Thursday, 29 August 2013

The discretion of trees

‘The discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting,’ writes Robert Macfarlane in his book The Wild Places. We’ve moved into a new building at work, and there is an inner garden with about two dozen trees, some of the younger ones with plaques commemorating people who have died. My favourite, and definitely the most venerable, is a London plane you can see from the window of the staff common room. From its height and trunk size, I’d guess it’s over a hundred years old.

This London plane may have lost its sense of direction and fetched up in the wrong city but it is at least a city tree, and we are in the heart of the city here. Its rubbery leaves repel urban grime and pollution, and it is tough enough to flourish even in paved-over soil. Our London plane looks solid, stoical, happy for us to live alongside it, perhaps a little irritated by our noisy egotism but far too polite to mention it. In his book The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, Richard Mabey argues that our relationship with trees is a model for how we should relate to the natural world as a whole, a relationship based on neighbourliness and undemanding reciprocity rather than ownership or coercion. The way we breathe the exhalations of trees, without either the trees or us being aware of it, is, he suggests, ‘a true unconscious communion’.

A lot of the other trees are limes, with great nests of leaves snaking round their trunks. I think I may pass on Mabey's suggestion, in his book Flora Britannica, that the young leaves of limes 'make refreshing sandwich fillings'. But it's nice being around the solid trunks of trees while undergoing the self-absorbing and nerve-shredding experience of having a new book out - which may, involve, at any point, someone saying that it wasn't worth pulping all those trees so they could have it in their hands. Or they may just ignore it, which is saying the same thing in a kinder, but somehow crueller, way. But I think I’m going to enjoy being around trees, and am looking forward to autumn.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Peeing on the fire

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. (I already read and enjoyed one of his previous books, A Room of My Own, about building his own Walden-style log cabin in his back garden in Connecticut.) Barbecues are often dismissed as pieces of alpha-male theatre but Pollan uses the arguments of the anthropologist Richard Wrangham – that cooking with fire is what made us human and lifted us out of our animal existence – to suggest that barbecues are ‘ceremonial acts of remembering — who we are, where we came from, how nature works’. He is such a light, witty, elegant writer. Here he is skewering Freud and turning him over on the barbie until he’s nicely done:

‘Freud traces the control of fire to the fateful moment when man – and by “man” in this case he really means man – first overcame the urge to extinguish whatever fires he chanced upon by peeing on them. For countless millennia this urge apparently proved irresistible, much to the detriment of civilization, the rise of which awaited its repression … The course of human history shifted on the fateful day when it dawned on some fellow possessed of an unusual degree of self-control that he didn’t have to pee on the fire, and could instead preserve the flames and put them to some good use: keeping himself warm, say, or cooking his dinner. Freud believed this advance, like so much else of value in civilization, owed to the unique human ability to govern, or repress, the inner drives and urges before which other animals are powerless. (Not that we have many reports of animals putting out fires with their urine.) For him, the control of self is the precondition for the control of fire and, in turn, for the civilization that that discovery made possible … In all the time I’ve now spent with pit masters, whiling away the hours before the smoldering logs, I’ve never once brought up Freud’s fire theory. I’m just not sure how well it would go over.’