Vova Kharatyan, 65, cherishes his tiny, improvised front yard in Yerevan, “a symbol of my love and my pain”. Photo: Jan Brykczynski
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Take a look in the eyes of our urban gardeners

Eventually, we will have to recognise that it is not “nature” that we need to protect, but ourselves.

Green shoots sprout from old cement sacks, herbs emerge from forsaken bathtubs, vegetables proliferate in rows of abandoned tyres – in Jan Brykczynski’s photo-portraits of impromptu gardens in Warsaw, New York, Nairobi and Yerevan, green nature returns to the city, tended by urban gardeners possessed of “a stubborn pride, almost a defiance”. They work to nurture sometimes spare, occasionally rather lush plots in the heart of their cities, “amid the sirens and the satellite dishes”, almost always in places where we would hardly expect to find anything green at all.

An American flag perches on a post above a New York allotment; beehives weighted with puddingstone tilt among sunflowers on a rooftop; a Polish woman poses in her orchard clutching a sickle, her face sober but not serious enough to conceal a hard-won sense of self-worth. “The ideas of tillage and worship are joined in culture,” says the author Wendell Berry, in a passage that introduces these extraordinary photographs, “and these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘to revolve’ and ‘to dwell’. To live, to survive on the earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, all are bound . . . to the idea of a cycle.”

Now, these quietly inspiring images – the product of the Syngenta Photography Award in 2013 – are brought together in Brykczynski’s new book, The Gardener (Dewi Lewis Publishing, £25), not only showcasing this wonderful, restrained and quietly incisive photographer, but also reminding us of the ways in which intimacy with the soil can help people to “grow, dream, feel safe and take charge of their environments”. It is striking how the gardens blur the seeming boundary between nature and the human world: a dishevelled bed sits amid vines; elsewhere, it is hard to tell where a living space ends and the garden begins. As Marianne Moore remarks in her panorama poem “The Steeple-Jack”, it is “a privilege to see so/much confusion”.

Yet perhaps the most moving of these images show the gardeners themselves: proud men and women, mostly middle-aged, their faces often lined with care, their eyes lit with a private knowledge of the green world. In one particularly striking portrait, a grey-haired woman in a faded brown dressing gown and battered slippers perches on the edge of a bathtub – empty now, but clearly destined for future cultivation – in a nondescript grey yard. Her face is keen, aquiline and alert. Everything about her suggests a more-than-human, almost feral attention. It does not seem fanciful to imagine that she is truly alive and self-aware in ways that she might not have been, had she not become a tender of the soil.

The Gardener is more than a marvellous collection of images by a master photographer. It is also prophetic. How we live with the natural world – the green world, the animal, the weather, the elemental – is surely destined to change as the soi-disant developed world collapses around its own greed and arrogance. The conventional, and painfully artificial, separation of the human realm from the natural other is bound to perish, albeit over a period of time, until we are obliged to learn how to cultivate our gardens under the most demanding conditions.

Even in Europe, the process has already begun – in some western Swiss towns, for instance, the citizens cultivate food plants and herbs, free for all, in public spaces where once there were neat containers of bedding plants. But we have taken only baby steps until now. In time, we will have to recognise that it is not “nature” that we need to protect, but ourselves, and we can only do this by abandoning the old, grandiose, profit-seeking schemes so beloved of our masters and learning to till the soil, live to scale, and live within our means.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution