September 23, 2011

Life in the Pavement Cracks

Posted by Jon

Note from Kristin: This is PEC's first guest post by none other than my brother, Jon (who you may remember from this post). I know I'm biased but I really treasure the words he wrote below. They really show his passion for the great outdoors, his ability to see beauty in the small spaces of life, and his great way of sharing his experiences in a very vivid way. I hope you enjoy!

This post—my first as a guest blogger here—is for all of you P.E.C. readers who are looking for some inspiration in the urban wild. I'm a resident of Jamaica Plain, perhaps the greenest, crunchiest neighborhood in Boston.  As far as urban environments go, we have a ton of green space (a shout out to Frederick Law Olmsted for giving us the Emerald Necklace parks).  But let's face it, it's still a city, and like all cities, a fair share of surface area is devoted to concrete sidewalks, blacktop streets, eroded hillsides, and soil-compacted pathways.  All environments that, to the casual observer, are pretty much devoid of anything green and growing.

Most days, I’m in that “casual observer” category. But last Friday morning was different. Maybe it was that golden September sun and crisp autumn air. Could be that I made an extra good cup of coffee. Perhaps it was a bit of the Spirit singing in my ear. Whatever the cause, I became a weed lover (not that kind of weed!). I suddenly noted of sprouts of green and white…bits of pink and blue…shafts of yellow and purple, where before I had seen only concrete.

Tiny flowers nodded from between curb and blacktop, tender mosses and succulents nestled in the shadows of telephone poles and mailboxes, fuzzy tufts of grass danced in the breeze.

As an avid gardener, I tend to resent weeds. But on Friday, I saw them for their beauty, not just as undesirables to be pulled up and tossed in the compost pile. And so that’s what this post is about. Learning to see the weeds and love them. The best way to start? Bring them inside. What we’re talking about here, my friends, is what I’m calling “urban bouquets.” Here’s how to do it. 

Grab a pair of scissors and some sort of container to hold your cuttings as you gather them. Then, head out into the urban wilds!

Plants will grow just about anywhere. Sidewalk cracks, the seams between pavement and curb, and the bases of telephone poles and lamp posts are all good places to look. Pay attention to different textures, leaf shapes, and flower colors. Look for architectural qualities as much as color. Keep in mind that the features of most urban wildflowers and other plants are more subtle than cultivated species, but no less beautiful. Look for the hidden potential.

A great example is this pokeberry. From a distance, it doesn’t appear to be good for much of anything, except taking over the sidewalk.

But look closer and you’ll see incredible colors and textures.

Once you’re back home, take stock of what you’ve collected. Put your cuttings in a large vase or bowl (or even the kitchen sink) while you work, to keep things from wilting. It helps to separate cuttings into groupings of the same plant, to see what you’re working with. Strip extra leaves from the base, and give each stem a clean cut, in case any dried out on the trip home.

Because colors of urban wildflowers tend to be less showy, grouping many stems of the same plant together helps concentrate color for stronger effect. Here, the muted pink flowers of smartweed gain strength in numbers and will stand out better bunched together.

As in any arrangement, using contrasting colors and differing textures creates a sense of vibrancy and movement, highlighting the characteristics of each plant.  Here, white and purple wood aster combine with smartweed, joe pie weed, a single stem of immature pokeberry, and some yellow weed I can't identify (!).

Don’t limit yourself to floral-only arrangements. Here, grasses, nightshade berries (red and green), wild amaranth, pokeberry (black/purple and green), some spotted spurge that’s turned bright orange, and spent Queen Anne’s lace flower heads combine for dramatic effect. The only real “flower” here is a tight bunch of purple nightshade flower.

This is a good time to caution that many wild plants (such as the pokeberry and nightshade used in this arrangement) can be toxic if consumed, so use caution if you have young children and pets around.

Sometimes simple is better. Here, a tall bud vase is the perfect presentation for a few simply arranged stems of goldenrod (oft-maligned as causing hay fever, when in fact the culprit is ragweed, which looks nothing alike) and purple nightshade.

The key to urban bouquets is learning to see past labels like “flower” and “weed,” and observe the beauty that God planted while you weren’t looking. If you have the eyes to see, you’ll find life and grace bursting out of every pavement crack. Now get out there and try it!

1 comment:

  1. Great one, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article and I really appreciate the wonderful experience you shared and the time you put into publishing this interesting article.