This is the third book of my 10 books of Summer
A Review of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish. Bob Gilbert (Saraband)
I am as ambivalent as many Londoners about my city, loving it but longing, much of the time, to be out of it; living somewhere overhung with trees or with a sight of the sea or with the shape of hills to look at. And this is my compromise; this untidy patch of garden with its chickens and its struggling vegetables, this defiant gash in the city’s concrete skin. It is a wound that I tend with broccoli and potatoes…
Not exactly on a mission to re-wild London, but certainly to examine more closely what is beside, behind, beneath and above us as we all rush about, what has survived and adapted, the author has traced ghost outlines of the wild that once covered the area of East London known as Poplar.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.”
Gilbert’s book seeks out those memoranda and signatures. But to focus purely on history, on the lonely open landscape that once existed – a landscape of ‘wide and windswept estuarine marshes’ where now there are tower blocks and urbanisation. That would be a book only about loss.
‘It was possible, on a day of shifting, watery grey cloud to still feel the imprint of the reed beds and the osiers, of lonely cattle grazing on the open marshes, of the cry of a passing curlew…’
I doubt if many curlews cry over East London now. But this book is not a eulogy. Far from it. There is much wildlife here to celebrate. Gilbert charts new habitats in surprising places, gives us new causes for appreciation of the here and now. He seeks at the edges of shopping centres, at the side of rail tracks, the base of lamposts in the cracks between paving stones, in Churchyards and parks and in allotments for the new urban ecology As well as a biographer of the ghost outlines of estuarine marshes which once covered Poplar, Gilbert is a chronicler of our contemporary urban adaptees of the natural world.
Thus in an imaginary conversation the writer has with Richard Adams, (he of Watership Down fame) who apparently was rather grumpy about London and claimed to see nothing inspiring other than a few crocuses in a hotel garden, the author writes:
“I wanted to tell him of the black redstart I had seen feeding in front of the building’s bulldozer, of the pheasant I had found foraging on an urban allotment and of the skylarks I heard singing in a landscape of chemical works and pylons.”
Ghost Trees is the result of what must have been thousands of hours of painstaking research not to say hundreds of miles of walking and hours of looking and note taking. It traces the outlines of the rural places that have been. It also charts the history of the mulberry tree, plane tree and other arborial inhabitants cultivated by humans in this our great city of London for one reason or another. It is a book of plant histories but especially of plant stories
I found the account of the Mulberry’s arrival in the UK particularly fascinating. In order to facilitate a supply of raw silk without having to buy the stuff from abroad somewhere because that is (a) too expensive and (b) vulnerable to political interference, England in the l6th century needed its own Mulberry trees. Mulberry leaves are bread and meat and wine to silkworms; they require many of them to sustain their arduous workload. Under the patronage of King James, 10,000 mulberry plants were ordered, Gilbert tells us, including a plantation at Westminster. All this is now subsumed beneath concrete, with the poetically termed Mulberry Gardens the sole surviving relic of the project, along with Mulberry Street; Mulberry House; Mulberry Tree pubs etc etc. Sadly and for various reasons this is a project which failed and England never was able to support its own silk industry. But next time you go for a pint at the Mulberry Tree pub spare a thought for the little silkworms.
Gilbert also gives us an image of the post-human forest, and perhaps given current events that is not such a fantastical idea. These are the trees and plants that will colonise the land when humans no longer do. The goat willow, buddleia, plants that are happy to colonise neglected areas, abandoned urban corners, thickets of broom, cherry, aspen and birch, taking their place in the empty streets, decaying buildings, fractured windows and disused doorways of a post apocalyptic world. I rather like the idea that nature will go on, rather like Celine Dion’s heart, regardless of the worst man can do.
“But there was wildness too, in those individual trees that sprang up outside the confines of cultivation; the seedlings and the saplings that appeared without permission on lawns, in flowerbeds, along pavement edges and in pots in my back garden…. This would be the wilderness returning, and these would be the post human trees.”
Where there are trees can the shades and the Forest of Arden and the magic be far behind? I found this book awe inspiring in its wisdom and abundant historical and horticultural knowledge, although perhaps a little impersonal at times. No doubt the author, like the rest of us, has been inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane and although not quite in the same poetic bracket, this book is an inspiration and a wake up call. Nature has not given up, nor should we.