Untangling our knotweed problem ➰

Mitigating invasive plants’ damage through creative, caring, anti-capitalist remediation approaches.

I first met Timothy Furstnau and Andrea Steves in 2019 when they came to The Strange Foundation as part of our Decelerator residency program. Back then they were working on The Museum of Capitalism, a curatorial project made to “educate this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of capitalism.” 

The intention behind the Museum of Capitalism was not to create a real museum, per se, but to collect a body of research and references that could serve as “evidence” of this wacky way we currently live. I love how, by proposing the need to gather evidence of how capitalism affects us, it assumes that future generations will not inherently know about capitalism, because they will not be living under it. (Hey, a girl can dream!)

This leads me into the topic of today’s newsletter: imagining and enacting creative alternatives to shortsighted systems.


As a collaborative duo, Tim and Andrea call themselves FICTILIS, which is Latin for “capable of being shaped or changed; earthen.” This absolutely makes sense to me, as their project-based, genre-spanning practice seems to shapeshift constantly, all while maintaining a cohesive allegiance to creatively, critically, and collaboratively reshaping our world. More recently, their practice has taken a literal turn towards the Earth, as they’ve developed a long-term scheme to use “biocultural restoration” techniques to begin remediating a plot of riverside land that has become overgrown by the invasive species Japanese knotweed.

The “Streambank” project, as they call it, brings together conservationists, artists, and designers to both remove knotweed and explore experimental uses for the organic material generated by the dead, dug-up plant. By exploring alternative ways of mitigating the quickly-spreading species, they “aim to show that long-term, non-chemical knotweed management can be self-sustaining and scalable through innovative uses of plant biomass in local circular economies, while restoring ecosystems, sequestering carbon, and making communities more resilient.” Sounds good, no?

Below, I speak with Tim and Andrea about the origins and ambitions of their long-term Streambank project, and about knotweed in general—which you can even see growing all around NYC, and practically everywhere else.

So without further introduction, here’s our conversation.

~ Willa

P.S. If you live in/near the Catskills, there will be a Streambank volunteer day this Sunday, April 14 to work on removing knotweed from the Prattsville site referenced in the below interview. Learn more here, and respond to this email if you’d like more information. I plan to be there!

Willa: First things first, the Streambank project is a very interwoven, collaborative effort between multiple organizations and people, with you at the helm. Can you shed some light on its overall mission, and how you got it started?

Tim: First I should introduce Toolshed, a tool lending library based in Hudson, NY that I helped to start and run. It was conceived of as both a platform for ecological living, and as a literal shed to share tools out of. In 2023 we applied for an ecological restoration grant from Hudson Valley Climate Partners, and we got a small amount of money to start the project we now call Streambank. Ultimately this landed us in Prattsville, a little town in the Catskills, working in partnership with the Green County Soil and Water Conservation District, which has tons of experience doing similar projects all along streams in the Catskills. 

Andrea: We’re now in our second year of what we’re realizing is a very long-term undertaking. And we’re also using our own DIY residency space here in Windham, NY, to help bring stewards and artist-residents into the project. So it has become this interesting mix of expertise and angles all connecting over one restoration project.

^ Knotweed growing on the riverbank

How did you end up wanting to work on knotweed management? Was there a little spark that got you interested in invasive species, or knotweed in particular?

Tim: Being relatively new to this area, we’ve been listening to the land and trying to figure out our general approach to stewardship. It has been a process of close observation. One of the things that we quickly noticed, and which anyone can notice anywhere in the Catskills, is all the knotweed growing along the roads and streams. It’s kind of impossible not to notice. So as we were feeling around for a project that could be public-facing and community-oriented, working on the knotweed problem seemed like a good place to start.

Andrea: Also, as we worked to create some really basic infrastructure on our land, like trails and a cabin for future residents, we started taking stock of what was growing here. At the edge of our property we back up to NYC watershed land, which is protected because of how it feeds into the city’s drinking-water supply. We noticed knotweed starting to grow right at that border. It hadn’t come into our woods yet, but it was very close. That made us think more about what kinds of practices we should be using to encourage certain things to grow, while deterring others.

As we researched knotweed, we found out just how pervasive it is. It has created a slew of long-term problems, especially related to flooding and streambank erosion. But if you get ahead of it, you can prevent future damage.

Tim: At the same time, I started getting interested in willow as a species that has great carbon-sequestering potential. As I learned more, I started to see how the characteristics of the two species might overlap. There’s a rich cultural heritage of human cohabitation and use with willow species, particularly with river communities. But then with knotweed, this relatively new part of the ecosystem here, people don’t know what to do with it. It’s actually illegal to do anything with it besides burn it or bury it. So the Streambank project is about using the legacy of one species, willow, to inform management practices of the other, knotweed—and to see what we can learn in the process.

Is the main concern with knotweed streambank erosion?

Tim: The damage knotweed causes to ecosystems is really multifaceted. In the Catskills watershed context, streambank erosion is top-of-mind because it affects the water supply for literally millions of people.

Overall, the plant has a remarkable ability to form these dense monoculture-like clusters. It also grows super fast and out-competes everything else. When any plant dominates like that, it tends to be bad for native ecosystems and biodiversity. And because of how easily knotweed spreads, you have to be really careful in your management practices. It grows in places where you really want things like willow to grow, which, unlike knotweed, has really strong root networks and can prevent erosion during flooding events.

Can you explain the idea of “biocultural restoration?” How does it differ from more traditional invasive-species management approaches?

Tim: The term “biocultural restoration” emphasizes restoring not just ecosystems, but people’s connection to the land and to each other. It has been used by different people and communities in parallel, but we’re following the definition that’s been shaped by the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

On the other hand, standard approaches to managing invasives have less to do with people and more to do with economic efficiency. They use a definition of ecology that is divorced from cultural life, and in which people are thought of as separate from the land that’s around them. 

Andrea: The way that knotweed is typically managed tends to be really mechanical or chemical-based. Like, “Just bulldoze it out or spray it with a bunch of stuff.”

Biocultural restoration aims to be participatory. This approach isn’t anything new; all over the Catskills there are already community-led, volunteer-based restoration projects. We are just trying to add artists, designers, and stewards-in-residence to the mix as a way to push the idea of “restoration,” and to explore different uses for knotweed as a material.

One thing that’s extremely interesting about knotweed is that it’s a big plant with a lot of biomass. If we were to remove all of the knotweed growing in the Catskills, it would be literally tons of material. But the common way it’s dealt with is to be bagged and burned—which felt very wasteful to us. Why not try to put that removed material to good use?

Our project is beginning to ideate future use cases for the dried-out, non-viable material. As one example, there’s a project in Slovenia that uses knotweed to make paper. The end product is really beautiful, and we’re excited because if we can get a permit to move the non-viable, fully dried-out knotweed, we have a potential partner in New York who we could work with to make a big batch of paper. Our stewards-in-residence were also starting to do some on-site experimentation using knotweed to create bio leathers and building materials.

^ Knotweed drying in the sun to ensure it becomes non-viable, aka totally dead

Tim: To run down the laundry list even more, knotweed can be used for everything from food (the shoots are kind of like wild rhubarb) to medicine (knotweed has one of the highest-known concentrations of the antioxidant resveratrol). It can become biofilms and bio-composites of various kinds, and can be used as an ingredient in animal feed. It also has some compelling material properties, in terms of the strength of the canes and the stalks, and is very good at pulling heavy metals out of toxic soils.

All these potential uses make me think about how our world is truly an ecosystem of abundance, if we can learn to connect the dots. We’re just so conditioned to think of each thing in isolation. “The knotweed is invasive, so we must get rid of it.” And, “We need paper, so we must cut down trees to make it.” But maybe conservation could actually be about connecting these dots. I mean, that’s sort of the dream: That we could evolve the ideas of “production” and “conservation” to be spoken in the same sentence.

Tim: If you abstract it, ecology is basically just the study of connection. It works the same for social connections. The community that stewards the land is more resilient if we have those kinds of interwoven connections you’re talking about.

How do you think conservation and ecological restoration fit into the framework of capitalism, if at all? I was just listening to a really interesting podcast about how in China, they see the transition to green energy as a huge economic opportunity. Whereas in the US, it feels like there’s so much more resistance to getting on that bandwagon. We don’t do enough to frame it as an opportunity or a possibility; instead, we see it as a chore, because it threatens an ingrained way of life. 

Andrea: Yeah. What I was saying earlier about management practices involving chemicals… it’s because spraying in early Fall when the plant moves the chemical down to its rhizome network is the quickest way to induce dormancy and see visible results. However, the long-term impacts of that chemical application are unknown. Capitalism loves a quick fix. And the challenge is that once chemical treatment becomes the ingrained way of dealing with knotweed, then it’s really hard to challenge that.

Tim: It’s similar to our current problem with petroleum. Just like with our ingrained fossil-fuel dependency, when you use chemicals, you’re “stealing time from the future,” as the youth climate movement would say. Quick fixes that work in the present moment only tend to benefit whoever is in power at a given time. 

A lot of ingrained invasives-management approaches also have a capitalist way of undervaluing labor. They don’t want to pay people to do physical labor when a chemical is faster. So part of what we’re trying to demonstrate is that there are uses for this material that can help pay those people for their labor, and bring the process full-circle.

To connect it back to our previous work that was curatorial in nature, the word “curate” comes from the Latin phrase “to care.” So with this project, we’re still doing care work. Thinking about a local site within a network of ecosystems—human and natural—feels similar to thinking about curatorial relationships unfolding within an exhibition.

I love that way of extending the curatorial directive “to care” from the art world into the environmental realm. Do you have advice for other creative practitioners who might be thinking about transitioning their own practice into closer alignment with climate-focused work?

Tim: With art/science collaborations, there can be a tendency to invent your own thing instead of joining an existing project. Everyone wants to do something, but a lot of times your efforts can be counterproductive if you don’t spend enough time listening to other people’s experiences in the beginning. 

There are a lot of people who’ve been working on different forms of stewardship for a long time now, with amazing repositories of knowledge. Before we started this project, our first order of business was to reach out and talk to people who knew much more than us. Through that, we’ve forged connections to the traditional stewards of this land, including Lucille Burr from the Mohican Nation. We’ve also been in conversation with the governmental agencies who handle invasive-management around here, and with the soil and water conservation districts who oversee the DEP land. Forging those connections was extremely important to shaping this project.

Also, in land-restoration work, you always have to remind people that you can’t just go and do some intervention and then abandon the place. In that way, ecological and community projects are the same. Neither kind of project will be effective if you just helicopter in and do your intervention, and then leave. You have to commit to those connections—be they with species, with land, or with people. 

Finally, this kind of work can be overwhelming. Come spring, I’m sure that many of the places where we spent days cutting out knotweed will have reverted to looking just like they did before we started the project. It’s going to be a bit discouraging to go back and see that, even though we know we’ll be working on this project for years to come.

But also, your project isn’t just about removing knotweed. It reminds me how there are at least two parts to every project. One is the direct labor you’re putting in to achieve an outcome, and the other is the learning and the storytelling and the community building that happens along the way.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. It’s all about making those connections, and seeing where they lead. Also, if you have a community and everyone knows what’s happening with a species in a certain area, the likelihood of a positive ending goes way up. That’s why we’re excited to be exploring knotweed management from a more cultural perspective.

Imagine a world in which everyone knows about knotweed, about how it grows, and the dangers of it spreading. But in this world, everyone also knows what can be done with it, and everyone has their own seasonal rituals and practices that they do with the plants. When you get to know how the landscapes and the ecosystems are all reflected in each other, the whole system becomes more resilient.

To read more conversations like this one, subscribe to Dark Properties: