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: