Category Archives: resilience

The Wollemi Pine


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


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.

black boys

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.

farm plaque

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.


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.

mrs m's chair

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Garden City/City Garden

from this

From this…

…to this


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).


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?


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.


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.


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.


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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Mother Nature


In the various gardens I’ve been visiting, one of the things I keep coming back to is the feminine principle in nature – generative energy and mythic perspectives that appear to be inseparable from the whole business of the human impulse to garden.  Robert Pogue Harrison’s interpretation (in his wonderful book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition) is that, far from being a curse, Eve was our first gardener and so gave us the blessing of our human responsibilities to care for each other and the land.


So I was very happy yesterday to make my first visit to see Northumberlandia – Charles Jencks’s ‘Lady of the North’ just outside Cramlington.  I’ve been following her creation with interest ever since the proposal was first announced seven years ago.  I admire Jencks’s contribution to the Maggie’s Centres around the UK, providing thoughtful and supportive care for cancer patients, and look forward to seeing the opening this year of the new one in Newcastle.  His Garden of Cosmic Speculation, near Dumfries, is a fascinating mixture of landforms and sculptures and other interventions, all playing with ideas of time and space.  Northumberlandia is very much his baby – especially his riddling, idiosyncratic signs dotted around her luxuriating body, drawing the eye in various directions.  Her ‘nipples’ point 12 miles south to the Angel of the North and 41 miles north to Lindisfarne!


Interesting to read this recently from Zen practitioner David Loy:

…you know what I think the real problem with nature is? Nature is the realm of death. There are creatures, they’re born, they die. We don’t want to be part of nature because nature reminds us that we die. And that’s the problem with women, the problem with blood, the problem with sex,…we want to deny the fact that we’re animals. We want to deny the fact that we’re born and we pass away like other animals, that we procreate like other animals. We want to have a special fate because we don’t want to be subject to mortality in the same way. And there’s a whole string there, our attitude toward women and blood and childbirth and menstruation and all that. It’s all part of this same system of denigrating women, because women seem to remind us more that we’re part of the natural world that we don’t really want to accept, and too much of our religion is an attempt to escape from nature, isn’t it? “We have a higher fate, we have souls. It doesn’t matter so much what we’re doing because we have a higher destiny anyway, don’t we?”


Hard to know what was more annoying here – the intrusiveness of the sign or the fact that the capitalisation was so random…The goddess’s face is the most striking part of her and we are directed towards looking in the mirror of her face from a distant spot across one of the constructed lakes.  I found myself speculating whether she is a cry for help.  A symbolic way of winning back the approval of Mother Nature, looking her in the eye, after treating her so badly for so many years – specifically in the open cast mining right next door and more generally on the whole planet?

At the moment the structure is still raw and the land not quite settled – it’ll be interesting to see what it looks like in a few years’ time when the grass has had a chance to grow and some wild flowers have made their home there.  Like the Angel of the North, I hope it will find a place in the local people’s hearts and minds and do its magic there.

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No Smoke Without Fire

When my camera broke recently, I dug out my old one to take some photos.  I discovered some images on it from when I last used it a couple of years ago.  These were of a bonfire at Moorbank in January 2011, built to burn the various branches that had to be felled because of snow damage during the particularly intense winter that year.  One of the biggest casualties in the garden was the old Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo) that had stood guard over the entrance for many years.

I’d never seen one of these trees before and used to taste one of the fruits whenever I walked in –not the loveliest of flavours, but somehow cheering.  I was entranced by the way the fruits and the flowers were always on the tree at the same time – scarlet berries alongside creamy-white, waxy bells.  A native of Ireland, as signalled by one of its names – the Killarney Strawberry Tree – this unusual plant also appears in the Mediterranean and is the symbol of Madrid, reflected in the liqueur made from its fruits – madrone.  Hieronymus Bosch painted one in his Garden of Earthy Delights triptych (c.1490/1510), which currently hangs in the city’s Prado Gallery.  I have since seen specimens in all three of the Botanic Gardens I have visited recently – Padua, Sheffield and Oxford (the source of the first two photographs here).

If all those various associations weren’t enough, it became a powerful symbol of the garden at Moorbank for me during my residency for the way its collapse under the weight of the snow showed what the gardeners there, all volunteers, were made of.  While I was still mourning its loss, they were cutting it back, gathering up the branches to be burnt and planning what might be planted to replace it.  Literally looking on the bright side, they were pleased at the possibility of more light finding its way into that end of the glasshouse.  I was deeply impressed by their groundedness and pragmatism – the way all good gardeners must look to the future.

Some of that same spirit was in evidence today at the Open Meeting to explore possible ways forward with the future of Moorbank, since the University has made the decision not to renew the lease with the Freemen of Newcastle.  The valiant volunteers – the Friends of Moorbank – led forums on the different areas this green space in the heart of the city now needs support with – gardening, business planning, finance and marketing/events.  Around 150 people attended, bringing some wonderful ideas and energy to the discussion.  Everyone’s input will be pooled to take the garden onto the next stage of its transition.  Knowing what determination and commitment the Friends of Moorbank are capable of, I look forward to seeing where this might lead.  It was good to come home with the sense that Moorbank has clearly made lots more Friends at a time when it needs as many as it can get.


Arbutus unedo

Bosch’s paradise tree waved them past
the gate, scarlet berries winking on dark stems
beside waxy bells, a tumble of cream and pink.
Some said the fruit tasted of nothing – one
was enough; food for the birds. Others let
the flesh ferment into Spanish liqueur.

At the end of November the snow fell,
snow like no one had seen before;
their Eden lost in the sky’s dreaming.

The old tree couldn’t bear the weight
of its white coverlet, creaking till its trunk
and branches split, exposed the chilled bones
of a dying year.
Earth like stone
under their boots, the gardeners went back
to work, tramping through snow with sawn
and fallen boughs to coax into smoke.

Flames shone on their faces as the fire took hold;
flakes of ash fingered their shoulders like frost.
The incense of burnt heartwood rose.
As if such wild heat could melt a hole
in the heavens, that afternoon saw more snow;
zodiac of a virgin year turning.

They tilled the calendar with spades and hoes,
telling the legend of that winter, what had passed,
the snow, the fire, the strawberry tree.

Yesterday the Financial Times published an article on Moorbank you can read here  – and you can also become a Friend yourself on Facebook here.

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On Wednesday I paid a visit to the North East’s first Big Eco Show at the Stadium of Light.  I wanted to know what a community I wasn’t familiar with were saying (and doing) about Climate Change and related ecological issues.  It was heartening to see such a focussed and energetic exchange of information.  It seemed a fitting venue for this current work that is asking for our unified attention – almost a shrine to collective effort, celebrating two of the North East’s abiding stories – football and mining.

It could be seen as self-interest that businesses should prioritise environmental considerations, or even see them as commercial opportunities, but I got the sense that this wasn’t a cynical exercise.  Most of the people I spoke to did seem to have the planet and its population’s interests at heart.  It was good too to hear how much government legislation is increasingly holding businesses to account.

Many set-ups in the North East have found themselves seriously suffering after what one speaker called ‘Thunder Thursday’.  It is anticipated flooding will only increase in the coming years and so businesses need to build their resilience, speeding up recovery time.  Various organisations are working towards helping folk make this possible.  The way LOCOG handled sustainability in their development of the Olympic Park kept being mentioned as a model: that environmental awareness can no longer be an optional extra and needs to be an integral part of a project or practice’s raison d’être.

I had the start of what I hope will be a continuing conversation with Teeside University about the carbon footprint of my Botanical project, my ‘Resource Efficiency Pathway’ (lots of Newspeak opportunities here!)  Given its scope, it’s important that I should build this into my approach to the work and find as many practical, creative solutions as possible.

If anyone has any helpful suggestions, I’d be very happy to hear them.  Do post a comment below.  Thanks.

Would that we were all as resilient as the buddleia blooming out of the cracks in the city streets…

I’m writing this on the morning of the Autumn Equinox, sitting in my garden, enjoying the level light and mild air.  Tomorrow I go to Harnham for a week, on retreat – a deeply sustainable way to begin this project I think, where I want to bring a thoughtful spaciousness to both how I write and what I say on this loaded subject.  And particularly not fall into the trap of being worthy or didactic about it.

As I sit, Bruno the postman brings a mixed assortment of brown envelopes.  The most uplifting contained a new pamphlet – Earthwords, poems to celebrate 40 years of Friends of the Earth.  In it Gillian Clarke writes ‘A love song to the earth is more powerful than a sermon’.  There are a couple of poems of mine in it, including this one, set up at Dhanakosa, on the edge of Loch Voil in the Trossachs:


In the midst of the wild, loch on one side,
mountain on the other, someone’s planted
a garden. It takes more than hope
to barrow ten tons of gravel and spade
and rake it level round L-shaped beds,
to coax those plants strong enough to dance
with the season’s short span into flower –
tangled nasturtiums, astrantia’s tethered stars.

It’s a gesture towards what’s possible,
our instinct for cultivation, how much care
we bring to the landscapes sculpted
inside us. At its heart, a hedge of box
shelters four pear trees trained in a spiral
towards open sky, the promise of harvest.

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