Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer and a very fine writer. His first bookThe Running Sky was a superb meditation not just on bird-watching, but on life. Last month I read his latest book Four Fields, in which Dee’s subject is, broadly, the way in which humans across the planet have shaped the landscape through cultivation. Succinctly summing up the idea that lends unity to his book, Dee writes:
Lately I’ve been preoccupied with weeds. There have been many to clear on the allotment we took over last September with the arrival of spring and the sudden onset of hot weather this year. In addition, I’ve been reading Richard Mabey’s fascinating new book, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilization and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.
Back in 1972, in his mid-twenties and working for Penguin Books in an area of urban wasteland near Heathrow airport, Mabey would spend his lunch hour walking from his office into what he later called the ‘unofficial countryside‘: abandoned and forgotten patches of the city where he discovered plants that thrived in the wasteland: ‘vegetable guerrillas that had overcome the dereliction of the industrial age’.
Now Mabey returns to dedicate a whole book to these ‘vegetable guerrillas’ (a concept captured brilliantly in Peter Dyer’s cover design).
Mabey kicks off, of course, by exploring the various definitions of what actually is a weed. The simplest is ‘a plant growing in the wrong place’, which captures the idea of weeds as troublesome, obnoxious and of no practical value. The fiends sabotage our horticultural plans, deny our crops nourishment and form impenetrable thickets of thistles and thorns (the allotment last September!). From this perspective, which, he points out, goes right back to the opening chapters of Genesis when God kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden and into the wilderness of briars and thorns, weeds are a bad lot, and there is nothing to be said in their defence.
But Mabey counsels a more objective approach to ‘these outlaw plants’; he encourages us to think about what they are, how they grow and what is their exact relationship to human activity. Because, he argues, the story of weeds is a thoroughly human story: ‘plants become weeds because people label them as such’. He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who observed this cultural aspect to what is considered appropriate or useful in the plant kingdom: a weed is just ‘a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered’. Or forgotten: large numbers of plants now condemned as weeds were once regarded as useful. In a striking example, Mabey notes that ground-elder, the bane of the gardener, was introduced to Britain by the Romans, who valued it as a pot-herb and cure for gout.
Plants may have certain traits that lead them to be condemned – toxicity or ugliness, for example. Poison ivy was immortalised by Lieber and Stoller as so pernicious that ‘You’re gonna need an ocean/Of calamine lotion’. As for ugliness, Mabey notes that the city ordinances in Houston, Texas make illegal ‘the existence of weeds, brush, rubbish and all other objectionable, unsightly and unsanitary matter of whatsoever nature covering or partly covering the surface of any lots or parcels of real estate’.
The United States appears particularly prone to this botanical fundamentalism. Mabey notes that there the ‘front garden’ is regarded as part of the public domain: across suburban America the space between house and road is almost always a lawn, with each property’s grass joining the next seamlessly. He reveals that lawns occupy 50,000 square miles of the US, and that the pressures to conform to orthodox standards of lawn maintenance are huge, with vast amounts spent on chemical weedkillers. Reading this brought back a childhood memory of when suburbia arrived in our small Cheshire village, in the form of a new Wimpey housing estate. All the frontages were laid out, American style, as one continuous lawn. But the English idea of the garden as a private domain soon prevailed – hedges went up and flower beds were laid. It took urban planners another twenty years to come up with the concept of ‘defensible space’.
Mabey’s main point is that the persistence of weeds in our backyards is not accidental. They thrive in the company of humans. They relish the things we do to the soil and flourish alongside our disturbances. As gardeners come to know, weeding encourages weeds as much as it deters them: Mabey quotes many examples of weeds that can regrow from just a tiny sliver left in the ground. Weeds are ‘mobile, prolific, genetically diverse… using multiple strategies for getting their own way’. In fact, concludes Mabey, ‘the species they most resemble is us’.
Weeds also have their benefits: they are willing to grow in the most hostile environments and bring wild nature into places that might be expected to be bereft of any life: bombed cities, industrial wastelands, rubbish dumps and the rest. The classic example is Rosebay Willowherb, once a rare flower of rocks and ancient walls, now a prolific denizen of man-made habitats. It burst into national consciousness on the bombsites of wartime London and other blitzed cities, where its blossoms sprang suddenly from the broken stones where human beings had lived.
Mabey traces the emergence of a new humanistic attitude to nature in art and plant illustration. There’s a superb passage where he writes about how Albrecht Durer’s remarkable 1503 painting, Large Piece of Turf (top) broke through the artistic conventions and cultural assumptions of its time, discovering ecology three centuries early:
The structure of the painting couldn’t be simpler. It is the structure of vegetation itself, as if Durer had stuck a spade at random in the ground and used the slab of turf it lifted as his frame. In the foreground are three rosettes of greater plantain, a weed that has so closely dogged human trackways across the globe that it was also known as Waybread and Traveller’s-foot. They’re surrounded by wisps of meadow-grass. Two dandelion heads, some way past flowering but still topped with yellow, lean leftwards. At the very rear of the painting – and its only concession to the less than commonplace – a few leaflets of burnet saxifrage are just visible through the mesh of grass leaves.
You observe this community of plants not from above, or any other conventionally privileged viewpoint, but from below. The bottom quarter of the picture is almost entirely devoted to the mottled patch of earth in which the weeds are visibly rooted. … It is a visually exquisite and scientifically correct composition. What you are looking at is a miniature ecosystem in which every component, from the damp mud at the base to the seeds on the point of flight, is connected.
No one was to take such an intensely grounded view of mundane vegetation again until the early nineteenth century, when the poet John Clare ‘dropped down’ to marvel at the weeds he loved, and Goethe gave his painter hero Young Werther a transcendental experience while sprawled in the grass: ‘I lie in the tall grass and, closer thus to the earth, become conscious of the thousand varieties of little plants . . .’.
Another chapter explores the appearance of weeds in the work of three writers: William Shakespeare, John Clare and (previously unknown to me) Pehr Kalm. For Shakespeare, it was natural to draw on the wild flowers and folklore of his native Warwickshire for imagery and associations. Mabey reckons that A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘crackling with plant imagery’ – must be ‘the only play in the English language whose plot hinges on the potency of a weed’ (the love-in-idleness, aka heartsease or wild pansy, whose juice Puck squeezes into the eyes of the young couples while sleeping).
From a close deconstruction of the flowers on Titania’s bank –
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight
– Mabey concludes that Shakespeare’s ‘confident use of weeds as symbols suggests that their popular meanings aren’t (or at least weren’t) superficial, concerned purely with agricultural nuisance, but have cultural and ecological undertones that are built into the genetic structure of their names’.
Then (and this is one example of the fascinating detail that Mabey provides in the book), there’s the elegiac lines from Cybeline:
Golden lads and lasses must As chimney-sweepers, come to dust
Who knows these days that ‘chimney-sweepers’ was Warwickshire patois for ‘the wind-scattered, time-telling clocks that follow dandelion’s golden flowers’?
Mabey turns from Shakespeare to John Clare, celebrating his poems, ‘full of vivid and intimate writing about wild flowers and weeds’. Like Albrecht Durer, Clare gets down to ground level to observe plants he regards as his equals, such as the ‘April Daisy’:
Welcome, old matey! Hail, beauty’s gem! Disdaining time nor place Carelessly creeping on the dunghill’s side.
And, as Mabey observes, Clare was responsible for what is probably the most extended passage on weeds in English poetry. This section from ‘May’ in The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) not only records the flowers and their cultural associations, but also the human interaction with them, as the weeding gangs move in to clear them:
Each morning, now, the weeders meet To cut the thistle from the wheat, And ruin, in the sunny hours, Full many a wild weed with its flowers;— Corn-poppies, that in crimson dwell, Call’d “Head-achs,” from their sickly smell; And charlocks, yellow as the sun, That o’er the May-fields quickly run; And “Iron-weed,” content to share The meanest spot that Spring can spare— E’en roads, where danger hourly comes, Are not without its purple blooms, Whose leaves, with threat’ning thistles round Thick set, that have no strength to wound, Shrink into childhood’s eager hold Like hair; and, with its eye of gold And scarlet-starry points of flowers, Pimpernel, dreading nights and showers, Oft call’d “the Shepherd’s Weather-glass,” That sleeps till suns have dried the grass, Then wakes, and spreads its creeping bloom Till clouds with threatening shadows come— Then close it shuts to sleep again: Which weeders see, and talk of rain; And boys, that mark them shut so soon, Call “John that goes to bed at noon:” And fumitory too—a name That Superstition holds to fame— Whose red and purple mottled flowers Are cropp’d by maids in weeding hours, To boil in water, milk, and whey, For washes on a holiday, To make their beauty fair and sleek, And scare the tan from Summer’s cheek; And simple small “Forget-me-not,” Eyed with a pin’s-head yellow spot I’ the middle of its tender blue, That gains from poets notice due:— These flowers, that toil by crowds destroys, Robbing them of their lowly joys, Had met the May with hopes as sweet As those her suns in gardens meet; And oft the dame will feel inclined, As Childhood’s memory comes to mind, To turn her hook away, and spare The blooms it loved to gather there!
Clare was, of course, a keen observer of the changes then transforming the English countryside: the loss of commons and streams, old open fields and heathland as enclosures destroyed habitats. In his second collection, The Village Minstrel, he lamented the eradication of the weeds:
There once were springs, when daisies’ silver studs Like sheets of snow on every pasture spread; There once were summers, when the crow-flower buds Like golden sunbeams brightest lustre shed; And trees grew once that shelter’d Lubin’s head; There once were brooks sweet whimpering down the vale: The brooks no more – kingcup and daisy fled; Their last fallen tree the naked moors bewail, And scarce a bush is left to tell the mournful tale.
Mabey’s third writer, Pehr Kalm, was a Finnish disciple of Linnaeus who travelled to England in 1748 to study the agricultural revolution. He was especially interested in the work of William Ellis, an improving farmer in the Chilterns, who was experimenting with different methods of weed control and pasture management. One of the things Ellis knew about was the nitrogen-fixing abilities of leguminous crops, including the despised ‘weed’, clover. ‘Nothing better clears the ground of trumpery and weeds than a good Crop of Clover’, he wrote.
Mabey tells fascinating tales of the globalisation of weeds in modern times, consequent upon expanding international trade, Europan imperial expansion and the impact of seeds brought back by explorers and collectors. Kew gardens in the 1840s was responsible for depatching Joseph Hooker to the Himalayas to collect plants. He came back with the seeds of 28 varieties of rhodedendron. ‘They were’, writes Mabey, ‘a sensationwith the gardening public…. No-one could have anticipated that some of them would escape to become one of the most invasive weeds of Britain’s western woodlands’. Then there’s the Oxford Ragwort, possibly brought back from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna on the shoe leather of someone on the 18th century Grand Tour.
Then there’s the modern traveller’s tale of Danish scurvy-grass, up to the 1980s only rarely found on salty clifftops and sea walls around Britain.Since then it’s become a common sighting on the edges of motorways and major roads, often closely-packed along the central reservations. The explanation? Salt spread on the roads during winter freezes.
Mabey devotes a chapter to burdock, which, he writes, is one of the least likely weeds to be credited with some kind of artistic beauty. From the mid-17th century burdock began appearing in landscape paintings, never obvious but nevertheless having caught the artist’s eye. The most notable example occurs in the work of Liverpool’s own George Stubbs. Burdock appears in several of his paintings, most notably in A Lion Devouring a Horse (1769), where under the agonised horse’s right hoof, the bland, grey-green foliage of its leaves are picked out in detail (click on the image below for the detail).
In this century, the American photographer Janet Malcolm took Stubbs a stage further when she produced a portfolio of 28 close-ups of single burdock leaves in various states of decrepitude. ‘I prefer’, she wrote, ‘older, flawed leaves to young unblemished specimens – leaves to which something has happened.’
Apart from art, the burdock – or, more specifically, its clinging seeds, the burrs that stick to clothing and dogs’ fur – provided the inspiration for velcro fastening. It was a Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, who, walking his dog in the 1940s, began to study the design of the burrs that clung to his dog’s coat with their mass of flexible hooks. After a great deal of experimentation, and using the new synthetic material nylon, Velcro finally reached the market in 1955.
Actually, my childhood memory of burdock gets no mention in Mabey’s book. In the early 1950s, in the summer months, a weather-beaten guy leading a horse and cart would appear in the village selling beverages, including dandelion and burdock which he sold in large stone flagons. Ice-cold to drink from. Back then, it probably was made from actual dandelions and burdock roots. These days it’s mostly artificial flavourings and sweeteners.
Mabey rounds off his survey with two contrasting chapters. The first is a brilliant survey of literary responses to the plants that entered deeply into the national conciousness as a result of two world wars – the poppy, the emblematic flower of the first world war; and the plant that was christened London rocket during the second, rosebay willow herb. The latter seemed to have sprung from nowhere, in the sense that it had previously been regarded as a rare plant. Mabey has an interesting discussion of a novel written in 1949 by novelist Rose Macauley, The World My Wilderness.
The novel tells the story of two teenagers who escape suburban tedium to live instead among the squatters, deserters and small-time criminals of the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s just after the War.
They made their way about the ruined, jungled waste, walking along broken lines of wall, diving into the cellars and caves of the underground city, where opulent merchants had once stored their wine, where gaily tiled rooms opened into one another and burrowed under great eaves of overhanging earth, where fosses and ditches ran, bright with marigolds and choked with thistles, through one-time halls of commerce, and yellow ragwort waved its gaudy banners over the ruin of defeated business men.
Macauley herself, with her younger companion Penelope Fitzgerald, had explored the bombsites, too, cataloguing the flowers and shrubs as they went.
In his closing chapter, Mabey blends a survey of postwar dystopian writing – with the focus on triffids – with an examination of real weeds that are almost as terrifying: kudzu (introduced into the US from south-east Asia in the 1870s), which can put on a foot in 12 hours, and Japanese knotweed, first noticed in Britain a century ago and now confirmed by the Environment Agency as the most invasive species of plant in Britain. It spreads extremely quickly, preventing native vegetation from growing, and is capable of undermining building foundations, concrete and tarmac.
Despite ending on this terrifying note, in Weeds, Mabey has written a hymn to the marginal. We get the weeds we deserve, he argues. We like to rigidly separate the natural world into the wild and the domestic. But weeds are ‘the boundary breakers, the stateless minority, who remind us that life is not that tidy’.
What would the world be, once bereft Of wet and wildness? Let them be left, O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Inversnaid’
Many weeds are here, states Mabey, because of the people we are, with our own histories ways of living: the ways we dig and mow, the walks we take, the holidays we go on. ‘But I still hoick them up when they get in my way’, he adds without sentiment.
Little Toller Books recently embarked on an excellent project: to republish classics of nature writing. I’ve just finished reading their new edition of Richard Mabey’s ground-breaking study of urban and fringe nature, The Unofficial Countryside, first published in 1973. In it, Mabey describes his explorations of crumbling city docks and overgrown bomb-sites, railway goods yards, sewage farms, canal towpaths, and disused factory wastelands, which more traditional naturalists ignored. He tells of his realisation that even the most unpromising, blasted and neglected urban landscape is capable of supporting life. In a prologue, Mabey remembers that epiphanic moment:
It had been what they call a normal working day. … Driving home in the middle of a creeping three-lane jam was about as much relief as if the office had been towed away on wheels. I was locked-up, boxed-in, and daydreaming morbidly. It was difficult to believe that there was any other sort of world beyond all this.
On impulse, I had snatched out of the homebound crawl after a few miles and headed down a winding suburban lane. It led to a labyrinth of gravel pits, reservoirs, and watery odds and ends that I had often visited during my work on the book. It was hardly the promised landscape, and the whole area was pocked with working quarries and car dumps. But in the mood I was in, just to have seen some murky water lapped by non-air-conditioned wind would have set me right.
What I did find that early autumn day was, I suppose, nothing special … I had parked by the edge of a canal which curled around the western edge of this maze of water, and had stumped off, scowling, along the towpath. I think it was my black frame of mind that made the unexpected late fruitfulness of this place strike me with such intensity. I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows. […]
What had begun as a nervous gallop soon turned into a stroll. My eyes began to relax a little, and following the last swallows hawking for flies over the water, I caught sight of a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance. I had never before seen this plant so deep into suburbia. The towpath itself was festooned with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms and when a bicycling worker bucked past it seemed as natural to exchange greetings with him as if we had been in a country lane. No matter that the place he had come from was the gaunt Water Board pumping Station that stretched along the bank, looking like nothing so much as an oil refinery. As dusk fell and the warning lights on its roof began to flush the bellies of the roosting gulls, I went off home like a new man.
Mabey recalls that nearly forty years before, only a few miles from this spot, George Orwell had written a poem called ‘On a Ruined Farm near the His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ in which he spoke of feeling torn – like Buridan’s ass that died of starvation, standing midway between two kinds of food and unable to decide which it preferred – between two loves: rural England with its close but dying communities, and the new industrial landscape where the mass of people were forced to live.
As I stand at the lichened gate With warring worlds on either hand – To left the black and budless trees, The empty sties, the barns that stand
Like tumbling skeletons – and to right The factory-towers, white and clear Like distant, glittering cities seen From a ship’s rail – as I stand here,
I feel, and with a sharper pang, My mortal sickness; how I give My heart to weak and stuffless ghosts, And with the living cannot live.
The acid smoke has soured the fields, And browned the few and windworn flowers; But there, where steel and concrete soar In dizzy, geometric towers –
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round, And great wheels turn, and trains roar by Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel – There is my world, my home; yet why
So alien still? For I can neither Dwell in that world, nor turn again To scythe and spade, but only loiter Among the trees the smoke has slain.
Yet when the trees were young, men still Could choose their path – the winged soul, Not cursed with double doubts, could fly, Arrow-like to a foreseen goal;
And they who planned those soaring towers, They too have set their spirit free; To them their glittering world can bring Faith, and accepted destiny;
But none to me as I stand here Between two countries, both-ways torn, And moveless still, like Buridan’s donkey Between the water and the corn.
But, argues Mabey, Orwell was ‘too gloomy’:
The choice was not as stark as he painted it. The trees can live next to the cranes. He forgot that their roots are not just the symbolic ones of our natural ancestry, but real ones of wood and fibre. At both levels they are a goodly sight hardier than the smoke-stained branches. Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to belong in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots. An old-fashioned lamp-standard makes as good a nesting box for a tit as any hollow oak. Provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature.
This new edition of The Unofficial Countryside is beautifully produced, with a new cover and plates by Mary Newcomb, the untrained and visionary East Anglian artist (above; image by her daughter, Tessa Newcomb, below). The book is divided into four sections – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – following Mabey as he rambles along derelict canal banks, through reservoirs and among steaming rubbish tips. In these unlikely locations he finds a staggering variety of plants, animals, birds, and insects making a living out of human waste, dereliction and disturbance. In the early part of the book, Mabey challenges the conventional distinctions between flowers and weeds, between native and imported species, and between formal and informal landscapes. Mabey expresses his dislike for the well-manicured municipal parks of the time.
This was a book that changed attitudes, changes that can be seen now in improvements in parks management and the proliferation of urban and semi-urban wildlife sanctuaries, often created out of the derelict landscapes that Mabey describes.
Tessa Newcomb: Small Activities in a Vast Landscape
The new edition has a typically left-field introduction by Iain Sinclair who draws parallels between Mabey’s book and J.G.Ballard’s Concrete Island, published in the same year. These, he argues, are both key texts of late 20th century English urban neo-romanticism, a meeting-point between the rich tradition of English nature-writing and the Situationist concept of ‘drift’: to wander aimlessly and without destination through the city, soaking up its ambiences. Psycho-geography was the term that came to be used to describe the study of the urban environment’s effects on the psyche, with psycho-geographical reports compiled fromsuch ‘drifts’. Both traditions, Sinclair argues, meet on the urban margins. Mabey was one of the first to suggest that the concepts of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ no longer apply: ‘‘it is not the parks but the railways sidings which are thick with wild flowers’.
Richard Mabey concludes his peregrinations with these cautiously optimistic words:
There is a limit to the recuperative powers of the natural world. It will always fight back, but it cannot survive outright eradication, as I was to be reminded a few months later. It was late June, and I had tracked down that ruined farm that Orwell had written his poem from, hoping that, forty years later, it would have proved his pessimism unjustified. But it was a crumbling and dejected place, beaten back by the sheer weight of development crowding in on it. There were a few strips of vegetables, but most of the ground had been occupied by used-car dumps and football pitches. Therewere scarcely any trees remaining and the chief vegetation above grass level was a few clumps of elder and hawthorn. That these bushes would soon be draped, not with an honest English climber like traveller’s joy, but with the extravagant trumpet blossoms of an alien bindweed, the American bellbine, would not, I think, havereassured Orwell. This hardy immigrant would live on, I guess, and some greenery continue to brighten this bleak industrial landscape. But it was not the set-piece I was looking for. The odds were too one-sided. Even the factories themselves once ‘white and clear/Like distant glittering cities . . .’ were now dark with grime and age.
I ended up at an abandoned brickyard at the very edge of my chosen area. I suppose that it had ceased to be used about three years before, and it was now a dumping ground for any household rubbish too big for the bin. But successive excavations of the sand and clay for the bricks had left the yard with a legacy of mature waste ground. The abandoned mounds were thick with wild rose, hawthorn and the young shoots of rosebay. The steep-sided pits hadfilled with water, and though they had little or no vegetation in them, they were buzzing with water boatmen, diving beetles and newts. And the paths between, once heavily-used tracks over the light soil, carried one of the most brilliant collections of dry-soil flowers I have ever seen: ox-eye daisies, centauries, vetches, late cowslips, lady’sbedstraw, musk mallow knee-high.
I walked to the very edge of the yard. There was one of the deepest pits here and into it had been pushed and abandoned a saloon car. The air and weather had already begun to get hold of it. The bodywork was rusting and the rubber beginning to peel off the tyres. But there were more miraculous healing forces at work. Sidling over the bonnet and poking through the hole where the windscreen had been, were sweep upon sweep of spotted orchid, in every shade
of pink. This most delicate of flowers, hounded by new roads and car-borne trippers, had found refuge amongst the clutter, and was having its revenge.