A botan­i­cal sleuth ex­plores nat­u­ral diver­sity in Lon­don and dis­cov­ers how mod­ern life has gone wrong

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Jon Day

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

To buy Ghost Trees for £13.19 go to guardian­book­shop. com or call 0330 333 6846.

Ghost Trees: Na­ture and Peo­ple in a Lon­don Parish

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