Sunday, 20 November 2011

Science, nature and the public realm

From Rodney Burton, Flora of London (1983).

The current political emphasis on greater accessibility and public engagement in relation to urban nature raises certain difficulties. Professional botanists, entomologists and other scientists tell me that public policy towards biodiversity and the protection of “wild nature” is being driven increasingly by a public-relations emphasis on certain “flagship species” or vague notions of sustainability rather than detailed knowledge about sites, species and the ecological dynamics of urban space. Those agencies charged with the protection of nature or the fostering of environmental education often lack any specialist expertise leading to a repeated emphasis on a small number of easily recognizable animals or plants. The idea that deeper knowledge requires years of patience and dedication has been supplanted by a culture of immediacy. In such circumstances how can cultural or scientific complexity be effectively communicated? What happens when autonomous criteria for scientific evaluation conflict with externally imposed agendas for reshaping knowledge? The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls for the defence of the “inherent esotericism of all cutting-edge research” yet he also insists on the development of appropriate strategies for the scientific enrichment of the public realm.1 In the case of urban ecology there is a glaring disjuncture between specialized scientific understandings of urban space and mediated discourses of consumption.

1 Pierre Bourdieu, Sur la télévision (Raisons d’Agir Éditions, Paris)

Monday, 14 November 2011

Wuthering heights

I prefer not to read reviews of films before I see them. In the case of Andrea Arnold’s latest film Wuthering heights a small amount of research would have saved me some embarrassment. As her visceral adaptation of the Emily Brontë novel opened I leapt from my seat to complain to the projectionist that the film was being incorrectly shown. It turns out, however, that the compressed aspect ratio is intentional, but in my confused state it merely added to what was a perplexing cinematic experience.

Elements of the film break new ground: her portrayal of Heathcliff as black intensifies a mood of cruelty and claustrophobia in nineteenth-century rural England. Yet the lack of continuity between her depiction of the characters jars: the older Cathy bears little resemblance to the younger whilst the older Heathcliff can’t match the magnetic presence of his younger self. The moorland landscape provides a relentlessly bleak backcloth to the emotional torment of the protagonists yet there are also moments of great tenderness and beauty. Despite its weaknesses this is a film of striking and enduring originality.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The same old rock: Roy Harper at the Royal Festival Hall

The atmosphere in what is ordinarily a classical music venue was raucous and emotionally charged. The English singer-songwriter Roy Harper — a contemporary of long departed figures such as Tim Buckley and Nick Drake — was here for what felt like a valedictory concert. Harper is now 70 but his voice remains in remarkably good shape, accompanied by his distinctive acoustic guitar and a small orchestral ensemble.

Before yesterday’s show Harper had distributed a sheet of paper for the audience, a kind of free programme, that contained John Keat’s poem “To autumn”, written in September 1819, with its “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Harper’s England is an evocative working landscape yet suffused with bitterness towards the church, landowners and their contemporary equivalents. It is an atheistic vision of joy in life and nature made poignant by the finitude of time.

The sense of occasion grew through the concert as he was joined on stage by his son Nick on second guitar, then by Joanna Newsom, whose luminous voice alternated with Harper for “Another day”, and then finally by former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who provided cascading arpeggios for “The same old rock”. As Page sauntered on stage I thought of Jorge Luis Borges’s parable “Ragnorök”, where “The Gods” unexpectedly arrive in a lecture hall. Harper kept apologizing during the show for small errors — even starting one verse all over again — but it didn’t matter at all. Like blotched leaves twirling through the autumn air everything seemed just as it should be and there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.

Friday, 4 November 2011

To open a wasteland

Lucien Freud, Waste ground with houses, Paddington (1970-72)

The view from my office window at UCL in Bloomsbury, central London

Photos from the site visit in September

The Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui has a wonderful photo entitled “To open a wasteland” that depicts some kids rushing into a patch of waste ground in Brussels. The sense of an urban enclosure being revoked is captured in the blurred movement of figures surging forward.

I think I first reflected on the presence of “enclosed” waste spaces in cities whilst writing about Lucien Freud’s Wasteground with Houses, Paddington (1970-2) which provides a view from the window of his West London studio. Freud depicts the rear elevation of shabby Victorian terraces, with their jumble of aerials and chimneypots, interspersed with an area of overgrown wasteland. So precise is his painting that we can identify many of the plants he observes.

From my office window at UCL in central London a few years ago I noticed a similar anomalous space that had developed spontaneously between other buildings. As I looked down one winter afternoon a fox sauntered past and in summer the honey-scented flowers of Buddleia davidii are visited by bees and butterflies. This summer I decided to pursue my curiosity further and arrange access to the site. After opening a metal gate I made my way up some slippery rubbish-strewn steps and entered a strange world of tangled vegetation. Accompanied by the artist Carolyn Deby and the botanist Nick Bertrand we surveyed the site, finding over thirty species of plants, including three kinds of oak trees. Nick’s expertise was inspirational as he pointed out different species that had colonized the site. A seemingly empty space was brimming with life.

What struck me immediately was that this space has become a kind of miniature urban forest with its own mix of plants from all over the world. Instead of looking down onto the site I was now looking up at the brutalist façade of the university building with leaves touching my face. For a moment I became aware of myself at another point in time gazing distractedly from my window just metres away.

This afternoon, however, I glanced towards the site and noticed that it has just been cleared, leaving an expanse of rubble with a few plants left where they could not be scraped away by heavy machinery. The cycle of entropy and ecological succession must begin anew amid the vagaries of urban development and yet another planning application.