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Interview Transcript

Brian Smiga:  This is Brian Smiga with the 1act.1idea interview with my friend, Andrew Garn, who appeared at our TEDx Asbury Park in 2019 and is now back with a new book, The Wildflowers of New York City  (Order the book here at 40% off when you use code 09FLYER at checkout).

Andrew Garn: Nice to see you, Brian, so to speak.

Brian Smiga: Likewise. So to speak, because we’re in Zoom. And we’re here in February 2021 and it’s the middle of winter, there’s snow on the ground, but we want to talk about nature in the city. We really enjoyed your TED Talk slideshow on the Pigeons of New York back in 2019 at the Paramount Theater. Now you have a new book coming out called Wildflowers of New York City. How did you get into this discovery of nature in the city?

Andrew Garn: Well, I had actually been working on a project to document wildflowers off and on for about 15 years. But how do you really elevate them? … pigeons are not so photographed, whereas wildflowers, everybody’s taking pictures of wildflowers, closeups. I mean, you just have to look at Instagram to see that 25% of people are taking pictures of flowers. And I was listening to a botanist, being interviewed on the radio four years ago or so. And she said something that just got something going in my head and this is how projects start a lot. She mentioned that there are 700 wildflowers in New York City.  And I think of things numerically a lot. And I thought, “Oh, 700, I could photograph all of them and do a project out of that.” And I’m always thinking that I want to photograph every pigeon and I thought, “Well, that’s a little bit impossible because there’s probably a million pigeons, but 700 I could do.” And so I thought, “I will focus on what grows in New York City and try to track down every single one of them.” And New York City, of course, is diverse in its population, but it’s also diverse in its ecosystems. I mean, you have swamplands, you have concrete jungles, you have cracks in sidewalks. You have every possible ecosystem. I mean, not tropical certainly, but if you start looking, and that’s my favorite thing to do, it is a treasure hunt. You find things, and you will find things growing in a planter that was abandoned, or you will find things in a crack of a sidewalk.

Brian Smiga: The determination of diversity, right?

Andrew Garn: Yeah, and it is. And plants are just like immigrants and they’re just like pigeons, there’s a lot of parallels. I mean, they are like outsiders, I mean, some are natives, of course, and they persevered against the invaders. A lot of plants came over in ship ballasts and they put their foot here and they’ll never be eradicated as much as they try. Mugwort is a good example, Japanese knotweed, they persevere just like immigrants. My family is an immigrant family and my grandfather came here when he was 14. And I see there’s a parallel to some of these plants, how do they survive? How do pigeons survive? It’s a nasty world.

Brian Smiga:  Well said. So New York is a bit of a melting pot for these wildflowers, like the pigeons. And how many did it turn out there were in New York? I think the number might’ve been bigger?

Andrew Garn:  Way bigger actually. I met somebody at the New York Botanical Garden and he has been working on a project, a New York eco flora project, where they are documenting all the plants. And there are more than 2,000 plant species in New York City. 

Brian Smiga:  About half are native, right.

Andrew Garn: Yeah, about half are native.

Brian Smiga:  They’re indigenous.

Andrew Garn:  Yeah, and it’s interesting, because I just heard a Zoom talk by Eric Sanderson who did the book Mannahatta, what New York looked like 400 years ago in 1610, and they used computer recreations of what Manhattan Island looked like. And he said in his talk that there were originally 600 species of plants, including trees and shrubs. So in fact, there’s more now because immigrants and ships and cars have brought in new seeds, birds also. So New York is in fact more diverse now than it was back in 1619.

Brian Smiga: Did wildflowers precede pigeons for you?

Andrew Garn: Well, I mean, just the process of photographing flowers preceded it, but the actual focus on New York City wildflowers did not.

Brian Smiga: I see. And I’ve seen the images from the book and the way you reveal structure and symmetry and asymmetry in the structure of these wildflowers and plants is really amazing, as well as capturing them in their native habitats. So you went all over New York, and this reminds me of when we are thinking about something, we suddenly see it everywhere. Did this happen to you, that all of a sudden plants were everywhere?

Andrew Garn:  Oh, totally. I mean, before, I honestly knew a few plants, and again, I’m not a botanist, but I can identify a good 400 species. But I’ve gotten to the point where I can identify plants driving on the Major Deegan at like 50 miles an hour. And that’s pretty good.

Brian Smiga: Don’t have an accident on your way to Garrison.

Andrew Garn: No. I was actually in a traffic jam on the Major Deegan last Friday. I noticed there are wildflowers growing in the median. And to me, that is a miracle, like these plants persevere living in a traffic island, like a barrier on the Major Deegan, but they’re growing there. And I actually was going slow enough where I could take a few pictures of them. So I thought that was great.

Brian Smiga:  And the flip side is, you’re stuck in traffic, but you’re actually enjoying yourself because you’re on a nature observation tour of the median, which is hard to get to unless you slow down.

Andrew Garn:  Yeah, totally. And nature, I’ve seen plants, I’ve actually photographed some of them on the FDR, they’re everywhere. It is really crazy. So when you do slow down, it makes driving around a lot more interesting.

Brian Smiga:  Well, when I showed your Pigeons of New York book to friends of mine who are animal lovers and anti animal cruelty, they loved it. But also, so many urbanites loved it. What’s the reaction been to the wildflower book?

Andrew Garn:  I think I knew a lot more pigeon people. I don’t know as many wildflower people, so not as many people have seen it as yet. 

Brian Smiga:  Well, it’s a new book and it’s coming out in March, during COVID, at a very difficult time. But on the flip side, I think urbanites are looking for stuff to do. So we’re going to include a coupon down in the bottom that gives our readers/listeners 40% off Andrew’s beautiful new book, the Wildflowers of New York City. And I also recommend Pigeons of New York. I have it on my shelf and I share it with everyone.

Andrew Garn:  It’s a fun book. There are a lot of similarities in the book, the way the subjects are treated. A lot of them are against black to isolate them and bring out their graphic quality. 

Brian Smiga:  Yeah. You had a high bar because, as you said, botanists have been photographing wildflowers for a long time. There’s a big inventory, whereas pigeons were less covered and you really uncovered their beauty. So you had a high bar, but I think you really found some new techniques. Can you describe one of those techniques that you took with wildflowers?

Andrew Garn:  Okay. So the ephemeral quality of flowers makes them very difficult to photograph, some more than others. Some are real sturdy. 

Brian Smiga:  Oh, yeah. You try to get it into the studio against black and it falls apart.

Andrew Garn:  Yeah. And I actually did that mostly, and just as a sidebar, I’m very careful never to take the roots, to make sure that I’m just taking the flower if it’s an unusual plant. I would never ever take just one plant. But I have tried to photograph in situ and it’s impossible just because they’re long exposures. You have to take somewhat long exposures to get the depth of field that you need, and any sort of breeze or movement is going to make them blurry. I’m trying to get as much detail as possible.

So I had a way of collecting them. Basically, I’d go around with bags with water containers and I would take cuttings. And in some cases, I actually found… one of my favorite plants that’s in the book it’s called narrow leaf plantain. It’s very common and it’s actually an edible. I found a whole plant growing in the crack of a sidewalk down by the East River. And I brought it home with the root and everything because to get the whole plant is incredible. The flowers up close look like little rocket ships, but the whole plant, the whole structure of it is just what I thought was so beautiful. And I got to replant it. So I was fairly happy about that.

Brian Smiga:  Oh, great. And what was the name of that plant?

Andrew Garn:  Oh, it’s called the narrowleaf plantain or a ribleaf plantain, and it’s pretty common. And you’ll see people actually collecting it to eat it. It has a sort of arugula taste to it. But be careful when you collect plants that are in the city, be careful where you’re collecting them from.

Brian Smiga:  Yeah. My son loves garlic weed. He’s offered me plenty garlic weed. And we eat plantain and dandelions.

Andrew Garn:  Oh, okay. Narrowleaf is a plantain. The plantain that you call a weed is the broadleaf plantain. This is the narrowleaf. And of course, it’s a little more elegant, but it’s also edible.

Brian Smiga:  So could you forage in the city and live off the plants, I wonder?

Andrew Garn:  Yeah, I mean, you technically could. I mean, we have to be careful, of course, there’s pokeweed, you can eat pokeweed. You can eat, I actually found a flower of what’s called rocket salad, which is actually arugula growing in Central Park. I don’t know where the seed came from, but the flower’s quite interesting. But yeah, there’s a bunch of things. Of course there’s wild mushrooms, but yeah, I’m trying to think, just offhand, there’s probably 25.

Brian Smiga:  As you got into this, and you talked to botanists and maybe urban planners, where do you think things are headed? I mean, I think of New York as having a burgeoning gardening culture, especially post COVID, but it was already there on rooftops in Brooklyn and elsewhere, in green roofs, enabling more green spaces. Did you learn, is there a trend towards the introduction of new species, or more green space, in New York City?

Andrew Garn:  Well, I think that there’s actually an awareness of what our native species are and how to encourage them because they realize, obviously, they’re better for the ecosystem to have native plants because they work more in harmony with the fauna that’s there. Like the city, you can take a microcosm of the trees that the city has planted, and there’s certain trees that have to be hardy to live up to the salt conditions and the pollution. Like ginkgo trees, they’re lovely trees. They’re actually the oldest tree on earth. They offer no support to anything. You can see a ginkgo tree and it will have no insects living in it. And insects are key to supporting caterpillars, butterflies, bees, and of course, birds. So you have an oak tree which is native, an oak tree will harbor at any time 10,000 caterpillars, and they live symbiotically. The caterpillars might eat the leaves a little bit, but oaks have a lot of tannin acid in them which makes them very bitter to a lot of animals. But they are harboring 10,000 caterpillars. A baby bird, like a baby chickadee, needs 3,000 caterpillars a day to grow. So the parents are collecting caterpillars around the clock basically. And they need places to find these caterpillars. Ginkgo trees offer nothing basically, whereas a native oak tree… so it’s really important. For instance, the Parks Department, I think, and I do a lot of volunteering in the park, and they’re kind of old-school. I hate to say it, but I think the New York City Parks Department is like 50 years behind in a lot of their planting. Especially the old school people, they’re like, “Let’s plant some hostas because they’re hardy, dogs can pee on them and they flower a lot”. But they’re offering no support.

I worked with this woman, Heather, she works for the… I don’t know the exact title, but it’s basically native plants. So her job, and it’s a great job, she drives around the city with a helper, and they go looking for native plants that are growing because they want to find genetic sampling. They could certainly grow them from seed in the greenhouse that they have on Staten Island, but they need the actual ones that are growing in nature. So I went with her a bunch of times and we went to the craziest places and we found like wild cucumber, which is fantastic. There’s actually two pictures of it in the book because it has this pod that slightly resembles a cucumber, but it’s got spikes on it. And in the winter time, when it decomposes, it turns into a skeleton, it’s the most beautiful thing, and it drops four giant seeds from this skeleton.

So she goes and collects these on rock faces, and they take them back to the greenhouses and they grow them. And then they have more genetically diverse populations and then they plant them throughout the city. They’re doing hundreds of species of plants…

Brian Smiga:  It’s very exciting.

Andrew Garn:  Yeah, it’s a great job, I mean, I envy her job, really. She does that, two or three times a week.

Brian Smiga:  Well, you’ve opened our eyes, I think, to how native species, like an oak, really support the larger diversity of nature in a major way as compared to these introduced plants, which are pragmatic, rational, but ultimately are barren, like ginkgo trees. I think we have to end it here, but I think you’ve lived up to your reputation, Andrew.

Andrew Garn:  Well, thank you Brian. I have so much more to say, just let me open the flood gates.

Brian Smiga:  We could do an hour, but we only scheduled this for a short time. And for the audience that wants to hear more from Andrew, we have his 2019 video based on the Pigeons of New York. And we’ll be producing a video, a TEDxAsburyPark video, of the Wildflowers of New York City

Brian Smiga: Andrew you’ve been described as peripatetic and I think that fits you in two ways. Not only does it mean you like to move from place to place and discover things that are otherwise unseen, and then open our eyes to them, but it’s also the school of Aristotle. And I think that you’ve opened our eyes to a whole bunch of things in this conversation.

Andrew Garn:  Well, thank you, Brian. Thanks for having me. The book is called Wildflowers of New York City and it should be coming out in the middle of March by Cornell University Press.

Brian Smiga:  Great. And there’s a coupon down below for 40%. And for those of you that come to the TEDxAsburyPark website, you can see these two TED talks by Andrew Garn, get the coupon, and see our calendar of events which includes 1act.1idea which are short plays with a big idea worth sharing as well as our upcoming TEDxAsburyPark events. See you then.

Learn more about Andrew Garn

Andrew Garn is a New York City based photographer with many years of experience in editorial and fine art projects. He has been awarded a Fulbright scholarship for his documentation of Stalin era industrial facilities in Siberia, grants from NYSCA, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Graham Foundation. Mr. Garn was a presenter at TedX talks on the culture of pigeons. He is the photographer of eight books, including Wildflowers of New York (Cornell University Press), The New York Pigeon (powerHouse), New York by Neighborhood (Rizzoli), Subway Style (New York Transit Authority), and The Houseboat Book (Rizzoli).Content goes here


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