S&C Community Reporter Andrew Larder muses on the state of nature in Portsmouth during lockdown.
Sometimes I wish my neighbour Frank had never mentioned the underground stream that runs by my house. Frank and his family lived in the area before my house was built, so I had no reason to doubt him.
Parking my car one day, I had noticed a hollow in the tarmac and mentioned it to Frank. I was concerned a drain had collapsed. Being situated on the edge of reclaimed land, with a high-water table, meant insurance companies decreed our humble home was at risk of flooding. The only evidence I had of a subterranean water course was a healthy tree in our garden, and soft soil that meant our rotary washing line was rarely perpendicular. Sadly, Frank is no longer with us, but I wish I had asked him more about the stream. He remembered when the golf course was once marshes, before the railway bridge, how there had been a level crossing. Strange how time moves on, the landscape evolves on the surface, we forget that there was life before us, and that it will continue after we have gone.
That revelation from Frank was long forgotten, until one afternoon during lockdown, I swore I could hear running water.
Forced to sit there I became more aware of our small garden. Not much more than a backyard. This suited me as I am not much of a gardener. Patchy grass, undefined borders, and bicycles in a buddleia. The buddleia was supposed to encourage butterflies but instead attracted two bicycles with four flat tyres. I am emotionally attached to one of the bicycles and one day plan to resurrect it. Our children had been quite effective in damaging our small lawn. Football, cricket, pop up Post Office, frisbees and marathon swing ball sessions have all taken their toll.
This summer I spend more time in the garden than all the previous decades put together. I start the day with porridge alfresco, break from work during the day with cups of tea, drink a glass of squash in the evening to cool down. The gentle sounds of modern suburbia drift across the garden. Scooters without exhausts, excitable children in paddling pools, and a neighbour running an online hot yoga class complete with PA sound system. Everyone has a DIY project on the go. The summer soundtrack features defective mopeds, drilling and sawing punctuated with cries of, ‘Work those buns!’ and ‘Elon don’t drown your sister.’ This summer, the rumble of traffic is no longer constant. At times peace prevails.
When the cacophony subsides, I hear what I think is water. Then I realise that it is just the soft hiss of a breeze through the leaves of the tree. Each tree makes a different sound, this is called susurration. Thomas Hardy claimed he could identify a tree by just listening to the sound it makes in the wind. When Clint Eastwood crooned ‘I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me’ in Paint Your Wagon, he was correct, they do not have ears. Silly Clint. However, we can listen to them, my tree, an ash, sounds like running water. Big oaks roar like the ocean.
Back in ancient Britain, new-borns were given a spoonful of ash sap due to its purgative qualities. These fun facts are a result of me listening to the radio on my headphones and grazing the internet. I become obsessive about finding out exactly what is in my garden and what lies underneath it. Not only does my tree have medicinal qualities but I could use it to build spears and shields as the Greeks once did.
Can you ever really own a tree? This was here long before me and will no doubt still be here long after me. They can live to be four hundred years old. The average tree produces two hundred and sixty pounds of oxygen a year, enough for two adults or half of my family (not including the dog). Not forgetting the insects and birds that inhabit it. The tree is an amazing symbol of life.
By the railway line a chain link fence stops folk from wandering onto the track, a tree has grown against and into the fence. The trunk slowly swelling past the wire and engulfing the metal. One day the tree will have to be cut back, but for now a wondrous wooden waffle effect has been created, to remind us that this land belongs to nature not South West railways.
No neighbours on the opposite side of my road have a tree and their gardens often become waterlogged in the winter. I should be honoured to have one. The roots help with drainage and their supping from the stream may save me from flooding.
What if I could dig down into the earth and find the stream? A stream is defined in the dictionary as a ‘continuous flow of liquid, air or gas.’ Would I find a raging torrent of water or a pathetic dribble? If I could find the stream, we could draw fresh water or instal a micro hydro dam and live off grid, but still within walking distance of the Co-op.
As a child I imagined digging down through the earth to Australia. Dismissing the small matter of lava and impenetrable rock, this would be easy as I was armed with my Dad’s trowel. What an adventure that would be. As envisaged by the 1976 film version of Rice Burroughs, At the Earth’s Core, I could be Doug McClure, batting off plastic pterodactyls whilst rescuing some damsel in a fur bikini. Or not. Because I am not an intrepid explorer or even a keen walker. I am a master bimbler, a flaneur at the best.
I can explore my garden in a comparable manner, using imagination and different techniques. Aborigines traverse vast distances by following what are known as Songlines. Originating from when the earth was created, their Dreamtime, these are tales, myths, folklore sung in praise of the earth that also help them navigate the terrain. Think Aesop Satnav.
The Songlines of my garden would include weeding to the White Stripes, digging to Dylan, or mowing to Motorhead. The time I demolished the old shed I had The Damned song, ‘Smash It Up’ in my head. My daughter reminds me we discovered a mouse boneyard that day. True there was a mouse skull but under the rotten floorboards an army of snails had shuffled off their shells. Boneyard seems something of an exaggeration.
Now here I am, watching a magpie mither a pigeon. In the middle of an urban environment, observing a remarkable black and white bird. A member of the crow family but exotic enough to grace some tropical island. The black plumage shimmers with a hint of petrol blue then green. The magpie spies me. Crows are so intelligent that they are one of the few creatures on earth to recognise their own reflection. This magpie stares me down, before bursting into a clacking cry and chasing the pigeon again. The pigeon is guarding a nest in the ash.
I would make poor nature documentaries. The rule, like Captain Kirk’s prime directive is to not interfere, let the drama play out. I cannot. I retreat to the house and grab a water pistol, (used for protecting Amazon delivery man from dog) then fire into the tree. My aim is poor, I blast the magpie, the pigeon and his mate guarding their nest. All three fly off. I hope the pigeons return first to save their eggs.
The ash is a silent sentinel monitoring my folly. How many other foolish futile actions has the tree been witness to? The German philosopher Walter Benjamin writes about the Angel of History, saying that where we see a chain of events, the Angel sees one single catastrophe which piles ‘wreckage upon wreckage.’ The Angel wants to help us but is propelled into the future by a storm called ‘progress,’ whilst the debris is left behind. That is how I feel about the tree now; the tree which supplies the oxygen I breathe and which I have ignored most of my life. We are the guests of nature and need to tidy up our mess before we leave.
Below me, the stream might be flowing, I do not know. As I look up into the sky, birds are flying. Clear blue like a swimming pool. No clouds, no chance of rainbows but no less beautiful. I want to dive up and fly into the sky, joining the birds. If I can see a patch of sky above me, imagine the stream beneath my feet, there is hope. I lower my weapon and the mother returns to the nest.
Inspiration: Inspiration was drawn from writers such as Edward Thomas, Robert Macfarlane and Bruce Unwin. They have a skill of dissecting the ordinary to reveal the magical. I wanted to explore without moving. I would like to dedicate this piece to my teacher Denise Bennett.
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