Toughing It Out in the Cracks

We can’t all be ancient oak trees…

In his book, The World Without Us, American journalist Alan Weisman uses experts to help him predict what would happen to nature if all human life on Earth ceased. His prediction is that cities would quickly find themselves swamped by resurgent vegetation and that a carpet of green would spread outwards. And if you want to understand why that’s almost certainly true, just look at the path outside the visitor centre.

These paths are just about the most robust you’ll find anywhere, with small stones bonded into the surface with resin. Countless feet cross them every day, and trollies with supplies for the shop and for the café also follow the same route. And yet, where there are shaded areas and where moisture collects in the mornings, you see the unmistakeable signs of grass stubbornly taking root.

Removing it has to count as one of the least glamorous volunteering jobs going, since it calls for patience and doesn’t involve any of the meaty, satisfying tools like a pick axe or give you the same pleasure as walking away from a newly laid footpath. Instead, clearing grass from a resin-bonded footpath involves a hoe held at just the right angle, gentle pressure and, equally importantly, a lot of patience.

To its eternal credit, the grass hasn’t settled for rooting shallowly in the surface. Instead, its roots have pushed through the resin, bored into the base layer and bedded into the soil. If the hoe doesn’t succeed in pushing the entire plant out, it snaps off after a small struggle, and leaves the rest of the plant stubbornly rooted, ready for the warmer weather.

Sometimes, the only way to make sure that you have the whole plant is to get down on your hands and knees and tug it by the root. This is successful about half the time and the other half, it snaps off harmlessly. When you straighten up, after a good half an hour crouched down yanking away at these small, stubborn plants, the most you’ll see is about in inch of cleared path. It’s like removing your sideburns by cutting one hair at a time.

If nothing else, this job fills you with a renewed respect for nature – at least it does once your back and knees have recovered and you’re sitting over your morning coffee with the other volunteers. Wherever there is an opening, even if that opening is only in a shallow, moist depression between two microscopic pieces of gravel in a defiantly tough footpath, it will take root in the shape of a seed only fractionally bigger than a grain of sand.

Most of the seeds will die, burned by the summer sun or blow away on one of the gusts that circles the visitors’ centre, but the greenery that surrounds curve of the building doesn’t care. It has plenty more to spare and it’ll keep sending over seeds until they take root. And in time, they will. In the great, green war of attrition, there will only ever be one winner, and the best the small army of volunteers can hope for is a vigilant truce.

And in that spirit, maybe it’s best to model ourselves on the stubborn grass. We might be incurable romantics who want to be one of the ancient oaks who spread their branches over in the forest, but it’s the grass we should take heart from. Small and insignificant, all the same it’s good at turning the toughest circumstances to its advantage. And when the hoe comes over, it shrugs its shoulders, hunkers down and decides to tough this one out.