SUBSCRIBE

Crime Pays but Botany Doesn’t

The location is West Oakland, California, but it’s impossible to say exactly where, or what time it is. It’s a botanical tour – not in a park or garden, but under a freeway, on a piece of undeveloped land forgotten by the city. Rusty fences, mounds of rubble and a few abandoned cars dot the ground. In the background there are homeless encampments and recently built million dollar condos. This place was open water a hundred years ago and eventually filled to feed the city’s growth.

The guide is Joey Santore. He’s everything you wouldn’t expect from a botanical tour guide. He’s got a thick Chicago accent, is covered with tattoos and uses as many curse words as botanical terms. But then again, this isn’t an ordinary tour: it’s a video on Joey’s YouTube channel, Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t, titled ‘The Plant Ecology of Concrete, Garbage, and Urine’.

On the surface, it’s a video about urban plants. Joey finds stinkwort (‘ubiquitous along train tracks … highly glandular, and actually smells pretty good’), brome and oat grasses (‘when you see those golden hills, quote, of California, that’s all non-native bullshit that wasn’t here pre-European arrival’) and bougainvillea (‘another overplanted horticultural atrocity, member of the Nyctaginaceae or four o’clock family; this one appears to have escaped from cultivation’). He looks at coyote brush, wild fennel, agave, eucalyptus, acacias and more.

But he’s not just observing plants. The state of US politics, gentrification, the pace of modern lifestyles and the generalised apathy towards nature are all mixed in with observations of the capitulum, the compound flower head, of a plant in the sunflower family and the geology of the surrounding soil. Joey switches from botanical description to social commentary multiple times in the same sentence. We usually think of botany, geology and ecology as relatively uncontroversial categories that don’t mix well with the grunge and profanity of the street. Joey bulldozes through all our preconceived notions and is completely unapologetic about it, as he explains in another of his YouTube videos, ‘A Blue-Collar Slob’s Geology Primer’. ‘Some people complain that I curse too much, they can go fuck themselves.’

Having recently finished a graduate degree in landscape architecture, where so much of my work and creative process were conditioned by formal, academic concerns, I find it refreshing to see someone mixing science and politics without giving a damn about others’ opinions (on social media, Joey describes himself as a ‘tender bastard beneath an epidermal covering of glandular trichomes, irritating hairs, barbed spines & mildly caustic exudate’). As someone in my late twenties, cultivating my own creative, financial and emotional independence, I’m inspired to see someone break categories by simply being themselves. I needed to talk to him.

He was on the road, but after a bit of cat and mouse, we were finally able to connect by phone. Through his videos, Joey tells me, he fundamentally wants to make us wonder and fall in love with the diversity and intelligence of the world around us, whether we live in a city, the countryside or anywhere in between. He reminds us that curiosity about our surroundings is an essential part of what it means to be human and is, in fact, essential to our survival as a species on Earth.

LEARNING ABOUT THE LANDSCAPE

Joey describes the beginnings of Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’tas a story of growing curiosity. He grew up in the Chicago area, was sent to military school and ended up hopping freight trains around the US before working as a locomotive driver in Oakland, where he is now based. Plants were not on his radar during this time. ‘I was totally blind to this stuff, like most people are. It just blended in as background imagery.’

He cites the varied ecosystems the trains went through and the excavations carried out for rail lines as his initial inspirations: ‘They would have to cut through cliff sides and you would see all these weird layers and lines and places where the mountains had been folded. So I got into geology and learnt about the age of the Earth and all this stuff. I learnt that redwood trees evolved during the Jurassic Period and that there were fossilised redwoods in Oregon, and that all the conifers evolved before flowering plants did. I just got really excited about that and curious. It seemed so otherworldly.’

Slowly, his investigations into the landscape led him to stop seeing plants as isolated organisms or objects, but instead as inextricable parts of the geology, hydrology and environmental dynamics of a place, both recent and ancient. Plants, unlike human beings, are entirely dependent on what their immediate environment offers, which is one of the many reasons we find them so inspiring. Joey uses this quality of plants to tell the story of a place: ‘Every plant has a context. It’s got other plants that it occurs with. It’s part of an ecology, it’s the living skin of the Earth.’

Joey’s way of looking at the landscape makes us curious about all places, not just the pretty or biodiverse ones. Every dump yard, alpine meadow or highway median strip has a story and soul. Its soil has a geological history that goes back millions of years. Water and wind may have eroded the land over time. Events like earthquakes, volcanoes and floods have their own impacts. Flora and fauna further modify the environment.

The story of one place, in turn, is inseparable from the stories of other places. In California, the presence of Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass), an invasive Eurasian grass, is a living history lesson on European colonisation, on plants moved around the world and local ecosystems disturbed by new land management techniques. Native stands of Metasequoia glyptostroboides (dawn redwood) in China and native stands of Sequoia sempervirens (coast redwood) in Oregon tell us that these trees shared a common ancestor and once occupied a common range before some event made them diverge evolutionarily.

Regardless of where we look, there is an opportunity to travel vast scales of space and time in order to understand how a place, or a plant, has come to be. The titles of Joey’s videos prove that he really looks everywhere: ‘Salty, Uncouth Slobs of the Atacama Desert’, ‘The Ethnomycology of Ugly Landscaping’ and ‘Limestone Endemics of Death Valley & Yuppie Oxygen Bars’.

Joey knows his scientific terminology, but those titles give some indication of his approach to his subject. Science can be dry and academic, filled with technical jargon that sucks the life out of the subject. Even worse, it can be a political tool of oppression, as when European monarchs sent botanists to their colonies to commercialise indigenous plants or contemporary biologists claim copyright on traditional heirloom foods. Joey reminds us that, when approached with a desire to understand instead of control, science is a platform for connecting with the world around us. ‘Understanding the world around you and being curious about it is the basic element of being human – it’s more human than anything else.’

Consumer culture has radically warped our awareness of the land we live in and the scales of time we are immersed in. In this sense, Joey’s videos are meant to share a sense of humility. ‘The constant theme you run into is how insignificant human beings are, how comparatively short a time we’ve been on this planet, given its long history, and how small we are … that’s one thing I’m always trying to fight with people to get them to understand. The root of the problem is not necessarily capitalism or socialism or any of this shit; it’s anthropocentrism, the belief that we’re at the centre of the universe and that everything was put here for us and that we can somehow escape natural law, and that somehow we don’t need to share this planet with any of the other life forms here and that we can take everything for ourselves.’

DISCOVERING WHAT’S IMPORTANT

Joey’s videos focus on what he calls the ‘real real world’ that is the constant, dynamic activity always happening around us regardless of where we are. This activity may be hard to see, or it may be plainly visible. As I write these words, I think of the possum that occasionally wakes me up at night. Outside my window, it makes soft crunching noises as it steps on dry leaves. I think of the dozens of mice that live in my partner’s garden and in her attic; in the morning, we find seed shells scattered on the ground – the leftovers of nocturnal mice feasts. I think of the nutrients silently flowing up and down the trunk of trees, of all the fungal spores constantly moving through the air, of lichens as they slowly decompose solid rock. All are essential parts of our ecosystems yet easily overlooked because we humans are, for the most part, so damn focused on ourselves.

It’s no surprise, then, that Joey actually talks to plants and animals in his videos. Obviously, he’s trying to be funny and give a good performance. But his three-minute dialogue with the tortoise in ‘Encouraging the Desert Tortoise to Eat the Invasive Sahara Mustard Real Nice’, and his frequent conversations with his dogs, who often appear in his videos, remind us that these beings have their own intelligence and right to exist.

This careful attention to the life forms around us has ethical implications. Joey moves a plant or plant parts only if it won’t harm the plant in any way, or if a plant is highly invasive. This is crucial. Anything else risks turning nature into yet another object of consumption. Take foraging, for example. ‘I get it, people want to connect to nature, but they don’t know how, so the easiest way they can think to do it just by doing what a consumer retail society would tell them to do, which is rip shit out of the ground and take it home and figure out a way to make some goofy fucking recipe with it.’

In urban areas, Joey focuses a lot of his critique at the way humans use and abuse plants in the landscape. In his West Oakland video, he pauses in front of a Platanus x acerifolia (London plane tree), describing how land developers use the tree’s hardiness to add greenery to boring, consumer-oriented landscapes. He’s not criticising the tree (who can criticise a plant?), but the ‘landscapes of slow death, places that make you feel nauseous. Landscapes dedicated to work and retail consumerism. It’s just a really hopeless bleak future when you’re living in a place like this … The typical all-American retail landscape of slow death.’

Joey’s words may be crude but he gets to the point. He explains the origins of the name Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t: ‘We elevate businessmen and rich fools to superstar status while I feel like the people who are really doing the hard work to figure out how the planet works don’t get any credit. Science is just viewed as a boring background to what’s really important, which is business, marketing and cancer-like growth.’ The things that are most crucial to our wellbeing – air, water, soil, food, biodiversity and carework – get left behind. A strawberry picker, bent over ten hours a day, receives minimum wage while the owner of the strawberry distribution brand gets millions. Governments subsidise fossil-fuel intensive monocultures, while community gardens rely on donations. Who are the essential workers here?

While his videos get tens of thousands of views, Joey is definitely not just all talk. He tells me about Mandela Parkway, an area near his house in West Oakland, ‘where a bunch of the stuff the city had planted had died because they weren’t appropriate for our climate. So I just started planting stuff there. It started with trees and then eventually moved on to smaller herbaceous plants and native perennials. I ended up taking four blocks of the parkway and turning it into a garden.’ You can go there today, between 12th and 16th streets, and see this miniature botanical garden that replaced a city-planted monoculture of non-native roses. Joey grew many of the plants from seeds gathered in his travels. We might call this botanical or eco-civil disobedience.

A DIFFERENT VIEW OF THE WORLD

Ultimately, Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t makes me wonder what a world looks like in which botany pays but crime doesn’t. What if our societies and governments valued and rewarded understanding of the natural world, competing not for the fastest growing economies, but collaborating towards the most resilient biodiversity? What if plantable seeds, not bitcoins and dollars, were our currency? What if the bloom season of coyote brush, the hue of milkweed petals and variations in the smell of wild fennel actually mattered? What if we turned off our televisions and observed a different news: the weeds in the sidewalk, poop left by an unknown animal in our gardens, and the direction of migrating birds moving through the sky?

What then? Would we live differently? Would we pay more attention to our home in the real real world? Would we recognise our total and ultimate dependence on the natural world and choose leaders based on their ability to cultivate thriving ecosystems?

At the end of the West Oakland tour, Joey walks along some train tracks. A tall fence runs on one side; the walls on the other are covered in graffiti. Looking at the few plants that manage to grow in the compacted, rocky soil along the tracks, Joey meditates: ‘Seeing what thrives, the ecology that manifests itself in the bleakness, gives us a little bit of hope. Even some non-native invasive bullshit coming up from a crack in the fucking concrete is at least a little bit of a cheerer-upper, you know? … It is bleak amongst the wealth disparity, the garbage, and the utter disrespect for the landscape itself, but you know there’s a little glimmer of hope seeing what plants and animals are able to thrive.’