On December 4th-5th 2018, artist Joseph Edwardes Evans presented a new series of small sculptures in an exhibition entitled Entre Guillemets // Quote Unquote.
The works, made entirely of found objects and ‘scrap’ or ‘waste’ materials, emerged in response to the conversations Joseph and I had about post-traumatic landscapes.
Made of found metal and severed branches, the sculptures’ construction and display is tightly post-traumatic: they perform as citations by re-appropriating and putting forward material extracted from elsewhere, as if plucked from the receding past at the moment of being consigned to it. This extracted material is made to enter (the “entre” of “entre guillemets”) the present as a vase-type object, testifying to, presenting, or pointing towards histories of use and waste. But at the moment of enunciation, the vases are suggestively illegible as to what their specific material past is. Haphazard, contingent and diverse, they are an uncertain record. […] Whilst the vases represent citational space, an ambiguous plane, they can only bring the idea of the past to us. What we do with it then – what we put there – remains to be decided.
During the course of the two days, visitors were invited to create works around, and in response to, the sculptures. We provided watercolours, typewriters, marker pens, ink, glue and pencils on a large table in the rather chilly foyer of Jessop West. What emerged was a collaborative scrapbook and an agreement that mental health and wellbeing might be significantly improved if we were able, in our cities and public spaces, to create similar spaces of conversation and creativity.
What were the key insights of the two days? 1) Coffee has become a tax on interactions; 2) we need spaces to make a mess, be directionless, take a risk and not fear being unproductive; 3) art makes space – it isn’t a thing we add to space. This table, then. as ‘ritournelle’ – a space that emerges through the scratching of pencils and the putting of paint on paper; through conversations and encounters, and a shared desire to do this again.
With thanks to Joe, Lucy, Seth, AJ, Emma, Jordan, Neve and Rebekah for all their hard work, creativity and insight.
I walked to Salmon Pastures. A. told me he went to school and did his apprenticeship there. He explained how his father’s funeral cortège had travelled slowly along Carlisle Street and the men came out of the steelworks, doffing their caps as it passed.
To get there, I travelled by tram to Nunnery Square – a patchwork of car parks and police buildings, hemmed in by security fencing. I walked under railway arches, past carwashes and small factories, before crossing Norfolk Bridge (built in 1856) and taking a sharp right along a small cobbled street to join the river.
An old man from Yemen was sitting on a bench watching the river crowfoot stream in long ribbons with the current. We talked for a few minutes and he told me how this is a good place. Quiet.
I walked with Daisy along the River Don from the Wardsend cemetery to Neepsend. At Wardsend, we started off a little way down the railway lines that run stark and clean through the undulating and overgrown cemetery, then veered off to follow the river itself, along the newly surfaced track that cuts through the vast mounds of debris – spolia from demolished works? – that loom either side. The electricity pylons hummed and crackled overhead and the thunderous engines of quad bikes rumbled and reverberated in an undefinable distance.
Everywhere we walk, waste. And amidst the waste, lilac and jack-in-the-hedge. The river bank is strewn with tyres and bottles and fast food wrappers, mattresses and plastic chairs, podgy black bin bags. A sign screwed to one of the metal kissing gates put there to stop the quad bikes : fly tippers – we are watching you.
At Wardsend, on the hill amidst the silver birch, there has been a fire. Graves squat in scorched earth, black tipped tendrils clasping shards of stone, displacing fragments of Victorian ironwork.
The Hillsborough playing fields are to our right. A man in a vermilion jersey sparks across the pitch. A sheep’s skull – or perhaps it is just a carrier bag – is revealed, briefly, as the river washes across it. Bottle-green, muddy mallards drift.
Neepsend. Eviscerated drag cars and deserted roads, leading to an empty, elevated horizon.
G03, Jessop West, 1 Upper Hanover Street, University of Sheffield
Scientific discourses on neuroplasticity abound with metaphors both of (neuronal) landscapes and (cortical) ‘real estate’. This cutting-edge symposium brings together speakers from across the disciplines to explore the ways in which recent advances in the understanding of neuroplasticity might be used to construct new models for negotiating urban landscapes and temporalities. Our discussions will include a consideration of how brain trauma and cerebral re-organisation can yield new understanding and insight regarding the complexity and resilience of the damaged topographies that punctuate the post-industrial, post-colonial and post-traumatic cityscape. Thinking through the sculptural dynamic of cerebral morphology will also open up a debate concerning the ways in which critical methodologies from the arts might find their place in the sculpting of new forms of stability within the contemporary built environment, participating in the ‘real life’ making of cities, at both grass roots and policy level. This symposium is open to all and will feature a digital exhibition by Stuart Wilson.
Speakers include Professor John Barrett, Luke Bennett, Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson,Professor Martin Jones, Chris Leffler, Sara Parratt-Halbert, Dr Tom Stafford, Dr Adam Stansbie, Dr Stuart Wilson
The event, which is part of the In the City programme organised by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sheffield, is jointly hosted by occursus and the School of Geography.
Furnace Park, which grew from the occursus project, is an associate pilot of the EU-funded SEEDS project and the symposium will include a presentation by the project manager, Sara Parratt-Halbert.
In August, I walked past a piece of wasteland on the edge of Rotherham town centre. The faded blue hoardings were overhung by buddleia the colour of purple velvet. Each vivid flower spike was bejewelled with a peacock butterfly. How many people looked up that day and witnessed this miracle of nature? How many people walk past this site every day, without really looking but smelling the honeyed, exotic perfume, like a scent wafting through a sultan’s harem?
Yesterday, on a hazy, early September afternoon, before the day-long downpour heralding autumn, white butterflies danced though my garden, alighting on the buddleia bushes; the royal purple and the creamy white, magically self-seeded in exactly the positions where I wished them. Most of the flowers are now brown, the fuse of summer burning out. I refuse to tidy my garden until the last spark of my blooms has been extinguished by the dying year.
The buddleia is the first thing I noticed about the Furnace Park, softening the metal perimeter fence, its tenacious roots clinging on to the crevices of the old Don Cutlery Works – the landscape of the Industrial Revolution softened into a Romantic ruin that Wordsworth might write an ode about. Buddleia glamorises and disguises derelict places, stitching together the random patchwork of abandoned Victorian works, pavements, car parks, office blocks and the odd corners of land that nature has borrowed for her own use again.
Walking around the post-industrial landscapes of Sheffield inspires a strange sense of melancholy, somewhere between sadness and grief for past glories, combined with excitement. In Sheffield, something new is always happening, low-key, under the radar and often temporary – a canal-side warehouse might become a nightclub or a gallery for one night, before fading away as if it never existed at all. We use our ruins and lost places as inspiration. There’s a richness in the lost worlds that have been demolished, built on and demolished again, the long-gone communities of factories and back-to-backs just as tantalising as peakland villages drowned by reservoirs and the legend of the ghostly bells of Dunwich churches echoing from deep under the waves, swept into the North Sea hundreds of years ago. The death of areas like Shalesmoor and Attercliffe is still within living memory, swept away by slum clearance programmes in the twentieth century. My grandparents lived in streets like these.
The courts and back-to-backs themselves weren’t mourned by their residents, but they missed the community spirit that came from living cheek-by-jowl. They moved to the luxury of new council houses with proper bathrooms and toilets – escaping from the shared latrines and outdoor standpipes and diseases of poverty such as cholera and TB. People lived next door to the factories and mills where they worked, unable to escape the smoke, noise and dirt. Would they find beauty in the overgrown dereliction?
In the 1930s, the River Don was dead. Black and toxic, the only living creatures were rats that lived from human waste. Now, the riverbanks are lush with alder and willow. Trout and grayling swim in the clean water. Mallards and coots nest in the safety of silted mid-stream islands. Wildlife returns, feral and multicultural.
I used to work in adult education in a converted railway building on Spital Hill, near the Wicker. Burngreave is one of the most diverse areas I know, with its Afro Caribbean barbers, Arabic kebab houses, traditional pubs, Somali groceries, Kurdish Restaurants and Pakistani curry houses. Our building was next to a derelict pub. There was a buddleia bush growing out of the chimney. I told my manager that I liked it, but he said that he preferred it when nature behaved itself and stayed in its proper place. This surprised me, because he was a great advocate of people being able to settle without barriers or boundaries.
Our wasteland wildlife tells the story of human migration and colonialism, just as much as the population of Burngreave. Sycamores came from central Europe; grey squirrels were brought from North America as a novelty for country house gardens and fat wood pigeons came from the English countryside for the rich pickings of bird tables. On a recent trip to Chedworth Roman Villas in the Cotswolds, the first thing I saw was a giant edible snail. Its ancestors had been brought over by the Romans. The snails lived for thousands of years after the villa crumbled into ruins.
Victorian explorers brought the seeds of Buddleja Davidii to the UK from China in the 1890s. Eventually, its wind-dispersed seeds escaped from gardens and germinated easily in stony wastelands and bomb-sites that resembled its mountainous native habitat. Buddleia is viewed by some as an invasive species, but wildlife experts view it as an important source of nectar for bees, butterflies and moths, filling an important gap when natural habitats have been destroyed.
And for many people, the buddleia is an emblem of summer in the city, beautiful, but a reminder that eventually, nature will reclaim everything like this. When the human race is long gone, having destroyed itself, Nature will have the last laugh.
Poor flowers in the flower beds of manicured gardens.
They look like they’re afraid of the police …
‘Alberto Caeiro’ from The Keeper of Sheep XXXIII
Feeling conscious of the absence of an introduction, I thought that it might be worthwhile to draft a short conclusion to the project reflections that I have written about the botany of the Upperthorpe, Netherthorpe, Shalesmoor, Neepsend and Wardsend edgelands (project reflections 1, 3, 4, 5, 14, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26 and 27 respectively).
The aim, in principle, was to create a tentative psycho-botany of the various weeds and invasive plants that thrive on “disturbed ground” around the edges of habitation; to not only describe these ‘flowers that grow in the wrong places’ in botanical terms but to examine – at least in brief – their cultural significance.
Also, last weekend, whilst in conversation with a botanist friend, I was reminded of the fragile precariousness of this urban weed-ecology. Essentially most of these transitional or pioneering plants (poppies, buddleja, Rosebay willowherb etc.) will propagate only in areas of vegetation clearance; in the course of natural habitat development they will soon be deprived of light by forest canopies and, given time, will simply cease to exist. It is a transitory, human-determined and human-dependent flora that has been created in these areas.
In terms of the way that we have become accustomed to contemplating nature, I’m therefore left with somewhat conflicted feelings – where’s the (cleansing) spiritual connection? This is – it would seem – a somewhat muddied, muddled, mitigated nature; perhaps a somewhat less than fully ‘natural’ nature – in comparison to what we might hope to see in a timeless, ‘pristine’ ecology – perhaps in Alaska, for example …
In terms of structuring the texts, I quite enjoyed the caprice of writing the introductory (in bold) paragraphs in the ‘voice’ of an nineteenth century naturalist – a voice that I hoped would contrast with the ‘thick description’ or fact-heavy content of the remainder (culled heavily from Wikipedia but also informed by other texts including The Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey – and by a few personal experiences).
I also enjoyed the way that, at times, the language of botanical description formed a dense, impenetrable ‘thicket’ – growing from Greek and Latin roots. This was particularly evident when the botanical description of the complex structure of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale – project reflection 22) lead to a baroque profusion of technical terms: bracts (modified or specialized leaves, especially associated with reproductive structures such as flowers, inflorescence axes, or cone scales – from the Latin bractea, thin metal plate, gold leaf variant of brattea … of obscure origin); glabrous (having no hairs or protrusions – from Latin glaber – bald): involucres (a series of bracts beneath or around a flower cluster – French from Latin involocrum – wrapper, envelope); pappi (a modified calyx composed of scales, bristles, or featherlike hairs, in plants of the composite family, such as the dandelion and the thistle – Latin, old man, down on certain seeds, from Greek pappos; calyx (the sepals of a flower collectively, forming the outer floral envelope that protects the developing flower bud – from Latin, from Greek – kalux shell, from kaluptein to cover, hide …
The reason for choosing Rosebay willowherb, bindweed, Japanese knotweed (donkey rhubarb) and dandelions was simple – they all feature on the weed control section of Sheffield City Council’s website. Poppies, bracken and briar, sycamore and buddleja were all chosen because they also fall within the categories of pioneering or invasive plants – and they all, on investigation, yielded surprising amounts of cultural – psycho-botanical – reference.
Unnatural ruff swathing the urban ‘manifestation’:
The urban nature is basemented, semi-dark:
It musts, it is alone.
John Silkin, Penguin Modern Poets 7
In the places that have most recently been abandoned to returning nature – such as disused car parks and the various hard standings from newly failed enterprise – we have found the first pioneering clumps of dark green moss. Somehow, these most ancient of botanical life-forms have found the most fragile of germinative footholds for their diminutive spores – often within the shallowest cracks created by fluctuations of heat or by settling of the ground.
It is thus the brave mosses that are the first to re-vivify the sterility of such terrain.
Favouring the dank (and low levels of light) these pioneering plants – known as bryophytes – began a very similar enterprise some 65,000,000 years ago; leaving the ancient seas to break ground across the barren land … and it was the dead, damp, mosses that made the first soils for the vascular plants that subsequently spread their living carpets across the earth.
Mosses are small, soft plants that are typically 1–10 cm (0.4–4 in) tall, though some species are much larger. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover the thin wiry stems. At certain times mosses produce spore capsules which may appear as beak-like capsules borne aloft on thin stalks.
Botanically, mosses are bryophytes, or non-vascular plants. They differ from ‘higher’ plants by not having internal water-bearing vessels or veins, and no flowers and therefore no fruits, cones or seeds. They are small (a few centimeters tall) and herbaceous (nonwoody) and absorb water and nutrients through their leaves. Mosses have stems which may be simple or branched and upright or lax, simple leaves that often have midribs, roots (rhizoids) that anchor them to their substrate, and spore-bearing capsules on long stems. They harvest sunlight to create food through photosynthesis. Mosses do not absorb water or nutrients from their substrate through their roots, so while mosses often grow on trees, they are never parasitic on the tree.
They can be distinguished from the similar liverworts by their multi-cellular rhizoids. Also, in most mosses, the spore-bearing capsule enlarges and matures after its stalk elongates, while in liverworts the capsule enlarges and matures before its stalk elongates. Other differences are not universal for all mosses and all liverworts, but the presence of a clearly differentiated stem with simple-shaped, ribbed leaves – without deeply lobed or segmented leaves and not arranged in three ranks – all point to the plant being a moss.
There are approximately 12,000 species of moss classified in the Bryophyta.
Moss is often considered a weed in grass lawns, but is deliberately encouraged to grow under aesthetic principles exemplified by Japanese gardening. Moss is thought to add a sense of calm, age, and stillness to a garden scene.
A passing fad for moss-collecting in the late 19th century led to the establishment of mosseries in many British and American gardens. The mossery was typically constructed out of slatted wood, with a flat roof, open to the north side (maintaining shade). Samples of moss were installed in the cracks between wood slats. The whole mossery would then be regularly moistened to maintain growth.
It is my hope that it has now become apparent to the reader how many of the pioneering plants that I have thus far described employ – by means of adaptation – various ingenious biological defenses against the animals that might eat them.
These defenses constitute the great armoury of spines, thorns, prickles, bristles – and bitter, unsavory compounds and poisonous concoctions – that botanical nature has designed and brewed up to deter animal interest, investigation, and ingestion.In terms of our human experience of these arms and fortifications, there can surely be no more commonly suffered strategy than the sting of the common nettle – Urtica dioica. Every child – and every parent – must surely be conscious of that shockingly unpleasant ‘first contact’ with this painful weed; of the alarming white bumps and reddened skin that we associate with ‘nettle rash’.
Stinging nettle or common nettle, Urtica dioica, is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America – it is the best-known member of the genus Urtica. The plant has many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles; injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals. The plant has a long history of use as a medicine and as a food source.
Stinging nettle is a dioecious herbaceous perennial, 1 to 2 m (3 to 7 ft) tall in the summer and dying down to the ground in winter. It has widely spreading rhizomes and stolons, which are bright yellow, as are the roots. The soft green leaves are 3 to 15 cm (1 to 6 in) long and are borne oppositely on an erect wiry green stem. The leaves have a strongly serrated margin, a cordate base, and an acuminate tip with a terminal leaf tooth longer than adjacent laterals. It bears numerous small, greenish or brownish flowers in dense axillary inflorescences.
The leaves and stems are very hairy with non-stinging hairs and they also bear many stinging hairs (trichomes), whose tips come off when touched, transforming the hair into a needle that will inject several chemicals: acetylcholine, histamine, 5-HT (serotonin), moroidin, leukotrienes, and – possibly – formic acid. This mixture of chemical compounds causes a painful sting or paresthesia from which the species derives its common name, as well as the colloquial names: burn nettle, burn weed, burn hazel.
Urtication, or flogging with nettles, is the process of deliberately applying stinging nettles to the skin in order to provoke inflammation. An agent thus used is known as a rubefacient (something that causes redness). This is done as a folk remedy for rheumatism, providing temporary relief from (or at least a novel replacement for) pain in the joints.
As Old English stiðe, nettle is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century. Nettle was believed to be a galactagogue, a substance that promotes lactation.
Because it contains 3,4-divanillyltetrahydrofuran, certain extracts of the nettle are used by bodybuilders in an effort to increase free testosterone.
An annual Stinging Nettle Eating Championship draws thousands of people to Dorset, where competitors attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. Competitors are given 60 cm (20 in) stalks of the plant, from which they strip the leaves and eat them. Whoever strips and eats the most stinging nettle leaves in a fixed time is the winner. The competition dates back to 1986, when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about which had the worst infestation of nettles.
In Europe stinging nettles have a strong association with human habitation and buildings. The presence of nettles may indicate that a building has been long abandoned. Human and animal waste may be responsible for elevated levels of phosphate and nitrogen in the soil, providing an ideal environment for stinging nettles.