Category Archives: Environment

In the keep of the tree

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

Plants, it is well known, have a remarkable ability — born, perhaps, of their immense patience and gradualism — to physically merge themselves with elements in their environment. Ivy will bind fast to brick, beans will curl around poles, and trees… well, consider the iron-eating sycamore of Brig o’ Turk, a village in central Scotland near Loch Lomond. The tree, well over a century old, stands next to a disused smithy and over long years has subsumed numerous metal items that had been discarded against its trunk or hung on its boughs: items including a bridle, a ship’s anchor and chain, and a bicycle, the handlebars of which are the only part still visible.

Not only is this ability a tribute to the adaptability of plants, but it also provides a particularly moving example of nature’s role as a keeper of time. In the same inevitable way that grass pushes through the cracks of unmaintained asphalt, or a lover’s heart carved into an oak will deepen and slowly scar over, the sycamore in Brig o’ Turk reminds us of the transience of our material possessions, and, of course, ourselves.

All of which provides me with a credible excuse to introduce some beautiful verses on that very theme, written by 25-year-old poet-to-watch Robert Selby (who, as you’ll see from some of the poems on his site, particularly “The Leaving of the Institutions”, has a fine sense of man’s relationship to nature — or should I say, of nature’s relationship to man).

The Sycamore

Up the narrow road beside the tea-room
and you pass an iron-eating tree… (Gazetteer for Scotland)


The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head off for war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth.
Proud of his young apprentice, the old mentor
drove the new recruit homeward on his dray,
so the bicycle remained in the keep of the tree.

As the smithy’s boy made corporal and set sail,
the sycamore began a cruelly slow advance.
As bugles called from shires their lonely scale,
the bicycle was raised on a timber lance.
When the smithy’s boy died at Passchendaele
and the village darkened in remembrance,
the sycamore drew about the bicycle,
clutching to its bark the spokes and saddle.

Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth, the ribbed handlebars
waiting for the smithy’s boy to reclasp them,
to pull free the frame and tour off, roadworthy,
the cast-iron memorial in the skyward lee.

– Robert Selby (Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008)


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Ghosts unmentioned

Henk Hofstra’s “urban river”
Water is Leven, by Henk Hofstra (2007)

The ongoing interplay between man and nature occasionally throws up an oddity. In the usual course of things, cities and farmlands spread inexorably, fundamentally distorting (where not destroying outright) the ecosystems they encounter. Far less frequently, it is mankind who retreats — leaving concrete bunkers behind after a war, for example, which soon enough become overgrown and inhabited by wild cats and bats (see my post on Germany’s Westwall here).

What man hardly ever does, however, is memorialize the nature he has displaced. This is one of the objectives of Dutch artist Henk Hofstra‘s “blue road” in Drachten (thanks to Torontoist for featuring the project and several pictures of it), which runs for 1000 metres exactly and sports eight-metre-high letters that say (in Dutch) “WATER IS LIFE”:  the city road that Hofstra painted vivid blue runs along the course of a former waterway.

The idea of building memorials to vanquished nature is an appealing one. Imagine our cities with multi-block areas painted deep green to symbolize the woods that were cut down to make way for buildings, or yellowy-brown to represent the fields bulldozed under. Perhaps we could even paint shadow animals — like the silhouettes we sometimes paint to represent the real or potential human victims of nuclear bombs — here a moose, there a porcupine, that scattering of shapes on the next block representing a flock of passenger pigeons we netted for meat and stuffed into boxcars.

But could we live with such images pointing their accusing wings and paws at us while we shop for designer clothing and eat in fine restaurants? No, which is why we do not mention these ghosts, nor build memorials to them. Far better to forget.

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European wildcat

One of the things I like most about nature is its patient opportunism. Although the presence of human beings invariably pushes animals into the peripheral spaces of our own world — excepting, of course, the impossible-to-intimidate raccoons that have made the Greater Toronto Area their haute-garbage dining lounge, and who consider us no more than trash-bag-carrying busboys — the departure of humans, conversely, leads almost immediately to a squatters’ takeover. Coral conquers our scuttled battleships; rats and bats occupy our abandoned houses; grass grows in the engine nooks of our broken down cars.

So it’s nice to read that the Siegfried Line, the 18,000-bunker network Hitler built to defend Germany’s western border, has now become home to a wide range of wildlife, including foxes, badgers, European wildcats (pictured above) and ten species of bat. Regional authorities have been keen to tear down the ruined bunkers to make way for farmland and development, but wildlife group BUND has been campaigning for an extension to a 2004 federal moratorium on dismantling the bunkers. The politics have been tricky, as BUND wildlife expert Sebastian Schöne told Spiegel Online:

“It’s been hard for us to deal with this issue because in Germany you’re immediately labeled as some kind of neo-Nazi if you say anything positive about the bunkers. We’re accused of trivializing history by calling it ‘Green Wall in the West’. But we’re not saying the Westwall is great. We’re just being pragmatic.”

The thought of industrial-scale Nazi fortifications covered in moss and turned into homes for small mammals brings to mind Briton Riviere’s Persepolis (1878, engraving (below) by Frederick Stacpoole), which shows the ruined and deserted capital of the Achaemenid Empire now visited only by two curious and wary lions. The picture is on display at the British Museum as part of a very interesting exhibition on the ancient Persian empire. At its original Royal Academy showing in 1878, the catalogue included two lines from the following portion of Omar Khayyam’s The Rubaiyat (1120, trans. Edward Fitzgerald from the Farsi, 1859):

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two — is gone.

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter — the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, but cannot break his sleep.



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The spiral speeds

The ice cap on the North Pole is vanishing. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the minimum extent of Arctic sea ice during this past summer season was 4.13 million square kilometers. The previous record low, in 2005, was 5.32 million sq km.

Chorus: Alarmist! Unproven! How do you know the ice wasn’t moved to Syria?!!

Losing a million square kilometers of ice may sound like a lot, but to me the proportional loss is even more striking: the Arctic has suffered a 22% loss of sea ice in only two years. Which means there’s that much more dark sea water absorbing solar radiation during the summer, and that much more heat trapped in the system, melting next year’s ice.

I just thought I’d point this out to you, as world leaders ask their staffs to ponder how to tweak greenhouse gas emissions downward over the next forty years without significantly harming economic growth. Because the polar ice cap doesn’t seem to be waiting around for our prudent proposals to be implemented, nor, ungratefully, is it giving us any grace time for having good intentions.

Note: a fascinating and easy book to read about the impact of global warming on the Arctic ecosystem and its peoples, as well as scientific efforts to understand climate change, is Alaskan writer Charles Wohlforth‘s The Whale and the Supercomputer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), which I had the pleasure of reviewing for the San Francisco Chronicle (here).

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