Early last summer I found myself in negotiation with my landlady over the loquat tree outside our bedroom window. According to our neighbor, the tree, which rises from a six-inch gap between the wall and the driveway, was imperiling cars with its fruit and power lines with its branches. My landlady wanted to cut it down. I didn’t. The tree wraps the entire northwest corner of the apartment in a dark green canopy, transforming the bedroom into a kind of glassed-in treehouse from which we can look in upon bird’s-nests and conferences of squirrels with the kind of intimacy reserved for a nature documentary. In the late spring, we can reach out and pick its fruit.
Of course, my neighbor’s contention was understandable. No one had planted the loquat. It was an escapee from another garden, strictly speaking a “weed,” and a big one at that. Left unchecked, its roots would buckle the driveway, its limbs burst the windows. Already, in high winds, the branches screeched menacingly across the glass. In the dusty cracks between the concrete, seedlings would germinate, grow.
Whether or not my neighbor had such dramatic images in mind, I don’t know. But the struggle between city and nature is an old conceit. One has but to look to the oaks growing on Caspar David Friedrich’s ruined monasteries or the grass that “o’erspreads” the fallen city of Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins” to see how plants have classically been understood as the definition of the city’s demise. When the great fifth-century Chinese poet Bao Zhao wrote with grief of the fallen city of Guangling, he titled his famous Fu, or rhapsody, the “Wu-cheng,” words often translated in anthologies as “ruined city” but which literally means one that is “overgrown.”
“Wet moss clings to the wells/Wild vines entangle the path.” Indeed, looking out from our window, past the tree, it was not hard to see a similar process at work. There were clovers in the driveway and a deodar seedling sprouting on the asphalt rooftop of the carport. There was a tree-of-heaven emerging from the lightless depths beneath another neighbor’s house. And yellow bursts of mustard on the sidewalk, and tangles of pink filaree, and purple cheeseweed. And dandelions. Dandelions, everywhere.
Yet this wasn’t the simple fact of nature’s return. There are no loquats in the native woods a mile away; they are indigenous to southeastern China. There is no deodar cedar (from Kashmir), no tree-of-heaven (from northeastern China and Taiwan), no native cheeseweed or filaree. What was blooming outside was not some sort of natural reclamation. But neither was it the deliberate work of man. It was something different, unique to the city, bound to its inhabitants and, the more I realized, inextricably tied to its fate.
Fourteen hundred years after Bao Zhao’s eulogy for Guangling, the English physician Richard Deakin looked out upon the ruins of another city and also found flowers. But what for the Chinese poet had been a source of grief, for Deakin was a moment of misty nostalgia. Such plants, he wrote, “form a link in the memory and teach us hopeful and soothing lessons amid the sadness of bygone ages.” He even berated the city restorers for destroying the “solitary lesson which so magnificent a ruin is calculated to make upon the mind.”
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