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23 July 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 6:46am

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.

By John Burnside

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.

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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.