The Nature of London

Welcome to . . . Miami?

As is always the case when traveling to a new place, I try to note the interplay of the human and ecological systems. Like any great metropolis, the urban metabolism of London is complex, in may ways a marvel of highly engineered pathways for food, water, energy, transportation, and waste, much of it below ground and out of sight.

The river is the reason London exists, of course, and the Thames remains the centerpiece of London’s landscape. So badly polluted by the 1850s (the cartoon on the left is from Punch in the wake of a famous letter the physicist Michael Faraday wrote to the The Times deploring the condition (and smell!) of the river), the Thames was a public health menace and bereft of almost all life but the microbes that flourished in the human waste that poured into it. But efforts to restore the river’s health since the mid-20th century have resulted in it being one of the cleanest urban rivers in Europe. Once so foul it was called “The Great Stink” and provoked Parliament into draping curtains doused in chloride of lime over its windows (belief in the miasma theory of disease then still prevailed), the Thames now draws millions of people to its banks and across its surface on boats.

Although we knew that the Thames is a tidal river, we had no idea how much the river here in London (some 40 miles upstream from the estuary) rises and falls each day (several meters, depending on location). The entire Thames Basin is expected to experience ever greater flooding in the decades to come, as both rising sea levels and high volume precipitation events push water levels higher–indeed, both the London met area and, especially, the UK more generally have suffered from terrible flooding the past two weeks–the descriptors “unprecendented” and “record levels” now so often used with precipitation events the world over have been used to describe the flooding.

We live very close to the River Wandle here in Colliers Wood, a body of water that would qualify as a large stream in the U.S. Nonetheless, the Wandle figured prominently in the industrial history of greater London. There’s a little museum devoted to that history we hope to visit at some point.

But while the Thames has been considerably cleaned up, the Wandle remains pretty nasty. Garbage abounds on its banks and I suspect the water is quite foul, though we have seen plenty of birds in and around it: herons, kingfishers, the Eurasian jays that are everywhere here, and . . . parakeets.

Yes, parakeets. During our first few days here we kept hearing the cry of a bird that sounded like a parakeet (which we had seen and heard in abundance in Central America). Finally, I saw one–a green rose-ringed parakeet (I have not been able to capture one on photo myself, so the image to the right is from wikimedia commons). Apparently they were introduced sometime in the 1960s and have flourished ever since (this fun little documentary from the BBC explores this history, including the various theories about how they were introduced). They and the magpies, crows, and ravens practically drown out other birdsong. But there’s something joyous and charming about these green flashes in the dark England winter.

Other animal life of note: several cats prowl our block, slinking along the sheds and fences of the back gardens. Dogs, like their owners, seem generally very polite. Even when they are off leash they don’t bother me when I’m running. And then there are the foxes. As Lyanda Lynn Haupt demonstrates in her fascinating book The Urban Bestiary, wildlife of all sorts flourishes in big cities. In the category of mammalian wildlife (at least bigger than rats, which abound and there are bait traps everywhere, hopefully checked regularly) the red fox seems most prevalent here. We almost always see one while walking along the Wandle. When I rode home from the Earlsfield train station at 10:30 after seeing a play the week before last, I saw FOUR, 3 along the Wandle path and one trotting down our street! On Tuesday night Kristen and I were awakened by a screaming sound that made us wonder if someone was being murdered on the street outside. So what does the fox say? Not this. But go to about 2 minute mark in this video and you can get a good idea of the otherworldly sound. Foxes are everywhere, once you start paying attention. Zadie Smith writes evocatively of the fox cries on Hampstead Heath in her novel NW. And, of course, there was the fox that visited Parliament a couple of weeks ago.

And of the plant life? Well, it is very green everywhere you go since the grass flourishes even in winter here. Trees are beginning to come back to life, with ornamental fruit trees already setting blossoms. I am always intrigued by the coppicing and pollarding that has so long been a practice of European arborists but seems to be practically non-existent in North America.

And then there are the palm trees (like the one in Wimbledon at the beginning of this post), found pretty much everywhere we’ve been in London, and even in SW Scotland. Evidently, they have really caught on in the past 20 years as ornamental plants. With the climate generally warming in the UK, perhaps they will become even more ubiquitous.

Finally, I love the Tiny Parks that appear in certain London underground stations in repurposed ticket windows. Should be enough to make any commuter smile.

One thought on “The Nature of London

  1. It’s so interesting, I always see Pollarding or Coppicing and think of the long, straight thoroughfares where the finishing line sprint occurs in Classics and other Spring professional bike races. It is such a unique thing!


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