June 15, 2013

Guerilla art

One of my favourite local green spaces, Palace Road Nature Garden, has been undergoing a transformation. The undergrowth has been cleared, bark-chip paths wind through the trees and rustic benches have appeared. Wildflower seeds have been sown, and amid a wash of moon daisies and buttercups, poppies and cornflowers glint, gem-like.

It's beautiful, but it's not what I love about the Nature Garden. This is a place with its own mysterious life: the rubble of the long-gone Victorian villa still shrugs up through the soil; the remnants of its ornamental garden – the larches and rhododendrons – fight for space with opportune nettles and brambles, and it's home to secretive foxes, parakeets, woodpeckers, songbirds and (I'm sure of it) a pair of tawny owls.

And the way that humans interact with the garden fascinates me, too. Before it was tidied up I'd often go exploring in there with my dog, discovering old statues, antique bottles and tin buckets and kettles in the ground ivy and rubble. These items would move around the garden seemingly by themselves; I'd find them, each time I visited, in different places – though always prominently displayed. Once a small tent appeared for a few days, firmly zipped up and deep in the undergrowth, and for a long while I kept finding little wooden sticks on the ground; eventually I discovered one with niger seeds still attached, and realised someone was coming and hanging them from the trees for the birds to eat. And yet I rarely saw anyone else there.

And now the garden is tidy and tamed: there is less litter, more bins and fewer scorch marks from illicit, late-night fires. But when I visited today I found three lovely, finely-drawn pictures hanging from the trees, magical and mysterious:

I love the thought of local people having their own, private relationships with this tiny patch of green – and the myriad ways in which that relationship may be expressed.

What makes me sad, though, is how few children play there. I could have spent hours and hours exploring it as a child: finding the fox dens and building my own, climbing trees, looking for nests, working out what lived in the pond and transforming the whole garden in my imagination into a trackless jungle, or an alien planet, or a secret world.

So where are the local children – at the shops? Cooped up inside, staring at screens? Or at the designated playground up the road, each one watched, as they solemnly tackle the climbing frame or swings, by a parent haunted by the media's incessant drip-feed of stories about child abduction and abuse?

Click here to watch the trailer for Project Wild Thing, David Bond's brilliant film about reconnecting children with nature.