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23 October 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 2:53pm

How “Botanising” can be done anywhere, even in the most unlikely places

I have botanised – the act of drifting along with the flow of the earth and its flora – in the strangest of locations: around airports and car parks, in city back-lots and on the platforms of railway stations.

By John Burnside

I am wandering along the verge of a back road in rural Bavaria, my eyes scanning the earth, all quiet, steady attention. It is mid-September, and I am not looking for anything in particular; I am just looking, walking with attention, sauntering into the late afternoon.

Already it is beginning to feel like summer’s end, but there is still plenty to see on this well-managed piece of land (clearly, no heavy-handed gang-sprayer has been by, and there is no evidence of the ubiquitous strimmer). There are various grasses in last flower or thin, querulous seed: blue and golden trefoils; the slightly faded but still-vivid purples of wild chives. It’s a rich tangle of flowers and drying stems, of seed heads and spots of pale gold that speak of the season now ending, and the promise of summers to come.

I go slowly, taking it all in – this is my favourite time, in many ways, this last spell of warmth and colour before it all goes down into the earth – and I eventually come to a small meadow, where the scene opens out to more of the same: dry stems, thin grasses, the rattle of seeds in the slight breeze that gusts across this patch of open land.

The usual term for this kind of drifting along with the flow of the earth and its flora is “botanising”. It is something that can be done anywhere, and there is always a satisfaction to be won, as long as we keep our eyes and our minds open. I have botanised in the strangest of locations – on the headlands around airports and at the edges of car parks, in city back-lots and on the platforms of railway stations – but the best places vary in surprising ways.

Once, while we waited for the Andøya ferry in northern Norway, I left my wife and son in the car and headed out, following a trail of gentians across a stony field to where all manner of subarctic flowers were growing, just quarter of a mile from the pier. In my enthusiasm, I forgot all about the ferry and it wasn’t until I heard the car horn, honking furiously and seemingly located at an improbable distance from where I stood, that I remembered my family and scrambled back, just in time to get on board. My wife said afterwards that she had considered going alone, leaving me to wait several hours for the next boat in my shirtsleeves.

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Another memorable foray into what was, at that time, an altogether unknown flora, came when I was landed on an island in the Uruguay River by a local boatman, and left there to see what I could see. By the time the man returned, I had been gnawed to the bone by mosquitoes, but I had a mind full of flowers and leaves and fruits that, from my clumsily scribbled notes and execrable drawings, I would identify later, for no other reason than to hear the names in my mind.

For me, the names of plants are like small miracles: they renew my faith in the language. Humboldt’s willow. Roseroot. Snow Buttercup. The naming of flowers is a treasury of condensed history, surprising metaphors and imaginative associations; an everyday yet elegant music that enriches all language simply by its flights of fantasy and connection. Botanising is a minor adventure in the annals of that natural history: it is a way of belonging.

We cannot belong simply by being in a place. We have to give it our full attention if we are to be included in its long-running stories. It is a matter of good fortune, then, that we can botanise anywhere – anywhere, that is, where strimmers and herbicides are seen as a matter of passing regret, never to be deployed again. 

Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening

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This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state