Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 4

This post has been a long time coming, and some things have happened in the meantime that have caused me to re-think what I should call the second landscape value I want to articulate. It seems worthwhile nonetheless to start from my original thinking, since the limitations I now see in it are themselves instructive.

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Tree decoration encountered in the Children’s Wood. Photo from my Instagram experiment (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow)

I wanted to write about the value of ‘landscape sovereignty’, and by this I meant to highlight the surprising and bewildering qualities of neglected and unregulated landscapes. I was thinking in particular of the way different areas of the North Kelvin Meadow (particularly the Children’s Wood) change on an almost daily basis, such that any visit is likely to turn up new objects, structures and other interventions in the landscape–the intentions of which are sometimes clear (as with the addition of new gardens, ‘bug hotels’, birdhouses etc.) and sometimes not.  Overall, the frequency and the variety of these interventions turn the meadow into a vibrant as well as unpredictable and sometimes bewildering space of inscription. It is maximally inclusive of active participation in its shaping. The legibility of this inclusiveness makes it a welcoming place for a variety of experimental, marginal and sometimes illegal activities. I see the majority of these in terms of the provision of creative, safe spaces for people and activities that are not welcome or don’t have as free reign elsewhere. (Of course, this inclusivity also makes the meadow susceptible to destructive activities; I would guess that as many trees have been removed, burned or otherwise damaged as have been planted there over the last year.) Perhaps even more important, a diverse and open-ended space of inscription enables explorations similar to those described with respect to the value of visual density, but pertaining to the social dimensions of wilderness. They also invite further participation in the shaping of the landscape–even if that often ends up being preoccupied with repairing the damage caused by others.

I still believe all these things are true and important, and would attribute them equally to the woods at Kilmahew (perhaps especially the ruined seminary, which has been a pilgrimage site for graffiti artists, ravers and arsonists since its closure in the mid 1980s). Except that now a massive rhododendron removal is underway there and the landscape has been so thoroughly and violently altered, that the idea of it possessing any sovereignty seems painfully naive.

I think the mistake is in attributing the qualities I have observed and value to the landscape itself–as if it were something essential or enduring, when in reality, landscapes such as Kilmahew and the NK meadow are only circumstantially (and usually temporarily) sovereign. In most ways, their specific qualities and local significance are much more tenuous than those of a well-established and regulated landscape (though these too can be vulnerable to economic pressures, as the proposed sell-off of Glasgow’s Victoria Park demonstrates). There are so many reasons for this vulnerability that I feel slightly embarrassed about wanting to write about landscape ‘sovereignty’. However, there is something in this wish that seems worth excavating.

I think the effect or impression of sovereignty signals something important, something to do with the relations that shape a landscape while it remains unregulated. Perhaps another way of reading inclusivity is in terms of instability and indeterminancy. The ‘community’ that coalesces around use of the meadow could be accused of not knowing what it wants, just as the state of the woods at Kilmahew was seen, not to constitute but to obscure the landscape. In other words, part of what is legible in such landscapes, is the ongoing failure–or more positively, the struggle to appear–of those relationships and ways of working that might shape and care for landscapes in ways that are different from those implied in top-down processes of design and regulation. From this perspective, there is no sovereignty of landscape, just different degrees of openness and indeterminancy in the relations implicated therein.

So while I no longer think it makes sense to write of ‘landscape sovereignty’, the ongoing event of its simulation, through more-than-human social processes and investments that are contextual in the extreme, is of great interest and value in itself. What can we learn from such landscapes about the circumstances of social change and the constraints on sustained innovation? From this perspective, between a simulated sovereignty and visual density (which, due to some of the long term side-effects of unrestrained growth is perhaps equally tenuous), neglected and unregulated landscapes start to have a pedagogic or social scientific value. Recognizing this value is perhaps less a question of aesthetic appreciation and more one of social learning and experimentation.

Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 3

The value I want to describe in this post (in a very preliminary fashion), is that associated with the quality or effect of visual ‘density’. I oppose this value to that of clarity or transparency, which is often an orienting one in public landscapes–not only for the sake of facilitating different aspects of its use, but also for security reasons (since a fully ‘legible’ landscape makes people who are using it in ways other than its ‘intended’ use easy to identify… and monitor or apprehend).

Birch tree and other plants growing out of a trailer in Kilmahew Woods, Cardross

Birch tree and other plants growing out of a trailer in Kilmahew Woods, Cardross

These are landscapes wherein ‘the more you look, the more you see’. They tend to contain a relative abundance–or at least, a more complicated layering–of vegetative material, and also to be relatively free of external control (though not necessarily intervention). This does not however, presume diversity or complexity: a well-designed garden can present a diverse range of species, and produce complex visual effects, while also making everything clearly available to view. It is rather the number of plants, their form and growth habit, as well as the style of their juxtaposition with other elements, that produce effects of visual density. 

The Getty Garden, Los Angeles: a garden with maximum diversity (of species and visual effect) and maximum visibility

The Getty Garden, Los Angeles: a garden with maximum diversity (of species and visual effect) and maximum visibility

As a value, visual density is associated with specific circumstances, practices of appreciation and experiences. I treat each of these in turn (briefly, in broad brush strokes) as a way of elaborating its importance more clearly.

Processes and circumstances producing visual density. Although I can’t claim any scientific authority in this regard, it would seem to me that, in circumstances where conditions are conducive (i.e., most importantly, adequate rainfall) all that is required to produce multiple layers of vegetative growth and an attendant density, is the passage of time, and the lack of external control over those processes. Of course some plants produce such effects much more quickly than others (e.g., the twisted, horizontal growth habits of Rhododendron), but growth in general tends to obstruct vision the more it proceeds unchecked.

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Appreciating visual density. In order to really see a landscape that has overgrown, you have to look more closely and more actively. Not only is a comprehensive survey from any combination of vantage points impossible, the visual quality of density stands in opposition to the model of vision implied in the survey (that everything can be made available to sight, more or less instantaneously): it foregrounds the impossibility of ever seeing everything, let alone at once, and in so doing, exposes the artificiality of any landscape that offers as much. In an overgrown landscape, where the foreground seems a tangled, disorganized mess, the question of interest is not, ‘how does it look?’ but ‘what did you find?’ In other words, things have to be noticed in order to be seen, which implies an active engagement as opposed to a more passive reception of views.

Experiences of density. A landscape that is visually dense or deep is one whose contents cannot be quickly assessed. Such landscapes frequently make people uncomfortable, especially in urban settings, where, as research in environmental psychology has shown, people often fear that excessive growth conceals persons or activities that are in some way dangerous. However, to the extent that such fears can be allayed–e.g., by visiting the landscape in the company of others–a visually dense landscape can feel wild or mysterious in a positive way, producing an experience of heightened awareness, which can be invigorating and is certainly rare, especially in cities. At the same time, by inviting different practices of looking, it provides an opportunity to experience the pleasures of discovery, and to practice noticing and identifying different plant and animal species, or the traces of natural processes and human intervention. As will be appreciated by anyone who has attempted to weed an overgrown garden, or locate particular species of plant in the wild, these activities require a perceptual attunement which it takes time and sustained effort to develop.

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Kilmahew woods, Cardross: a landscape where the lost and forgotten are found over and over again, but never returned

Ultimately the question that remains unanswered here, is how we might elevate such values–which suggest gentler, more inclusive and more enchanted ways of relating to urban landscapes–to a greater social and cultural prominence? Aestheticization of visually dense landscapes, via photography, urban nature writing and so on, is one avenue. But in the highly mediatized city, where communication seems to be more and more event-based–whether as ‘news’ in a conventional or social media sense–I wonder if it there is a need to develop more direct, performative strategies. I am just at the beginning of thinking about what those might be; in the meantime, you can see/follow my little Instagram experiment…

 

A footnote on landscape ‘values’

As I work through this train of thought (see previous posts on “valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes”), I realize some clarification of what I mean by ‘value’ is in order.

I want ‘value’ to encompass both specific aesthetic effects or qualities of landscape and the broader socio-economic and cultural relations implicated in them. For example, bright colours (or, at least, highly contrasting colours) are highly valued in contemporary urban gardens and landscapes. This is something that is easy to take for granted, but the horticultural valuation of colour and contrast is historically specific and has shaped not only trends of garden design, but the selection of species in cultivation by growers (though, admittedly, there is historical research still to be done to convincingly establish this claim). It is also associated with a preference in certain contexts (e.g., municipal, corporate, institutional) for annual (as opposed to perennial) plant species, which tend to require more water and chemical fertilizers than perennial species, and entail more waste (e.g., in the form of the plastic ‘cell packs’ in which they are sold). At the same time, colourful flowers and highly contrasting foliage are highly amenable to being photographed, which enables them to be incorporated in a broader visual culture (e.g., in lifestyle magazines, calendars, coffee table books and so on) that in turn helps to reinforce preferences for particular horticultural qualities and forms. Thus, as a landscape value, bright colour is reciprocally related to specific historical and socio-economic circumstances–its predominance is problematic because its suppression of other possibilities has much broader implications.

A tree pit garden outside a restaurant in Montreal

A tree pit garden outside a restaurant in Montreal

In this context, the search for and elaboration of alternative landscape values is a way of pursuing environmental and social change through cultural means. Or, to put that another way, of making landscape appreciation more critical. What are the qualities and effects associated with processes and circumstances that are environmentally beneficial and socially creative? I think that answering this question is a strategy for orienting intervention and communication in support of a greater diversity of landscape forms, uses and design processes in cities.

Valuing neglected and unregulated landscapes part 2

photoI promised in the last post to write about some of the more ephemeral, hard-to-specify values of landscapes such as Kilmahew and the North Kelvin Meadow. This is still to come, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share my representation to the Glasgow City Council over the development that is proposed for the meadow in the new City Development Plan. An attempt to specify the unspecifiable… for planners!

 

 

 

REPRESENTATION ON CITY DEVELOPMENT PLAN, HOUSING PROPOSAL # HO23 

“As a postdoctoral researcher in human geography, who also happens to live across the street from the Meadow, I have both personal and professional reasons to value this space in its current state, and to oppose the development proposed for it. I describe these reasons in more detail below.

PERSONAL AND COMMUNITY VALUE OF NORTH KELVIN MEADOW

My family uses the meadow on a regular basis for multiples purposes; it gives us all great pleasure to spend time there, and as new arrivals to Glasgow, has been the single most important avenue through which we have come to feel at home here. A partial list of things we can do in the meadow and would not be able to do elsewhere includes:

 social activities: picnics with family and friends; regular interactions with known neighbours, meeting other people in the neighbourhood

urban agriculture: vegetable gardening (we have an allotment and help with the new community beds); composting of our fruit and vegetable scraps

cultural and educational activities: attend a variety of family-friendly cultural events (e.g., storytelling, film screenings, puppet shows, concerts, parades and much more; Saturday morning outdoor learning club; exploratory play and nature education with our toddler

physical rejuvenation: the open and semi-wild character of the meadow makes time spent there relaxing as well as invigorating

Living across the street from the meadow is literally the best thing about living in Glasgow as far as we are concerned. The last item on the list (exploratory play and nature education) is particularly important to me as a mother. Though my daughter enjoys a good play park as much as any toddler, she is at her most imaginative when we go to the meadow: creating spaces in the Children’s Wood where she can act out whatever scenario she dreams up, wandering through the long grass, hiding under shrubs, playing in the willow hut, and so on. It is exactly what she needs after her more structured day at nursery. In the course of these explorations, I am able to show her different plants and bugs, help her to identify the sounds of birds, and smell different flowers and herbs. Not only is this an educational opportunity not easily replicated in more manicured urban spaces, it amounts to very high quality time for us, since she can safely lead me where she pleases (without worrying about bicycles on the bike path, or getting lost in a crowd of people at the botanic garden, for example).

Our enjoyment of the meadow as a green space has also led me to become actively involved in caring for it, which has in turn generated friendships, and participation by our family in different organized activities (e.g., composting, litter clean-ups, community gardening). I discuss the importance of these activities further below, but for now emphasize that this attachment to, and active participation in, the meadow has been crucial to us feeling happy, connected and at home in our new city.

PROFESSIONAL OBSERVATIONS OF THE SOCIO-ECOLOGICAL VALUE OF THE NORTH KELVIN MEADOW

There are two major kinds of benefit that I observe in the Meadow in its current state:

Biodiversity in-process. As a playing field unused for 30 years or so, the Meadow represents a unique site of ecological change. Here it is possible to observe biodiversity in process: as something that is still happening to the site, and which can be enhanced through human intervention, rather than something already achieved by nature, and for which the only human contribution is protection. The cultural as well as environmental value of such sites has been documented in a number of scholarly works recommending a more pragmatic, creative approach to questions of biodiversity (see examples below). As a researcher interested in relations between human beings, plants and non-human processes of growth and change, I have spent much time exploring the meadow, and the possibilities for enhancing its biodiversity (particularly in vegetative forms). Some of this work has been documented in preliminary form on my blog: http://www.communicativelandscapes.wordpress.com and will be incorporated in future academic publications of a more formal nature. I can report from my investigations that many new plants (at least eight but probably more) can be added to those recorded on the plant survey conducted in 2011. The Meadow is a site that is increasing in quantity and diversity of plant life every season. Most of these plants have arrived on their own, but some of them have been planted by community members. For example, several species of fern were transplanted there by a colleague and I this past fall, as an experiment regarding the means of enhancing processes of naturalization and colonization already in process. These ferns currently reside in areas of high traffic in the Children’s Wood but are, nonetheless, thriving. I view the Meadow as a site for continuing research into how community members might take on activities of tending semi-wild urban spaces so as to maximize biodiversity while maintaining high social, recreational and educational value.

Social learning and innovation. There is a growing body of research in human geography and other disciplines of the social sciences that identifies the social importance of a contemporary ‘commons’: land and physical resources that are held in common among members of a given community, and managed collectively (see below for a couple of examples). Community managed allotment and collective gardens are a good example of such sites: through the process of figuring out how best to share collective resources, how to acquire support, resolve disputes and solve logistical problems, community members develop forms of social organization (not to mention friendships) that are valuable above and beyond the output of the gardens. A community that can manage its collective spaces is also one that can negotiate diversity, solve problems and provide support to its members in a variety of sustainable (because pragmatic and local) ways. Such spaces are particularly important in cities, where social ties are often otherwise challenged by cultural difference and mobility. I have recently started a dedicated Instagram account (@ilovenorthkelvinmeadow) as a means of documenting the changing landscape of the Meadow and its social and ecological vitality.

The North Kelvin Meadow is an excellent example of an urban commons. Not only has it become the focus of a variety of innovative, extremely well-attended cultural and environmentally educational events, sharing its use has provided community members the means to address both ongoing local problems (with litter, dog fouling and vandalism), and larger societal issues around physical fitness, food security, social isolation and environmental engagement. The kinds of connection people make while participating in projects and events associated with the meadow are thus both culturally innovative and socially sustaining in profound ways. What is important to emphasize, is that the majority of these activities, and the capacities they have helped to generate, would not be possible without the space of the Meadow. As geographers Lynn Staeheli and Don Mitchell argue in their recent book The People’s Property?, building and sustaining community requires a physical space proper to that community: in the case of the meadow, an open-ended, semi-natural space provides the perfect focus for environmental learning and social empowerment.

SUMMARY

In summary, I believe the North Kelvin Meadow to be an extremely valuable urban amenity in its current, open, semi-wild state. From a personal perspective, my family and I make frequent and meaningful use of it. Were it to be developed into condos, we would likely move, and I don’t expect we would find another space to replace its role in our lives in the city. From a professional perspective, I see its rapidly increasing biodiversity and its social and cultural vibrancy as a highly valuable urban amenity that is unique to Glasgow, but currently unrecognized as such. In many ways, Glasgow is a very green city, but this is something that was a pleasant surprise to my husband and I upon moving here. We wondered why the City Council has not made more of its abundant green spaces, impressive bird population and numerous waterways in its promotion of the city to tourists as well as businesses and employees considering relocating here. With support, sites like the meadow could become one of the cultural and environmental innovations that Glasgow becomes known for—not just beautiful museums and innovative real estate developments, but also support of more grassroots initiatives, especially ones that display the more edgy, fun side of the city’s popular culture, and which set it apart from Edinburgh. That is the city that I see from the meadow, and one I am inspired to contribute to and care for, should it be allowed to prosper.”

REFERENCES

(a creative, pragmatic approach to biodiversity):

Clément, Gilles. (2007). Le jardin en mouvement. 5th ed. Paris: Sens & Tonka.

Clément, Gilles (2006). “Working with (and never against) Nature.” In environ(ne)ment: manières d’agir pour demain / approaches for tomorrow, 90-103. Edited by Giovanna Borasi. Milano, Italy: Skira Editore.

Marris, Emma (2011). Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury.

(research on the social importance of present-day urban commons)

Eizenberg, E. (2011). Actually existing commons: Three moments of space of community gardens in New York City. Antipode 44 (3): 764-82.

Staeheli, L.A. & Mitchell, D. (2008). The People’s Property? Power, Politics, and the Public. Routledge.

Tornaghi, Chiara (2012). Public space, urban agriculture and the grassroots creation of new commons: lessons and challenges for policy makers. In André Viljoen and Johannes S.C. Wiskerke, Eds. Sustainable Food Planning: Evolving Theory and Practice pp. 349-64. The Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Publishers.

 

 

 

Valuing unregulated and neglected landscapes, part 1

Activists and community members who campaigned to have the North Kelvin Meadow officially recognized as a community greenspace were disappointed to learn last week that Glasgow’s new city plan still designates it a building site, with plans for 100 owner-occupied units (i.e., condos) apparently going forward, to be completed in 2019. Comment (by anyone!) is invited through the city council’s specially designated channels up until 4 pm on June 27, 2014. I will undoubtedly have more to say about this before then, because I intend to be actively involved in resisting these developments, but for now want to record some thoughts about landscape aesthetics, and the kinds of value we invest in different landscape forms.

NKMHart'sTongue

One of the transplanted Hart’s Tongue ferns, which seems to have survived the winter (despite being temporarily relocated by some local kids).

A lot of efforts to save sites such as the meadow from development tie the value of the land to other areas of social and cultural value – most commonly environmental and health benefits. I think this is in every way a valid – and sometimes very effective! – strategy. But I also wonder about a more culturally far-reaching approach; that is, to find ways of creating or nurturing values and sensibilities that are specific to the landscape forms we wish to protect, and that might in the long run, provide a more sustainable avenue for protection. How can we communicate or encourage the perception of beauty or other values in neglected or undesigned and community-tended landscapes?

NKMprimrose

The only primrose I have found so far growing in the meadow.

To say this is a big question is something of an understatement. Nonetheless, I have been thinking about it in relation to two of the sites I have written about here – not only the meadow but also Kilmahew-St. Peters. I have been thinking of ways to articulate what it is exactly about these sites that makes them so visually interesting, and so seemingly rich in social and cultural possibility. There are least two characteristics I have identified so far, and which I will write about separately. For now, I want to try and describe something much more global and ephemeral–something which is not really at all visual. Or rather, is extra-visual.

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Former Japanese Garden, Kilmahew-St.Peters

Kilmahew is an abandoned country estate at Cardross containing ruins from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, but which has been largely left to its own devices since the early 1980s. This is when the St. Peters seminary–a rather spectacular incongruity within the landscape–was closed. There are lots of interesting things going on, or about to be going on here, but more important to me right now, it is a good example of a certain kind of landscape–one that has something in common with the meadow, even though it is in many ways quite different (i.e., rural, ruinous and relatively unused). I want to spend the next few posts working through what exactly that something might be, and why it is important.

I have never been to Kilmahew alone, but somehow, that is what it reminds me of: it looks like I feel when I go on a walk or a long run in the woods on my own. The beauty you find there seems to me an offspring of the same basic but very rare freedom. While I am gone, nobody can make plans for me, or object to the route I take or whether I want to stop for a rest; it is ok if I get lost. A bit threatening and lonely at the same time that it is beautiful, this is a landscape that doesn’t have to answer to people’s expectations, that is allowed to fail. A place where everyone, therefore, can be forgiven, or accepted.

Though the meadow in contrast to Kilmahew, is a very socially active space, it also has a kind of openness or looseness that implies acceptance. Are there specific characteristics or processes that enable and sustain this quality? If so, we need a new vocabulary for describing and valuing them – a psychosomatics or ecosophy (in Guattari, not Naess’ sense) of landscape that acknowledges the bodily and political dimensions of landscape aesthetics. I don’t think we have always needed this; these are not universal human needs to which I refer, but historically specific ones. In a world where, even in rich, so-called developed countries, there seems to be less and less (time, space, love) to go around, and more and more regulations to follow, standards to be met, etc., we need landscapes that show us beauty in failure and imperfection. We need values that pertain to a quality of process and experience, as well as of outcomes and appearances.

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Bridge to nowhere, Kilmahew-St. Peters

How can we identify the aesthetics that go along with and help to nurture such values? This is what I will attempt to work through in my next two posts.

 

the small voice of landscape

FernTrouble

One of the Hart’s tongue ferns, showing some stress.

So the socio-horticultural experiment of the North Kelvin Meadow fern transplant continues, though, sad to say, this overly wet Scottish winter has not been kind to our transplants – most of which are displaying some degree of stress and some of have lost most or all their fronds to the excessive damp. These are wall ferns not bog ferns, after all. In any case, there are many new fronds waiting to emerge and we remain hopeful; in the meantime my colleague Ruth is in the process of developing a way of subtly but artfully marking the fact (if not the details) of their journey to the meadow. The problem has been to find the right balance between allowing the ferns to remain a bit mysterious (for those who have not read about them on the North Kelvin Meadow’s campaign website) and helping people to notice them at all. Ruth, who is a landscape architect, is taking the lead here, and it is interesting for me to learn (secondhand), something about the artist’s, as opposed to the academic’s or the activist’s, touch.

One thing I do know about from an academic perspective, is the dangers of prioritizing legibility in landscape, especially as a means to particular social or political ends. This is the strategy on which the notion of ‘natural surveillance‘ is based: the idea that if you make a landscape’s ‘proper’ use clear, then not only will ‘desirable’ users find it more welcoming,  ‘undesirable’ users (who always have improper use in mind) will be all the more visible. This will in turn either make them easier to catch (whether by security personnel, or on camera), or discourage their presence at all. The most politically perfect (i.e., morally defensible, economically sustainable) control of bodies is thus environmental, not physical. Even when (or perhaps especially when) such design is utopic in its aspirations (as was Ebenezer Howard’s ‘garden city’ concept, for example), it can end up serving totalitarian ends. Attempts to design social change end up having a lot in common with the enforcement of social order.

At the same time, and as the name of this blog attests, I believe the communicative power of landscape is important to understand, and I do hope that can be exploited for positive – which is to say, inclusive and creative – social change. I guess my question these days has to do with thinking about communication in terms other than those of reading, or at least, in terms of a more open-ended kind of reading. When it comes to landscape intervention, as opposed to design, maybe a starting point is to think in terms of the kinds of effects interventions may produce. That is, effects other than beauty or productivity (which is what we normally notice or care about when it comes to plants in the city).

There was a garden I was reminded of while thinking about these things: a small garden planted at the front of a low-rise apartment building in Ottawa. This was a space otherwise planted only with juniper bushes and heavily shaded by street trees. In the small patches of soil between the juniper bushes – even behind them – one of the residents had planted a variety of salvaged annuals and vegetable plants. There were few flowers (it was too dark) but climbing beans had been trained in surprising directions along fishing wire with large colourful beads, and small figurines and objects were positioned among the plants. It was not in any way a spectacular sight, but it was surprising. It made the little patch of lawn and junipers appear a much larger landscape, as if the little figurines inhabited another world, one accidentally contained within my own. It gave me all kinds of ideas, and I have planted many improvised gardens of my own since.

It seems a straightforward thing to say that a landscape, or a particular intervention in landscape, can be inspiring. And for artists and designers, perhaps it is not so complicated–that’s what they are always looking for, and their skills make execution of a large range of effects perfectly conceivable. But what does it mean, or what does it take for a landscape intervention, to give ordinary people ideas? For me – a mere gardener, without a garden of her own – being led to see the urban landscape as open  to intervention was not such a small feat. In this case, it was a question of being shown that aesthetic effects could be created that were not particularly beautiful, and not merely visual – effects that were imaginative and, in a way, social. As a lonely, somewhat shy young woman living in what felt like a big city, that garden spoke both to and for me: even you can do something wonderful. Well, at a least a little bit wonderful. Which was enough for me then. Is it enough now? I’m not sure. With this transplant of ferns I/we risk operating in the same, somewhat diminutive register. Sure, we have our reasons, but can anyone hear us?

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Wild strawberry, also a transplant from the Graving Docks

Regarding the pointless and the photogenic

Usually when we say that we have done or participated in something that was ‘pointless’, it is an expression of frustration–implying a failure of some kind or worse (in my world), a waste of time. Of course from the perspective of artistic practice, the pointless is a fruitful zone of experimentation. Perhaps for thought, and perception too. Certainly there are lots of things that seem like a good idea before you actually do them, and many ideas that don’t gain their full significance until a thing has been done.

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A few weeks ago I helped a colleague to transplant some ferns and other plants from a soon-to-be-developed site in South Glasgow (the site of the old Graving Docks, whose survey I discussed in a previous post) to the North Kelvin Meadow–an abandoned playing field which has in the last thirty years evolved into a meadow ringed by a small wood of birch and other pioneer tree species. Though it is owned by the city, and is (unofficially, though not secretly) targeted for development, it is currently used by the community for a surprising variety of formal and informal activities–everything from dog walking, berry-picking, allottment gardening and composting, to children’s playgroups, outdoor education, film screenings, parades, storytelling and more. The developer that wants to buy and build on the land is the same one that is poised to pre-emptively raze the landscape of the Graving Docks in the next couple of months. So the transplanting of ferns from one site to another is not without significance. However, it is hard to say exactly what that significance is, or is meant to be: the timeline of impending events made it important that whatever was done, it be done sooner rather than later.

As I was re-planting some of the ferns (whose root systems were quite limited, given that many of the ferns had been growing on walls or in cracks in the paving), and simultaneously, discovering the quite limited potential of the soil in most areas of the meadow and its surrounding proto-woodland, I couldn’t help feeling that, despite how ‘at home’ many of the transplanted ferns appeared, they had relatively low chances of survival. In the past, I have had a gardener’s disdain for activist or artistic horticultural interventions that don’t take account of practical details such as the plant’s requirements, or the conditions at the site of planting. What’s the point, I’d say, if they don’t survive?

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You could say that doing something is better than doing nothing, but in this case (and maybe also in the case of interventions I had previously disdained), it is more important that there is a possibility the doing can lead, eventually, to something else that is important–something beside the fact of survival and which can in turn give rise to something else again, and maybe even to something else beyond that. In other words, the doing is worth doing, as long as it invites further doing (and thinking!) and can be creatively extended–or in this case, tended–into the future.*

Which brings me to another thought I had as I was photographing the transplanted ferns, and noting how ‘natural’ they looked in their new surroundings, and also how, without the photographs (and what those photographs enable), their transplanting might go unnoticed.

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There seems in a way, something cheap or forced about this act of (potentially pointless) transplanting, once it is photographed. Were we doing it just to be able to say (and show) that we did? In some ways, the answer is yes–which is a bit humbling to realize.  But I think that may also be in part where the creative potential resides, and it is important not to be too precious about the purity of one’s intentions. As Jussi Parikka suggests in his writing about media ecologies, an act of preservation can be a creative act–but only if you let go of the idea of an ‘original’ nature. It has to be done for the sake of, and in response to, the specific creativity, or the affordances, of the beings and processes involved. What can ferns do? I’m not sure, but I think this is where the extension into the future comes in: what do the ferns require of us now that they are transplanted, introduced not only into a new (less biologically diverse) ecosystem, but into a new world of social possibilities? In planting these ferns in spaces that are well-used by the community, and especially by photographing (and now writing about) them, we were inserting them into a thoroughly socialized space. This is an act both arrogant and generous, since in positioning and then photographing them, we decided how they would best be appreciated, but in doing so, also imagined for them new possibilities for future relations.

Will people notice them? What will it take for them to speak in some way of their former home, and the practices of urban development that threaten both that landscape, and the one in which they now find themselves? What are the future acts (of writing and tending) that might make these effects possible?

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* This notion of tending/extending draws on Brian Massumi’s take on the concept of expression in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, and is also inspired by horticulturally-inflected research-creation activities undertaken by members of the Sense Lab (at Concordia University in Montreal).