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Thread: Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish Bob Gilbert published Saraband.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish Bob Gilbert published Saraband.

    Bob’s wife is an Anglican parish priest in Poplar in the East End of London. Poplar is not the sort of area you associate with natural beauty: part of it is very rundown and some has been developed as part of Docklands. As Bob points out within parish there is both the second most deprived area in London, and also one of the wealthiest areas in the world. It is all the more surprising that he writes about the wealth of natural history there, particularly trees, but flowers, birds, fungi and insects. Ghost trees is his name for those trees that survive in an urban area from before it became built up, and he explores the background of different species.

    As well as those trees that have grown without human planning, there is a whole variety of other trees that have been deliberately planted. Bob comments that after 1945 “A flood of new species was appearing and, with the obvious exception of Antarctica, they represented every continent in the world.”

    This is not a tree spotting book – there are no pictures. Instead Bob takes different trees which he knows in the parish and talks about them in the light of history, folklore, poetry and science. For example, he begins with the Poplar. I knew the area was named after the poplar tree but I always imagined this was the tall narrow Lombardy poplar. In fact, it was the black poplar which used to be common in marshy areas such as Poplar was originally. These are the trees in Constable’s famous painting The Hay Wain. Bob talks about his visit to the National Gallery to see the picture and gently explains its social background. I will always look at that picture differently in future. Poplar wood was the most suitable wood to make matches and there was a Bryant and May match factory in the parish, whose building still exists. The women working there suffered from a poisonous illness as a result of the phosphorus used in making matches. As a result of their strike, the first trade union for women was founded and some of the earliest welfare institutions for workers put in place.

    The resin from poplar trees was also used in making ointment to relieve wounds and would have been used for those injured in boxing. Boxing was one of the few ways in which a local young man could become nationally famous and Bob tells the story of one in particular. He explains how poplar trees can have a distinctive sound and in one case – the balsam poplar – a distinctive and attractive smell. He also quotes poetry about poplars by Chaucer, William Cowper and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

    In fact there are no longer any black poplar trees in Poplar and Bob has to go as far as the Vale of Aylesbury to see any. The book ends with a chapter describing beating the bounds of the parish which concluded with a service in the churchyard of All Saints’ Poplar when a black poplar was planted during the recitation of Psalm 104.


    Bob gives a similar wide-ranging background to many other tree species. You can find out the connection between the horse chestnut tree, Poplar and the foundation of the state of Israel. Also the association between the mulberry tree, the silk industry and the Normandy landings. I could go on quoting fascinating connections like that. It is all told with an exceptional eye for vivid detail, a personal imagination and a dry wit.

    Bob begins his book by saying how he is concerned to show that nature is not something confined to the country without any place in towns, or that it is independent of human culture and history. On the contrary he shows over and over again how trees in particular are part of human life in many ways. He does not make much mention of the current environmental crisis, although the book is highly relevant to that concern. What is clear is the way that human life and what we think of as nature - plants, animals and insects – are all part of one universe.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Sounds interesting. The only "fun fact" I know about the poplar is that in Arabic the word is something like al hamb or al homb (any Arabic speakers please help me out). Because of Spain's long Islamic phase, it comes into Spanish as alamo. Los Alamos, the New Mexico town in which the atomic bomb was developed, simply means the place where poplars grow.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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    Registered User Jackson Richardson's Avatar
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    It's made a difference to me. I read it in winter when the trees were bare. Once they came into leaf from mid April I've been identifying them, generally trees I've looked at for the last ten years and not thought about at all.
    Previously JonathanB

    The more I read, the more I shall covet to read. Robert Burton The Anatomy of Melancholy Partion3, Section 1, Member 1, Subsection 1

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