adventures in the cryptoforest by wilfried hou je bek

As the greening of the arts commenced, many friends and collaborators have taken up an interest in the various fashionable incarnations of gardening and foraging currently making the rounds. While sharing the desire to engage myself creatively with the state of the world, my approach to such things—for reasons of my slothish personality—would have to be much lazier. I have accrued a tiny library of books on edible plants and foraging of which I am very proud; I share the excitement of searching for plants, and I recognize the enthusiasm of finding a rare plant, or one you wouldn’t expect at a certain place. But I have no interest in other facets of the urban forager: preparing your finds and exchanging recipes for dandelion root pies. I am sure this is a weakness rather then a strength (the kilos show for it), but what I would like to do is to look at a weedy field and be able to articulate it as a portmanteau of globalization.

Rather than getting my hands dirty, then, I styled myself as a ‘cryptoforester.’Assuming that everybody knows what a forest is, (and the answer to that question is not as straightforward as it may appear), I have come up with a shorthand for five different types of cryptoforest to explain what they are.

Cryptoforests are feral forests—planted tree zones, for instance along motorways, that have been allowed to become wild to the point that their wildness is outgrowing their manmadeness. They are in limbo forests—tree-covered plots that feel like forests but technically probably aren’t; states of vegetation for which lay-language has no name. They are incognito forests—forests that have gone cryptic and are almost invisible; forests in camouflage, forests with a talent for being ignored. They are precognitive forests—lands that are on the brink of becoming forested, a future forest fata morgana. And they are unappreciated forests—forests regarded as zones of waste and weed, forests shaming planners, developers, and the neighbourhood. NIMBY forestry.

Cryptoforestry is a psychogeographic art; the above is therefore not a definitive list and only serves as a pointer for serendipitous search and identification. Generally speaking, a cryptoforest is either a place that looks like a forest but isn’t, or a forest that nobody knows about. But there is no need for cryptoforest fundamentalism. A cryptoforest is a place where the urban is discontinued; a disturbed place where fast-growing, weedy, plants can thrive. I have found beautiful abandoned car parks where grasses were flowering through the cracks of the pavement and the blackberry, my perennial companion whenever I go cryptoforesting, was only just spreading its first thorny fangs across the paving. I think of such places as cryptoforests even though not a single tree grows there.

All cryptoforests are unique and they all have their own story to tell, but the word I desperately—and mostly unsuccessfully—try to stay away from is ‘nature.’ The easiest way to relate to cryptoforests is by describing them as places where the city has temporarily retreated, and nature has been given the chance to grow undisturbed. It’s a description that goes a long way, but one which suffers from its lack of precision and for the way it implies a rigid distinction between city and nature—and by extension, between people and nature. People are nature; cities are part of nature, though not of a natural origin, and no nature has been left untouched.

The extent to which the great wildernesses of this world have been managed by people in the past has in fact only recently become clear. When Western scientists started to look beyond their culturally inbred conception of Amazonian Indians as burdened with the double disadvantage of bad soils and primitive technology, a completely different picture emerged. It was discovered that the ‘pristine’ Amazon, now almost entirely cryptoforested over, used to hold an urbanised sprawl of interconnected garden cities built using swiddening or slash-and-burn agriculture. This used to be regarded as an extremely inefficient and wasteful form of agriculture: a cleared patch will produce crops for two, or at best three, years before the competing weeds completely take over and a new garden must be cleared.

These weedy, fallowed gardens however attract all sorts of desirable animals scarce in the high forest, and also provide good conditions for plants that need the amount of sunlight available only where the tree cover has been cleared. One study looking at the differences between high and secondary forest in the Amazon found that both terrains surprisingly boasted an almost equal species diversity. Disturbance creates diversity, and that diversity creates the resources for people to subsist.

This is not to say that it’s alright to burn down the entire rainforest. On the contrary, the Amazon has been managed by people for centuries. And it has been doing fine because their disturbance was controlled and consciously enacted with a clear understanding of what they were trying to achieve, and how. It shows that ‘weeds’ are not a biologically given menace, but part of a cultural heritage that informs the way we think about plants. It also suggests a way to think about the cryptoforest not as a place of neglect, but as a place regulated by its own specific order and productivity.

Cryptoforest are as much a cities as forests, and you might also call them cryptocities: places where nature disguises the underlying urbanity. Nature as a leshy suit. Calling cryptoforests secondary cities would perhaps make better sense.

▲ ▲ ▲ It is often said that the most lasting effect of globalization won’t be economic, but biological. As Alfred W. Crosby stated in his 1986 book ‘Ecological Imperialism,’ the European expansion has closed the seams of Pangea; ecosystems that had been isolated for millions of years have been connected again, and the result is a massive ecological disturbance as species leave their original habitats. What does it then mean to see a milk thistle, an evening primrose and a hollyhock growing side by side on a sandy field somewhere behind a fence in a small town in the Netherlands?

The thistle was a Roman potherb kept for its nutritional and medicinal qualities. The evening primrose is a plant that originates from central America, which spread and retreated across the continent with the coming and waning of several ice ages. Its roots were once the staple crops of tribal people across the Northern American hemisphere. The hollyhock originates from Turkey, and travelled to Europe and China along the silk route. Plants have stories, and the story never ends. The hollyhock can be purchased at the local plant market (three saplings will set you back ten euro), but it is also a persistent and prolific weed that grows through cracks between the walls of houses and the street. Two types of evening primrose have hybridized into a new species that is unique to the Netherlands and Belgium. Together, these plants evoke the consequences of centuries of travel, trade, colonization, opportunity, plunder, subsistence and also of the joy of natural beauty.

Personally, I don’t care about flowers as a thing of beauty: why on earth would you want to cut off the reproductive organs of a plant and display them in your sitting room? But I understand that we are all spoilt by the eternal presence of chemically produced bright colours. Once upon a time, fresh colours of yellow, blue, and red were rare and valuable commodities and this urged people to ship the yellow primrose to Europe as a bearer of scarce optical wavelengths. Nobody could have foreseen that it would escape from mansion gardens to become a colonizing vagrant suppressing our native plants. In the Americas and in Australia, especially, the tale of a globalised ecology can be told with even more dramatic effect. The European expansion produced an ecological disturbance, creating the right conditions for the plants that the colonisers—wittingly and unwittingly—brought with them to thrive. The resulting Europeanized landscape made the ‘new worlds’ all the more welcome to later generations of settlers, who in turn brought even more disturbance. The result is a world where no landscapes have been left untouched.

Another plant that deserves to be mentioned is the giant hogweed (or pigweed). A plant native to the Caucasus mountains in South-West Asia, it started out, quite incredibly, as an imported ornamental plant. The giant hogweed easily reaches heights of over two meters, and has a large bulbous flower head that when left untouched, dries upright during winter; a spectacular sight. Problematically, it contains a toxin that is light-reactive and can cause severe burns that in some cases may simmer for years.

Here in Utrecht, the municipality is actively eradicating it using a special fungi. It’s a versatile plant and I have seen saplings growing across the city but, to the credit of the department involved, they never reach full size. Of course, some cryptoforests function as a kind of giant hogweed incubator where they can grow to maturity and spread their seeds with the wind. It’s an evocative plant with a strong visual presence and I have often witnessed a combination of exhilaration, fascination and existential doubt in people confronted with it for the first time. It really looks like an alien invader from outer space as the 1971 Genesis song ‘The return of the Giant Hogweed’ confirms:

Long ago in the Russian hills, A Victorian explorer found the regal Hogweed by a marsh, He captured it and brought it home. Botanical creature stirs, seeking revenge. Royal beast did not forget. He came home to London, And made a present of the Hogweed to the Royal Gardens at Kew.

Fashionable country gentlemen had some cultivated wild gardens, In which they innocently planted the Giant Hogweed throughout the land. Botanical creature stirs, seeking revenge. Royal beast did not forget. Soon they escaped, spreading their seed, Preparing for an onslaught, threatening the human race.

The giant hogweed thus serves as an emblem of the diversity that the cryptoforest offers the city. The cryptoforest gives large numbers of plants a chance to grow; these plants in turn are useful to birds, bees, insects and the foraging artist preparing a sacrificial gallery meal of garden slugs in a spicy nettle sauce. But people are using the cryptoforest as well: most obviously to walk their dogs or to illegally dump waste, and also to live there for shorter or longer terms. Tents, huts, and campfires are found with regularity. Dutch artist Doris van Denekamp quotes several homeless people in her ‘Handbook for the City Wild,’ and she offers a fascinating insight into the tricks people have developed to live successfully and undetected in the cryptoforest.

I would however miss the point without stating the primary benefit of cryptoforestry: the joy of exploration and the pleasure of walking through an overgrown field with nettles coming up to your arm-pit, struggling to make your way to see what is behind the tree-line 25 meters in front of you. The cardinal rule of cryptoforestry is that you can’t search for a cryptoforest. You stumble upon them; they are already right in front of you; you find them when you get lost or when you are on your way to an area where you suspect you will find one, but never will. It takes determination to enter a cryptoforest, to find your way through a dense thicket, on a small, steep slope along one of the busiest motorways in the country. There is no trail.

Unsure where you will end up, every wrong step may snap your ankle. Derelict gloom confronts you, travelling back to the end of tourism, spider webs glued to your forehead, your face plastered with sticky forest sweat, microscopic gnats crash into your forehead, thorns rip your clothes, nettles attack your bare skin and, no, you best not worry too much about that bloodsucking dementor of the cryptoforest: the tick. You will be scratching your back for the rest of the afternoon but it is as the Fight-The-Google-Jugend savage said: “don’t come here and complain to us about the mosquitoes; go back to your air-conditioned room and stay there!”

It’s easy to walk through a city and have your image of it created by flashy high rises, shops and historical buildings; that’s what they want you to see. Cryptoforestry argues that you shouldn’t let your image of a city be determined only by what is built, but also by what remains empty. A place may be free of buildings but that does not mean that it is devoid of relevance and adventure. Cryptoforests offer a unique experience. Find them, enter them, take your friends there, be careful, and become a native; you never know what you will find.