The Year of Seeing Green
by ERIN DESPARD
We are already halfway through the year when I find out that 2015 is supposed to be Glasgow’s “Green Year.” This is when the summer issue of Glasgow, the official publication of the city council, is delivered to our door. Inside, a photograph from the launch event shows a young ballerina in an iridescent green tutu, holding up an iPad with the Green Year app loaded onto it, a bank of tropical plants in the background. In another, smaller photograph, the white-haired chairwoman of the Green Year also holds out an iPad. She too stands against a background of greenery, wearing a tartan scarf and a wide, grandmotherly smile.
The website detailing the events and programs of the Green Year features wide-angle photographs of different urban scenes—most of which foreground vegetation. These photographs of larger-than-life plants and landscapes are surprisingly close to showing the Glasgow I know, which (in the West End at least) is a kind of shady, weedy garden full of birds and foxes (as well as a lot of garbage, broken glass, and cars driving too fast down narrow streets). The frequent rainfall and relatively mild temperatures of western Scotland mean that certain plants grow very easily here. Moss, ferns, and ivy grow abundantly on stone walls, and it is not uncommon to see the bright purple blossoms of butterfly bush waving above the street from the stonework of older buildings. Glasgow may be better known for its somewhat decrepit industrial heritage, but it is, in a literal sense at least, quite a green city. It was also a European city of culture in 1990, and since then, has been branded as creative and irreverent: “People make Glasgow” is splashed in bright pink across bus shelters, lamppost banners, and taxi cabs around town. This makes it almost too perfect that the Green Year launch, which was held in a historic glasshouse called the People’s Palace, featured a multi-generational dance performance on top of specially wired floor panels, turning “people power” into electricity to charge the batteries for app-demonstrating iPads.
Of course, not all forms of people-powered creativity are celebrated in the city. My family and I live across the street from the North Kelvin Meadow—an old playing field in the West End that has been out of use since the mid-1980s and which now hosts an urban meadow and pioneer woodland. The community has been fighting to protect it from development for several years now. In addition to impromptu barbeques and bonfires, underage drinking, and a good deal of vandalism, it is home to an ad-hoc dog park, two registered charities, an accredited outdoor education program, and locally organized cultural events. For us, and especially because we have ended up there as outsiders, by accident, there is something slightly miraculous about all this: we feel at home.
Though the plants in the Meadow are frequently subject to abuse and even removal, there is also a good deal of gardening and other forms of tending: we have helped to plant a large collection of spring bulbs, pick up litter, nurture a fledgling community orchard, and cultivate a collective food garden. Of course, such activities are not without calculated effect. Signs posted around the Meadow and at its entrances remind visitors to “Take care of the land before it’s gone.” Glasgow City Council is preparing to sell the Meadow—Green Year or no—to a developer who plans to build condos on top of it. It turns out that the chairwoman of the Green Year is also chair of the Planning Applications committee, which has already announced its intentions to sell the land, even though the public consultation process is not complete.
All this will make it upsetting, but not surprising when, later in that same year, council workers spray fern-covered bridges and retaining walls along the River Kelvin with herbicide. In other cities, green walls are cultivated at considerable cost using dedicated technology, but in Glasgow, the longstanding and apparently unaided co-existence of plants and infrastructure seems to be taken for granted. However, as this and other events during the Green Year will demonstrate, the relationship between the two is more tenuous and more complex than it appears.
When we moved to Glasgow, it was after four years of living in the desert of Los Angeles. The fact that numerous species of fern could not just survive, but thrive, on the vertical face of a stone wall was a kind of revelation for me. I welcomed their damp, unplanned abundance, even though I knew (I should have known) that such gifts of disregard are usually temporary. In a city like Glasgow, which is full of derelict spaces, the proliferation of moss, wall ferns and other vertically inclined species is often associated with neglect and decay. Despite the fact that ferns have coexisted with walls and bridges for millennia, their removal is seen by some as a way of caring for the city’s architectural heritage. However, for those of us fighting to save the Meadow, this destruction of untended plant life had more ominous undertones.
I am not a photographer, but I took a lot of photographs that year. I had been granted a fellowship to study the relationship between social media, photography, and landscape design, and I figured I had better make sure I understood how cameras worked. I tried repeatedly to photograph wall ferns, but the result was always disappointing; however many different compositions I tried, I always ended up with a visual cliché—“the plant as survivor” or “the improbable fecundity of nature.” I could not show the intimacy of the fern’s relation with the wall, nor even gesture toward the kind of loss their chemical removal represented.
The problem was not only that I lacked skill and specialized equipment; it turns out that the thing that makes these ferns special is also what evades the camera. There is a mismatch between the needs of cameras and ferns, one that makes their meeting a perceptual event worth considering. Because when we can’t see what we want to see, the process of seeing itself becomes visible. This is more vitally important than it sounds, because as climate change has most recently taught us, environmental politics often turn on problems of perception: we can’t talk about, let alone value, what we can’t in some way see. This is why the fight to save the Meadow was a highly visual one, involving the production and circulation of an enormous quantity of images, online and in social media. And it is why the disappearance of wall ferns represented a loss in two senses: that of the ferns themselves, and the opportunity to see the city from their perspective.
In most ways, ferns and cameras could not be more different. However, they take part in processes of reproduction that intersect in some interesting ways. By reproduction, I mean that, as part of their normal functioning, they make more of something, where that “more” is neither wholly new, nor identical to what came before.
Ferns appear on walls as a result of a bi-generational process of sexual reproduction: first, a spore landing in a damp crack or crevice produces a heart-shaped organism called a prothallus; the prothallus then provides a surface for the fertilization of female cells by male cells, and the subsequent genesis and nourishment of a new fern. At the same time, given that people know something about the conditions required for this process, and use ferns to confirm which is the north side of a wall, for example, and given that people like me find them beautiful, the biological reproduction of the fern also enables a kind of cultural reproduction. Wherever they appear, certain meanings and values can also be reproduced—through processes of navigation, conversation, artistic interpretation, and through photographs.
That said, just as no two ferns are exactly alike, so the process of cultural reproduction can introduce something new. A photograph, for example, has the potential to give new meaning or value to its subject. As Susan Sontag observed, photographs beautify what they picture, in a manner that has less to do with artistic content and more to do with the way they bring otherwise unseen or overlooked qualities to our attention. Of course, as Sontag also pointed out, if photographs create beauty, they also use it up: the more photographs of things like wall ferns (or dandelions growing out of cracks in the sidewalk) circulate in popular culture, the harder it is to encounter anything new in them. Which is in part why my photographs seemed clichéd. When I looked at them, I saw a celebration of self-sufficiency and resilience that I recognized from other photographs of plants in urban settings. The wall—which enabled the fern’s reproduction and, consequently, its existence in that location—appeared as mere background.
But as a photographer friend of mine pointed out, my difficulties in producing an interesting photograph were not only due to the way other photographs had shaped my interpretation of the results; they also reflected intersecting technical and material constraints. If my photographs seemed to depict wall ferns as self-sufficient, it is in part because they pictured them head-on. A side angle would have foregrounded the wall more, but that would have required a longer depth of field, for which my handheld camera could not gather enough light in the shadow of north-facing walls. So between the fern’s preference for shade, and my camera’s need for brighter, more even lighting, certain photographs were just less likely. Of course these problems could have been mitigated through various means (for example, a well-positioned tripod), but the point here is less to solve a lighting problem and more to see how the fern and the camera together make some ways of seeing easier than others—a question that camera phones, with their convenience and connectivity, have made more relevant than ever. The more people take such “easy” photographs, and the more people see them (on social media), the more those ways of seeing become not just familiar, but ubiquitous. There have never been more photographs of ferns (and dandelions and lattés) in the world. In order to show us something new about a wall fern, a photographer has to invent a way to see the specificities of fern, wall, and camera simultaneously.
The thing about these ferns is that in contrast to what the most easily produced photographs seem to convey, their dependence on the specific environment in which they appear is extreme: the sperm can only reach the eggs by swimming across the prothallus. If the spore does not land in a location providing a continuous film of water, no new fern will grow. In other words, the reproduction of wall ferns requires the wall, its shaded crevices, and the rain as much as it requires the specific capabilities of the fern. At the same time, the roots eventually fill the space of the crevice so completely that, if dislodged, the damage makes the fern’s survival elsewhere unlikely. Wall ferns may not require gardeners, or even the help of pollinating insects, to enable their reproduction and growth, but they are dependent on the specificities of the environment in which they are found.
Importantly, and as both the ferns themselves and their destruction by city workers revealed, that environment is created in part by human activities—not only the construction of stone walls, but also the way people see, or don’t see, the vegetation that appears there. Given their association with decay and neglect, the most straightforward way for wall ferns to survive and proliferate is through relative invisibility. It’s not clear what it would take for people to value them, as themselves, or to see them as belonging to the walls on which they appear.
Every time I go to the Meadow, I take a photograph with my phone and post it to a dedicated Instagram account. I am trying to show what is special about the Meadow, but that turns out to be something that is not very photogenic. It has to do with the way things are always getting mixed up: wildflowers bloom next to transplanted, half-dead Christmas trees; nests and forts and BMX tracks are constructed; trees are hung with handmade decorations, or they are broken and burned. One day, our neighbor Shaun—a guy with neck tattoos who has lived in the neighborhood his whole life—decides to make a pond. He has the idea that it will attract toads and frogs to the Meadow, but a few days later it is just a muddy hole lined with old carpets—wrecked, he claims, by the fact that kids have been throwing stones into it. Some people are irritated by this failed experiment, the hole it leaves. But I think Shaun has accidentally written a part of himself into the landscape. Seeing that matters almost as much to me as the preservation of the Meadow itself. Or maybe it is more that something about the one depends on the other.
In preparing an objection to the developer’s planning application, I become preoccupied with the whole idea of the “Green Year” and the inconsistent, apparently thoughtless manner in which it is being presented. Using an online form, I propose that the campaign to save the Meadow be added to the Green Year’s directory of local environmental organizations. It is added, without delay; either the right hand of the city council does not know what the left hand is doing, or it simply doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, on the page showing the Green Year’s calendar of events, I find a photograph that that is particularly troubling. It portrays a fish-eye view of the old Govan Graving Docks. Several of the city’s architectural landmarks are visible on the horizon, but the photograph is centered on one of the basins to which ships used to be brought for maintenance and repair, and where ferns and other plants are shown growing from the walls. To the uninformed eye, this photograph suggests an appreciation for the ecological vibrancy of the city’s historic spaces. However, if you look closely, tree branches float in the water, and towards the distorted edge of the photograph, piles of vegetal debris are visible. It was taken after the majority of the site’s trees, ferns, and wildflowers were indiscriminately razed by a real estate developer.
As it happens, the developer responsible for clearing the Graving Docks is the same one angling to build condos on the Meadow. I have an intimate knowledge of the vegetation at the docks because I helped one of the doctoral students in my department transplant some ferns and other plants before the bulldozers came. In a sort of minimalist gesture of solidarity, we planted them around the woods adjacent to the meadow. So I see the dishonesty of the photograph almost right away. I imagine that someone with a knowledge of cameras and a distrust of Glasgow City Council might also see it. But as the city’s chief planning officer recommends approval of the application to build condos on the Meadow, and the Green Year marches on, I wonder about how to make other people see it. Without being experienced when we look at such a photograph, is there a way to recognize and refuse the visual economy it trades upon? This photograph can only work in support of the Green Year to the extent that its material specificity—the time of its creation and the state of the plants that it pictures—is overlooked. Which implies that the council’s use of it does not just obscure the destruction of untended plant life, but in a sense clears the way for it by perpetuating a mode of visual attention that values greenness without concern for how it is made or whether it survives beyond the moment of our glance toward it.
It seems that the paradox of “urban wilderness” goes beyond the pairing of two historically opposed terms. In the city, wild things require a certain invisibility to do their work, but in the long run their survival demands our attentiveness. Not just in the sense of being alert to potential threats, but also in the sense of being perceptually precise. We have to resist being sentimental or simplistic about the origins of things. For the question of how things like photographs, abandoned playing fields, and fern-covered walls are made is crucial to our ability to know what we care about, and why. In the absence of this expertise we cannot see, let alone defend or recuperate, what is actually lost.
The majority of the wall ferns my colleague and I transported to the Meadow did not survive. Some died, we think, because of the high foot traffic in wooded play areas, but others, planted in damp quiet corners, simply did not find the conditions to their liking, or perhaps their roots were too damaged by the move. Meanwhile, several small trees, which Shaun impulsively and unceremoniously transplanted to fill the hole left behind by his short-lived pond—which should have died—came back the following spring. I’m not sure that any of my photographs fully captured this quality, specific to the Meadow: its capacity to surprise us. Everything we loved about it, but also the things that disappointed and hurt us—these were all born from the same bewildering mix of contradictions that made the Meadow itself possible, and which it returned to us as the gift of its undetermined future.
Two years later, thanks to the persistence and creativity of the campaign to save it, as well as the intervention of the Scottish government, the council’s plans to develop the Meadow have been defeated. Success stories such as these are rare; so too, it seems, is the hope they inspire. But maybe this is in part because we haven’t learned to recognize the potential of certain things and places to surprise us. This potential might be more abundant than we realize. When I look back at the photographs I took of the Meadow, I see both my vision of its value, and the way the Meadow itself, my phone, the Instagram platform, and the Scottish weather each made their requirements of me. A square format, a foreground of insistent green-and-brownness, a flat gray sky: these things led me to seek out flowers, fading leaves, colorful objects and other details capable of producing visual contrast, but which also registered a process of change on the smallest scale. In the end, this made for a collection of photos that was not what I intended or expected, and which described a beauty that, however real to those who loved the meadow during that time, was effectively invisible except in the process of its appearing.
Perhaps the unthinking deployment of green images by the city council constitutes a secret reserve of wildness at the heart of the urban governmental machine. The greater the disconnection between the moment of their production and that of their circulation, the more they can surprise us with what they say. The Green Glasgow website is no longer active, but you can still find that photograph of the Govan Graving Docks using the webpage archive at the Wayback Machine. And if you do an image search for the docks, you can see what they looked like before the developer got to them, when they were actually green.
Erin Despard is a landscape critic with a background in communication and media studies. She also worked for many years as a gardener. Her current project is a history of urban landscape and horticultural media in Montreal of the 1970s and 80s. Her work on gardens, landscape, and visual media has appeared in numerous academic, artistic, and activist venues. Read more at communicativeslandscapes.com.