What does it mean to think critically about plants and landscape and why should we keep doing it?

I have been doing a kind of plant-focused landscape criticism for a number of years now. Plants are essential to human survival as well as the well-being of ecosystems in general, but it can sometimes be hard to justify this research from a humanities as opposed to a scientific perspective, as it involves the production of knowledge useful to social and cultural critique rather than government policy or direct intervention. It is tempting to suppose that it is more important to know what to do about plant well-being, than how to think about them.

This is even more true today than it has been in the past, when collective attention is consumed by more immediately pressing social and cultural problems (e.g., the rise of racist ideologies and misogyny, the decline of truth and reason, etc.). However, while critical thinking about things like plants and landscape cannot substitute for acts of resistance and solidarity, this does not mean it should be abandoned, even temporarily. Plants and landscape provide a window through which we can see social and environmental problems in new ways, and this in turn, can help us develop gentler, more creative ways of living together. If the deepening of collective concern for the world necessarily causes a certain narrowing of perspective, we have to insist on the value of this kind of insight in order not to lose it altogether.

The social and cultural value of plants has long been thought of primarily in terms of the restorative and ethnobotanical uses of plants. More recently, artists and scholars in the humanities have begun pursuing questions about the underappreciated agency of plants (e.g., their intelligence, capacity for communication, etc.), often via an engagement with plant science.  All these ways of studying and engaging with plants are enormously important and worthy of continued exploration. However, in my work, I attempt to do something different by tapping into their critical or mediatic potential: what can they help us to see about the way vegetated landscapes mediate social relations (and vice versa)? Studying the ways in which plants and people are mutually (if not equally) implicated in particular landscapes, we can develop a different kind of insight, and some practical ways of intervening on their behalf. The thing about plants in a world where truly pristine ecosystems are practically non-existent, is that their presence, their patterns of growth, their vigour and their interactions with other beings, often tell us something about human social relations and cultural values as well as environmental conditions.

The problem of ‘invasive species’ provides a particularly good example. Not only are most invasive plant species transported to their new locations–and often deliberately planted there–by human beings, they thrive under conditions left behind by other human activities (e.g., disturbed soil, removal of competing species, etc.). To re-interpret something Jussi Parikka has written about animals and communication technologies, the cooperation of plants and people in producing ‘invaded’ landscapes, makes the plant species involved emblematic of a breakdown in the practices, relationships and values associated with tending and caring for the land.  Writing the history of invasive plant species and their movements across particular landscapes not only helps to identify the role of human activities in co-producing those landscapes, it points us toward new avenues for responding to them–that is, by rebuilding or better yet, reinventing the social relations required for their care.


Rhododendron ponticum. This large evergreen shrub is widely considered invasive in the UK, despite the fact that it takes 10-20 years to produce blooms and set seed.

This is why humanities-based research about plants continues to be important: not only can it help to enhance their social and cultural value–which is important to their protection and to the continuation of scientific research–it can also refine the way associated environmental problems are perceived, and identify strategies for developing alternative solutions.  To the extent that these strategies call for new social practices of cultivation and care, such research may also contribute indirectly towards a work of learning across social, cultural and perhaps even political divides. This is of course not enough on its own to address the rise of the right in numerous places around the world, but it may in the long run be part of what enables us to move on to something better.


On Leaving Scotland

Life in Quebec is easier than life in Scotland, and therefore happier; it feels like home. I am not sorry we left, but I do miss Scotland. I miss the stimulation of living in a landscape that is not home–in this case, a wild but also deeply historical landscape for which I was frequently missing a good part of the story. Now that I am gone I can see this as a specific kind of pleasure–the pleasure of innocently taking places for what they are–or at least, for what they appear to be. It is similar to reading a novel that takes place in a place you have never been. Though everything you come to know about that place is imagined, you feel as if you understand it. It is not an understanding that would withstand being spoken about, even in cocktail party conversation, but something that makes up a layer of what you know about the world–something you draw on to make sense of other people’s lives. I feel lucky to have this feeling about Scotland, even if it is already too late to write about it knowingly.

The last place we visited before we left was Easdale Island, a tiny little island south of Oban covered in abandoned shale quarries and gardens overgrown from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We rented a cottage there so we could have time with friends after we had moved out of our flat and shipped all our belongings. It was the beginning of July: wet, windy and sometimes sunny; a wilderness of shale and salt spray, low skies and indigo water, cascading fuschia, foxglove and orange freesia. We walked the footpaths that criss-crossed the island, skipped stones, marvelled at the sky. We were there for five days, just enough time for coming to know what you cannot know about a place.



I miss Easdale now, though it is not the specific place so much as the time of being there. There is privilege in living outside what you know, in a state of perpetual openness to the world. Of course there is also vulnerability in that openness, which takes it toll, and which is part of why we decided to move back to Canada. Of course, as anglophones, we can never be perfectly at home in Quebec either, and I am reminded that for us the true gift of Scotland was being there with friends–with others who knew how we felt, and who were in a similar state of not knowing. So when I say I miss Scotland, it is never separate from missing them. All the important things I know about those landscapes, I know with them.


Reading urban plants for soil conditions

I have been helping out with a public arts initiative during Glasgow International (festival of visual arts). Soil City is an urban laboratory and series of events organized by the Open Jar Collective. It is designed to initiate a multifaceted conversation about soil as if it matters to life in the city. I have been helping in particular with site visits by the mobile laboratory, which includes a pair of purpose-built bikes designed to enable the collection of all kinds of ‘data’ pertaining to the material diversity, social uses and meanings of soil at sites around the city. These events provide a visually and socially engaging way of approaching a variety of social and environmental questions; of greatest interest to me, is the plant surveys which provide some of the data being collected.

I prepared a mini guide to indicator plant species for use in these surveys. This includes a short list of plant species selected for their widespread presence in Glasgow, and their relationship to different kinds of soil (e.g., acidic, basic, fertile, infertile etc.). In other words, by identifying whether any plants from the list are thriving at a given site, you can learn something about the soil there. Some reflections about that process can be found here. The guide itself (minus photographs) can be found here.


Gorse (Ulex europaeus): suggestive of poor soil, in which it can thrive due to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its root nodules.

Although I have yet to finish thinking about this little project, probably the most interesting observation it has raised so far, is this: while the ‘indications’ provided by plants with respect to soil are often mixed or inconclusive, the ‘reading’ of plant presences at a given site, and particularly the kinds of relationships this identifies–not only between plants and soil, but between different plants, and between plants and human activities (such as gardening, dumping of organic material, etc.)–initiates a new mode of perception. Not only is it a way of seeing more in the urban landscape, it also reorganizes the perceptual field ever so slightly. For someone like me, who was already always on the look-out for plants, it causes me to see them in terms of their groupings, or past events, rather than individual species. It is hard to fit into words how modest-yet-profound a difference this is.

Glasgow City Council’s planning committee visits the North Kelvin Meadow

For eight years, a property developer called New City Vision (NCV) has been trying to gain permission to build condos on the North Kelvin Meadow. The campaign to prevent this development from going forward has gained significant momentum in the last couple of years, due in part to the activities of The Children’s Wood. Last week, members of the City Council’s Planning Applications Committee visited the meadow in response to a request from the Children’s Wood, who have submitted an application of their own to retain the land for community use and outdoor education. Hundreds of people of all ages, including several groups of children from local schools and nurseries, came to the meadow in the midst of high winds and heavy rain to show their support for this alternative application. The councillors arrived a half hour late and toured only a small portion of the site, their heads down or turned towards the planning officers who led the tour. Then they returned to Council Chambers where they deliberated for approximately two hours before granting approval to NCV’s application.


Waiting for the councillors to arrive. Photograph by Chelsea Lowe


Immediately following this decision, an alternative proposal submitted by The Children’s Wood, was also granted planning permission. The fact that two conflicting applications could be granted planning permission for the same site is a surprise for many people (myself included)–one that bears some consideration. As was repeatedly emphasized both within the committee meeting (which I attended as an observer) and in the planning officer’s report (available here), planning decisions are not supposed to be political. The decision to sell land rests with the landowner (Glasgow City Council), and they are only beholden to consider the opinions of residents on land use designations as part of the process for approving the City Development Plan. But official review of the new Plan is not yet complete, which means that objections to the zoning of the NKM for housing do not bear on this decision. Whether the ninety houses and “executive suites” are built thus depends solely on whether the application is judged to be in alignment with current planning policy–a supposedly objective process that requires councillors with a strong opinion one way or the other to absent themselves from the proceedings, but nonetheless resulted in a clean split along party lines (with all the Labour candidates voting in favour of the application, and the Scottish National Party voting to reject it).

Consequently, the key weakness of the NCV application–that the loss of opportunities for nature education, imaginative play, food gardening and community events can be compensated with an upgrade of football pitches at another location–is considered resolved by the assertion that current uses of the meadow are illegitimate (i.e., “informal/ancillary”) in relation to its original designation as a playing field. In other words, even though policy at the municipal and national levels favours the protection of urban greenspaces–for which the meadow technically qualifies–it need not be treated as a greenspace since it is not officially designated as such. At the same time, should the landowner decide that current uses of the meadow are desirable, they could grant permission for their continuation, thus (I think) providing the basis for recognition of an alternative “established” use. Except that the council has already signed a contract for sale with NCV, which means that the application will have to be rejected at the level of the Scottish Government for this response to become conceivable (which is apparently, what happened to an application from a different developer in 1996).

Working through the absurdities and injustices of this situation has been a useful but painful education. Leading up to the site visit, hundreds of person hours were invested in preparing the meadow and Children’s Wood for inspection: volunteers spread wood chips, repaired composters, built new raised allotments, weeded and removed debris. We worried that councillors would not see the meadow’s beauty or vibrancy in the depths of January. Colourful signs were painted, trees decorated with knitted fruit and flowers and large format photographs of the gardens, smiling children and fruiting apple trees were printed, laminated and distributed throughout the meadow on the morning of the site visit. Nobody knew the route the councillors would take across the site, and so there was some confusion about where to stand, how to make sure our signs and banners and children would be seen. But we were mistaken in all this, for in the end it mattered very little what had been made visible; the councillors were not there to look–at least not at us, our signs, or the fruits of our labours. These were after all, unauthorized and therefore irrelevant augmentations of the property in question. And so it was that rather than standing before the councillors to be seen, we followed behind them, chanting and shouting our message as opposed to showing it–only to be prematurely dispersed due to confusion about the visit’s itinerary.


In some ways this was a profoundly disheartening experience–a direct and bodily confrontation with the disenfranchisement that is built into the planning process. On the other, I think that some people understood from the moment the site visit was granted, that this was a different kind of political opportunity. A moment in which we could be seen, not by politicians–or at least, not by the members of the planning committee–but rather by an audience of journalists and voters and community members whose hearts were still available to be won. The site visit and the committee’s decision has been very well-covered in the local and national media. A petition to the Scottish government, asking them to ‘call in’ and reject NCV’s application, gained over 1200 signatures in its first 24 hours. Most importantly, and even before the visit happened, the number and diversity of volunteers actively involved in the campaign increased noticeably. I arrived on the day of the visit ready to face my fears about the meadow’s future, but I found that standing there in the rain with so many others–family, friends, neighbours and strangers–was a comfort and an inspiration even as hopes for a different outcome were so quickly disappointed. And while the work of preparing for the visit made us all more vulnerable to this disappointment, it also produced a collective experience of hope–and that is what journalists are writing about now; that is the light in which everything we have done may finally become visible in a lasting way.



On living the urban good life, elsewhere. Or, what bikes and plants can do.

We moved to Glasgow from Los Angeles, which many people imagine must have been a difficult move. We did (and still do) miss life by the beach, but I was actually ready to leave Los Angeles’ desert ecology. I love the comparatively moist, vegetal abundance of Glasgow. What I miss more than the beach, is stress-free cycling. Glasgow is a terrible city for cyclists (surprisingly, much worse than Los Angeles, or at least West LA). I won’t get into all the reasons it is so bad here (though the rain and high winds are definitely part of it); what I want to write about is the kind of intangible good that can come from giving bikes more room–actually, of using plants and bikes together to reorganize urban spaces.

I just returned from a three month research trip to Montreal. While I was there, I stayed in the socially and environmentally progressive burough of the Plateau-Mont-Royal, where gardens and bike lanes alike are plentiful. I had lived in Montreal before, but not since recent additions to the city’s considerable cycling infrastructure. I spent some time towards the end of my visit trying to articulate exactly what this changed about my experience of the city, and also to see some of the inequalities that the urban good life seems to imply. Another work in progress…


One of the Plateau’s many ‘ruelle vertes’

On riding to work in Montreal

Most days I ride up Rachel to the George-Étienne Cartier monument at the base of the mountain in parc Mont-Royal, where I turn left and ride downhill into the McGill ghetto. An unnecessary climb, but worth it, not only for the exercise (by the end of my stay I am noticeably more fit!) but also for the view of the mountain, which in the fall, provides a continuously changing spectacle from St-Denis all the way to the park. It is at once inspiring and comforting, since its beauty is a surprise that I remember. As the leaves change colour, the face of the mountain visible from the street increases in density, each tree showing itself as an individual with its own timeline. It becomes briefly a kind of magical other place that is both within and above the city, and I become much more convinced of its mountain-ness—it seems to grow in size as it gets brighter with colour, and then, once the leaves begin falling, to shrink again, but leaving its topography more clearly visible. By the end of my visit, it stands as a promise of winter’s proximity, and all that entails. I do not, consequently, mourn the leaves’ passing, even though I will leave before the snow comes, and won’t ski or skate or toboggan there even once this year.

The mountain so captures my attention, that I barely notice the two rows of planters lining the pedestrian approach to the mountain, which are tall with ornamental ginger and overflowing with annual flowers. The bike path goes around this pathway; the planters are there to mark and beautify a different time—that of walking, and sitting rather than riding. Such plantings appear almost overly indulgent from a bike. Do we really need all this beauty in one place?

In contrast, many of the bike paths are planted with trees and ornamental grasses—plants large enough to produce an effect from a distance, or at speed. At the end of November, the grasses make an audible rustling on windy, traffic-calmed streets. From a bike riding through the Plateau-Mont-Royal burough, it feels as if we are actually in a new kind of city. It is not one with which I am in all ways comfortable—I wonder for example, at the effects of the growing disparity in the quality of public spaces across different buroughs of the city—but the way it feels is nothing short of inspiring. We feel healthier, happier—in fact, we are healthier, and we have at least, more moments of pleasure in public. At this stage in my life—with a young child, and a chronic health problem, these are not incidental differences. A good quality of life may help to sell real-estate, and is thus contributing in many parts of the city to a rather remarkable pace of gentrification, but it also makes it easier to be a good parent, to do a good job, and to take care of your health. It is therefore, no small thing to encounter beauty, and to be surrounded by the vitality of other living beings, on a daily basis.

I remember asking one of my interviewees if she thought that the enthusiasm for urban agriculture in Montreal was due in any way to the quality of the urban environment and the (often very generous) use of plants in public spaces. Maybe, she said, but pointed out that some of the most interesting projects come out of a lack of action on behalf of the city, because then people have to work out new ways of getting things done. Although I feel somewhat protective of what has been done in the Plateau, for bikes and for plants, I also wonder whether similar effects (of inspiration, health and happiness) might be produced, with less problematic socio-economic implications, through more collective, less institutionalized efforts. But this is of course to imagine another city again—one that does not yet seem quite possible, even here, amongst the tree-lovers, cyclists and alleyway gardeners. People may be healthier here, but many of them are also overworked and underpaid. There is no camaraderie to speak of on the bike paths; it is possible that many of the people who ride up Rachel, towards the mountain with me, do not have time to enjoy the beauty of its changes.


Writing about trees

A new planning application has been submitted by New City Vision, who want to build 100 “owner-occupied units” on what is currently the North Kelvin Meadow. This is a very upsetting prospect–one that has informed much of my writing here to date–but one that had, until this re-submission, been indefinitely delayed. At the same, the Children’s Wood has submitted an alternative proposal to retain the space as a community woodland, which provides a concrete, infinitely more hopeful vision of ‘development’. While the period for submitting formal representations to the Glasgow City Council has passed, it is not too late to write to politicians. More information about the campaign to save the meadow can be found at the following two addresses.



In the process of writing my objection to NCV’s application, I was struck by how my feelings about plants and trees do not really count in the course of such decisions. You can write about about biodiversity, and the health benefits of having access to open green space, but you can’t say “It makes me happy and hopeful to walk down my street and hear birds singing.” Or at least, it is hard to imagine this getting discussed in the course of the City Council’s deliberations.

Nonetheless, I think the way plants make us feel can tell us a lot about the places we live, and our ways of being together in the city. So I have been experimenting with other ways of writing about plants, trying to make them, and my feelings about them, speak of larger questions and circumstances. This is an excerpt from a larger piece, in process, about trees in the city.

Five moments in the life of an abandoned playing field

Briefly, a pond. A homemade, old-carpet-lined pond: about five metres long, kidney-shaped and ringed by salvaged concrete, bricks and rocks. A pond of murky water that kids threw rocks and dirt into, and which kept draining out. An invitation for self-righteous grumbling by parents of small children; an attestation to the lack of consensus. A modestly audacious, some say misguided, but most importantly, unselfconscious experiment in urban design.

An empty, debris-filled, old-carpet-lined hole where there used to be a pond. An argument for oversight, better communication. A large, or at least, quite visible mistake.

A partial re-filling of the hole. No more carpet, rocks or bricks.  A somewhat magical, somewhat upsetting transplantation not of saplings, but juvenile trees—birch trees, ash and a small oak tree, dug out from other locations around the meadow and arranged in a friendly, slightly haphazard cluster, as if by a giant child playing at forest-making.

The trees drop yellowed leaves. They stand, nearly bare, in and around the partially filled hole where the pond was, markers for a graveyard of foolish intentions. “What a waste.” The trees here are born of neglect, and suffer both experimental violence (by young boys) and the threat of future violence (by development). We both mourn and resent the loss of these ones, neither broken nor burned.

But spring brings a surprise so profound it takes a while to fully register: buds, and then leaves on three of the trees. There they stand, amongst the grasses that have taken over the old pond hole, bolstered by little mounds of protective rocks at the base, so thin and vulnerable and yet alive, undeniably green. It seems a small miracle, but it is better than that: the gift of being wrong, of discovering that the world has more to offer than you supposed. These trees, once signs of naivety and recklessness, now speak in a much more mysterious way.

#northkelvinmeadow #urbanmeadow #openhearts

A post shared by Erin Despard (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow) on

collective gardening in an age of social media

The snowdrops and crocuses are up here in Glasgow which means that true spring is somewhere not too far around the corner. For me, a sometimes gardener who is also a working mother without a permanent job, it is both too soon (since I haven’t acquired let alone started any seeds), and never soon enough (after 5 months of cold, damp greyness). One way or the other though, it has got me thinking about gardening, and in particular about the small collective garden in the North Kelvin Meadow (NKM) that I helped to care for last summer.

Still some edible sprouts under there. #northkelvinmeadow #urbancommons #wintergarden

A post shared by Erin Despard (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow) on


This is a garden that, though modest in its ambitions, suffered a series of organizational and logistical problems–all of which were exacerbated by the lack of regularly present volunteers. As one of the facilitators for the garden, I was undoubtedly part of the problem. I struggled to be available to participate in work sessions on a regular basis, to keep the garden watered in some fashion through the summer’s improbable (and for many Glaswegians, scarcely conceivable) drought, and to contribute to the group’s Facebook page. Then I went away for a month (which unfortunately roughly coincided with the departure of the other two facilitators). Needless to say, while we did well with the peas, greens and brussels sprouts, the garden did not produce quite as bountifully as it could have under more consistent care.

Exploring the fine line between collective gardening projects and urban foraging. #growyourown #northkelvinmeadow #urbancommons

A post shared by Erin Despard (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow) on


Such gardens normally survive their early days on the backs of a few hard-working volunteers who are sufficiently invested in its success to give it inordinate amounts of time and energy. Other volunteers may come and go, but such a project continues as long as those key organizers do. I would dearly love to be one of those people for the NKM garden, and in fact, for certain stretches of last season I was, but I couldn’t keep it up: it brought extra stress to my family life, and after I injured my back, physical discomfort. But this post is not supposed about me, or rather, not only me–because I am surely not the first volunteer gardener to come up short on time.

The troubles with this garden are important, since they speaks to circumstances that are increasingly common, and increasingly normalized. In times of increasing austerity measures and decreasing opportunity, where people are required to work more and more, and at the same time make do with less (renumeration, health care, job security, etc.), they don’t have the time or the energy to work on the kinds of projects that might make their lives and the lives of others better. Consequently, not only is the number of volunteers available for collective garden projects declining, but the skills necessary for their organization are also in short supply. After all, who has time for developing interpersonal relationships, let alone a group process anymore – it’s all about getting something–anything–done with the resources available.

My question as I contemplate my involvement with the garden this season, is how it might be made to respond to these circumstances without simply mirroring them. That is, how can it be made to function effectively (as a community resource and creative space) without overworking its key volunteers? How can we have something we want and need, but pay less dearly for it? In this context, and because it has been part of my ‘job’ over the last couple of years to think about the relationship between visual social media, plants and place, I have been wondering whether community gardeners (and other grassroots organizers) might learn something from social media.

In posing this question, I don’t mean that what we need is more, or better, social media. As much as people are happy to ‘like’ grassroots social endeavours and voluntary organizations on Facebook, it hasn’t done much in our case for actually getting people out to the garden. It is more because, as Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey have observed, the success of social (and other, similarly ‘evil’) media is based to a large extent, on its exploitation of otherwise wasted time–the moments where people have nothing better to do, or when they are too tired or bored to do ‘real’ work. Checking your news feed, liking a photograph, tweeting–these social actions fit into the cracks of the everyday, making life a bit more interesting and enabling the maintenance of otherwise severely compromised social relations. I am just wondering if a collective garden could be made and maintained using a similar strategy?

To the ears of serious gardeners and garden-philosophers alike, this may be a somewhat shocking proposition (because gardening is one of the quintessentially ‘slow’ human endeavours, is founded on relations of care, and so on). But my reasons for making it are serious: part of what makes collective gardening such a socially and politically empowering experience is its requirement that the people involved create and find ways of sustaining the relationships necessary to the garden’s survival and effective use. Except in situations where a garden is administered and provided with funding by a larger organization, the solutions to the myriad practical, organizational and interpersonal problems that arise in the course of collective gardening projects do not exist prior to the involvement of those who make and care for it. When time is in short supply, are we therefore to give up on the creation of gardens altogether? I am suggesting that changing times may inspire a new form of garden, and new kinds of social relation to sustain it.

To give an example, the kind of tactics I am thinking of here pertain mainly to an expansion of the possible occasions for gardening work. What if volunteer gardeners were encouraged to complete tasks in the garden in a more piecemeal fashion and at times that worked best with their schedule–on the way home from work for example, or as a short activity to undertake with young children? If information could be provided that was adequate to coordinate such contributions (perhaps a rather large ‘if’)–utilizing for example, an updated version of the community notice board, complete with garden plan, ‘to-do’ list and QR codes that link to appropriate instructional Youtube videos–then it might become easier for certain time-pressed gardeners to make a contribution. It would also change what is entailed by ‘collective’, putting a greater emphasis on communication processes, and less on physically being together.

Just doing a bit of advertising for @ilovenorthkelvinmeadow. #northkelvinmeadow #urbancommons #instagramforgood #guerrilamarketing

A post shared by Erin Despard (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow) on


I think it is an open question as to whether this would be a worthwhile trade-off (less time together, but potentially, a better-cared for garden and healthier volunteers). It might also lead to mistakes on behalf of less experienced gardeners, an unevenness in the pace of work, and failures to respond to changing conditions (a garden needs watering when it’s dry, after all, which may be long before someone finds the time for it). But at least in our case, where attendance at work sessions was highly variable last year, these risks are present already. More important to me, is how the processes of experimentation and refinement to make such an arrangement function effectively would offer insight into the changing social and communicative possibilities that a garden offers in an age of social media. How might the identity of ‘gardener’ change, when gardening is something you do on the way home from work? Can people still feel they are part of something bigger than themselves if they don’t spend time with the other human beings who are helping to make it happen? Perhaps most importantly, such an experiment affords the opportunity to articulate more clearly what is in danger of being lost, and to identify strategies for re-inventing the political potential that collective gardens have held in the past.