Ian Grosz

Ian Grosz


Each autumn our small suburban garden is filled with sycamore seeds. They helicopter down from a mature tree on the green space backing the row of gardens in our street. They get everywhere: in every planter and plant pot, in every border, in the raised bed, tucked away in the leaf litter, embedded between the patio paving, filling the gutters and drains, rooting anywhere and everywhere they fall and sprouting in the spring from every conceivable corner. Yet, I feel a lasting pang of guilt whenever I pluck them from where they’ve taken root. They take me back to my own childhood: to my grandmother’s back garden where a tall sycamore stood watch like some old arboreal guardian.
          Nan would pick the fallen seeds from the manicured lawn and lift them high above her head, releasing them to their flight and filling my mind with wonder as I watched their helical descent, their single sail catching the autumn light as they rotated to earth. In that way she planted a seed that saw me take flight myself years later when I became a helicopter pilot, taking freight and workers out to the oil rigs of the North Sea. It was a job that became increasingly at odds with how I felt about our impact on the natural world, and in the end, one I couldn’t carry on with; but that seed is still germinating in my mind now as I pick the beginnings of trees that will never be from the plant pots, and wonder how this row of suburban gardens might look in ten, fifteen, twenty years’ time if I and each of my neighbours left the sycamore to its own devices. Could we live in a suburban wild-woodland? Give our spaces over to the proliferation of self-seeding trees? Let go of that control?          
          Native to the mountainous areas of central and eastern Europe, the sycamore – or Acer pseudoplatanus – is thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, or perhaps later from France during the Tudor period. Its life-cycle is impressive. Living up to four-hundred years and growing up to thirty-five meters in height, this corner of a suburban estate would be quickly overcome, the sycamores thriving long after we are gone. Its tolerance to the cold mountain air also makes it resilient to coastal and marine climates, proving itself useful here as a source of quick growing timber. It has been used for kitchen surfaces and utensils for centuries, the only choice for the famous Welsh love spoon: an artefact I remember hanging in my other grandmother’s kitchen as a relic of my great-grandmother’s homeland. It is used for violins and veneers, and for rollers in the textile industry. It turns out it’s not just resistant to the cold but also to air pollution, its dense, deep green foliage providing shade in cities, parks and gardens up and down Britain. It’s maybe this resilience I admire: its stubborn proclivity for taking root, taking hold, hanging on.
          Nan had a proclivity for taking hold, for hanging on. Born prematurely and underweight in 1930 with a faulty heart valve, she wasn’t expected to live very long. But my great-grandfather Ted, himself a tuberculosis sufferer, managed to put enough together to allow her an extended stay in hospital in the days before the NHS was the bedrock of our society. There she took root, and thrived enough to go home.
          My great-grandfather’s own condition and poverty made him an expert in plants and so-called weeds. He’d collect them from the verges and the fields and make up his own remedies. Nan told me of a notebook he kept: a mini-encyclopaedia of hand-drawn plants, common medicinal weeds and flowers, along with their names and uses. Nobody knows where that notebook got to. I’d love to find it now, but his knowledge and love of nature, born out of necessity, was passed on to my grandmother. My childhood is filled with memories of her drinking dandelion tea and coffee, preparing sour mixtures of homemade barley juice, and bringing out her catch-all Witch-Hazel remedy. Inevitably, this has been passed on to my mother too. Her worktops and kitchen windowsills are always full of rooting herbs and sprouting plants from cuttings taken in the garden, or left-overs from her organic veg’ box order, bookshelves filled with heavy reference texts on plants and herbs, pressed flowers between long-forgotten pages.
          Nan was ninety-three, in the end, when she died, surviving a series of strokes that she always seemed to bounce back from, the first of them when she was still in her thirties and my mum was just seven. She remembers my nan ‘going away’ for a while, her life from that moment on a constant worry. In her last years, suffering from dementia and being cared for by my parents, Nan would go back to that time: the long recovery following that first stroke. She would apologise for being in bed when I’d go in to see her on visits home, telling me to ‘watch the baby’ – my mum’s younger sister – and to check the oven for ghost meals that were never there. ‘I’ve left a hotpot in the oven,’ she’d say. ‘All right, Nan,’ I’d tell her. ‘I’ll go and check.’ And she would ease back on the pillow in momentary relief, her own anxieties still playing out in her mind from sixty years previous.
          Anxieties take root in the mind just as the sycamore takes root wherever its seeds fall. They tend to overwhelm if they’re not kept in check, sprouting everywhere you turn, overtaking rational thought in everything you do. In that sense the sycamore seeds which overwhelm the garden each year are something that perhaps I need to root out, need to find and deal with. Otherwise, I would quickly become a thicket of worry, a forest of anxieties keeping me in the shade. And so, I both love and hate the sycamore, each year reminding me of my childhood, of Nan, of those long days in the garden as summer turned to autumn, but now also of loss, of worry, of the constant struggle to keep anxiety at bay.
          Anxieties that had built up over the course of a twenty-year flying career means that
letting go of control is very difficult for me; but I often wonder, as we clear the border of the worst of the weeds and pluck the sycamores from the planters, if I could let go in the garden that bit more. Perhaps, by the time my imagined sycamore wood was at the peak of maturity, its canopy filling the remnants of once cared-for gardens in deepening shade, the streets and houses that are the familiar and reassuring anchors of life here will have vanished. But what if each carefully cropped front lawn became a connecting street of wildflower meadow? What if we learned to see the neat frontages of manicured grass as an eyesore, the desert that it is for insect and birdlife? What if we let go of our anxieties, our need to present a neat version of the world, and instead embraced our wild roots a little more?
         Global research published in 2013 at the Chicago based Urban Wildlife Institute (1) revealed that an increase in wild meadow area of just ten-percent results in an increase in the number of bee pollinators of more than thirty-precent, under threat not just from a lack of habitat but here in Britain also from the UK government’s decision not to ban the use of pesticides known to be fatal for wild bee populations, killing the very thing our crops rely on in a bid for increased productivity. A street of suburban houses, then, could transform the suburbs into a haven for pollinators, providing acres of wildflower meadow that was previously absent. What if everyone fortunate enough to own a home with a front garden did this? What if every new build with a garden included an area laid, not with bowling green-like grass, but with wildflower meadow instead?
          There is approximately five-hundred-and-twenty-thousand hectares of residential garden in Britain. Imagine the impact that could have if we let go of the lawn. We needn’t let our gardens become a sycamore forest, or give them over entirely to nature, but we might make them more nature friendly: add a touch of wild to our neat frontages and tarmacked driveways, add a living roof to the shed or the porch, dig a pond, let a few more of the dandelions take root. We all know that Nature is in trouble right now, on the brink of collapse; but just as my great-grandfather did for my nan, give her a chance, support her just a little bit, and maybe she’ll take root, take hold, hang on in the spaces we give her.


(1) See Kennedy et al, ‘A global quantitative synthesis of local and landscape effects on wild bee pollinators in agroecosystems’, Ecology Letters. V.16, (2013), pp. 584–599.

Header Image Credit: Ian Grosz

Ian Grosz
Ian Grosz

Ian Grosz is a writer and researcher based in the northeast of Scotland. He holds an MLitt in Creative Writing and is nearing the end of his doctoral studies exploring the different ways the landscape shapes us. You can learn more about his work at his website: