The Silence of Sparrows

I spent a week in London recently. To this former Englishman,the city is brighter and more interesting than it has ever been in my lifetime.

London is a wonderfully diverse city, full of people speaking an encyclopedia of languages. It is a noisy, lively place.

But there is a strange silence.

The House Sparrow – the cockney sparra – has all but disappeared.

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House sparrows in Britain have declined by 68 per cent since 1977. In London, they have vanished. Their disappearance is a mystery although it is possible that declining numbers of insects are the cause.

This is not just happening in England, it’s happening all over the world. Indian ornithologists report a decline of 70%. The sparrow population of Paris has plummeted to 50%. And so on.

There are lots of theories as to the decline. The British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is engaged in a project, The London House Sparrow Parks Project

How can the common house sparrow disappear ? And if such a once ubiquitous bird has all but vanished, what is next ?





It’s the end of the world as we know it

thhlumu69tI have been reading two books about the devastating effects of this now officially declared   Anthropocene era. The first is the now famous The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert ( Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014). The other, an attempt to illustrate how we can live right in a time of environmental crisis, is Hope Beneath Our Feet edited by Martin Keogh (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2010).

Hope Beneath Our Feet is an anthology of writings. Some are good, some are a little too spiritual for my liking. There are two that stand out. One is by Ben Gadd, a Canadian naturalist. . His article, titled ‘Living with Losing’ starts with ” You are not going to like what I am about to say, but it’s the truth. We have lost. Those of us who have tried to save the world from the depredations of our own species have lost.”

It ends with ” If I have learned what is wrong with the world, I am grateful also to have learned what is right. I can live with that.”

The other article is one by the late Howard Zinn.

It is titled “The Optimism of Uncertainty”.  ” I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning.”


And now to “The Sixth Extinction”


If you haven’t read it, why not ? It’s well written in non-scientific language and it is one of the most important intellectually accessible books on the subject. It deserves its Pulitzer Prize.

Part of the last paragraph of the book is this. “Obviously the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately. But at the risk of sounding anti-human – some of my best friends are humans! – I will say that it is not, in the end, what’s most worth attending to. Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.”

Don’t do this picture1

At least learn about what’s going to happen, I implore you.




GMOs are the spawn of Satan.


Gluten is one of the princes of hell also. Even if you don’t have celiac disease. It’s just plain wrong. Apparently.

This and many other revelations were revealed this week at the National Heirloom Exposition held in Santa Rosa, California. Billed as the “World’s Pure Food Fair” it is a three day festival of great tomatoes, mounds of squash, and large servings of bio-bullshit.

It is a pleasure to admire the large variety of heirloom tomatoes or, as we used to call them, tomatoes.


Squash are fabulous too. Although without flavorings such as butter, salt or sugar, the majority of squash are about as tasty as a tampon.



Much of the modern day organic food production movement is right and bright. Permaculture is cool. Bio-dynamics are …um…dynamic, and good pesticide and hormone free food is essential. It is not new. Before the second world war, it was called husbandry or farming. And while organic-ism is generally a good thing, a lot of it  has been co-opted by clever marketers and hucksters promoting pseudo-science and gluten free snake-oil.

It is easy to poke fun at the earnestness and eco-righteousness of some of the exhibitors.

It’s very confusing
Perhaps the Monarchs are dying of boredom
Unsure of what to do with those left-over gourds ?
Re-discover ? Isn’t it on sheep ?
Great. But those baggy pants ? Please no.
and finally…









A couple of days at the Polly Hill Arboretum

I was invited to give a talk at the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard. I accepted. How could I not ?

Quoting from the website, “The Polly Hill Arboretum, a Martha’s Vineyard horticultural and botanical landmark, was developed by the legendary horticulturist, Polly Hill (1907-2007). Here in 1958, Polly began an arboretum by sowing a seed, eventually bringing 20 acres under cultivation while preserving 40 additional acres as native woodland. Established in 1998 as a not-for-profit institution the Arboretum is devoted to the cultivation and study of plants and the preservation of the character and magic of this tranquil landscape.”

The talk “The Spell of the Sensuous” is a conglomeration of thoughts and images – gardens and their history, contemporary design, sex in gardens, the end of the world as we know it – that kind of stuff. It amuses me. Perhaps it will amuse others.

Back to the magic of the tranquil landscape.

Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae. A rare and endangered blazing star.
Wikstroemia trichotoma. Native to Japan, Korea and China
Rhododendron makinoi
Rhododendron makinoi
An avenue of Cornus kousa
An avenue of Cornus kousa

Just a few delicacies in a garden that is a feast. For a list of the entire collection, go here

IMG_8687.CR2After a particularly large tree was blown over, there was some trepidation amongst the garden staff about how Polly Hill would react. When told about the tree,” This,” she said ,  is not a loss. It is an opportunity.”

She died in 2007 at age 100. Thank you Polly Hill.





The New Perennialist

Musings on plants, gardens, travel, food and sex. Mostly plants and gardens.


for people who want more than gardening from gardens


Uprooting the Gardening World