Guest post by Anne Grange

The fuse of summer is burning out

Buddleia and its place in the wasteland

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.

Bill Grange, Peacock Butterfly on Buddleia (2013)
Bill Grange, Peacock Butterfly on Buddleia (2013)

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.

Bill Grange, Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on Buddleia (2013)
Bill Grange, Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on Buddleia (2013)

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.

Anne Grange, 2013

Resurgam: A Libation in Light for the Almost Forgotten

“Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory.” 

Irvin D. Yalom,  Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

The forgotten corners of cities conceal surprising narratives and striking imagery.  Wardsend Cemetery is just such a place, a burial ground officially closed since 1988, but whose population has been unchanged since 1977.  I came upon the existence of Wardsend during one of those chance conversations you have on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  The following week I was winding along an industrial access road, conscious of the rich golden quality of the late afternoon light.  The metalled road crossed the bridge built to replace one severely damaged by the Sheffield floods of 2007.  Progress then ended abruptly, blocked by large boulders set in place to prevent access to the muddy tracks flanking the River Don.  

Ph. Richard Ward 2012

From the unheralded cul-de-sac, anonymous stone steps rose.  In the absence of signage a welcoming party of gravestones huddled a few metres on, cast in partial shadow.   At the foot of the steps the electrical guts hung from a small concrete bollard.  The wind-blown detritus of modern life was strewn through the adjacent undergrowth.  Alongside, woven into the vegetation, was a smattering of larger offerings to the dead.  These comprised of the usual suspects: tyres, paint cans, an incongruous left shoe and lumps of rubble.  The sense of isolation from the mainstream of the city is immediate. 

Elec

It was not until 2nd February that I came to write about the photographs I had taken some weeks before.  Only then did the poignancy of a favourite image from that earlier visit strike me.  The beautifully crafted headstone of one 27 year-old stood out, captured in a libation of warm winter sun.  Frederick Stephen Goddard had passed away one-hundred years ago to the day.  His headstone was crowned with the single word ‘Resurgam’, which means ‘I shall rise again’.  I thought immediately of all those city spaces that lie dormant on a similar premise.

graves

Wardsend reveals strong parallels for me with other urban land in apparent decline.  Rendered in the pre-sunset glow of Winter light the memorialised dead jostle in a sun-dappled crowd amidst the pell-mell ingress of nature.  Similar vistas play out in the post-industrial brown-fields mottled with buddleia, bramble and rosebay willow herb.  Our heritage takes many forms and speaks to us in many ways, many of which are themselves individuated in their interpretation.  None is perhaps so poignant as the neglected memory of the dead.

Throughout Wardsend nature tries to make sense of a space less manicured than the dead might ever have dreamt in life.  The tension with a natural succession shines through in many of my images.  Silver Birch, the classic pioneer tree species of open disturbed ground, abound and encroach, albeit gradually.  This quest for a new equilibrium also plays out where industry has died, or is in transition, as much as in a place of burial.  Here at Wardsend, the process has been managed since 2010.  Consequently, some identities have been refreshed from beneath a blanket of vegetation.  Others are lost to us, their memory shattered by frost, or corroded by the action of wind and rain. 

Broader questions about the spaces we offer to the dead and how we memorialise within crowded urban settings are of considerable cultural and social relevance. Does this apparent decline really matter?  Is it a decline at all, or is a more radical position, one in which we surrender the dead to nature, a more fitting epitaph?

Richard Ward, 2013

project reflections #20

Sycamore

In order to escape the violent winds that blew in these parts throughout early January, I took to rambling through the scattered woodlands along the banks of the river Don. Here I found many large sycamore maples or Acer pseudoplatanus  – a magnificent tree that will sometimes grow to a height of over a hundred feet.

I have observed that, in wet ground at the base of these sycamores, the rocking movement of the tree in high winds – transmitted from the upper branches down through the solid trunk – results in oscillatory movements within pools formed from groundwater. This fluid moves up and down with the back and forth movement, resulting in the water rising up and withdrawing – almost like breath – and often expelling the liquified soil to create cavities amongst the roots. These cavities are, I am led to understand, known as oscillants …

Acer pseudoplatanus, the sycamore maple, is a species of maple native to central Europe and southwestern Asia, from France it is naturally distributed eastwards towards the Ukraine, and south to northern Spain, northern Turkey, and the Caucasus. It is not related to other trees called sycamore or plane tree in the Platanus genus. Its apparent similarity to the species of that genus led to its being named pseudoplatanus, using the prefix pseudo- (from the Ancient Greek for “false”). Other common names for the tree include false plane-tree, great maple, Scottish maple, mock-plane, sycamore or Celtic maple.

It is a large deciduous tree that reaches 20–35 m tall at maturity, with a broad, domed crown. On young trees, the bark is smooth and grey but becomes rougher with age and breaks up in scales, exposing the pale-brown-to-pinkish inner bark. The leaves are opposite, large, 10–25 cm long and broad with a 5–15 cm petiole, with a leathery texture, palmately veined with thick veins protruding on the underside surface, with five lobes with toothed edges, and dark green in colour with a whitish underside. The leaves are often marked with black spots or patches which are caused by the fungus Rhytisma acerinum. The monoecious yellow-green flowers are produced in spring on 10–20 cm pendulous racemes, with 20–50 flowers on each stalk. The 5–10 mm diameter seeds are paired in samaras, each seed with a 20–40 mm long wing to catch the wind and rotate when they fall; this helps them to spread further from the parent tree. The seeds are mature in autumn about 6 months after pollination.

The name “sycamore” originally belongs to the fig species Ficus sycomorus, which is native to southwest Asia (this is the sycamore or sycomore referred to in the Bible). The name was later applied to this species by reason of the superficial similarity in leaf shape.

The sycamore is cultivated and widely naturalised north of its native range in northern Europe, and it now occurs throughout the British Isles, having been introduced in the 17th century. It is considered to be an environmental weed in environmentally sensitive locations.

The wood is a medium weight hardwood, weighing 630 kg per cubic metre. It is traditionally used in making the backs, necks and scrolls of violins. The flowers produce abundant nectar, which makes a fragrant, delicately flavoured and pale-coloured honey.

Paul Evans, 8 January 2012

project reflections #14

Fireweed

The branches come out of the ground in great numbers, growing, to the height of sixe foote, garnished with brave flowers of great beautie, consisting of fower leaves a piece, of an orient purple colour. The cod is long … and full of downie matter, which flieth away with the winde when the cod is opened.

John Gerard, The Herball, 1597

Rosebay Willowherb, or Fireweed as it is know in North America, is both abundant and widely distributed throughout the Upperthorpe and Netherthorpe edgelands.

It has, to my mind, the great distinction of two quite separate yet equally spectacular stages in its reproductive cycle. The first occurs with the flowering of the vivid magenta spears – often seen waving in stark chromatic contrast against the blue of the summer sky. The second stage occurs at the end of the ripening within the seed pods of the delicate and silk-like seeds – on the warmest days the rising air currents will be alive with these delightful, dancing, graceful strands as they make their escape …

Epilobium angustifolium, commonly known as Fireweed, or Rosebay Willowherb, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the willowherb family Onagraceae. It is native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, including large parts of the boreal forests. The species name angustifolium is a portmanteau of the Latin words angusti meaning ‘narrow’, and folium meaning ‘leaf’.

Rosebay Willowherb is often abundant in wet calcareous to slightly acidic soils in open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands; the name Fireweed derives from the species’ abundance as a coloniser on burnt sites after forest fires. Its tendency to quickly colonise open areas with little competition makes it a clear example of a pioneer species. These plants grow and flower as long as there is open space and plenty of light; as trees and brush grow larger the plants die out, but the seeds remain viable in the soil seed bank for many years – and when a new conflagration or other disturbance occurs that opens up the ground to light again the seeds germinate. Some areas with heavy seed counts in the soil can, after fire, be covered with pure dense stands of this species and when in flower the landscape is turned into fields of colour.

In Britain the plant was considered a rare species in the 18th century, and one confined to a few locations with damp, gravelly soils. It was sometimes mis-identified as Great Hairy Willowherb in contemporary floras. The plant’s rise from local rarity to widespread weed seems to have occurred at the same time as the expansion of the railway network, and the associated soil disturbance.

Rosebay Willowherb became locally known as bombweed due to its rapid colonisation of bomb craters in the Second World War.

The reddish stems of this herbaceous perennial are usually simple, erect, smooth, 0.5–2.5 m (1½–8 feet) high with scattered alternate leaves. The leaves are entire, lanceolate, and pinnately veined. The radially symmetrical flowers have four magenta to pink petals, 2 to 3 cm in diameter. The styles have four stigmas, which occur in symmetrical terminal racemes. The leaves of fireweed are unique in that the leaf veins are circular and do not terminate on the edges of the leaf but form circular loops and join together inside the outer leaf margins. This feature makes the plants very easy to identify in all stages of growth. When fireweed first emerges in early spring, it can closely resemble several highly toxic members of the lily family. However, it is easily identified by its unique leaf vein structure.

The reddish-brown linear seed capsule splits from the apex. It bears many minute brown seeds, about 300 to 400 per capsule and 80,000 per plant. The seeds have silky hairs to aid wind dispersal and are very easily spread by the wind. Once established, the plants also spread extensively by underground roots, an individual plant eventually forming a large patch.

The young shoots were often collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens for eating. They are best when young and tender: as the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in this stage. They are peeled and consumed raw. The root can be roasted after scraping off the outside, but often tastes bitter. To mitigate this, the root is collected before the plant flowers and the brown thread in the middle removed. The Dena’ina add fireweed to their dogs’ food.

Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Dena’ina, who treat pus-filled boils or cuts by placing a piece of the raw stem on the afflicted area. This is said to draw the pus out of the cut or boil and prevents a cut with pus in it from healing over too quickly.

Fireweed is the floral emblem of Yukon.

Paul Evans, 3 January 2012