Let's Talk About Plants
I would like to formally apologize for my radio silence. I would like to say that I have been so busy that I just couldn't find the time, but in reality I spent most nights in my first 2 weeks watching the BBC with my Air bnb hosts and their dog Benji, whilst drinking tea and normally eating some chocolate. (also normally wearing wool socks because, hello! England is cold)
About three weeks ago I packed up my giant mother of a suitcase and headed north to Sheffield, which is located at the southern tip of Yorkshire on the edge of the Peak District. If you are wondering what the Peak District is, just close your eyes and picture where Keira Knightley stands on that rock and her beautiful dress blows in the wind in the newest Pride and Prejudice movie. Yep, that's it! It's spectacular. The 218 bus that goes straight into the heart of the Peaks picks up right down the road from where I am staying, so for 4.20 pounds I go stand on rocks and pretend that I am Elizabeth Bennett. Jk. But maybe.
Oddly, Sheffield feels a bit like home. Just like Birmingham, It is an old steel city with lots of hills and streams and trees. They say it is the greenest city in the UK, with a whopping 70+ parks and avenues of old trees lining neighborhoods. Sheffield used to produce almost 90% of the world's cutlery, and almost 50% of the world's steel during the industrial revolution. The industry collapsed in the 1980's, so the city has been re-inventing itself in the decades since. There are lots of cozy cafes, artisan bakeries, and a range of international cuisine. It takes me an hour to walk into the city, but I don't mind because the leaves are turning and the air has that crisp smell that makes your insides feel like a pumpkin spice latte.
I am in Sheffield to work with Nigel Dunnett, who is a professor in Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield. I have been sitting in on modules taught by Nigel and his colleague, James Hitchmough, about ecology, planting design, and green space management. These lectures are absolutely blowing my mind. They have spent decades researching their ideas. Their lectures are filled with pictures of their own designs and data tables from their own experiments. They also translate the hard scientific facts into what that means for us as landscape architects. It's like the worlds of science and art are colliding in the most beautiful way. I have already filled up one notebook and made a sizable dent in the second. I realize I am letting my nerd cards show here, but I just am so jazzed about it all I don't really care. Did I mention that Nigel and James designed all the planting schemes for Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London? They talk about it so casually, and I sometimes feel the need to stand up and say to the class, "y'all...." in that dramatic southern way with the one eye brow lift that indicates something serious is being spoken about.
Someone asked me the other day how we could spend so much time talking about plants. I get the question, kinda. Lots of people assume that horticulture is about cutting grass and planting Crepe Myrtles (news flash: it isn't). It is one of those things that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I wanted to ask in return, "Did you mean to ask how is it that we could spend so much time talking about the organic matter that covers 1/3 of the world's surface and is the fabric within which you live your entire life, and without which you would have no source of oxygen, food, or means to live?" (not the mention the economic, social, and political implications of the landscape everywhere in the whole entire world) But instead I just laughed and said something like "haha ya... plants."
But yesterday I was walking through a park that is next to the university looking at a few of the areas for an assignment. I walked down a little path and overheard a man shouting to me, "see anything interesting?" In my mind I was like, oh yay! An innocent bystander willing to talk to me, and who I can quiz on their thoughts about the aesthetics of the park! (ugh nerd cards)
I shouted back that I had found a secret path, then walked down the steps to where he was sitting on the stone wall next to the pond with his fishing rod in hand. As we talked, I learned a lot more than just what he thought about the park. He told me he came from across town every single day to fish in that pond. He could tell me what the maintenance crews did every day, what kind of fish were in the water, what the park used to be like years ago. Then, he somehow transitioned from fishing to telling me about how his wife had left him 9 days ago, and he was more heart broken than he ever imagined was possible. He told me he was so distraught that life didn't seem worth living. But instead of going down that route, he found himself back at the pond he had been coming to for a year. He told me that this wasn't just another park in another city to him. The beauty he saw in this park gave him hope that there was something to live for.
Shoot. That last sentence is what every landscape architect's dreams are made of.
I looked down at my notes I had made earlier while I was walking around. It was filled with scribbles about how things should be different.
**The random rose beds cut of out the turf are inefficient allocation of maintenance, low in biodiversity
**The bedding plants need to be coppiced to provide better ground coverage and prevent weed invasion
**Move the debris pile away main walkway area
**Remove biomass after meadow is cut to prevent soil enrichment
... blah blah blah
Maybe a lot of things should be different in that park. But my friend Ken didn't care. What he saw day in and day out as he fished in the pond had deeply affected him. It might have even saved his life. What I see when I walk around is a park that has had a lot of funding cut and is getting by with hardly any attention given to it at all. But what Ken sees is beauty. He sees the ducks making a home on the vegetation around the edge. He sees the fish who skirt the outer rim of the pond and the bright red roses in their square beds. He knows everyone who walks their dogs in the park after work. Over time, he has formed a deeply personal connection to a place.
So how can we talk about plants so much? Because this world is so intricately designed. Because everything from the soil type, to the soil seed bank, to different species, to woody trees, to herbaceous perennials, to nutrients, to agricultural practices, to flower colors, to cultural world views, to policy changes, to chemical applications, to maintenance practices, to artistic advances, to public perceptions, down to the amount of oxygen reaching the roots of a blade of grass all affect the fabric of the landscape. What we do is so much more than just plants. It's about all of creation and how it fits together, and that includes us little humans. What is our place within this weird little blue orb suspended in the universe? I think people like Ken come back to the park each day because its a bridge to finding that answer, because the beauty held within the bounds of a little city park point to a Creator who holds that weird little blue orb in his hands. I think I need to learn from Ken. There is power in doing something ordinary every day, like propping up on an old stone wall in a run down public park and allowing for the little consistencies of life to take hold.
So that is how we can talk about plants for so long, because it's really about people in the end.
So now I can pack up my plant soap box and give it back to someone who will probably use it to post their most enlightening thoughts on American politics on Facebook. Or maybe I'll hide it.
Ta-ta from Yorkshire!