AFTERMATH: things to read
AFTERMATH: weeds and wilding is a 9 month community project and installation in the courtyard
at St James's Piccadilly. We are growing 41 species of pioneer plants that blew in and emerged from the rubble in the years after the church was badly damaged in the early phases of the Blitz in 1940.
Friday 23rd July 2021
Click on the image to read 'Grinling Gibbons: a story of Shells & a Pelican' by Diane Pacitti
August 2021 marks the 300th Anniversary of Grinling Gibbon's death.
Friday 16th July 2021
A Celebration of the poet John Clare
John Clare (1793-1864) a Northamptonshire labourer, was taken up by the London poetry establishment and then dropped. The last twenty-seven years of his life were spent in asylums, after a mental decline probably caused in part by the grief of displacement. Clare witnessed the destruction of the landscape of his childhood by enclosure, which took the common land away from the people, and facilitated large scale, uniform agriculture.
To read Clare’s poems is to be introduced to an unfamiliar England. Red poppy (locally known as head-ache), pink-purple corn-cockle and blue cornflowers are so prolific in a cornfield that the massed colours remind him of a sunset. The wild marten cat lurks in the woods. A huge variety of birds, from ravens to the corncrake, are evoked through their nests and calls. Clare uses local names rather than standard English: the ladybird is a clock-o’-clay; the forget-me-not a mouse-ear (because of the shape of its leaves.) And sometimes he invents his own words, such as ‘crumping’ for the sound of a shoe on snow.
Clare knew and named more than 400 plant species in his poetry and prose. As you would expect from a writer who endlessly walked his locality, scribbling his thoughts on the crown of his hat, his poems are notable for their precise, direct observation. He speaks of the ‘crimping fern-leaves’ the ‘thymed molehills’, or the ‘ink-spotted over shells of greeny blue’ that characterise the thrush egg. He notes that the tip of a poppy seed is shaped like a bonnet. Before the word ‘ecological’ had even been coined, Clare describes a plant in relation to its habitat of pond or marsh or thicket. Instinctively, he celebrates the other life-forms which it attracts, as in this passage which derives energy from the hum and airborne dance of insects:
We have at last begun to join in this lament as we witness the relentless loss of species and degradation of habitats. Slowly, we are becoming attuned to the cry of indigenous people driven from their land, but we tend to associate the grief of displacement with the Highland Clearances, or aboriginal Australians, or native Americans, and not with the labourers of England.
'the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced.
No-one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood,
and of the alienated and unstable self.' Jonathan Bate (Biographer)
The Fallen Elm
Historians argue about the precise economic effects of enclosure, but Clare’s biographer Jonathan Bate has pointed out that in Helpston an unusually high proportion of villagers held rights to the common (which included grazing) and an unusually large area consisted of ‘wastes’ from which fuel could be gathered. Enclosure was therefore seen as an attack on the rights of the people, the removal of a means of subsistence and independence.
Since Clare presents the land around Helpston as a living, articulate organism, he felt painfully and profoundly every wound inflicted on a brook, a tree or an animal. His sense of self was eroded when he saw this rich and diverse terrain reduced to a flattened commodity, parcelled up for individual profit. As George Monbiot points out: ‘His identity crisis, his descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over.’
'Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine.'
Clare wrote of his own childhood, ‘we heard the bells chime but the field was our church.’ The rich profusion of the earth was his source of the sacred. Clare’s poetry, written over a lifetime and continued even in asylums, is a faithful and sustained act of attentiveness. At the end of The Mores, the failure of the power-wielding landowners to recognise the earth as ‘divine’ is exemplified by the petty signs and notices which proliferate after enclosure, turning wandering into trespass and barring the paths to freedom. What paths to God, what ways to a deeper and fuller self do we curtail when the countryside we encounter is tamed by chemicals and boundaries, homogenised by industrial scale farming? What inner blockages and bans are we erecting and policing?
One element of Clare’s thought speaks powerfully to our Aftermath project. In a letter, he speaks of ‘a love for every simple weed.’ The Progress of Ryhme questions the classification of ‘weeds’: ‘I thought they should be reckoned flowers/ That made a garden free for all…. Nor could I pass a thistle bye/ But paused and thought it could not be/A weed in natures poesy.’
Then Clare extends his reflection to people considered inferior within the human hierarchy, which includes himself ‘with ragged coat and downy chin/ A clownish, silent haynish boy.’ Yet although Clare might see himself through the eyes of his social superiors as ‘haynish’ (awkward or wretched), the ‘weeds’ offer him a different perspective.
The beauty of the disregarded and maligned ‘weeds’ validates his right to be a poet. The ‘weeds’ instil the confidence to return to his poetry (string his lyre again.) Later in the poem, he writes that ‘both insects and the breath of flowers ... sing their makers mighty powers’. He is drawn into that ‘song sublime’, a creation-hymn in which his poetry adds its own distinctive voice to the hum of bees and the ‘croak or tweet’ of birds.
Clare’s celebration of ‘weeds’ impels us to question social hierarchies, to heed and actively encourage the voices of those who are marginalised. It also impacts on our idea of ourselves. How often do we internalise judgements about ourselves which are a product of false ideas of rank and importance? Might we, like Clare, be able to release our own potential by contemplating the beauty and diverse gifts of plants denigrated as ‘weeds’?
Diane Pacitti writes: “The more I read Clare the more I find that fits our theme. For instance, in The Lament of Swordy Well, the destroyed well mourns the death of the life it used to support, like bees and butterflies. When Clare entered the Northampton Asylum in December 1841, he was 48 years old, and had already had a spell in an asylum in Epping Forest, from which he escaped and walked home to Northamptonshire. The Northampton Asylum allowed Clare to walk through the fields and sit in the town. There is a drawing of him in his favourite seat outside All Saints Church:
After his admission to Northampton, he had over 22 more years in asylums before his death in May 1864. You can read more about this period in his life here.
Friday 9th July 2021
From our human, medium-sized perspective, we are accustomed to noticing other medium-sized bodies similar to our own, especially ones that move about, are good to eat, are appealingly furry - or unappealingly furry. We (especially urbanites) tend to have a condition sometimes described as Plant Awareness Disparity. This can manifest as a failure to notice plants at all, or see them mainly as a backdrop to animal lives, or as generic ‘scenery’ that provides an overall impression, as in a garden. But plants have bodies too! And sometimes it takes an unruly one to get us to notice.
A body of people, a body of knowledge, the body of God, a spiritual body ...
So what constitutes a body? Bodies are ‘made from’ cells. The Russian doll metaphor works as a body descriptor to an extent, in that each individual cell behaves in some respects like a mini-body. It can respire, communicate, reproduce, grow, and given the right conditions many can survive on their own. But a complex body, built from billions of cells is a totally different proposition, way more than a collection of independent entities. Cells give up aspects of their own holism to become specialised, working together for an over-arching purpose. In plants, some align themselves with gravity and grow downwards, becoming roots. Others strike out against the pull of the earth, heading upwards towards the light. Some strengthen their walls with cellulose and lignin, then give up their individual lives, self-emptying to become hollow tubes, the plant’s circulatory system. So a body is an emergent phenomenon, infinitely more than the sum of its parts.
Or more recently, in the words of Alanna Collen:
‘You are 10% human. For every one of your cells, there are nine impostors
hitching a ride. You are not just flesh and bone, but also bacteria and fungi.
And you are more ‘them’ than you are ‘you’.’ (10% Human, 2015)
Our weeds are trespassers and they are community builders. At St James's we often talk about our willingness to be changed – in fact it was a core plank of our last 3-year strategic plan. Having the roof blown off by incendiary bombs is pretty extreme change, but Prof Salsibury was convinced that ‘we can wrest knowledge from misfortune’.
The yet-to-be-over Covid pandemic has also metaphorically blown the roof off. Overnight Piccadilly was transformed from a global epicentre and magnet for visitors to… tumbleweed territory. Overnight, St James’s income generation was dealt a mighty blow. Overnight we were confronted with the need for wholesale reinvention. In these circumstances, how do we respond to weedy species scrawling their unruly bodies all over our domestic and highly stewarded spaces? What does ‘wresting knowledge’ look like in 2021?
Deborah Colvin 2021
Thursday 10th June 2021
Diane Pacitti has written a poem about Greenflies this week; like weeds they are considered pests, but what a wonder they turn out to be. They are mainly female early in the summer and give birth to 3-8 live nymphs everyday, which may already be pregnant! Hence the problem. But, of course they have their own ecological niche in the web of life. It turns out that they are farmed by ants who also protect them from their mortal enemies - ladybirds.
There are 4,500 species of aphids, including black-fly, root aphids and wooly aphids; most occur in small numbers and do little harm. But in large numbers they spread viral diseases and cause substantial damage to new growth, especially on agricultural and forestry crops. They spread on the wind and settle in sheltered sites; so gardens also suit them very well.
Head over to Things to Watch to see a short video on how ants 'milk' greenfly.
Thursday 3rd June 2021
Click here to read Diane Pacitti's report on the ROGATION WALK around the parish boundaries on Sunday 30th May 2021
We're joining the Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild challenge – with a twist.
We’ll be in St James's courtyard every day (except Saturdays) in June with #30DaysMicroWild, featuring different post-Covid aspects of the courtyard each day e.g. ‘weeds’ growing in cracks, lichens, succession and soil formation in action.
One quarter of the courtyard will be left alone - rewilded! - for this month. In the past we have sometimes ‘peopled’ the church to maintain a human presence. Join us this month in peopling the courtyard as plans are made for its future.
There’ll be poetry reading and writing, microscope activities, drawing, photography, music, mini-botany tours, print-making, conversation and anything else you would like to offer! Join us in the courtyard, follow us on Twitter @EcoSJP and the Aftermath blog here or go wild in your own places and send us updates email@example.com.
Click on the image above to read the President of the General Assembly Summary of the UN Biodiversity Report, UNITED NATIONS SUMMIT ON BIODIVERSITY. September 2020
Click on the image above to read an article by David C. Korten; an American writer, lecturer, engaged citizen, student of psychology and behavioral systems, a prominent critic of corporate globalization, and an advocate of Ecological Civilization. He is founder and president of the Living Economies Forum.
Resilience.org aims to support building community resilience in a world of multiple emerging challenges: the decline of cheap energy, the depletion of critical resources like water, complex environmental crises like climate change and biodiversity loss, and the social and economic issues which are linked to these. Click the image above to read an article about Weeds and Agriculture.
Thursday 27th May 2021
This week our poet-in-residence, Diane Pacitti, offers another of her wonderful poems and Sara Mark has made new monoprints on the theme of EMERGENCE. Please do send in your contributions.
The theme for May is EMERGENCE as we welcome a few more of our 'weeds' above ground. Rose-bay Willowherb was the most prolific species found on London's bombsites which earned it the nick-name of Fire-Weed. Its natural habitat is woodland edges especially in clearings after forest-fires and it was fairly uncommon until WW11 opened up a new habitat for it to colonise.
Thursday 13th May 2021
In 1940, St James’s was reduced to a near ruin in the first phase of the London Blitz. The bomb-site was rapidly colonised by 42 species of ‘weeds’ which were identified and listed by Prof Edward Salisbury, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. His species list for St James’s’ was recently rediscovered in the church archives; a cursory glance might dismiss most of them as ‘common-weeds’, indeed many could be described as gardeners’ nightmares, but without exception each one has a fascinating story to tell, a niche in an ecosystem or is of some cultural or medicinal interest. Many have traveled thousands of miles to be here!
In 1943, Prof. Salisbury also published an article: ‘The Flora of Bombed Areas’ in the journal Nature in which he discusses the most common species found on bomb-sites in London but also the efficiency of different types of seed dispersal.
In 2020 at the height of the global pandemic, Seth Denizen of the University of California published a paper reflecting on weeds as allegory: The flora of bombed areas (an allegorical key)
He demonstrates how Salisbury’s analysis stays within the parameters of empirical science and is based on an ecology that tries to see the world from the plant’s point of view. It concludes with:
‘the bombing produced plants that specialize in catastrophe and are far better at it than the cities in which they live.’
Quoting Walter Benjamin, Denizen invites us to consider that ‘allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things’ - from within the physical space of allegory, Salisbury invited his audience to see the broken Savoy Chapel as the rosebay willowherb saw it: as pure futurity.
For Walter Benjamin, allegories ... (like ruins) ... appear in the aftermath of a process of destruction, in which the specificity or individuality of the world is broken apart in order to be reconstituted within a new narrative. In a ruin, ‘history has physically merged into the setting’. Weeds inhabit ruins, buildings destroyed by disaster, and act as pioneers.
An unusual view of history. Diane Pacitti has written a short story (The Return of the Native) about the area of St James’s which whisks you through the centuries, but from the point of view of a weed, mugwort. Do also check out her After the Bombing poem, complete with a recording made by Trevor Lines and Diane, with visual images by Sara Mark.
A plant’s view of the city
She lived on the margins, close to the river which latecomer humans called the Thames. She could be found just above the boggy land where the Tyburn floods into the larger river. That presence of marsh gave her one of the many names she acquired through time.
She was not delicately pretty, like the speedwell. She did not reflect the sun in discs of polished gold, like the buttercup. Her seeds did not form parachuted globes, like dandelion clocks which humans could puff and disperse with a wish. She was wild and hardy, begetting progeny almost effortlessly. And unlike some of the grasses, which were tamed, bulged and subsumed into human territory, she was mostly left to herself by the people of Charing and other nearby settlements. The huge grunting pigs which belonged to their farms chose other plants to forage.
But when people’s joints were aching, they called on her to soothe away their pains. When they were tired, they dissolved her leaves in boiled water, and as they drank they could feel her potency spread through their body. They carried her on journeys knowing that evil spirits and wild beasts would quail at her presence.
When people were tormented by nightmares, they called on her aid. After they had diffused and ingested her, the knowledge that she was travelling with them through the night steered their sleep-journey away from monsters and tossing tempests, into dreams that flowed gently into each other like the lapping waters of a harbour.
I say ‘she’. When I watch the gypsies smoking her, I might say ‘he’, although the smokers include women. As do those who use her to brew beer and those who drink, carouse and laugh, enjoying the appealingly bitter flavour provided by her leaves. I could say ‘he’ or ‘she’, or I might say ‘they’ because she is both, and multiple. This single shoot just showing above the earth is breathtakingly plural, the product of millions of forebears, holding her descendants in the 50,000 or more seeds produced by her tiny red-brown flowers.
But I refuse to look at this vigorous life and use the term ‘it’. Because she is an emanation of God-energy, brought forth by sun and water, raised on earth that is star-dust and the fertile refuse of plant, animal and human history. She is part of a life-giving web of connectivity which extends into the cosmos. She sustains the fluttering life of moths and butterflies. She rides on the wind to survive and take a new form.
Mugwort. A boggy name, rooted in the Norse muggi, or marsh. Or perhaps a variant of mycg, the Old English word for midge, since she is said to repel certain insects. Also crone wort or gypsy tobacco. But these names are labels attached by humans: throat-sounds, ink-squiggles. They do not impinge on her green life.
But the human city did impinge. It was advancing, re-ordering growing spaces to serve its hunger, its wars, even its aesthetic of pleasure. After huge time-spans of summer flowering and winter withering, human will colonised this water-meadow and its surrounding woods at a break-neck pace. First a king expelled the pigs and made the area spreading upwards from the river a park for his deer: he built a red-brick palace in the fields, on the site of a former leper hospital dedicated to St. James the Less. When humans construct these strange hierarchies, they never want to be associated with the ‘lower’, so the description ‘the Less’ disappeared from the palace’s name. The initials H.A. on one of chimney-pieces locate this moment in human time, recording his brief obsessive love for the wife he sent to the scaffold.
One of his successors called James drained the fields and called the area a royal park, open to ordinary people. Plants of the bog like the Marybud, or marsh marigold, disappeared. But Mugwort liked her roots to be moist but not drenched, and she had already spread her seeds upward to the very edge of the woods. So this native being flourished, while foreign and tamed things were imported into the park. James introduced camels and elephants, crocodiles and exotic birds in a cage, which gave their name to a walkway. He imported a bed of tamed flowers that stood outside the palace, flowers which stood in stiff rows like sentries and seemed overblown, their colours modified from their wild counterparts as if tinged with human dyes. These humanoid blooms watched their cousins flowering and seeding in the field, just as the bright-feathered creatures, captured in a far country and reduced to objects, looked beyond the aviary bars and staring human faces to their kin flying free in the sky.
The flowers of this field were living the God-spirit which was dispersed through the cosmos at the beginning of time. Instinctively, inevitably, they participated in the Creation-dance. At times they struggled to survive, but their existence was also a hymn of praise to a distant star. They transformed sun, earth and water into paper-thin sculptures of light, engaging in a subtle process of exchange with other beings such as birds of the air and underground fungi.
But now other fields in the country were being gashed by cannon-balls. Crows were feasting on human corpses. One icy January day, when Mugwort was resting under frost-hardened grass, the man who was king of the whole islanded land-mass walked out of St. James’s Palace heavily guarded, followed by a troop of drummers keeping a slow, ominous beat. One of his last wishes was to walk though St. James’s Park on his way to his execution at Whitehall.
There followed a brief re-wilding, although no-one would have called it that at the time. The new leader made the palace into a barracks and announced that ordinary people could cut down any tree in the park for firewood. When an account states that the park ‘fell into disrepair’ and was ‘barren’, you can be sure that Mugwort and her wild friends flourished.
Then a thrust of time that according to human reckoning was a few centuries, but which to Mugwort and other wild beings was one long experience of being hunted down, poisoned, forced into hiding. The expanse which had sounded with the cries of marsh birds was no longer a community of freely interacting beings. It became the brain-property of landscape-architects, a formal plan on a piece of paper, a notion of orderly recreation. These human concepts were translated into lawns of tamed grass and formal avenues of trees. Later the drainage canal became a lake with imported wildfowl and a cottage for a bird-keeper.
The upper field was colonised by slabs and blocks of human-made materials which choked the ground and rose into the sky. Spreading out from an orderly den called St. James’s Square, the humans built their warrens. Some constructions, like the square and the spired building which rose above it, were neighboured by small patches of green. But the warren kept expanding as if it had a will of its own, and there were colonies known as slums where people were cooped together as if by a harsh gaoler determined to separate them from their green relatives. These were places of pale thin faces and fetid stinks. The river, which had once been described as ‘silver Thames’ was now brown with human excrement.
Mugwort was too tall to lurk unnoticed at the edge of the park, or to peep between paving-stones like her friends the mosses. She could use the wind to escape. But if she landed in the human space known as a garden, she was prised from the earth by a heavy implement or doused in burning poison. She was cunning, able to take new forms. Sometimes the human was applying the deathly spray to her already retracting body while she was riding away on the wind in a thousand seeds. These seeds found places where she might survive: ground known as waste and the banks of railways. An exile, she lived on the margins.
Then came a war that uprooted and exterminated whole peoples. To survive, the islanded landmass had to produce food for its inhabitants. All over the country, wild land was ploughed and farmed. The paid gardeners had less time to weed, which meant that certain wild natives returned to the margins of ornamental parks, hidden under trees or by fences. The Directorate of Medical Supplies issued an extraordinary appeal to people living in or near London: for foxglove, male fern, stinging nettle, dandelion and coltsfoot, so-called weeds which had been eradicated from London parks and gardens while all the while these healing plants had been shipped into Britain from other countries.
In their extremity, the human dwellers seemed to be learning from their plant and animal cousins. The natural rhythm of waking and sleeping returned, because the night was no longer polluted by artificial light. Like some animals, humans learned to burrow away from danger. In a warren of tunnels known as Piccadilly Station, large and small humans would descend at night to sleep in safety underground, emerging at daybreak like wood mice hungry for light and food.
Then, one autumn day, a machine far heavier than any crow flew high above the city. Right above the steepled building which crested the river-slope, it dropped several heavy objects. Rounded objects pointed at one end like seeds, falling, gathering speed. They exploded on the church and its attached house, bringing death, shattering a roof which was created in love centuries ago. Grief and a heart-rending awareness of loss continued to explode from that site.
The explosion bared the earth in the nave. It was poor soil, having been suffocated for centuries. All over London, human-made explosions were creating patches and chinks of new earth.
Mugwort was flourishing in many waste places, but let us focus on one plant on a canal bank. And then focus on one of her thousands of seeds. Fellow-seeds had used water to travel. But in this seed, mugwort rode on a gust of wind, swirled and hovered, then powered forward in a wind-blast. She was soon riding above slate and brick and concrete, substances that spelt death to her. As she got closer to the heart of the city, a dangerous heat emanated from the huddle of buildings and press of people and above all from the gas-farting metallic monsters. Luckily this pushed her higher into the air in a hot curving current.
When she dropped, it was into a tiny patch of blessedly cool earth in the centre of the bombed nave.
Rhymes of the Blitz is based on three traditional English rhymes: Oranges and Lemons, Ring a Ring o’ Roses and Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.
The first poem must be imagined as a secret conversation at midnight, because during the Second World War church bells were to be rung only to announce an invasion.
In October 1940 St James’s was badly damaged in the first phase of the Blitz.
Out of the rubble an aftermath of 42 resilient pioneer plants emerged.
What lessons can they teach us?
Out of the rubble an aftermath of 42 resilient pioneer plants emerged.
What lessons can they teach us?