“And though thou seemst a weedling wild –
Wild and neglected like to me –
Thou still art dear to nature’s child
And I will stoop to notice thee
For oft like thee, in wild retreat,
Arrayed in humble garb like thee,
There’s many a seeming weed proves sweet
As sweet as garden flowers can be”
John Clare, “To An Insignificant Flower Obscurely Blooming in a Lonely Wild”
Desire lines, forged by generations of foxes, criss-cross the greening ruins of St. Jude’s church in Bethnal Green. Standing in its midst one can imagine the stone-and-mortar clumps that remain of this once-proud Victorian chapel as altars approached by fox-run aisles. On a sunny day, the trees sprouting from the church’s footprint mottle the light like stained glass. St. Jude’s fell to the Luftwaffe’s bombs in 1942, and thereafter became a magnificent lost cause, befitting its dedication. The ruins watched as estates rose from bombsites and danger zones; as waves of immigrants changed the area’s language and faith; as everything around was replaced, rebuilt and repopulated. All the while, St. Jude’s remained untouched, quietly waiting.
Phytology attacks enclosure with its own fences, and makes weeds the centre of attention.
Today, St. Jude’s is fenced in, a coded lock securing the gate. It is surrounded by housing estates on one side, a school on the other; a green postage stamp in the midst of a churning sea of concrete activity. Standing on a small chunk of stone remaining from the church on a Saturday afternoon, I could hear everyday ambient “neighbourhood” cues – children’s sporting cries, far-off car horns and the occasional 88-bpm boom-bap. But more immediate were less common city sounds: a seemingly amplified bee’s buzz, the crunch of twigs underfoot, and the creak of a breeze-blown branch. A few metres to the west spread a small meadow harbouring wild garlic, borage and hawthorn trees. To the east, a leafy woodland digging roots into the ruins.
Now called the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, the current human occupants of this space are a group of artists and botanists banded under the banner Phytology. The project employs many watchwords of contemporary social artwork – it crosses art-science borders, engages diverse urban communities, educates and entertains through creative place-making: Phytology is a grant-writer’s dream.
Yet at its heart, Phytology does something so much simpler, and so much more revolutionary. Phytology attacks enclosure with its own fences, and makes weeds the centre of attention. It explodes its quietude outwards by challenging that deepest of 21st-century London anxieties: space.
Three years ago, artist Michael Smythe and his collaborators, under the auspices of commissioning agency Nomad, began looking for a healing space in London. Surrounded by ‘for-sale’s and ‘to-let’s, daily headlines about rising prices and rising rents, Smythe sought to create the least financially profitable option for land in the capital: Phytology, a long-term space in the heart of London set aside for quiet and wildness, to be nursed by its community and to grow both plants and artworks that soothe, calm and heal.
Promising spaces came to the group’s attention, but all fell through until Phytology artists encountered St. Jude’s. It was already wild space. Fenced off in the early 1980s, it remained not only unreconstructed, but largely untouched for a decade. Margaret Cox of the nearby Teesdale & Hollybush Estate Tenants’ and Residents’ Association opened it up for local residents in the 1990s, but allowed it to remain largely wild – just the space Smythe, himself a Bethnal Green resident, was looking for.
This place will see the wild not as dirty or grubby,
but as having intrinsic value.
The plan was to grow what Smythe calls a “natural apothecary” on the site, while changing it from the lesser-used St. Jude’s Park into the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. The change in language signals a shift of intent: this place will see the wild not as dirty or grubby, but as having intrinsic value. One corner of the Reserve, a naturally occurring meadow, was chosen to host the medicinal weeds and herbs the artists wanted for the “apothecary” – there, local residents and other volunteers plant and tend to the flora, and visitors are welcome to harvest what they need on Fridays and Saturdays under the tutelage of gardener Gabby Boraston.
The other sections include an amphitheatre in which talks and performances take place, beginning with the series Human-Nature – talks commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance on topics related to the “potential of un-purposed growth” in London. In another corner stands a billboard to host visual artworks that will change regularly, beginning with contemporary botanical drawings by Talya Baldwin, illustrating the weeds grown in the meadow. Finally, the woodlands section, which will remain essentially at nature’s will.
Perusing the weeds scheduled for cultivation in the meadow is both a journey through medieval wise-folk medicine and a dérive through the city itself. Ribwort plantain, borage, wild garlic, dandelion – the plants growing, or scheduled to be grown, in the meadow are traditionally used to calm and heal just about every part of the body. But more than that, these are plants that grow in the pavement’s cracks, should we stoop to notice them.
Smythe says that the appearance of Bethnal Green Nature Reserve is “intentional in its un-remarkableness,” and perhaps he’s talking about more than just its external subtlety – the billboard one large exception to an otherwise unnoticed façade. This is a work of art, science and community powerfully humble in its garb, and yet sweet as garden flowers in its effect.
The day I visited Phytology in its ‘soft’ pre-opening weekend the meadows were tended to by a father and his two sons as well as another volunteer, a young teenaged woman from the local school, all cheerfully shifting earth and harvesting weeds and planting borage. A woman from the nearby estate, grinning ear to ear, asked me if I knew Margaret Cox – I answered no, but that I’d heard a good bit about her. The woman nodded and smiled, and I later wondered if it was a question akin to, “Do you know Ned Ludd?”
Flipping through the small library in the gardener’s shed – Discovering the Folklore of Plants, The Secret History of British Plants, Derek Jarman’s Garden – I began to see Phytology not as park or theatre, gallery or school, but as a secret meeting place in plain sight; a clandestine operation involving the entire city’s population.
The un-remarkableness of Phytology is important not just to reflect humility and a lack of ostentation, but to ‘pass’ – to allow the space an invisibility. We lost most of England’s village greens and pauper’s fields at the dawn of industry; Phytology reimagines such a space. As Clare put it,
“Enclosure came, and every path was stopped
Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found.”
Phytology uses enclosure’s own weapons against it: it fixes signs to the green space, fences it in, and, in the words of Michael Smythe, “protects it from development”. After Phytology’s three-year run, the artists point out, they can simply walk away – the community can continue to use it as they will, or nature will do what it does best.
This is Phytology’s great victory: a green burial for a space left empty. A ruined space in a heavily populated community can, in London, only become a few things on a temporary basis. But rather than a food-truck landing strip or pop-up container city – temporary uses that extract from the area until another capital use comes along – the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve gives and gives until it is covered over in green and returned to the night-running foxes.
Phytology is open Fridays and Saturdays from 17th May to 14th September, 2014.
Phytology is a Nomad and Cape Farewell project. Supported by the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England. It is a partnership with the Teesdale and Hollybush Tenants and Residents Association, whose dedicated management of the Reserve has protected and developed it.