A tree turning leaf from verdant green to fiery vibrancy is like nature’s lightbulb moment – a flash of brilliance before winter sets in. The riotous conclusion, hidden since budbreak, appears from almost nowhere. Mother nature throws up her showgirl-skirt ruffles with abandon; flashes us her rainbow knickerbockers and chucks on her gaudiest baubles.
This sudden flash of brilliance soon gives way to the sedate evergreens and minimal silhouettes of winter. November is a month when glow, hue and luminescence are at the forefront of the imagination; the absence of summer colours and sunny brightness gives way to the brazen blaze of senescent fire you find in autumn colours, the reds, oranges, yellows and pinks which light up the grey skies like an open fire in a windowless boxroom.
Lux, lx, illuminance. Lumen, lm, luminous flux. Watt, W, power, radiant flux. These are scientific terms used to describe and measure the levels and power of light. One of the eminent founders (or ‘Lunarticks’) of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, James Watt – was responsible for coining the term ‘horsepower’ and was named for the measurement of radiant flux, or ‘watts’. The Lunar society were a group of industrialists and philosophers at the forefront of the ‘Birmingham Enlightenment’, who met monthly on the Sunday falling nearest to the full moon, between 1765 and 1813. They remain esteemed as one of Britain’s most significant and influential groups of active pre-industrialists, the original ‘ideas’ men.
One of my own early ‘lightbulb’ moments during my misspent youth in Yorkshire involved badgering my parents to take me and my friends across the perilous border into Lancashire to see a ridiculous amount of lightbulbs all in one place and make ourselves frightfully sick on the big dipper. Yes, the multiple highlights of Blackpool seemed to me to be the height of fun in the 1980’s. It certainly beats sitting in a wet field watching my dad turn the headlights of our Ford Cortina on and off on the Widdop Road c.1985. Incidentally, Strictly Come Dancing hailed from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom on Saturday 15 November (where if you went back in time, you could also see an eight year-old me dancing to the famous Wurlitzer organ). Lightbulb overload.
For an alternative route to illumination, you could swing east to Parcevall Hall Gardens and religious retreat for an almost impossibly contrasting experience. Enveloped in the undulating Wharfedale-towards-Nidderdale hillscape of North Yorkshire, Parcevall Hall was created in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s by one of the founding members of RHS Harlow Carr – W.P Milner. Parcevall Hall is now owned by the Diocese of Bradford and is still used as a religious and spiritual retreat today.
Milner was a devout man with a penchant for rare Chinese and Tibetan plants. He laid out his garden in the late 1920’s utilising natural outcrops of rock for his famous rockeries, and copious quantities of gritstone from the hall’s dedicated quarry were hauled down to shore up the immense buttresses he used to contain his ambitious cruciform terracing.
The result is a dramatic (and slightly gothic) combination of intriguing eastern planting, (much of which is characterised by vivid autumn foliage or berries) framed by immaculate, imposing stonework and structural, geometric hedgework.
Many old and heritage apple cultivars can be found here, and the bright palette reminds me that the traditional garlanding and decoration we see at winter festivals are all about bringing light and colour to the oppressive seasonal darkness and are undoubtedly inspired by the natural ornamentation we see on our native trees and in the hedgerows: Ilex aquifolium, Euonymus europaeus, Taxus baccata, and Malus species, fruits and berries beading the boughs well into winter.
Two works of art about light in the darkness, ideas as illumination – literally and metaphorically – sparks, inspiration and transformation.
Track of the Month
High Voltage, by Electric Six. Coincidentally, also from Detroit, Michigan – where Nocturne In Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket currently resides. Currently? See what I did there – I’m on (electrical) fire. Somebody pass the fire extinguisher.
Book of the Month
The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future, 1730-1810, by Jenny Uglow
Plant of the Month
Rosa moyesii ‘Sealing Wax’, a species rose collected by all-things-eastern enthusiast W.P Milner in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
All images my own, with the exception of the landscape photograph of Blackpool Tower and the Illuminations and the botanical drawing featured at the end of the post, which are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Have you ever heard of Extreme Makeover? In a nutshell, it is about aesthetically-challenging people who have had a gutfull of being ‘social outcasts’ because of their unfortunate, or at best plain, countenances.
The fairy godmother of plastic surgery visits her scalpel of sparkly benevolence upon these poor poky-folks and hey presto! Flappyjowells bignose is miraculously transformed into a perfectly-primped identikit pageant princess (or male equivalent).
Plants undergo similar feats of transmogrification, but unlike Extreme Makeover the finished product usually ends as a more useful manifestation. Although I love him, I’m not sure this applies to infamous plastic surgery survivor Pete Burns (pictured below)
Crazy Pete has reminded me that rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) , for example, constitutes a rich and interesting seam of black plant magic.
Rubber is native to Native to the Amazon region; Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia and is cultivated in large plantations. The sap is tapped from strips on the bark of the tree (clearly visible as diagonal stripes on the tree trunks).
‘Tapping begins when trees are 5–8 years old . . . and increases every year until a maximum at about 20 years, then yield sustained for 40–50 years or more. Tapping consists of removal by excision of a thin cut of bark about 1 mm deep at regular intervals, thus opening the latex vessels in the bark. . . arranged in concentric cylinders and run in counter-clockwise spirals up the trunk. Usually the cuts run half-way around the trunk, but may encircle the tree’ (Purdue University)
‘. . .latex coagulates with the aid of acetic acid, formic acid, and alum. . Seeds are source of Para Rubber seed oil, recommended for manufacture of soap. Although poisonous, seeds can be eaten as a famine food after processing. Boiling removes the poison and releases the oil which can be utilized for illumination.’ (Purdue University)
Rubber is of course infinitely malleable, and so the product range is indeterminately gargantuan.
Modern pneumatic tyres are generally a mixture of materials, including synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, as well as carbon black and other chemical compounds. Carbon black is almost pure elemental carbon in ‘colloidal particle form’, made by charring organic material.
Of course there are the obvious everyday rubber items we take for granted – rubber wellington boots, buttons on electronic devices, and rubber bands – to name but a few. Then there are the distinctly non-traditional uses. Look away now if you’re squeamish, (you can’t unsee this once you’ve looked).
What I really love about this picture is the ‘Calamari’ sign – calamari infamous for being. . . well, rubbery. These enterprising chaps have mixed leather and latex with applomb. Congratulations, boys.
Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is another amazing plant, used in the modern textile industry as the core material for natural fibre clothing all over the world. It is a beautiful plant belonging to the illustrious genus Malvacae, which includes floral stunners Hibiscus and Abutilon.
Unfortunately the cotton industry is and has been notoriously bloody, as well as being demanding to grow and subsequently environmentally unsustainable as a crop: ‘More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other crop. Today cotton takes up less than 3% of the world’s farmed land but uses a quarter of the world’s pesticides!’
‘The cotton trade was a driving force in the Industrial Revolution and helped to finance the British Empire. It was the mainstay of the slave trade and contributed to the American civil war’ (Eden Project)
Here comes the Hebden Bridge joke. Hebdeners: we even have the cotton industry to blame for the addition of Todmorden as a stop on the Leeds-Manchester railway line. One of the Fielden Bros, a Todmorden based worsted and textile company – John Fielden – was on the railway’s board of directors and used his influence to ensure that Todmorden had a station.
John was an interesting chap, too, and was ‘a radical reformer, a supporter of universal manhood suffrage, promoter of the 10 Hours Act of 1847, and opponent of the 1834 New Poor Law Act’ (The National Archives). Human rights and conservaton issues are not something you see modern companies campaigning for enough, with the exception of a handful of forward thinkers like Katherine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood and creative director of Eco Age Livia Firth.
Another bloody trade, diamonds. Diamonds consist of highly compressed carbon molecules, and only form at extremely high temperatures in the Earth’s mantle at least 100 miles below the surface. Some organic carbon is made from ancient microorganisms (plants and animals), which reappears hundreds of millions of years later as eclogitic diamonds. Other types of carbon come from stardust and meteorites. Poetic.
Album of the Week
An album instead of the usual track: Rubber Soul, by The Beatles
Many of Eva Hesse ‘s works were made using latex. Here you can watch one of SFMOMA’s curators talking about her use of the material, and read about her extremely interesting but short life in this Telegraph article from 2009.
Book of the Week
An account of the psychological fallout of the slave trade, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison
Kew, Purdue University (Rubber)
The Eden Project , The National Archives (Cotton)
Geology.com, About.com, photius.com (Diamonds)
Images Wikimedia Commons
Eva Hesse (SFMOMA)
We depend on plants for our survival. We need them for everything. They play a central role in possibly every formal and informal human ceremony ever invented – births, deaths, marriages – and the very important business of our daily lives. Imagine the British without tea.
Tea drinking is part of being British. Bad day? Cup of tea. Friend round for a chat? Cup of tea. Wilting in the doldrums of the afternoon at work? Cup of tea. Whole life fallen down around your ears, wife left you and house burned down? Cup of tea. Most scenarios will usually involve some tea drinking, (unless it’s the evening, when we can be found indulging our other national drinking obsession).
Tea is made from the leaves of shrubs Camellia sinesis var. sinensis from the Yunnan province of China, or C. sinensis var. assamica, which is grown in the warmer climes of India and Southeast Asia.
We use plants not only for celebrations and rituals, but for enhancing our immediate environment, healing, medicine, food and spiritual sustenance. It would be a miserable, impossible life without them (especially in Medieval England).
Not many people would have had a reliably clean source of drinking water, so beer made with oats, (Avena sativa) wheat (Triticum aestivum) or barley (Hordeum vulgare) were often consumed as a substitute. Having been boiled during the brewing process, most of the harmful bacteria and micro-organisms would have been rendered benign. So it would actually have been safer to drink beer!
‘Some of the earliest chemical evidence for (barley) beer comes from residues – calcium oxalate, known as beerstone – inside a jar excavated at the Godin Tepe archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran that is dated to between 3400 and 3100 B.C.’
Undoubtedly-many festivals and rituals have evolved from beer drinking – some relatively recent and others ancient. Oktoberfest in Munich is famous for its excess, but is relatively recent (1810.) The Peruvians also have some interesting modern beer drinking rituals as well as a labyrinthine and vast pre-inca brewery, discovered in the Peruvian Andes in 2004.
Unfortunately ‘They destroyed the site in an elaborate closing rite, setting fire to the entire brewery and throwing their ceramic drinking vessels onto its burning embers.’
Maybe one of their master brewers got carried away, made a crazy percenter and everyone went a bit doo lally?
I’ll continue the Peruvian theme by looking at some of their ritual plants, so I can revel in my fantasy of living somewhere lush and exotic for a bit, where it’s not considered deviant to be completely out of your head.
Or you could just go to Hebden Bridge* for the latter experience. However, you may end up in a hippy’s** attic surrounded by pot plants and not a tropical rainforest, or a majestic Andean jungle. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
In the Peruvian Andes, the immeasurably more exotic ayahuasca is a potent brew made by indigenous Amazonian plant shamans who claim that they receive directions about the benefits of all the plants used in the preparation of ayahuasca directly from plants and plant spirits.
Ayahuasca is prepared with infusions from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and has some colourful common names, including ‘Doctor’, ‘Vine of the Dead’, and ‘Vine of the Soul’. The plant itself is a beautiful large vine, which occasionally flowers, like this:
The leaves of DMT-containing species of shrubs from the genus Psychotria (usually P. viridis) are used, along with Justicia pectoralis, or ‘Tilo‘. The leaves develop a rich, sweet smell as they dry due to the formation of large quantities of coumarin – a fragrant crystalline compound which is often used in a Peruvian psychoactive ‘snuff’ and in a ridiculously high percentage of all perfumes.
Justicia is used as a traditional treatment for fever in some parts of the Carribean, and is widely used as an anticoagulant.
The brew is said to induce life epiphanies, cure depression and be spiritually cleansing. But you have to endure a living nightmare for a few hours to get to the good bit. An American egghead has even done a study on ayahuasca:
‘The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.
“Ayahuasca is not for everyone,” American egghead Dr Grob warns. “It’s probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that.”
Unlike most common antidepressants, which . . . can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there. . .
The main chemical in the brew, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) . . . though chemically distant from LSD, (DMT) has hallucinogenic properties. But it is ayahuasca’s many plant ingredients cooperating ingeniously to allow DMT to circulate freely in the body that produce the unique ayahuasca experience.’ National Geographic Adventure, 2006
If you are particularly interested in ayahusca ceremonies, watch the legendary episode of ‘Amazon’ with Bruce Parry.
So while ayahuasca ceremonies seem to be about connecting with spirits, ancestors, spiritiual healing, exorcism and catharsis, the Mexican Day of the Dead is specifically about celebrating the idea of inviting the dead back in the world of the living, and the continuing roles that the dead have to play in the lives of their descendants.
Tagetes are the symbolic flower used in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations – (not to be confused with Calendula officinalis.) The incredibly pungent smell of the flower when handled is said to be the reason that Tagetes are used to decorate gravesides – the idea being that the smell is strong enough to rouse the dead.
Roses are often used, as are Celosia cristata, Matthiola incana, Gladiolus, Gypsophila paniculata, and Chrysanthemum morifolium – all of which have symbolic significance in the festival.
Book of the Week
Two books this week. ‘The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell’, by Aldous Huxley and ‘Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine’, by Gabrielle Hatfield.
Other Significant Plants in Ritual Use
Lophophora williamsii (Peyote cactus)
Coffea arabica (Coffee)
Theobroma cacao (Cocoa)
Calea Zacatechichi (Dream Herb)
Artemisia absinthium (Absinthe)
Agathosma betulina (Buchu)
Echinopsis lageniformis Bolivian Torch Cactus
Track of the Week
Plant of the Week
*This link will take you to a New Statesman piece about Hebden Bridge – the most interesting thing about it is possibly the debate sparked by residents and anti-Hebdeners:
“Hebden Bridge is a dump and its citizens are segregated losers.
The closest the residents of that vile place get to ‘culture’ is when it appears on their discount supermarket bread which lies rotting in their dilapidated homes.”
What a guy.
** I was going to put a picture of a Hebden Bridge hippy in here. I could have raided my photo albums, but when I did a google search one of the first photos I found was of my stepdad, followed closely by several people I know. So I’m opting out. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
Subjects include links from the following:
Camellia sinensis: http://www.kew.org
Hebden Bridge: New Statesman, Independent
Ayahuasca: National Geographic Adventure, The Ayahuasca Project, ‘Amazon’, with Bruce Parry
Modern Peruvian drinking rituals: Footprint Guides
Images: Wikimedia Commons
General research: Wikipedia and associated sources
New Year is a traditional time for taking stock, reviewing, and irksome Top Ten lists. Everybody is dreaming of a shinier, better, happier and more successful year ahead.
Gardeners in particular are dreamers par excellence. At the start of the new season we envision our vegetable crops will be vast and immaculate, the weather will bestow infinite benevolence upon us and we will skip like innocents among flower meadows at sunrise.
Picture a few additional bunny rabbits interspersed with perfectly formed long carrots, children holding hands, a rainbow, some giant cabbages with absolutely NO slug holes in them, towering flowers humming with vitality and possibly a gurgling baby looking upwards at a beautiful and majestic tree while sunbeams filter through the pristine leaves, illuminating them like spring emeralds. . . .
Before this (inevitably) happens, we are quietly plotting, scheming, planning and fantasising, not to mention ordering excessive and sometimes wildly unrealistic amounts and types of seeds. We convince ourselves it will be the best growing season EVER and that we will able to grow ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING we like OUTDOORS and WITHOUT A GREENHOUSE, despite for example, living far too north of the equator to ever grow sweet potatoes and vanilla orchids.
I once tried to grow a date palm in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Outdoors and without a greenhouse. I’ll say no more.
It’s good to dream, but I have to include myself among those who do have a tendency to get totally carried away. I would genuinely love to recreate Edward James’ outlandish and exotic Mexican garden of Las Pozas in my back garden, or grow a Tacca chantrieri. But to even nod to the majesty of Las Pozas, I would have to scale down the follies and use plants with a ‘tropical appearance’. My Tacca chantrieri specimen would end up looking like a drowned stray cat rather than an miraculous tropical bat mimic. Trying to scale down follies only leads to bathos and disappointment. (See Stonehenge, by Spinal Tap in my ‘Solstice’ post).
While I’m on the subject of spooky mimics and pathological fantasists, I think I’ll move on to some eccentric art.
Frida Kahlo ‘Still Life (Around)‘. Kahlo was associated with Surrealism, Primitivism and Magic Realism, so it would be fitting to include one of her works too.
Book of the Week
The Surrealist Manifesto, by Andre Breton
Alternative Reading Matter
A good pile of seed catalogues from fine seed and plant purveyors of distinction.
Track of the Week
California Dreaming (either of The Mamas and the Papas or The Beach Boys versions)
Plant of the Week
2013 Top Ten Stupid Things
1. Top Ten Lists
2. I’m bored now, byeee