Archive for December, 2013

Rethinking the garden

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Think ‘change’!

In 1949 the archeologist poet Jacquetta Hawkes wrote about the value of her small neglected urban back garden as follows:

“When I have been working late on a summer night, I like to go out and lie on the patch of grass in our back garden. This garden is a square of about twenty feet, so that to lie in it is like exposing oneself in an open box or tray. Not far below the topsoil is the London Clay which, as Primrose Hill, humps up conspicuously at the end of the road. The humus, formed by the accumulations, first of forest and then of meadow land, must once have been fertile enough, but nearly a century in a back garden has exhausted it. After their first season, plants flower no more, and are hard put to it each year even to make a decent show of leaves. The only exceptions are the lilies of the valley, possessors of some virtue that enables them to draw their tremendous scent from the meanest soils. The sunless side of the garden has been abandoned to them, and now even in winter it is impossible to fork the earth there, so densely is it matted with the roots and pale nodes from which their flowers will rise.  Another result of the impoverishment of the soil is that the turf on which I lie is meagre and worn, quite without buoyancy. I would not have it otherwise, for this hard ground presses my flesh against my bones and makes me agreeably conscious of my body. In bed I can sleep, here I can rest awake. My eyes stray among the stars, or are netted by the fine silhouettes of the leaves immediately overhead and from them passed on to the black lines of neighbouring chimney pots, misshapen and solid, yet always inexplicably poignant”.

Lying on her unkempt lawn Jacquetta Hawkes was acutely aware of cats rustling in the creeper on the end wall, making their silken untamed journeys through the dark.  They seemed as remote to her as the creatures that moved before there were any houses in the Thames valley. Enveloped in this new cultural awareness of the wild heritage of urban gardens, cats represent the continued presence of the biological past as do the sporadic garden birds that once sang in a dense togetherness, flirting among a forest’s leaves, while helpless men skulked between the trunks below. Now she says a few birds linger in the isolated trees that men have left standing, or fit themselves into the chinks of the human world; into its church towers, lamp-posts and gutters. This ancient occupancy of garden space was, she felt, evoked by the singing, whistling and calling that fell into millions of ancestral ears to leave images that we all inherit. When listening to bird song it seemed she held a great spiral shell to her ear.  The shell was “the vortex of time, and as the birds themselves took shape, species after species, so their distinctive songs were formed within them, spiralling up ever since” to eventually at last spill over into her brain.

At the time that Hawkes was putting the finishing touches to her book ‘The Land‘,  in the United States, Aldo Leopold was completing the exposition of his ‘land ethic.  Both declared that humankind and Nature are deeply inter-connected. Aldo Leopold articulated the land ethic in his classical work, The Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays published in 1949, a year after his death, in which he attempted to weld together the concepts of ecology, esthetics, and ethics.  He is actually thought of by many as a modern ecological prophet, the “spiritual father of conservation and an “authentic American Hero”. Where many scientists of his time saw their work as distinct from economics, politics, religion and other disciplines, Leopold did not compartmentalize his thinking or analysis. Leopold’s Almanac is the Bible of the modern environmental-conservation movement.  It is the source of many powerful sayings such as:

“Recreational development is not a job of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” Another of his truths: “Land is not a commodity that belongs to us; land is a community to which we belong.” And this one: “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life—and dullness.” .

An ecology, founded on the outward vision of Jacquetta Hawkes and Aldo Leopold, reminds humanity that Nature is the source of the cosmic creativity called life, without which humankind and its cultural achievements would not exist. Their ethical imperative to revere the local environment, Earth, the ecosphere and its sectoral ecosystems, is greater, by many magnitudes of importance, than any single species so far brought forth.

Deep time dreaming

Surely, Jacquetta Hawkes’ meditative use of her back garden marks a change in cultural orientation towards gardens as part of the human ecological niche that is set aside for considering ‘origins’ and ‘change’.   Indeed Hawkes musing on her impoverished garden hemmed in by bricks, had unwittingly kickstarted a deep-time dream spanning four billion years of planetary history, whose “purposes” are to demonstrate that we are all “creatures of the land”, substantially produced by the terrain on which we live.  She advanced a cross curricular cosmogony of consciousness, culture and geology occupying the land in real time; that is to say, the aeons before human kind could question the past.  On discovering a Neanderthal skeleton, she was forced to reflect on human time:

“I was conscious of this vanished being and myself as part of an unbroken stream of consciousness . . . With an imaginative effort it is possible to see the eternal present in which all days, all the seasons of the plain, stand in enduring unity.”

This is an ethical standpoint on human evolution that insists that we are all part of nature in everything we do.  An integrated understanding of these ideas by Hawkes and Leopold encompasses the ‘Land Ethic’.   It re-emerged in 2012 when Darren Fleet in his blog addressed the topic of why we garden, with a reminder that urban gardening is not just about cultivating flowers and vegetables, but is a form of protest and escape from modernity and a world of efficient systems.

In a way, it is illogical that Jacquetta Hawkes should concentrate all of her emotion on birds being conceptual carriers of the wildness of cosmic time because insects look, and are, more ancient.  The evolution of animal pollination in flowering plants began with the insects, and the resulting coevolution of plants and insects during the late Cretaceous period, a hundred million years ago, is one of the classic stories of evolutionary biology that dwarfs our recent appearance as the dominant planet-changer.  From the extinction of dinosaurs, coevolution of plants and insects has powered Earth’s biosphere through its mutual benefits.  In its most dramatic expression, pollination involves behavioural interactions between two species that are totally dependent on each other. Each species exerts selective pressure on the other, so they evolve together. It is an extreme example of the biological phenomenon of mutualism.  Plants or animals with minor structural deviations that improve the beneficial mutualistic association between flower and pollinator are favoured by natural selection.  Nectar for pollinators is the vital stuff that holds this crucial relationship, and therefore glues life on earth in one piece. It began with a plant’s need to have its pollen spread and an insect’s want of nectar for energy.  The survival of lily of the valley in Hawkes’ back garden, with its powerful come hither scent for insects, is the real marker of ‘time before people’.

In a parochial context, Jacquetta Hawkes’ thoughts had actually signalled a revision of the traditional role of domestic gardens.  Homely and functional gardens connected to working-class cottages go back several centuries, but their reinvention in stylised versions for a new middle class of urban dwellers grew in the 1870s to emulate the cottage garden with its mixture of ornamental and edible plants.  This cultural development went along with the application of ideas from the more structured and rigorously maintained big English estate gardens that showed grace and charm in the thoughtful use of formal designs and mass plantings of brilliantly coloured and intensely bred annuals. In contrast,  Hawkes concentrates on the use of the garden as a space in Earth’s history for contemplating the position of humankind in the cosmos and a place to develop a frame of mind that stresses a thoughtful, detached mode of attending to an ever changing landscape dominated by human settlement.  Using a garden in this way implies physical or metaphorical distancing oneself from convention, often accompanied by a sense of reverence. It also implies considering the landscape itself as an object for study and a vessel for meaning, where boundaries between ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’ are quite fluid.  This is opposed to defining the garden as a mere location and a decorated container for human presence.  For Jacquetta Hawkes, the nearer a garden comes to escaping from the ornamental gardener the better and there are no more suitable subjects to start a reappraisal of the role of urban garden design in the 21st century than ‘a neglected lawn’ and the ‘evolution of pollination’.

Fight against grass

The term lawn, referring to a managed grassy space, dates to no earlier than the 16th century. Tied to suburban expansion and the creation of the household aesthetic, the lawn is an important aspect of the interaction between the natural environment and the constructed urban and suburban space.

To break this mental grip on managing uniformly green monocultures the mode of attack must have the objective of diminishing the ecological grip of grass. The other change in behaviour should be to shift people’s gaze from birds to insects, which carry a more powerful message of humankind as part of nature.  At this point we can turn to Jacquetta Hawkes again and the hold that lily of the valley had on the shady portion of her back garden,  Its scent, which she described beautifully as its virtue, was selected by evolution to attract insect pollinators. Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) is a small perennial.  It is not frost tender and is in flower from May to June, with seeds ripening in October. The flowers, which emit a powerful scent, are hermaphrodite and pollinated by bees and flies as well as being self pollinated.  It also spreads rapidly through rhizomes underground, a habit that defeated Hawkes’ attempt to cultivate its space.

Flowering plants and their pollinators have become adapted to one another over the ages for maximum mutual benefit.  They first evolved in the Cretaceous period, about 90 million years ago.  Bees and wasps had already made their appearance 50 million years earlier and the butterflies and moths began to evolve about 30 million years later. Since then, the coevolution of the morphology of insects and pollinators has produced some amazing expressions of sexuality of these relationships Angraecum sesquipedale, also called Darwin’s orchid, was discovered in 1798 by Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars, a keen botanist and aristocrat exiled during the French Revolution. Native to east and south-east Madagascar, Darwin’s orchid is found in lowland regions from sea level up to 100m altitude, usually growing on tree trunks at forest edges, but occasionally found on rocks.  It is called Darwin’s orchid because Charles Darwin predicted that, according to his newly formed theory of evolution,  this orchid could only be pollinated by a moth with a very long feeding tube: it wasn’t until several years after his death that this theory was vindicated by the discovery of such a pollinator.  This species is a hawkmoth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta,  with the name sesquipedale, which refers to the length of the orchid’s spur its tongue has to penetrate.  Thus the mutual survival of both Darwin’s orchid and the the hawkmoth, is utterly dependent upon the co-evolution of the moth’s extremely long proboscis to drink the sweet energy-rich nectar at the end of the orchid’s nectar spur. Darwin’s orchid is mainly used to educate people about the crucial role played by nectar-pollinator interactions between plants and animals. Generally, the shapes and sizes of flowers show close correlations with the pollen-adhering part of the animal pollinator. Accordingly the principle was established that it is often possible for a biologist to look at a flower and decide from its appearance how it is pollinated; whether by bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, flies, wind or by any combination. In the present context, moth and orchid are icons of the land ethic, but how can their important educational message evoke a practical response in urban dwellers.  The following message in this direction comes from the web site of ‘Pollination Canada‘.

“To begin with, you do not need copious amounts of space to create a garden that will attract pollinators. Plants can be planted anywhere, from pots and flower boxes, to actual flowerbeds. Pollinators are attracted to flowers by their colour and scent, not by where they are planted.

Consider designing a garden so that there is a continuing sequence of blooming plants from spring to fall. This will ensure that the garden can supply nectar and pollen for a variety of pollinators with different foraging habits and different flower preferences. Flowers with bright colours, especially blue, yellow, red, and violet are attractive to pollinators, and during the night, flowers’ fragrances are alluring.

When you choose flowers to grow, it is better to pick plants that are native to your region, or at least native to North America. Native plants are better adapted to their area and are therefore more able to provide for pollinator’s needs than are non-native plants. But regardless of the origin of the plants, it is also important to try to choose old-fashioned varieties, whenever possible. Many garden varieties have been bred to look and smell attractive to humans, but often lack accessible nectar and pollen for pollinators”

For anyone to take this advice to turn their garden around and maintain a crop of pollinators is to take a position that land is in short supply.  This was first articulated by Ayers Brinser in his book ‘Our Use of the Land‘, published in 1939. Brinser argued that European settlers in America brought with them “the seeds of a civilization which has grown by consuming the land, that is, a civilization which has used up the land in much the same way that a furnace burns coal.”  The clock cannot be turned back and the only way forward and live sustainably is to dedicate the land that remains, which for most people is the space around their house, to increase neighbourhood biodiversity.

Nectar networks

For such insect activists, The Web hosts hundreds of organisations like Pollination Canada giving the same level of advice, usually with a list of suitable nectar-producing plants. They all target individual gardeners and there is very little information on the outcomes of such activities on numbers of local insects.  Also, to make an ecological impact such home garden plantings have to be multiplied within neighbourhoods.  These limitations indicate the need to establish networks of urban gardeners and their gardens within a social organisation dedicated to providing ideas, methods and an evidence database about how to fill the gaps between isolated nectar points.  Such grassroots organizations with their organic nature and individual member support for specific causes stand to grow in influence and benefit from the advent of social media as an advocacy tool. Social media as a community platform is most conducive to the passionate and intense nature of neighbourhood activists and the causes that they support. In terms of boosting local biodiversity, a worthwhile starting point is to define a role for users of social media who can claim to have hundreds of friends in their network, yet sometimes find it difficult to name half a dozen people that they have actually met in their street.

While social networks have helped people to meet like-minded contacts online, they have had a more limited role in developing face-to-face contact in communities.  They could have a bigger role in building community and catalysing neighbourhood co-operation and social action once it has occurred to people that they could set up a GoogleFacebook or Twitter group for improving their local patch. Discussions along these lines has highlighted how social networks and online forums are fast becoming recognised as an important tool in community development and the range of tools available to ordinary citizens.  The task is how to use free social media to urge individuals to local action by integrating capacity building with practical work to achieve a common objective.  It is essentially a slow process with few examples, but a start has been made in Wales to develop a national nectar point network for connected coordinated action based on the predilections of individuals to start discussions and arguments, or answer questions. Each stakeholder has information needs and experiences that are related but somewhat different from others. Building effective social media systems requires delivering the right information to each person with an urge to get involved.  With respect to producing a crop of pollinators in back gardens the Welsh idea of a nectar point network takes the view that community-based conservation is typically a grassroots effort initiated because of specific concerns about, say the decline in bees. This bottom-up conservation works well, because, in part, it is a collaborative process building on the caring relationships local activists already have with their green infrastructure such as trees, parks and gardens. The proposed scheme involves mobilising people of diverse ages and backgrounds to manage the biodiversity of local urban populations of insects for enjoyment and enrichment of their neighbourhood heritage.

This objective will be achieved by using social media to promote the establishment a network of streets and neighbourhoods (‘one square miles’) where insect populations are boosted through the creation of clusters of nectar points. A nectar point is a location e.g. a garden, park, school ground, shop front, waste land, roadside verge or roundabout that has been augmented with plants that are prolific in producing nectar for feeding insects. The starting point is a group of local activists who can use their skills of growing garden plants to support families and neighbours who wish to participate in the scheme.

The resultant nectar point network would focus families, schools, businesses, academic institutions and others to a common purpose of enhancing and sustaining local biodiversity and change the perception and experience of what is valuable in their urban surroundings. It would include incentives for behaviour change including rewards, such as best street, best young grower, best school /business contributor, best level of participation, best action plan etc. It could also stimulate community and citizen participation in related aspects of neighbourhood betterment, such as time banking. There would also be a strong element of citizen science to communicate know-how and ideas about how to carry out the plantings and monitoring to assess their impact on wildlife. This is not a project concerned with rare species but with enhancing the wildlife of gardens and streets that is limited by the availability of plant nectar.

Here is an exciting idea to boost urban biodiversity with a network of growers using their preferred social medium to communicate.  The aim should also be to give a boost to citizen science directed at selecting appropriate plant species and monitoring local insects.  Then there is the need to express in words and pictures how all of this activity impacts on the development of a personal land ethic, which in this context says a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.  This is the core social purpose of a nectar point network; to stimulate deep thinking about our dependence on ecosystem services and the changes in domestic behaviour needed for living sustainably.

nectar point jpg