism.

“Visuals for newspapers must relate to a horizontal demographic. They have to appeal to people from a lot of different backgrounds. Fine art is oriented in the opposite direction. It has more of a vertical appeal, with a narrow audience, generally with an education in art. So I was won over by the egalitarian pursuit of journalism and focused my energies on that.” For a good while, he did op-ed illustrations for the Arkansas Gazette and Miami Herald. Until recently, he wrote the Urban Jungle column for the Post.

His superhero cape, or smock, was thus infused with environmental and social justice. By now, it’s well stained with the blood, or sap, of enemy plants.

Fine Invasive Art

Unlike stilt grass, most invasive species don’t flummox Clark. His website, Alienweeds, features not only finished pieces, but also the botany, chemistry, and environmental activism behind his art. Some of it’s quite complicated. For pigments, there’s Amur, or bush, honeysuckle, which yields turquoise, and leatherleaf Mahonia, which makes fluorescent yellow. To get purple, he crushes Asiatic dayflower, whose beautiful blue petals burst forth at dawn.

Out of white mulberry trees, Clark makes a bright, tough paper, perfect for prints. Paper mulberry, traditionally used in Japanese washi, is easier to harvest, but the pulp dries into a cream color, isn’t as brilliant as the stock he gets from its cousin. Armed with bamboo pens, porcelain-berry brushes, Norway-maple woodblocks, and other homemade tools, Clark minted “weed currency” out of his inks and papers. He determined the denominations by the number of invasive plants in each.

For carving, a favorite is Callery pear, whose blooms whiten the margins of highways come spring. Its well-known hybrid, the Bradford pear, hardly stayed sterile. Look nearly everywhere in forty-two U.S. states, and you’ll find Ailanthus, the so-called Tree of Heaven, rightly dubbed the “stink tree.” It contains a ton of water and tends to warp, check, and cup. But once its honey-colored wood stabilizes, Clark can plane and carve it to reveal its brown grain. Like Irish ivy (not to be confused with English ivy), boiling it drives him from the house for the funk.

Bad Plants

Both species are evil-smelling, evil-doing varmints of the plant kingdom—according to most environmentalists. And we humans are in part responsible for the infestations. Yes, every species has a use and, certainly, a right to exist, somewhere. Many are quite attractive. But what seems like a good green introduction in one era proves disastrous later on.

Take Ailanthus again: American botanists found it standing tall on Chinese temple grounds, alone, it turned out, because its roots released a noxious chemical that retarded the growth of surrounding plants. Ditto here, where, unlike most plants, it thrives on road salt and knocks out every native around it. If you whack back its branches, even its young trunk—bam—it comes back with a vengeance. Never mind all the seeds.

Invasive plants breed like rabbits. They spread quickly, often with little interference from hungry animals and diseases. Their weaponry includes runners and rhizomes and countless survivalist seeds with myriad methods for dispersal. Although native animals prefer to dine on indigenous species, they do eat invasives and poop the pips.

Birds drop them, while mammals amble about with pods stuck to their feet and fur. Kernels wedge in our shoes and dangle from our tractor blades. They muck up our mulch. Once mature, the invaders degrade ecosystems by competing with native plants for resources and pollinators. Rare species disappear. In no time, diverse landscapes turn into manic monocultures.

Clark removes the troublemakers. “My first act is always one of environmental restoration.” Usually, other non-natives grow in the spaces he frees, but some local wildflowers will take down stilt grass, unless deer devour them first. The Park Service has its own invasive-plant treatment programs. He can’t interfere by, say, sowing native seeds.

Invasives Anyone?

Like other environmentalists, Clark doesn’t favor using gasoline-powered tools and herbicides to manage the bad guys. “There’s a fellow in North Carolina who uses the Boer goat, a meat goat. He takes them into kudzu patches, and they fatten themselves up on the vine. They love it. He just keeps hammering with the goats until he exhausts the kudzu, without using a lot of poison or disrupting the ground. Why not provide food for people?” Japanese, who can claim kudzu as their own, and, increasingly, Americans in the Southeast make jellies, tea, even noodles from it.

Clark is an invasivore, too. He eats the grape-like, blue berries of leatherleaf Mahonia, which are loaded with vitamin C. Then there are the raspberry-ish wineberries, sold at posh farmers’ markets. Mulberries, the dark ones with native red genes, are tasty. They’re juicier than pure white mulberries but not as sweet, according to Clark. Garlic mustard, before it bolts, cooks into a delicious winter green. Pair it with a slab of invasive feral hog, deer, or Canada goose—if you’re into meat. In that case, best to slug some Mahonia juice first: like other members of its family, it contains berberine, an antimicrobial.

Educational Outreach

When hunting down art supplies (or foodstuffs), dog walkers and park goers sometimes spot Clark. He estimates that one out of ten people asks him what he’s doing. “I tell them what I’m up to. Mainly, they give me a wide berth. Dogs get weirded out by me and start barking. So people finally come over and put their dog on a leash. Sometimes they’re curious.” More receptive are the Weed Warriors, gardeners, scientific and botanical illustrators, environmentalists, and art and science students to whom he speaks regularly. Nurserymen, still intent on selling homeowners some of the nasties, haven’t asked him to share.

Right now, he’s working on a calendar for the American Printing History Association. He’s producing 136 sheets of paper for the month of May and designing an image to print with verse by his sister, a poet. In September, he’ll take off for SUNY/Fredonia to deliver a series of lectures on art and invasives.

Unlike Clark Kent, though, Patterson Clark rarely flies. Environmental artists and activists like him don’t like fossil fuels. But they do drink caffeine. So powered by an Americano with extra shots, he bade me goodbye to return to his day job. Like Superman, he was ready to save the forest floor with his handsaw, to make art from the vanquished.

Green, the Color

The feeling. The hue of Ireland, Islam, and Indian mysticism. Of winter’s solstice and half Christmas. Color code of the environment and environmental movement, of Green Peace.

Greens. Brood of blue and yellow. Malachite, emerald, and jade shades of majesty and yore. Chicory, moss, mantis, shamrock, olive, and pine—garden greens of peace and poetry.

Green is for nature and newness. It describes green monkeys, green turtles, and green sunfish. With blue, it adorns parading peacocks, and as algae, it blankets slumbering sloths. In leprechauns, monsters, and dragons, green is, or is not.

It’s merely a degree of blue in Chinese, old Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese. The Ancient Greeks didn’t notice green, but the Romans had ten words for it. In English summers, there are green peppers, green onions, and green beans at the green grocer’s. Throughout the year, green-thumbed growers tend vegetables in greenhouses for greenbacks from gardening greenhorns.

And thousands of years ago, expert painters ground malachite, a mineral found in copper mines, to obtain a blue-green pigment. It colored the halo of the Buddha in China and the face of Osiris in Egypt. Mere mortal Egyptians shaded their eyes with malachite makeup to ward off the sun and evil. Across the “Great Green,” as they called the Mediterranean Sea, Pliny the Elder lauded malachite’s powers in Rome. Some thirteen centuries on, Cennino Cennini listed three greens in The Craftsman’s Handbook. Malachite he called “half natural.”

There are no more natural greens than those found in leaves. But chlorophyll, a pigment essential to photosynthesis and the greenness of plants, proved hard to fix as a dye. Neolithic fashionistas obtained a weak green from birch leaves. In Europe, green textiles continued to fall victim to sunlight and washing until the sixteenth century when dyers first dipped material in woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blue and weld (Reseda luteola) for yellow.

In surveying the old green denizens of my crayon box, I found copper. Like the bronze statue of a not-too-venerable general, time had cloaked it in verdigris. A deceptive, derivative, all-too-temporal—green.

Blue, the Color

The mood. The hue of things Hellenic, Jewish, and Marian. Of Krishna and the Buddha’s peace of mind. Color code of health and health care, the United Nations.

Blues. The music. The “beyond the seas” ultramarine of lapis lazuli and the blue-black indigo of cultivated woad and wilderness weed. Ice, Wedgewood, sapphire, royal, navy, and Prussian—rainbow blues of superstition and awe.

Blue is for sky and water. It describes blue cats, blue sheep, and blue whales. It tints blue spruce and graces blue gardens. In blueberries, bluebirds, and bluebonnets, blue is true. Chicory is blue, too.

It’s the “azure” of Persian that Arabic brought from Afghanistan to France, then Europe, through Andalusia in Spain. In English, there are well-born blue bloods and hardworking blue-collar workers. Once in a blue moon, blue-nosed moralists turn blue in the face when their friends curse a blue streak of blue language.

And once upon a time, a creamy-bright ultramarine pigment came from crushed lapis lazuli. Lapis is a rock (an aggregate of minerals), not a gem. It still hails mostly from nearly inaccessible mines in mountainous Badakhshan, Afghanistan. For centuries, traders shipped deep blue nili, azure asmani, and turquoise sabzi lapis loads down the Indus River by dhow to Egypt, where Cleopatra shadowed her eyes royal blue. Some of the haul travelled along the western Silk Road through Aleppo, Syria, to Venice and the palates of Michelangelo and the younger Titian.

Between lighter shades of blue and violet lay indigo—according to Issac Newton, who placed it on his spectrum of seven colors. Indigo comes from many species of Indigofera, which grow in Latin American and Asian tropics. Indian indigo, after much political drama, displaced European woad (Isatis tinctoria) in the seventeenth century. Indigos and woad are magic. They produce a yellow that turns blue only when it hits the air. They can make blacks blacker and whites whiter, until they turn blue. Anglo-Saxons, Aztecs, Germans, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis, and Yoruba have died cloth, even themselves, shades of indigo to ward off evil from infancy to death.

Some years ago, on a warm winter day in a soup kitchen, I tested the power of blue. Steaming more than the cooking pots, I took off an indigo-dyed Touareg scarf. My neck was perfectly blue, alarmingly so. A beyond the seas, beyond the world—blue.

 

Scientific Names

While rifling through my cookbooks and botanical tomes to find information for the previous post (From Chicory to Coffee), I began to panic. What was the difference between Cichorium intybus and Cichorium endivia? Which did people drink and which did they eat? Was I dealing with a bunch of bitter balls of lettuce or a beautiful blue bloom?  Should the trademark of Sebold Communications have featured a flower around a pen or a pen in a salad spinner? I thought scientific names were supposed to relieve confusion, not worsen it.

Part of the answer lay in two books I inherited from my grandmother a dozen years ago—Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden and Waverley Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. In short, all endives are chicories, but not all chicories are endives. Both species are members of the genus Cichorium, and both land on our plates. It seems that, over time, Americans and Europeans have disagreed about which edibles belong to which species. Hence, my distress.

What’s clear (kind of like the mud plants grow in) is that C. endivia var. crispa is curly endive, the frisée or “chicory” Americans see in grocery stores, sometimes next to C. endivia var. latifolium, the flatter-leaved escarole. C. intybus, whose roasted root flavors coffee, is Belgian endive in the States. It’s the tightly wound wad of white and pale green leaves that people often sauté in butter. After chicory blooms, enthusiasts dig up the roots and bury them in damp sand in warm, dark cellars until new leaves bud. Less rugged folks just putter over to a purveyor of fancy green goods.

Or fancy red goods. After all, what about red Belgian endive? Well, it’s radicchio, the unforced heart of a C. intybus variety with red leaves. Then there’s speckled radicchio, or chickendive, which came about when C. intybus and C. endivia found—ahem—common ground.

All members of the Cichorium genus belong to the Asteraceae family, which is part of the Asterales order, which falls under the Asteranae superorder, which—yada yada. Never mind that some people call the Asteraceae “Compositae.” We don’t want to get into the weeds, do we?

If you remain confused, consult the Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Worried about how to italicize the scientific names of plants? Follow the examples in this post, or better yet, consult the Chicago Manual of Style.

As for me, I feel a little better. I think.

From Chicory to Coffee

There it was in the field: blue enchantment.

My grandmother was somewhere behind me, hidden by grasses body-tall. Her quick work was muffled by meadowlarks ground-nesting and spring-summer heat ululating, low. We were collecting teasles and milkweed pods, the natural bits she crafted into porcupines, rabbits, and little kings set before blackbird pies. Characters from nursery rhymes and her private imagination.

I turned to face the chicory flower again. A cricket chirped. I went in for the pick.

Cichorium intybus—chicory flower, blue sailors, succory, coffeeweed—is an aster native to central Europe. It spread to North Africa and the Middle East and, centuries later, to North America and Australia. It has dandelion-like leaves in rosettes close to the ground and hairy, grooved stalks up to four feet high. Sometimes the ruffled petals come in pink and white, rather than lavender and blue. They make up flowers that open and close at the same time every day and lie close to their stems.

Afraid of bees.

The flowers can be pickled, crystallized in sugar, made into wine, and frozen in ice cubes. Italians, Spanish, Greeks, and Turks cook young chicory leaves. Food foragers favor C. intybus greens. So do livestock. The ancients discovered chicory’s powers to combat diabetes, worms, depression, indigestion, and headaches. Some swear that chicory essence rids cats and dogs of codependence. Chicory even ranks among the Glass Flowers of Harvard.

Since the Middle Ages, baristas have roasted chicory’s long taproot and added the grounds to coffee, especially during wars and economic downturns. In the mid-nineteenth century, Arthur Hill Hassal, using the long-neglected microscope, proved his suspicion that the coffee in London shops was almost universally extended with chicory (and, far worse, liver). In France, the Netherlands, Germany, India, Vietnam, and Louisiana, people fell in love with chicory’s peppery taste. During a coffee shortage in Syria, I turned to tea.

That was years after I gathered my blue bouquet. I presented it proudly to Grandma. Right away, it wilted, as—I later learned—anything preciously magic would.

From Bamboo to Pen

Somewhere near you, a stand of pens is growing. Quietly and quickly. All you have to do is look closely at your neighbor’s bamboo hedge, and you’ll see the pens, stacked end to end, greenish tan, like images in a seek-and-find picture puzzle.

You might even see them grow. Bamboo stems, stretching, node to node.

That’s because bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on Earth. In some places, it’s even invasive. Its 1,450 species can attain their full height (fifteen to forty feet) in one growing season. Bamboo’s secret agents? Rhizomes. The underground stems send forth shoots that press their way through the soil into blue light. The new culms stand stem to stem, darkening the ground, green.

Long about their third year, the culms harden. Turn brown. Ripen into pens.

Bamboo is a true grass, a member of the Poaceae family, like crab grass, the bane of gardeners. But bamboo is useful. It can be made into lumber, medicines, textiles, paper—and pens. Pandas and lemurs find bamboo shoots delicious. African mountain gorillas love them. Humans like them, too. The Buddhist monk Zan Ning wrote a book full of bamboo-shoot recipes.

Japanese make fishing poles out of one bamboo species. They’re flat on one side and have knobby ends, great for holding string in place. Mohamed Zakariya, one of the best Islamic calligraphers in the world, stocks up on the poles when he visits Hawaii. He cuts them and carves the ends into nibs to write big Arabic letters, 7/16 inches wide. He made my bamboo pen, my one and only, the one I used when I studied with him. It became part of the trademark of Sebold Communications and the namesake of this blog. At some point, I’ll interview Mohamed about pens of all sorts and Islamic calligraphy. Meanwhile, visit his website to learn more about his art.

And welcome! Please watch the Bamboo Pen grow. Post to post.