Sunday, October 14, 2007

Protecting the environment, one forgotten scrap at a time

I am always struck, when reading any social history of fruit and veggies, by the decline of biodiversity in our food world. All those thousands of apple varieties, culled to a few dozen, the tomatoes lost to history, the potatoes never to be dug and eaten with butter and chives again. Where do they go? I understand the structures that lead to their loss: the corporatisation of the production and selling of food, transportation, subsidies and governance, and our expectation that food bills should be as small as possible, regardless of the larger costs. But where do the plants go when they're not wanted anymore?

I guess the orchards are bulldozed and the old backyard gardens paved over. But surely some hardy specimens remain in the cracks in the fence or down the back paddock, left to endure by chance or laziness or a lack of money to sub-divide. It's the dream of every gardener, isn't it, to stumble across a lost variety, just as those who love art hopes to find an old John Glover shoved in behind the beer fridge in a tumble down garage, and those who thrift believe one day they will discover a Clarice Clift teapot going for $2 at the Salvos down the road. Once plant hunters traveled the globe for the new, now we peer over back fences in search of the old.

Or at least, I do. There're things in my neighbourhood I don't see elsewhere, the remnants of gardens destroyed. Apple trees are dotted about the place and on the verges freesias and sparaxis grow in great drifts.

Many grow at the bottom of slopes, I suspect pushed down from the higher places by the landslips and deluges that wiped out the houses to which they once belonged. Some of these freesias I've not seen in the catalogues. They're not the sweet scented albas, and bear no resemblance to the large and bold varieties offered at 40 cents a bulb. Some have particularly caught my attention: mauve and gold, brushed in sepia tones, they are the flowers of a grandmother's wedding bouquet. Hardy and humble and not at all common (in all meanings of the word).

These plants bear a strange relationship to their environment: they're introduced and now naturalised; they're a product of suburbanization and now in threat from it as the council seeks ways to stablise the land for new sub-divisions, and 'cleans out' the growth in the name of neatness and hygiene. So I've started to collect some bulbs, scrambling down the slopes with Jasper the dog following enthusiastically (there could be a ball down there!).

I'm planting them in the garden as a token of things past, as an acknowledgment of what my environment contains within it now, and as protection against the loss of diversity and difference that will no doubt follow in the future.

I don't think this is helping the Amazonian rainforests or the loss of Australia's river systems. I'm not stopping a pulp mill (but then no one else is either). It's just a few flowers next to the road and in the traces of backyards. I doubt they're a lost flower, even though I can't place them, but even the commonplace becomes rare, as our agricultural past reminds us. Maybe one of my scraps will become The Flower That Saved Our World. Or maybe they'll stand as a reminder to the few who remember that there was a time when there was space for surprise and overgrowth and delight.

There are, of course, other very good reasons for keeping things just the way they are. You don't get this in 'townhouse alternative' living:


Jenny said...

Kris, there used to be a pink rose that grew near the footpath at the top end of Wellington Street where they are now building some units or something. The house it belonged to was long gone but it flowered gloriously every year with no water other than the rain and never being pruned. It was always a mass of flowers for months. It has now been cleared away , grubbed out by some earth moving machine to make way for the new buildings which will probably boast low maintenance gardens. In reality it was the most low maintenance rose I have ever seen.

zose said...

found you via nellup.
freesias are my most favourite flower, their thcik sweet apricots and honey with a splash of pepper smell.

thanks for the view! they sued to grow on the side of the road on our long country drive to high school. My mum would stop and we'd pick them.

Now they are $19 a bunch at our local florist. A bunch is made of 5 stems.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I too love gleaning plants from overgrown laneways and cracks in the pavement. I found a rose scented geranium this way and many other plants. These plants are real survivors.

Victoria said...

I love the idea of your scrap garden - brilliant & inspiring.

Em said...

What a beautiful post! Thankyou :)

nutmeg said...

Just caught up on your last 14 posts! What a great way to spend half an hour - inspiring and thoughtful as usual. I'm a bit refreshed after a blogging break.

I have to say Nickel and Dimes was one of my favourite books of a couple of years ago - I thought it was exceptional and it inspired me to read the "Aussie version" called Dirt Cheap by Elizabeth Wynhausen - which was also very good.

I am also currently working my way through all four seasons of The Good Life on dvd - I knew I'd love it just as much as did the first time I watched it.

blue milk said...

You are amazing.

meggie said...

What a lovely post! I too love those old flowers, & yearn for the lost apples! Whatever happened to Cox's Orange?
Your fields of flowers pictures are a treat.

maya said...

I'm a new reader via Pea Soup, but I'm madly coveting those freesias...would you be willing to swap a bulb for some seeds or plants? Thanks either way,

Suse said...

I just have to weigh in here to say last year I found a Clarice Cliff jug for $7 at my local op shop.

It's on my blog somewhere ...

Kris said...

Suse - I'm so jealous and so excited that it actually happens. My hope will now spring eternal!