Another twighlight expedition on Wednesday. Travel chaos to the south and east but the London Overground was circling the icy abyss from the high ground and we made Richmond in half an hour from Gospel Oak. Surprised to find little in the way of snow but it was cold enough to put most sensible people off the Thames towpath which we had more or less to ourselves and a couple of cold-looking herons. Big congregation of rooks on the Old Deer Park and a long line of them at the tide’s edge foraging for the Christmas menu, a starter of mussels tout simple followed by worm-in-the-hole. This was the second time in a year we’d enjoyed Kew with no aeroplanes (the first was thanks to the ash cloud). In fact we did see one in the hour and it was a long way off. Heard a parakeet and Canada geese and plenty of gulls. And a park ranger doing a final lap in the van to check for lost punters.
At Kew we dined on fish and chips and killed time in the Railway before pitching up at Kew Gardens for a talk by Richard Mabey who read from his new book, Weeds: How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature, told some stories from it, conversed with the President of Kew Gardens and took questions from the floor. I wanted to ask him where he got the inspiration for Tenko but I think I may have got him confused with another Berkhamsted writer, so I’m glad I didn’t.
Seriously though the book has now jumped to the top of my Christmas list. It is a cultural history rather than a gardening manual. It made me think of Patrick Keiller’s new film, Robinson in Ruins, which we also saw this week in which there was a shot of an Oxfordshire field with a crop of opium poppies – the kind of field the commentary (read by Vanessa Redgrave) pointed out, being routinely destroyed by the authorities in Afghanistan. One man’s weed.
Another story from the talk that piqued my imagination was that all of the several species of weeds which first colonized bomb sites after the Blitz (most famously rose bay willow herb which Londoners re christened “bomb weed”) had all been here before. A core taken from deep under Tottenham Court Road showed a layer from thousands of years ago which pollen analysis showed contained exactly the same plant species as a WWII bomb site.
Another fact which startled me (I didn’t take notes so my memories are scattered like balsam seeds on a hot summer day) was the 70 million pounds spent (so far) “eradicating” Japanese Knotweed from the Olympic Park.
My impression is that the lethal spikes haven’t been eradicated so much as replaced with metal ones, the underground connections formalized into wire mesh, and topped with paranoid cameras uncertain where to point like the canons on the walls of Agra. But that’s just me. Richard Mabey and Patrick Keiller both re-imagine the borderline between human and natural worlds. It’s a cultural space (there is only one world, obviously) that needs visionaries as much as stakeholders – at least if we don’t want Patrick Keiller’s lichen to have the last laugh; obscuring the last redundant traffic sign on a road going nowhere.