Tag Archives: Durham Botanic Garden

A Door into the Dark

All I know is a door into the dark.

Seamus Heaney – The Forge

IMG_6980On my last visit to the Botanic Garden here in Durham I was struck by the changing view of the trees.  Most of the leaves had been shed, revealing the familiar winter silhouette of bare branches.

IMG_6983One of the trees previously unfamiliar to me is the Japanese Elm, Zelkova serrata, still clinging on to the last of its beautiful ochreish leaves. Rare in the wild, its name derives from the Georgian for ‘bars’ and ‘rock’, reflecting the hardness of the wood, used in architecture and as railings.  I was interested to discover that Georgian is what is known as a Kartvelian language (or South Caucasian).  It is not thought to be related to any other language genealogy, making it one of the world’s primary language families. There are approximately 5.2 million speakers of Kartvelian languages worldwide (mostly in Russia, the United States, Israel and Turkey).

IMG_6984It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods any time.  Not till we are completely lost, or turned round, – for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost, – do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature.  Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realise where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

Henry Thoreau – Walden

In the garden, or at my desk, there’s always more to know, to find out and I often feel lost in the midst of it all.  I’m especially aware of that in this University town so dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.  Every day I am learning something new, expanding my small view of the universe.  Today’s lesson was about chlorophyll (courtesy of astronomer Bob Fosbury) – how it both reflects and transmits light, like a thin scattering of snow on the surface of a leaf; how it existed on earth long before we did and made (and still makes) human life possible.

I find myself thinking a lot about the colour green at the moment, and about the limits of what I, and we all, know – in my mind they’re somehow connected.  Bob also showed me an infra-red photograph of an avenue of trees, reflecting so much light beyond the range of what we can see.  As if what is visible to the eye weren’t astonishing enough…

IMG_6986Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark.  That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go…

A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno.  It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’…

Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?…

Socrates says you can know the unknown because you remember it.  You already know what seems unknown; you have been here before, but only when you were someone else.  This only shifts the location of the unknown other to unknown self.  Meno says, Mystery.  Socrates says, On the contrary, Mystery.  That much is certain.  It can be a kind of compass.

Rebecca Solnit – A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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City of Words and Stone

IMG_6502From Durham Botanic Garden – my motto for the autumn.

IMG_6423I thought my daily commute from Marrickville into the Botanic Gardens in Sydney was impressive and enchanting but walking down from St Aidan’s College on Windmill Hill to the Institute of Advanced Study on Palace Green, where I am currently a Fellow, is a stunning way to begin the day.  Getting to know any city on foot is the best way to do it and here, in Durham, an absolute delight –  so many short cuts that are simply invitations to make your journey longer.

IMG_6547In Bishop Cosin’s Library – part of Palace Green Library, where the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition has just come to a close, notching up over 100,000 visitors.  We were lucky enough to catch some of the researchers still in action down in the basement examining the pigments used in the illuminations.

IMG_6544This weekend the Durham Book Festival gets properly underway and I’m looking forward to being on the spot while it all happens.  The Debate in the Great Hall of the Castle on Wednesday that This House believes great science is great science fiction got proceedings off to a good start.  For a few brief moments I was able to see what it might look like if the old distinctions between Art and Science could dissolve.  I don’t imagine this will be the last time I change my mind about something during this exciting Michaelmas Term of interdisciplinarity.

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Under the Toffee Apple Tree


At Durham Botanic Garden yesterday I enjoyed my second autumn of the year (although this one more sure of itself and familiar than in Sydney in March) and the sweet, slightly burnt fragrance of the Katsura tree.  For some people it evokes the smell of candyfloss – definitely something Bonfire Nightish about it.  Cercidiphyllum japonicum – the leaves are like heart-shaped spoons, pale gold, veined with green.  Rising here from a five-stemmed trunk, the branches are whiskery and tentative, but generous.  It is pleasing to discover that the wood is often used to make boards for the game of Go.

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