Fireweed* – Summer Time and the Livin’ is in the Back Garden

By Sandra Gibson

When you travel by train you realise how much green there is in Britain, not just the dull Constable green where the cows munch, but the smaller areas of green that are part of urban settlement. From formal parks and feral-shedded allotments to tiny pots of green on canal boats, having a garden is part of the national psyche, enjoying a quiet revolution among people concerned about the fate of our wild life. In the BBC’s recent Springwatch, wild life sightings have been logged on the Nature’s Calendar website and The Woodland Trust, in conjunction with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Cambridge, has been collecting and analysing two and a half million pieces of data, recorded currently and in the past by the UK public. Information gathered from the gardens of Britain is giving an insight into the way animals and plants are responding to climate change. For some species Spring and Autumn are two weeks earlier than they used to be and this matters a great deal because of interdependence. If leafing and caterpillars are happening earlier, are birds dependent on these caterpillars coordinating their breeding so as not to miss peak availability, for example? As a measure of our commitment to wild life, the sale of bird food was unaffected by the recession – according to the British Trust for Ornithology. Less optimistic is the ecologically concerning increase in hive deaths, attributed to a combination of fungal and viral infections, the use of pesticides and the loss of bee foraging habitats. If we feel powerless against corporate poisoning we can at least do something immediately about the loss of forage by planting bee-friendly plants in the garden.

If our garden is a microcosm of the larger ecological picture, it also projects the smaller, individual scenes of contemporary life among the human species. This extra room accommodates our expansive and visible summer life style: from barbecue areas resembling the Master Chef kitchen, to jungles representing the triumph of Nature over (minimal) planning. Witness the agglomeration of make-shifting and guiltless neglect and forgotten priorities: bamboo tripods for spindly sweet peas, black cat asleep in the still-warm ash of a cheminea, a soggy teddy under a purple-flowered rhododendron, a terracotta pot of gone-to-seed parsley, a courgette plant determined to be a Triffid, the dog’s rubber bone almost hidden by clusters of dusty nettles, a white buddleia subsisting in a fissure in a brick wall, orange flashes of nasturtiums, whose airy flowers trumpet advance, fence panels bearing the fist of thwarted plans and the latest garden accessory: a fire pit whose unprotected flames will give everyone not a moment’s peace whilst there are toddlers or tipsiness about.

The best garden moments happen when you are not distracted by domestic minutiae. At dusk, when the cloud-trapped air is warm and static, you will see bats swoop for moths over the honeysuckle, whose scent coincides with bat-time to tempt them. Then, during the short summer darkness, an urban fox, his eyes catching the street lamps, will snuffle out the remains of the KFC buckets, registering the owl’s eerie call and the skittery feet of hedgehogs on cracked paving stones.

And early in the morning, when the night has hardly had time to be dark, the birds start to sing their territorial claim: a blackbird on a chimney pot points his beak to the dawning sky and sustains his sweet eclectic call, to a distant mellifluous response, whilst the querulous sparrows go cheep, cheep, cheep, in the guttering. A robin high pitches, the finches sing silver and the mellow doves flutter coo – coo – coo – coo-coo at one another. A crow saws the sky to land in the shimmering birch tree and all is alive with overlapping song battles.

As a species we and our stuff dominate the environment and because of the alarming combination of apathy, ignorance, poverty and corporate greed, we are likely to cause our own extinction. What is counterbalancing the coming apocalypse? It seems to me that an awareness of our coexistence and interdependence with the wild life that shares our diminishing spaces is growing. In political and economic terms we have noticed that the goose that lays the golden eggs is facing exhausted barrenness. If the stupidity continues we will kill her. We know instinctively that we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden and that is what must start to happen – is starting to happen – in our own back gardens.

If the motivation is to save the goose so she can be greedily exploited again, then we are getting nowhere but if the aim is to sustain egg-production in order to distribute them fairly, then that’s progress.

*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.

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