Fireweed* – A Question of Scale

Fireweed* - A Question of Scale

Sandra Gibson celebrates the persistence of wildlife in urban conditions.

By Sandra Gibson
Photograph by Sandra Gibson

I have a strong snapshot memory of a bungalow built in the middle of a field surrounded by a brightly coloured garden and a low, rather pointless fence.

It just looked so wrong!

The problem was that two worlds were uncomfortably juxtaposed: the pink-painted bungalow and corporate-style planting of the geranium and petunia themed garden didn’t relate to the context. They belonged in a sea-side town, or a suburb. They looked brash, and out of scale against the spacious sky, the blue rolling hills, the greens, the browns and misty subtlety of the environment.

A recent stay in the countryside reminded me of this and had me comparing urban and rural experiences of wildlife and scenery. Firstly – sky. Unless you are overlooked by a range of mountains, there is a sense of the expanse of sky in the countryside, which even if it is interrupted, gives a different experience from a town sky. The organic shapes of trees and hills, of sky seen through the lattice of branches contrast strongly with the angular shapes of a cityscape. A built-up area seems to challenge the sky for domination whereas a rural landscape seems more integrated with it. Also, there is less light pollution, so the magical presence of stars and planets and our beautiful moon becomes the dominant motif, whereas an urban area is overwhelmed by the swagger of artificial lights – an emblem of our wasteful carboniferous heritage.

Secondly – there are differences in planting too. Experiencing the scale of plants left to grow abundantly and naturally is quite different from looking at the average urban garden: often a horticultural zoo, with a variety of specimen plants confined to their own area, controlled by being cut back and kept healthy by weeding and feeding. We don’t tolerate certain plants at all: the thuggish thistle will be mercilessly dug out; nettles will be scythed down; grasses between our paving stones will have chemical warfare declared on them. Yet the experience in a rural field is quite different: golden grasses swaying in the breeze pose no problem of weed control there. You can have whole battalions of thistles and admire their deep purple flowers and silvery thistledown without feeling at all intimated by their spiked weapons or territorial aggression. Moreover, you can have forests of trees without anyone stressing about shade being cast over their barbecue lifestyle, and water features too vast for anyone to concern themselves about skimming off scum.

Thirdly – colour emphasis is also different: there is usually a lot of green in rural scenery, whereas in urban areas we grow plants as much – probably more – for their colours as for their greenery. And this brings me back to my original image of the bungalow in the field: the robust red of geraniums and the bold colours of petunias were just lost in the enveloping green. In the same way the urban garden as a setting for, say, a meadow, is doomed because you haven’t the scale. It just looks as if you haven’t bothered to do the weeding. Believe me.

*Also known as Rose Bay Willow Herb, the prolific wild flower called Fireweed, five feet tall with spikes of magenta flowers, cheers the hearts of those whose cityscape has become a bomb site or whose buildings have been cleared by machine. The dormant seeds spring to life after destructive events such as forest or man-made fires, hence the name, Fireweed. This occasional column will celebrate the persistence of wildlife in urban conditions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please answer this (to remove spam) *