Weeds: the boundary breakers

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Turf, 1503

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.

A pressed specimen of Rosebay Willowherb or Fireweed collected in Holborn. From Flora of London Bombed Sites 1950, a collection at the Department of Botany, Natural History Museum London.

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’?

Dandelion clocks near Downe House, Kent

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.


The Unofficial Countryside

The Unofficial Countryside

The Unofficial Countryside cover by Mary Newcombe

The Unofficial Countryside cover by Mary Newcombe

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.

Rotting car, Cliffe Lagoon, 1982 – Fay Godwin


Before ‘Silent Spring’

Before ‘Silent Spring’

This week I’ve been listening to The Essay on Radio 3, five talks on the theme ‘Before Silent Spring‘. Rachel Carson’s book was first published in 1962, a warning about the long-term effects of pesticides and a call-to-arms that is widely regarded as the starting point for the modern environmentalism.

Five writers, scientists and environmental campaigners reflected on how Carson built on the work of others who’d gone before her, figures whose ideas preceded Silent Spring and laid the foundations of the contemporary environmental movement.

The first essay was presented by Vandana Shiva, a veteran of the Indian Chipko movement in which Indian villagers, predominantly women, have sought to protect their livelihoods through non-violent resistence. She explained that the forests of India are a critical resource for the subsistence of rural people, especially in hill and mountain areas, both because of their direct provision of food, fuel and fodder and because of their role in stabilising soil and water resources. During the 1970s and 1980s the forests were increasingly felled for commerce and industry and resistance to their destruction spread throughout India and became known as the Chipko Movement.  But her main theme was the first recorded Chipko protest that took place in 1730, when 363 villagers in Rajasthan sacrificed their lives while protecting trees considered sacred by the community, hugging them and dying under the axes of men sent by the local ruler.

In the final essay, Richard Mabey told how he only encountered Silent Spring several years after its publication, since at the time he was absorbed in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the peace movement. One night at the height of the crisis, when all life seemed about to end, he distracted himself by building a bookcase. The following day, the crisis over, Silent Spring was not one of the books placed on the shelf.  If it had been, Mabey suggested, he would have been struck by its argument that threats to nature were also threats to humanity, and might have reflected that both toxic chemicals and nuclear weapons had sprung from a common well of hubris.

It was later that Mabey discovered Silent Spring – around the same time that he also stumbled upon the work of the 19th century poet John Clare.  He was surprised to find so many similarities between them. Both highlighted the complex links between all living things and both gave stark warnings about the dangers of breaking those links. In his essay, Mabey explored John Clare’s purpose in bringing the beauty and fragility of the natural environment to wider public attention in his poetry, ‘dropping down’ to see nature as it might appear to other creatures, exploring the ‘extraordinariness of small things’.

Clare was an early voice articulating  the impoverishing effects of agricultural intensification – a process beginning with the enclosures in his time and culminating in the toxic chemistry of Silent Spring. The best of Clare’s poetry, Mabey asserted, is an attack on our abuse of the land. He found it natural to turn to Clare for an epigraph when he was writing his own seminal work, The Common Ground, in 1980, the British equivalent to Silent Spring that helped  launch the conservation movement in this country. Mabey recalled the passage from Clare’s autobiography that he chose as the epigraph for the book:

I often pulled my hat over my eyes to watch the rising of the lark, or to see the hawk hang in the summer sky and the kite take its circless round the wood. I often lingered a minute on the woodland stile to hear the woodpigeons clapping their wings among the dark oaks.  I hunted curious flowers in rapture and muttered thoughts in their praise. I loved the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep-tracks. I adored the wild, marshy fen with its solitary heronshaw sweeing along in its melancholy sky. I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden-blossomed firze. I dropt down on a thymy mole-hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape….I marked the various colours in flat, spreading fields, checkered into closes of different-tinctured grain like the colours of a map; the copper-tinted clover in blossom; the sun-tanned green of the ripening hay; the lighter charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches; the blue corn-bottles crowding their splendid colours in large sheets over the land and troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty; the different greens of the woodland trees, the dark oak, the paler ash, the mellow lime, the white poplars peeping above the rest like leafy steeples, the grey willow shining in the sun, as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green.  .  . I observed all this with the same rapture as l have done since. But I knew nothing of poetry. It was felt and not uttered.

Mabey went on to consider how Clare, in many of his poems, was unashamedly political, writing ‘calls to arms against profit-driven assaults on nature’. Two examples chosen by Mabey were Remembrance and To a Fallen Elm:

I see a picture that thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny
Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free
Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many an hour
That when in power would never shelter thee
Thoust heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrongs illusions when he wanted friends
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade ammends
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom…

Discussing ‘Remembrance’, Mabey quoted the historian EP Thompson, who remarked that, ‘So close is the mutual ecological implication of the human and the natural here that each might stand for the other. Clare might be described…as a poet of ecological protest:

Here was commons for the hills where they seek for freedom still
Though every commons gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners- O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old ‘sneap green’ puddocks nook and hilly snow
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view
When we threw the pissmire crumbs when we’s nothing else to do
All leveled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
All settled here for ever on its brow […]

By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill

O had I known as then joy had left the paths of men
I had watched her night and day besure and never slept agen
And when she turned to go O I’d caught her mantle then
And wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay
Aye knelt and worshipped on as love in beautys bower
And clung upon her smiles as a bee upon her flower
And gave her heart my poesys all cropt in a sunny hour
As keepsakes and pledges to fade away
But love never heeded to treasure up the may
So it went the comon road with decay.
– from Remembrances

Mabey introduced ‘Wood Pictures in Autumn’ by noting its ‘extraordinary evocation of a landscape in which every element is interlinked’:

The woodland swamps with mosses varified
And bullrush forests bowing by the side
Of shagroot sallows that snug shelter make
For the coy moorhen in her bushy lake
Into whose tide a little runnel weaves
Such charms for silence through the choking leaves
And whimpling melodies that but intrude
As lullabies to ancient solitude
The wood-grass plats which last year left behind
Weaving their feathery lightness to the wind
Look now as picturesque amid the scene
As when the summer glossed their stems in green
While hasty hare brunts through the creepy gap
Seeks their soft beds and squats in safety’s lap

Mabey concluded his essay with these words:

Of the many things [Clare’s] poems teach us – the value of the local, the mutual dependence of all living things – the best is perhaps that language may be our greatest ecological gift and that the answer to the threat of a silent spring is for us to sing against the storm.

In a further essays this week, Curt Meine considered Aldo Leopold, forester, philosopher and author of A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, a classic in American nature writing and a cornerstone of environmental ethics; botanist Sandy Knapp discussed 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, best known for co-proposing the theory of natural selection with Charles Darwin;  while historian Donald Worster explored the life of John Muir, the nineteenth century Scot who emigrated to the United States to become an outspoken advocate for the American wilderness – resulting in the founding of National Parks.

Autumn leaves

Autumn leaves

Autumn leaves

In the last few days we have had some glorious days and the colours of the autumn leaves have been wonderful. I captured some images in Calderstones Park as well as at Chatsworth in Derbyshire.

In an essay titled Autumnal Tints, Thoreau wrote:

October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight….

At present these burning bushes stand chiefly along the edge of the meadows, or I distinguish them afar on the hill-sides here and there. Sometimes you will see many small ones in a swamp turned quite crimson when all other trees around are still perfectly green, and the former appear so much the brighter for it…

Some single trees, wholly bright scarlet, seen against others of their kind still freshly green, or against evergreens, are more memorable than whole groves will be by-and-by. How beautiful, when a whole tree is like one great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look toward the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape? Visible for miles, too fair to be believed. If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last.

Why do the leaves change colour in autumn –  and should we interpret the transformation as a symptom of decline? In a piece in The Guardian, A Season of Splendour,Richard Mabey wrote:

It is temperament, not age, that shapes your view of the season. You may see it as a fading away, a packing up, or as a time of packing in another sense – the excited gathering of resources before a long journey. DH Lawrence, a perennial grouch, complained that, “The autumn always gets me badly, as it breaks into colours. I want to go south … where the cold doesn’t crouch over one like a snow-leopard waiting to pounce.” But John Keats, already sensing he was mortally ill, was inspired by a late September day in Winchester to pen one of the most glowing and loved poems in the English language. He wrote to a friend afterwards that he found autumn’s “temperate sharpness” more comforting than the “chilly green of spring”, that there was something comforting and healing about it.

And in To Autumn itself he makes a litany of images that have decisively shaped every optimistic romantic’s expectations of the season: the “mists and mellow fruitfulness”; the apples bending “the moss’d cottage trees”; the sunset-tinged stubble fields; the last swallows assembling before their great journey. Keats has the biological evidence on his side. Autumn is not a time of slowing down, an annual rehearsal of senescence, but a time of furious activity, of new beginnings, of the setting of the seeds of the next generation, of great movements of creatures.

Just at the moment that Keats’s “gathering swallows” are departing for Africa, millions of creatures from the frozen north are fleeing into Britain. Immense flocks of wild geese arrive from the tundras of Iceland, Greenland and Russia to winter along the east and south coasts, from the Solway Firth to the Hampshire Avon. In Norfolk alone, 100,000 pink-footed geese gather. As they fly to roost at dusk, their ragged skeins are sometimes so high that they glow pink in the rays of a sun that is already invisible from ground level. And from Scandinavia come a million fieldfares – a faint sound of castanets in the night sky, then clouds of broad-shouldered birds erupting from the top of hawthorn bushes, dappled greys and fawns against the scarlet berries.

But it is the colouring of the leaves and their eventual fall that form the defining display of autumn, and something that can be as spectacular in old England as it is in New. The metamorphosis is not something regular and fixed. It is affected by summer rainfall and temperature, by local differences in soil and drainage, by the physiology of individual trees. The turning begins on high ground and in the extreme north and south, and flows down into the valleys. It ebbs and ripples through woods, cherries often lighting up first, vermilion and pink, then the beeches’ tan and gold and the maples’ lemon, then the russet-tinged ochre of oaks, and the last thin yellows of the hazel and ashes. It dashes about individual trees, sometimes descending in falls and layers from the tip of the tree, sometimes daubing a single branch with chrome weeks before the rest of the foliage changes.

What is it all for, this lavish and extravagant light show? No one is sure why deciduous trees shed their leaves in the first place. It may be to rid the tree of toxins accumulated over the summer. More likely it is another act of conservation, a way of reducing the loss of water, which tree roots find hard to take in from cold soil.

In Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin wrote:

The chameleon leaves are litmus to the chemical changes going on inside them. The tree senses a particular moment when the balance between day and night has altered.  It appears to measure the hours and minutes with some precision, and shorter days triggger the development of a suicidal hormone in each leaf.  It creeps down the leaf stem to the joint with the woody twig, where it stimulates the growth of a sphincter of brittle, hard tissue that gradually closes on itself, cutting off the supply of sap.  Thus deprived of water, the chlorophyll in the leaf disintegrates.  Chlorophyll makes leaves look green by absorbing the blue-and-red light of the sun and masking other pigments.  As it breaks down, the leaf reveals the colours of its other underlying chemical constituents.  Then it dries still more, the stem joint snaps, and it goes floating off to the woodland floor to settle in pools of yellow, orange or soft chestnut-browns…The leaves of different species contain distinctive pigments: the yellow carotenoids of willow, poplar or hazel; the red anthocyanins of maple or dogwood…or the earthy tannins of oak leaves…

Contradicting the essence of these two passages, I’ve chosen a poem by WB Yeats that begins with a perfect image of autumn perfection, but continues to meditate on the pain of living in a time when ‘all’s changed’. He was writing in 1919.

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

The Wild Swans At Coole, William Butler Yeats