A sense of place

“What are you doing?” This was the question a little boy asked me on Christmas Eve morning. “Picking up rubbish so the birds can find some food”, I replied. “Okay!” he answered, and off he went. Moments later, a gull landed on the grass and started rooting around for worms, as if it had just been waiting for someone to remove the layers of plastic. The woman with the boy had said nothing, but adults usually say something like “Thank you for doing that” or “There’s no point, it’ll be just as bad tomorrow”. They don’t ask why, and nor had the boy – but it got me thinking about why I do it.

Recently I was talking to a friend who’s planning a research project on litter. One of the things we discussed was how litter picking can help you to notice aspects of nature that you might have overlooked, and how it can also inspire creativity. After our conversation, I walked along nearby Keswick Road in Woolston, one that I’ve been looking at in connection with my job as a Wilder Southampton project officer. My earlier impression was that there was litter along a whole stretch of fence leading down to the river. What I hadn’t noticed before was that there was a good-sized grass verge with three trees and several hazel shrubs on. There was a lot of litter on this verge too, and from a distance, it doesn’t look like anything special.

But up close there’s a lot to wonder at. That hazel shrub on the right, the one that barely reaches as high as the fence, is festooned with with male catkins, and if you look closely you’ll also spot the tiny female flowers.

Seeing this made me want to clear the litter, so I went back a few days later with gloves and bags. I didn’t want something so beautiful and precious to be surrounded by discarded bottles and cans. And it is precious – I walked home that day via Peartree Green, which is a nature reserve, but the hazel shrubs there are quite dull in comparison, with barely a flower. This reminded me again that nature is everywhere, we just have to notice it. And litter picking can help us to do that. The three trees on the verge are sycamores, leafless now because it’s winter, with no remaining ‘helicopter’ seeds. But look at the moss and lichen growing on them! The vibrant green and yellow was all the better because of the grey skies.

There was treasure to be found on the ground too, treasure that I would never have seen if I hadn’t been litter-picking. I thought this was a bit of plastic at first, then realised it was a feather, probably from a swan. I left it there for someone else to find. I walked on, past the car park on Woodley Road. Here there are verges and raised flower beds, and most are badly littered, so I decided to come back to those another day. I realised I was starting to develop a connection to this unloved and overlooked patch, in the same way I had with the corner of the car park I’d been litter picking on Christmas Eve. That car park is next to a beech hedge that provides shelter to birds and I suppose hedgehogs might snuffle along it looking for food, in another season. That’s why I’d litter picked it before, with a friend of mine. There are wild flowers there in spring and summer too. For me, it had grown from being a ‘space’ to a ‘place’, and the same was happening with the Woolston patch.

What do you think of the phrase ‘green space’ ? Some months ago, I’d heard someone say they disliked it, but I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought about it much until I started reading a book by Philip Marsden called ‘Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place’. In it he refers to academic debates about the difference between ‘space’ and ‘place’, and says that ‘place’ is somewhere distinctive, somewhere people react to and live with. ‘Space’, in contrast, isn’t real, it’s more of an ideal, so we can end up with housing estates or high streets or parks that all look the same – you could be anywhere. Connection is the thing here, I think. Feeling a connection to somewhere can turn it into a place, and connection needs familiarity I’m familiar with that car park patch because I’ve looked at it many times, and thought about the creatures that might live there. I know Peartree Green really well because I’ve walked it hundreds of times, I’ve taken thousand of photographs, I’ve studied the flowers and the trees – and I pick up litter all the time, because I care about the place. Philip Marsden’s book is about Cornwall, and he explores areas like Bodmin Moor, huge areas of wild country. Where I am in Southampton, to some, ‘nature’ means the New Forest, a national park. They probably wouldn’t give my verge on Keswick Road a second glance, but they would be missing a treat. I was going to say it would be their loss, but the sad thing is that their loss would be nature’s loss too. If people don’t notice the treasures all around them, they won’t care because they won’t feel a connection. Noticing is about more than just seeing, of course, but that’s another blog post. For this one I’ll end with this mysterious tree, which is on the verge opposite my hazel-moss-feather treasure zone. Notice how the bark changes, and when I was picking up litter (obviously!) I noticed that it changes again at the base. How curious! There has to be a story to this tree. Any ideas?

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