A botanical sleuth explores natural diversity in London and discovers how modern life has gone wrong
In his essay The Parish and the Universe the poet Patrick Kavanagh distinguished between “parochial” and “provincial” mindsets. The provincial, he wrote, “has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis – towards which his eyes are turned – has to say on any subject.” The parochial, on the other hand, “is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish”. Kavanagh knew that attending to the local needn’t mean turning your back on the wider world. “Parochialism is universal,” he concluded, “it deals with the fundamentals.”
Nine years ago the environmentalist and writer Bob Gilbert moved to Poplar, east London, where his wife had been installed as the parish priest. Inspired by a long line of clerical naturalists – the 16th-century divine and plant hunter William Turner; John Ray, inventor of “natural theology”; above all the Rev Gilbert White, whose visionary The Natural History of Selborne was the product of a lifetime spent closely observing the plant and animal life of his parish – Gilbert set out to document the nature on his doorstep. He watched sparrows and starlings fossick in his garden, plants growing on waste ground, pheasants foraging in an urban allotment. “I was a friend to the weed and the woodlouse,” he writes (tongue firmly in cheek) in Ghost Trees, “the warden of moths and slime and mosses.”
Poplar is a typical inner-city parish in which rich and poor live cheek by jowl, and “nature” thrives by Bob Gilbert, Saraband, £14.99 only in the cracks, where it’s tolerated rather than encouraged. The ghost trees of Gilbert’s title are those species that have influenced the area’s character and history: the black poplar, the mulberry, the London plane, the lime and horse chestnut, the buddleia. To get to know them better, Gilbert sets off on a year-long tramp along every street in the parish. He watches a plane tree in his garden as it changes through the seasons. More esoteric journeys follow: he tries to dowse the route of the Black Ditch, a local subterranean river, with the artist Amy Sharrocks, and beats the parish bounds with a group of his wife’s parishioners. Walter Benjamin described the activity of the flâneur, the quintessential urban stroller, as that of “botanising the asphalt”, and at times Gilbert comes across as a sort of urban botanical sleuth.
He is a generous guide, with a deep knowledge of plant life and a fine turn of phrase. He describes cabbages leaning “collectively to one side like a performing dance troupe frozen in mid-manoeuvre”. “I garden stones,” he writes. “They appear in limitless quantity, rising from deep beneath the surface like fish coming up from the bottom of a lake for air”.
British nature writing of the last decade or so has been marked by a turn to a kind of hyper-localism. A generation of writers have eschewed the grand narratives of writing abroad in favour of staying closer to home. It is easy to see this move as a reaction against the ubiquity of cheap travel – now that anyone can fly to Patagonia we don’t need Bruce Chatwin to go on our behalf – and the uncertainty of global politics. But the danger of fetishising the parish at the expense of the world at large is that it can create fertile conditions for narratives of nativist belonging to take root.
In Ghost Trees Gilbert rails gently against global warming and globalisation, and laments the decline of natural diversity and the loss of community that, he says, comes with it. “It increasingly feels as if we are adrift in three directions: cut off from history and a sense of our own story; cut off from nature and a relationship with the species with which we share our space; and cut off from each other and a sense of local community.” Yet although he sets himself against the homogenising effects of globalisation, Gilbert is no Goodhartian reactionary. His interest in the relationship between nature and people in cities is open and inclusive. The presence of new plant species on London’s streets, he writes, “reflects our imperial past or the growth of global trade”, but it also reflects the contemporary demographic makeup of an area: new kinds of weed can be found in areas where immigrants have taken their plant life with them. “Our story,” Gilbert concludes, “is recorded in our street plants”, and in this warm, rich and fascinating book, he shows how attending to the particular can help us tell stories that are universal. London plane trees
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Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish