Category Archives: resilience

Endings and Beginnings | Beginnings and Endings

After over ten months of thinking, reading and writing, my Climate Residency has officially come to an end.  In the spirit of honouring endings to make space for new beginnings, I wanted to spend some time here reflecting on where I’ve been with it.  Some of this you’ll know already – pandemic, lockdown, pandemic, lockdown: a jagged rhythm we probably haven’t seen the last of.  It changed the form and energy of the way I had to work early enough in the Residency that I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like under pre-Covid conditions.  I was glad I managed to squeeze in a couple of Climate-related gatherings right at the start – one with North East Culture Partnership in Sunderland and one with Julie’s Bicycle in London.  Both were wonderfully sociable events, packed with stimulating and provoking ideas about the role and potential of culture in response to the Climate Crisis.  Ironic, that culture-as-we-knew-it came to an abrupt halt just a few weeks later when the first lockdown was announced.

All my research and networking shifted online and I’ve lost count of all the webinars, gatherings and talks I’ve attended on various platforms.  I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of information, and no doubt forgotten just as much.  I’ve filled five notebooks with notes that started quite neatly but have become more and more erratic, teetering on the illegible.  I tell myself that I’m in revolt after the strictures of the PhD process, but I’m still not entirely sure what it’s ‘useful’ to keep a record of, never knowing where my own writing will come from.  Sometimes the origin of a poem is traceable, sometimes it stays hidden in the tangle of accumulated thoughts.  I probably need to be aware that in my notebooks I’m writing notes to my future self and I could try to make it a little clearer for her sake.  My process has always been gloriously messy, arcane, archive-unfriendly, untranslatable, and I can’t see that changing at this late stage.

I’ve missed the regular face-to-face human interactions that used to form the backdrop and compost of my writing, but feel even more deeply enmeshed in my patch of scruffy, windswept land held fast between the River and the Wall.  Although I’m thankful that I do still seem able to write, I don’t find writing ‘about’ Climate any easier.  Every single time I return to the blank page I have to start all over again trying to say something truthful, vaguely original, worth saying, possibly helpful.  I spoke a little about the process and read some of the poems in progress for Newcastle University’s Inside Writing Festival in the summer.  The poems are accruing slowly and all being well there’ll be enough of them to form a collection at some point.  I’ve noticed I’m using the ‘I’ voice more than I expected, needing the ballast of close subjective observation (Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’) to help cast them off into the vastness of the troposphere.  There seem to be quite a few poems about trees and unsurprisingly the weather comes up a lot, the consolations of place in the face of grief, sadness and longing.  I’m interested in the poetics of ethical dilemmas and solutions, energy and power, the confounding tangle of it all.

Alongside working on my own writing, I enjoyed curating the collective Murmuration project, and collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film for Durham Book Festival.  It was extremely heartening to hear so many positive responses filling the social void.  The Residency has been beautifully managed and supported by Anna Disley at New Writing North, who’s been a helpful and encouraging presence throughout.  Our Climate Book Group (open to all) read five books and has proved a satisfying, strong way to stay connected.  We’re hoping that these will continue in the New Year – there’s already a growing list of potential novels, poetry books and non-fiction titles.  This was one place where proper conversations could happen.  I had others in various online forums or one-to-one in the open air, but mostly, it has to be said, with myself.  Overarching themes which recurred in these conversations include:

Time

I talked about my preoccupation with Time on the Inside Writing podcast.  It’s key to the subject of Climate in multiple ways, not least the pressure of the fast-approaching deadlines for reaching carbon zero.  The concept of Time encapsulates the conundrum that the only moment we can actually change is this one now.  Albert Camus resolved it, saying ‘Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present’.  The blessing (and the curse) of Covid has been to remind us to stay in the moment – the future even more uncertain and contingent than usual.  Uncertainty is a fact of nature and, like death, one our culture would prefer us to deny or ignore.  Beginning afresh over and over again, staying present, staying patient, is something we must learn, like circus skills, tightrope walking or juggling.  If it has to be so, we may as well make it exhilarating, entertaining.

Hope

When the Residency started I was concerned the burden of focussing so thoroughly on the Climate Crisis might be too much to bear.  You have to become slightly obsessed with a subject, immersed in it, to write about it at all.  Is that what I wanted to spend all my time thinking about?  I doubted my capacity for scientific information, my resilience, my energy levels, my ability to transform what I learned into poetry.  It’s been a stretch, tiring and boggling, but, eleven months on, I’m feeling more hopeful about our potential for radical transformation.  Because of my reading and all the online gatherings I’ve attended, I’m now much better informed.  Knowledge brings power and hope.  The story portrayed in the media tends to be on the dark side because that is the language of the ‘news’, however it’s clear that we have all the resources we need to take us into a carbon zero society.  What we are lacking is unambiguous backing from governments and legal systems to keep the fossil fuel industry in check.  The steady work of countless inspiring individuals and projects goes unreported in the mainstream news.  We have heard about the US election result and that has brought more hope, an immense relief after months of fearing the worst.

Challenge

Although there is occasion for hope, many obstacles remain and much work still needs to be done to fundamentally rethink how we live in the world and create a new ecological civilisation.  Reducing emissions will help stabilise the impact of mass migration, resulting from drought, floods, poor crop yields and political instability.  Even a 2 degree rise in global temperatures will create around 30 million migrants each year; if it rises by 4 degrees, that figure will increase to around 150 million.  Open up any topic that needs political attention and Climate is an inextricable strand in the tangle – energy, ‘the environment’, transport, housing, finance.  Although attention has been, understandably, diverted towards the challenges of the pandemic (itself adding considerably to plastic waste, a downturn in public transport and adversely affecting people’s mental health and well-being), Climate Crisis is still the biggest existential threat on the planet, as Greta Thunberg so valiantly keeps reminding us.  The story needs changing to help us replace all coal-fired power stations with renewable energy.  The law and human pressure can make this happen, if we open our hearts and minds to the damage we’ve caused, feel the grief of it and step beyond it into the practicalities of what needs to be done. 

Transformation

Black Lives Matter has shown us deep-rooted change starts with ourselves if we don’t want to be complicit in systems that perpetuate racism and injustice, intolerance for all diversities and the destruction of nonhuman species and habitats.  This is a personal as well as a political dialogue.  To do any deep work, we need to be capable of concentration, not constantly distracted by the digital world. I’m fiercely dedicated to my practice and process as a way of harnessing my own power in relation to Climate action, staying in tune with my responsibilities as a citizen of my small republic in the North and of the world.  This finds expression in my work as a writer, inseparable from my commitment to an engaged Buddhist perspective on the ethics and ecology of what is real.  Thai Forest Tradition teacher Ajahn Sucitto, in his book Buddha Nature, Human Nature (available for free distribution), says we can ‘choose not to look away, keep our eyes open so we can make clearer choices about what to eat, buy, who to associate with, how to occupy ourselves and who to vote for.  Meet and share and help each other and participate in a positive spiral.’  We can choose to stay informed and make small adjustments every day.  Seamus Heaney always used to say it’s what you do, how you live, in between the poems you write that matters.  That is where all the potential lies.

Joy

A stray entry found in my orange notebook, undated but from earlier in the year, provoked by some (now forgotten) brick wall of joylessness:

Why is joy a dirty word?  Why does it make most of us cringe?  Do we think we don’t deserve it?  Are we superstitious, imagining we might jinx it if we say it out loud?  Is it just not British?  Not polite?  Or modest?

For a while in this work I kept on safe territory talking about hope (encouraged by Rebecca Solnit), while privately thinking about faith and my own idiosyncratic relationship with my ‘spiritual practice’ (too grand a term – basically how I consciously choose to live my life).  The collision of idealism and imperfection has given me many opportunities to unlock a felt sense of compassion (another more dangerous word might be love).  At the bottom of that, and on top of it too, is a palpable awareness of joy.  I can’t live or love, do anything without it.  It’s the positive energy I need to get out of bed in the morning and stay in touch with myself and have faith in my own creative fire.  This is what Christiana Figueres calls ‘stubborn optimism’ – the rebellion or resistance in staying true to your deepest values – not giving way to the doomsayers, the whirl of the world where everyone talks and no one listens.  There is joy in listening, as there’s joy in sometimes turning the volume not just down but off.

Sometimes there is an implication in environmental messages that human beings are the problem – the best solution stripping right back to zero, eradicating our footprint, our actions, our basic wayward energies.  This is an anti-life philosophy, promulgating old burdens of guilt and despair, associated with systemic ideas about dominance, violence and the myth of perpetual growth.  It is capitalism’s shadow played out in materialistic skin-deep environmentalism.  The truth is we are part of nature too.  We have a place among everything else on this planet.  All of us.

Stay with the ragged joy of ordinary living and dying.

Donna Haraway

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Poetry & Ecology

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In the Physic Garden

 

Andrew asks if spiritistically is a word

it is now I say

how do you spell it he says

and we sound out the letters together

him way ahead of me

written down they’re ghosts

of the evening primrose

throwing up its arms behind us

MOTH’S MOON FLOWER

says the sign and we lean in

to yellow like thunderbugs

drinking from wilting cups

spiritistically we are yellow

and black when they are the same

night and day – me and Andrew

his words I want to save

and the flowers I can’t

and it’s okay

what does kill or cure mean he says

 

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Just back from the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival where I was delighted to be awarded the Bronze in this year’s Ginkgo Prize for my poem sparked by a summer’s day at Dilston Physic Garden, working with a group of vulnerable adults from Haltwhistle on one of their Zig-Zag outings.

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The Prize was judged by poet Mimi Khalvati and gardener and writer Alys Fowler and organised by the Poetry School, following Resurgence’s initiation of a Poetry Competition specifically for ‘eco-poems’ a few years ago.  This year the newly-named Prize was generously supported by the Goldsmith Trust, which promotes the work of ecologist Edward Goldsmith (1928-2009). It was fascinating meeting everyone involved (including one dog – Pekingese – and one baby – North American) and all the other winning poets: a real live chain of interconnection – ecology in action.

There is a beautifully designed and produced pamphlet of all the winning and commended poems.  You can read it online here.  Our wonderful certificates were designed and hand-made by Charles Gouldsbrough.

Part of the award for winners and the runners-up is a 10-day residency in Ireland next Spring at Cill Rillaig Arts Centre, County Kerry.  The chain of interbeing continues and will grow…

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A Short Film About Persistence

 

 

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Warm wishes for Winter and a Peaceful 2018

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(You can see these wonderful Allendale horses pull the plough on Instagram @lindafrancebooksandplants…I’m afraid it’s not possible to upload them here…A glory.)

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The Politics of Bees

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Yesterday I received an email from Friends of the Earth about the ‘Bee Action Plan’.  Unsurprisingly, even through it’s great that it’s on the political agenda at all, things do need to go further.  Please check it out on their website and sign the petition and share it as widely as possible with your friends and contacts.  As the flowers come back into bloom, there isn’t much that’s more important than the health of their pollinators…

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It’s almost three years since the Bee Cause launched. In that time I’ve seen you take action to save bees in so many ways. You’ve signed petitions, planted wildflowers all over the country, built bee hotels, added your name to newspaper adverts and even organised Bee Teas with your MP.

Now I need your help again.

It’s your last chance to call for a brilliant Bee Action Plan

Lord de Mauley, the Bees Minister, wants to hear what you think of his Bee Action Plan. But time is short. In one week the door on his consultation will close.

I’ve seen the Bees Minister’s plan for bees and it’s a good start. But to truly reverse bee decline I think it needs to be much better. Almost 20,000 people have already signed the petition for a Bee Action Plan that will do the job.

Will you join me and help make it 25,000 signatures?

It’s crunch time for bees. Please take a moment and add your name.

The bees are depending on you.

Best wishes,

Lucy & the Bee Cause team

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Oxygen

IMG_7320Today this article by one of my heroines, Joanna Macy, environmentalist and systems theory analyst, popped into my inbox and as the old year comes to an end – amid storms, flood warnings and power cuts – and we start thinking about our intentions for the 365 or so days ahead (all being well), it seems a good place to start.  The oxygen of truth-telling.

How do we live with the fact that we are destroying our world? Because of social taboos, despair at the state of our world and fear for our future are rarely acknowledged or expressed directly. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurring response, contributes to the numbing of the psyche. Expressions of anguish or outrage are muted, deadened as if a nerve had been cut. This refusal to feel impoverishes our emotional and sensory life. We create diversions for ourselves as individuals and as nations in the fights we pick, the aims we pursue, and the stuff we buy.

Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to permanent war, none is so great as this deadening of our response. For psychic numbing impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more crucial uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.

The Zen teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh was asked, “What do we most need to do to save our world?” His answer was this: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

IMG_7342How to confront what we scarcely dare to think? How to face our grief and fear and rage without going to pieces? 

It is good to realize that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is essential to transformation. Anxieties and doubts can be healthy and creative, not only for the person but for the society, because they permit new and original approaches to reality. 

What disintegrates in periods of rapid transformation is not the self, but its defenses and assumptions. Self-protection restricts vision and movement like a suit of armor, making it harder to adapt.

Going to pieces, however uncomfortable, can open us up to new perceptions, new data, and new responses. 

In our culture, despair is feared and resisted because it represents a loss of control. We’re ashamed of it and dodge it by demanding instant solutions to problems. We seek the quick fix. This cultural habit obscures our perceptions and fosters a dangerous innocence of the real world. 

Acknowledging despair, on the other hand, involves nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see and know and feel is happening to our world.

When corporate-controlled media keep the public in the dark, and power holders manipulate events to create a climate of fear and obedience, truthtelling is like oxygen. It enlivens and returns us to health and vigor.

IMG_7308Sharing what is in our heartmind brings a welcome shift in identity, as we recognize that the anger, grief, and fear we feel for our world are not reducible to concerns for our individual welfare or even survival. Our concerns are far larger than our own private needs and wants. Pain for the world—the outrage and the sorrow— breaks us open to a larger sense of who we are. It is a doorway to the realization of our mutual belonging in the web of life. 

Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation. On the contrary, in letting go of old defenses we find truer community. And in community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.

Let’s drop the notion that we can manage our planet for our own comfort and profit—or even that we can now be its ultimate redeemers. It is a delusion. Let’s accept, in its place, the radical uncertainty of our time, even the uncertainty of survival.

Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.

IMG_7349When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe. We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. And that solidarity with our neighbors and all that lives is all the more real for the uncertainty we face.

When we stop distracting ourselves, trying to figure the chances of ultimate success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. And this moment together is alive and charged with possibilities.

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An edited version of an article first published as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of Yes! Magazine and then reproduced in Tricycle.

The photos are from Hadrian’s Wall at Housesteads on Christmas Day.

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Tales of the Riverbank

IMG_5724Today, while my car was in the garage, I picnicked among the long grass on the riverbank at Corbridge and caught up with Saturday’s Guardian Review.  As well as enjoying watching a very hairy caterpillar add the flourish of its own signature to the page, I found myself initially pleased, then provoked by Steven Poole’s consideration of the current ‘fashion’ for ‘nature writing’ – a category of creative non-fiction he suggests is ‘a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, offering an idealised and xenophobic view of the countryside and what grows and roams there.  His tone rings with familiar critical one-upmanship – just another aspect perhaps of old ideas about power and hierarchy contemporary authors are attempting to unravel? Environmental challenges have opened a door onto the exciting possibility of radically re-interpreting historical narratives about class and gender.  Poole asks ‘who should really be in charge?’  This is surely the wrong question, which can only lead to yet another unhelpful answer.

IMG_5728In his article Poole imagines a largely urban readership seduced and distracted from their usual concerns by these books – the texts themselves substitutes for nature.  People who live in the countryside like to read about it too!  And aren’t we all in this together, asking questions about what constitutes ‘the natural’ and where we fit in amongst it?  Trying to figure out how to limit the damage for ourselves and future generations? Surely the time for looking at things in terms of male/female, working/middle/upper class, urban/rural is past – such divisions a luxury we can no longer afford?

By now we’ve seen enough evidence to acknowledge the interdependence of living organisms.  This is simply pragmatic, rather than what Poole, rather sneerily, calls a ‘flirt with panpsychism’.  Whatever happens from hereon in, whether we live in the city or the country, there is no doubt that we are implicated.  On Radio 4, Monty Don’s Shared Planet has been offering a very balanced consideration of where things currently stand with regard to the pressures on species and space.  I’ve really appreciated his calm, measured tones – a pointed contrast to the quickfire delivery of most presenters.

IMG_5732Poole picks up on the implications of Otherness in relation to plant and animal species – seen as either ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ – and gives it a political spin, as if nature writers were no better than fascists, intent on keeping out ‘illegal immigrants’; his critique tending to be more rhetoric than fact.  In another enlightening radio series, looking at trees in particular, Richard Mabey made an attempt to redress the bad reputation of the sycamore, suggesting we should be grateful that such a robust, well-adapted species exists to fill up the gaps left by our failing elm and ash.  Landscape is not static.

The impulse towards a Thoreau-type immersion in natural environments that Poole criticises as romantic and elitist is so widespread it seems to reflect a deeper need in society than one reserved for a privileged few.  As the population approaches the 9/10 billion mark, it’s hardly surprising it’s not just writers who have an inkling for more silence, solitude and spaciousness, a corrective to the clamour of so much indiscriminate social and media input.  However the writer concerning herself with ‘Nature’ has the potential to unearth welcome and necessary insights out in the field that will benefit us all in the midst of our current ‘transition’ conversations and choices.

IMG_5726And like the caterpillar making itself present to the argument, the contribution of the writer seemed to be made clear on the next page  – where the poet David Constantine introduces his ‘Hero’ Albert Camus by saying:

I suppose most writers believe, with Camus, that ‘saying things badly increases the unhappiness of the world’. And that they are duty-bound, therefore, to say things accurately; that is, to tell the truth.

Fiction and poetry will help in this struggle (against the ‘hell’ of the world) by dis-illusioning; but also…by embodying a love of the earth and the enjoyment of its gifts and by making works which are fit to be seen in it; which is to say, by making and asserting beauty in the teeth of ‘a world that insults it’ (Camus)…an assertion of individual freedom…brings you into a recognition of common human suffering and of the common need to lessen it and enliven the lives of all.

This isn’t a definitive ‘answer’ but it is a way of living and working that does no harm  – saying things well, saying things true – one I am profoundly appreciative of my fellow writers’ risking and sharing.

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In searching for the links for this post, I found a very long thread of comments taking issue with Poole’s article online and a particularly persuasive counter-article from today’s Guardian by George Monbiot (who came in for a lot of stick on Saturday).  He reminds us of the dangers of upsetting the delicate balance of the ecosystem:

Exotic invasive species are a straightforward ecological problem, wearily familiar to anyone trying to protect biodiversity. Some introduced creatures – such as brown hare, little owl, field poppy, corncockle and pheasant’s eye in Britain – do no harm to their new homes, and are cherished and defended by nature lovers. Others, such as cane toads, mink, rats, rhododendron, kudzu vine or tree-killing fungi, can quickly simplify a complex ecosystem, wiping out many of its endemic animals and plants. They have characteristics (for example, being omnivorous, light-excluding, toxic or inedible to any native carnivore or herbivore) that allow them to tear an ecosystem to shreds. These aren’t cultural constructions. They are biological facts.

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Olive Pink

Last night on the Band Lawn, after a day of celebrations in the Botanic Gardens to welcome in the Autumn, we watched The First Garden, a play about Olive Muriel Pink (1884 – 1975).  The backcloth shows Mount Gillen in the Northern Territory, one of her favourite views.

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Born in Tasmania, a botanical illustrator, anthropologist and gardener, Olive Pink dedicated the second half of her long life to campaigning for Aboriginal rights.  In the late ’40s and early ’50s she lived in Alice Springs, mostly in an ex-Army hut, making a small income from selling cut flowers from her garden, exhibiting her artwork and cleaning the courthouse.  She wrote countless stern letters to politicians on behalf of the Aboriginal people.  Eventually in 1956 she was granted 20 hectares of land nearby to curate as an Australian Arid Regions Flora Reserve.  Her vision was to create a botanical garden using only native plants, with the, fairly paid, assistance of the local Aboriginal community, and one man in particular, Johnny Tjampitjinpa.  Between 1956 and ’58, at the age of 72,  she lived in a tent on site, with no water or electricity, during a time of severe drought, where she would serve visitors Bickford’s lime cordial or a glass of sherry and a slice of madeira cake.  After her death the garden was renamed in her honour and opened to the public in 1985.

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At one point in the play Miss Pink says to Johnny ‘The world began with a garden.  Let’s hope it ends with one.’  It was a powerful story of one woman’s inspiring life, committed to the preservation of the land she loved and the people who’d been its caretakers for so long, before the arrival of the European invaders.  I keep hearing stories here of white folks, often women, who devote much of their time and energy to the ongoing restitution.  The poet Judith Wright (1915 – 2000) was one of them.  Towards the end of her life she stopped writing poetry to devote more time to the causes of environmentalism and social justice, inseparable in this country, that were so close to her heart.

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The Wollemi Pine

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At Mount Annan one of the trails we followed was the Wollemi Walk. An emergent rainforest tree that dates back around 150 million years, Wollemi nobilis was only discovered by accident in 1994 in the Blue Mountains (west of Sydney), where they grow on wet ledges in a deep, sheltered gorge. There are less than 50 in the wild and some may be between 500 and 1000 years old.

Apart from their importance in terms of diversity, these pines have already been found to contain taxol, used in cancer treatment. How many more plants might be out there still to reveal their curative properties?

Coexistent with the dinosaurs, the Wollemi Pine was only previously known as a fossil.

The original tree is in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

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Landing Place

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Of all the gardens I’ve visited Sydney definitely gets the gold for its setting.  A two-pronged patch of land, its boundary extends right into that part of the Harbour called Farm Cove to commemorate the first attempts at planting by the English invaders.

Captain Cook claimed ownership of the whole of the east coast of Australia on 22nd August 1770 by raising the British flag at Possession Island off the northern tip of Cape York.  Cook’s reports of only a few Aboriginal people, with nomadic habits, led to the fiction that possession was permitted since legally the land was ‘terra nullius’ – belonging to no one.

In fact for thousands of years the area around Farm and Sydney Coves had been inhabited by the Cadigal people, one of seven clans living in Coastal Sydney who spoke a common language, known as the ‘Eora’ people.  ‘Eora’ means ‘people’ or ‘of this place’ – their identity, community, means of survival and spirituality inseparable from their ancestral land.

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The eleven ships of the First Fleet arrived at Farm Cove, on the site of the Botanic Gardens, on 26th January 1788, under the command of Captain Philip.  700 convicts were transported across the globe to ease the pressure on Britain’s gaols.  All city criminals, with no agricultural or horticultural experience, they cleared the land in order to establish a three and a half hectare farm, ‘nine acres in corn’.  However their attempt at cultivation proved unsuccessful – the timing not taken into account, nor the high temperatures and low rainfall or the poor nutrients in the soil.  Nor the rats!  The plants the colonists brought with them as food crops, recommended by Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks, failed to thrive.

It is in this place that there is now a space within the Gardens called Cadi Jam Ora (‘I am in Cadi’), which grows all the native plants that the original indigenous people would have been familiar with and used for food and medicine and shelter.

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Meanwhile, back in the 18th century, the Aboriginal people, steering clear of the Cove, swarming with armed soldiers and chained prisoners, were close to starvation, deprived of their regular supplies of fish, kangaroo and plant foods.  In a matter of weeks the landscape had been completely transformed and it was becoming clear the intruders were there to stay.

In 1789 an outbreak of smallpox badly affected the local Aboriginal population and led to the beginnings of a sorry history of social collapse, grief and bewilderment.  By 1791 only three people descended from the Cadigal were left alive.

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By 1789, the farming venture had moved to Paramatta where it enjoyed greater success.  In 1810 the Governor Lachlan Macquarie established the ‘Demesne’ (now known as the Domain) as parkland for himself and his wife.  A new road system was built to navigate it.  One served as a boundary for his kitchen garden (on the site of the current Botanic Gardens); its completion on 13th June 1816, celebrated with five gallons of spirits divided between 11 men, is taken as the Gardens’ Foundation Day.  By 1820, Charles Fraser, Colonial Botanist and Superintendent, had created an independent Botanic Garden, with a catalogued collection of plants – one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere.  Here in Sydney they are looking forward to their bicentennial celebrations on 13th June 2016.  I’m sure it will also be quite a party.

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Garden City/City Garden

from this

From this…

…to this

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Coming from a large field in a small country in the middle of winter to an island on the Equator the contrast was about as strong as it could be and it took me several days to recover from the long and stressful journey.  When I emerged ready to take Singapore on its own terms I discovered that involved penetrating the paradox of City Garden or Garden City.  There is a big PR push there to create the mythos of ‘Our City in a Garden’ (where the word ‘our’ is probably as important as the other two nouns, a gesture towards integrating the ethnic diversity of Singapore’s population: making me wonder how much of that is wishful thinking too).

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My interpretation of paradox implies balance and union, a sort of yin and yang dynamic.  Here there was more of a sense of ‘disconnect’ – an ungainly word, but one that seems fitting here – suggesting something fragmented and random and echoing the strange syntax and coinings of ‘Singlish’.

In Singapore it would seem clear that City comes before Garden.  There is so much evidence of man’s influence – the architecture an expression of power, dominion.  The sheer scale of it – in conception and execution – high rises and set pieces – made me doubt the constantly reiterated ‘eco’ line.  It felt more as if sustainable measures were just an add-on rather than an integral part of what is obviously a very efficient infrastructure.  The differences between natural and man-made seemed too great, out of balance.  How much solar energy, tree-planting and biomass fuel would it take to keep the lights of Singapore, a 24 hour city, switched on?

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For me City and Garden were two distinct worlds that occasionally overlapped or collided – one superimposed on another, like an old-fashioned double exposure.  There was something old-fashioned about the place despite the glass towers and shiny lights – as if Singapore was tangled up in its dream of economic growth, still in the thrall of capitalism’s hollow promises.  Many of the public information boards, advertising and media were very childlike in tone and design, only adding to the effect of innocence.  There was something very charming about this but it also felt ungrounded and unsustainable.  I’m not sure how the ‘public consultation’ works either.  It all seemed too good to be true.

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When Monty Don visited Singapore as part of his ‘Around the World in 80 Gardens’ series, he was very scathing about its defining itself as a Garden City.  He found a community garden project which seemed to him a much more straightforward unequivocal approach – gardening for its own sake.  I saw some evidence of that at the Botanic Gardens where many volunteers with a passion for plants supported the staff of mostly immigrant workers in the maintenance of the gardens.

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Whatever ambivalence I feel towards Singapore and its gardens I enjoyed my time there enormously.  It was intense and profound – the plants and trees and animal life expressive of an unfathomable power, as unlike an English garden as it could possibly be.  Immersing myself in it utterly, the wild, unchecked equatorial growth, vestiges of rainforest and the sheer diversity of forms and species left me wide-eyed and often enchanted.

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I particularly appreciated getting to know the Heliconia family better, a native of Central America I’d first encountered in the Tropical House at Moorbank.  Last year I wrote a poem ‘about’ it called Adaptation– you can read it on the Dhamma Moon website if you’re interested.  Wonderful to see plants like these out from under glass.

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