Botanising on asphalt -– weeds, memory and an empty patch on the street corner
January 27, 2013 5 Comments
“railroad yard in San Jose
I wandered desolate
in front of a tank factory
and sat on a bench
near the switchman’s shack.
A flower lay on the hay on
the asphalt highway
–the dread hay flower
I thought–It had a
brittle black stem and
corolla of yellowish dirty
spikes like Jesus’ inchlong
crown, and a soiled
dry center cotton tuft
like a used shaving brush
that’s been lying under
the garage for a year.
Yellow, yellow flower, and
flower of industry,
tough spiky ugly flower,
with the form of the great yellow
Rose in your brain!
This is the flower of the World.”
Allen Ginsberg (1954) In Back of the Real
I came across this poem whilst idly flicking through a slim collection of beat poets at my father’s new house a few weeks ago. I know little about poetry, and much less about botany. It was the reference to ‘tank’, ‘factory’ and ‘asphalt’ that got my attention. I know more about those things.
But Ginsberg’s point about the resilience of the weed he encountered at that run-down site has reverberated as I’ve sat this week reading Richard Mabey’s 1973 classic, The Unofficial Countryside. Mabey urged us to see what would now be called ‘brownfield’ sites. But he was urging us to see them. Not to necessarily see them as anything in particular, whether as heritage or as regeneration opportunity. Instead the call was to notice them for their own sake, and to marvel at the resilience of nature at such places.
Writing in the 2010 foreword to the reissue of his classic, Mabey explains that his book was written at a time when bombsites and inner-urban dereliction were still a common sight. That these brown fields have largely been erased from their locations and local memory, is the theme of this essay.
The postwar era carried a reconstruction and modernisation ethos with it, but the cities and towns could not be remade overnight, that process took many decades. And during the interim such sites remained as unused derelict land, co-opted as playgrounds, informal storage, advertising hordings and the empire of weeds.
In the 40 years since Mabey’s book was first written we have seen the rise of in-filling and regeneration. The drumming of derelict sites into new commercial or civic purpose, a hallmark of a general return to the once-abandoned urban centres. Gentrification, and successive boom and bust property cycles erased most of the sites that Mabey wandered for his book. As he pithily puts it:
“…the last scrubby bombsites have been buried under National Car Parks…spontaneous greenspace has become demonised as worthless brownfield, and an anaemic tidiness creeps across all the last fragments of free land.” (2010:15)
As Mabey strode these now lost lands, he read them as rich in flora and fauna. His was both a scientific reading and a poetic one. He would spot, name and draw rich emotional sustenance from what he found there.
I admire that evident stimulation, but I’ve never really felt it myself. It’s the tanks, the factories and the asphalt that does it for me. And it’s not that I was never given the opportunity to partake of this rich reading. No circumstances prevented me from jumping aboard, it just never quite worked out. I recall my father buying me a pile of nature-in-towns books in the late 1970s, the boom years of the urban ecology movement largely set in train by Mabey’s book. I remember one in particular – it had a picture of a storks nest on top of a continental looking domestic roof. It just didn’t stir anything in me. I liked the idea of the gear that went along with this hobby – the camouflage, the binoculars, the hides. But the ‘spotting’ bit left me cold.
When I started pulling my thoughts together for this piece, I thought it was going to be an agnostic acknowledgment of the rich way that naturalists read derelict sites. Thus far it has been. But in thinking back to the era in which I was given those books, I’ve been reminded that I used to sit at my father’s old house in Exeter and look across at a tangled mass of creeper like foliage, with massive white flowers wrapped around a fenced off empty portion of the street corner opposite no 18.
I never knew what those white flowers were called, and never felt the urge to find out. All I knew was that they made a nice popping sound when you squeezed their buds and that the entire site was coated in this Triffid-like mass. In some sense I knew that this space was aberrant to the order of the streets and buildings around it, but that was as far as I got. But today I have pushed the boat out, I now know the name of that weed-mass, Bindweed (sometimes called – even more evocatively – hedgebell or bearbind) and I now have confirmed to me, my gut feeling that this was probably one of the ‘last scrubby bombsites’ that Mabey had opportunity to chronicle just before they were swept back into ‘productive’ use.
As my thoughts drifted back towards bombs and airraids, and despite half hearted efforts to resist this drift (I’m supposed to be having a break from such musings) my search led me through old maps of Dinham Road. The terrace was complete up to the 1930s map edition. But by the 1950s house numbers 1, 2 and 3 were missing, a white-space void now were formerly there were houses (this road didn’t follow the odd/even convention for numbering for some reason). This remained the case until the 1990s when new, low rise brick dwellings appeared to reclaim the numbers 1, 2 and 3. Here’s what the street corner looks like now. The Victorian terrace ended abruptly at number 4, shown as the black (tar?) painted gable wall.
Through the marvel of internet wandering my enquiry soon found that nos. 1, 2 and 3 Dinham Road disappeared in flames on the night of 4th May 1942. A large firebomb targeted at a nearby timber store triggered a conflagration recalled by one local resident, James Bell who had passed by that street corner that night in his effort to escape Exeter’s Blitz (a revenge attack for the RAF targeting the historic German town of Lubeck):
“My brother and I, with much protests from mother, went with Dad – it was 4 am – to the end of Haldon Road, down under the Ironbridge at Lower North Street. There was a fire, on the corner of Dinham Road with rubble in the road, The fire was from Dinham Road corner to as far as the bridge started. It was caused some said by an oil bomb” (Bell 2005).
As counterpoint, Bell also treats us to the staccato of the Chief Fire Officers Report 4th May 1942 and its depiction of the raid as an abstract assemblage of fire, pipes, water and timber:
“0410 Timber Stores, Dinham Road, serious fire, tank No. 162 (cap. 15,000 gallons) adjacent to fire ground. Supplies supplemented from ‘Header’ on pipe-line No. 1. Relay of two lines 21/2″ via Engine Bridge, North Street junction of Bartholomew Street. Shortage of pumps was severely taxing pipe-lines”.
And all of this was new to me. I’d sat and stared at those weeds for many long hours. There were swifts that used to gather in massed ranks above this greenery, swooping and chirping in their very distinctive manner. As I think about it I tumble back to circa 1979, I’m sitting by the window and the weeds and the swifts are still there darting through the warm summer air.
That clump of vegetation had seemed eternal. It was there when I first visited this road, and was there when I stopped going there. And yet, it was a passing phase. There was a before and an after, neither of which has a place or role for these weeds.
But for me, looking back, the irony is that I remember this site and its column of empty sky only because of its weeds and the spiralling swifts. Seemingly, despite my best efforts to deny this at a cerebral level, these natural features left a powerful effect on my remembrance of this place. The Calystegia sepium lived up to its name: Bindweed.
Bell, J (2005) ‘The Exeter Blitz’ at http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_story/story_12.php
Mabey, R. (2010) The Unofficial Countryside, Little Toller: Wimborne Minster.
Photo sources: Bell (2005); Digimap; http://bloomingmarvellousrushmoor.blogspot.co.uk/; http://www.flickr.com/photos/zenmama/2632198350/