Always reminds me of @a_small_lab
The season is turning. The air is suddenly much drier, the sky bluer, and the clouds puffy and dramatic. These late summer photos show the wildness I was able to achieve in my narrow balcony garden this year.
Above is the view from the kitchen door. There’s a tiny nursery school chair, an already fading sunflower, a last burst of blueberries, and murasaki shikibu, a fall flower that I just bought.
Below you can see the shelf full of my amateur ceramic flowerpots, which can also be seen from the living room. One pot has basil. I like how the garden path seems longer and more over-grown than it is.
I have been thinking about the urban corridors and the distributed real estate that connect city people literally and experientially. Everything from rail lines that take us where we are going to convenience stores that make us feel that we are in the same place no matter where we are. Rail companies and retail chains own or operate so much real estate to make them second only to governments in terms of land ownership and possibilities for remaking our environment.
I love the chaotic, multi-directional rail lines in Yoyogi- two sets of elevated lines and street-grade lines taking traffic from Shinjuku to other parts of Tokyo, towns and resorts to the west, and across Japan. As a pedestrian, the rail crossings slow down your walk and make you aware of the millions of people circulating in Tokyo.
I’ve blogged before about the cool wildflowers with some unplanned cultivation on the sides of the tracks. The rail companies must be concerned about safety, including keeping neighbors safe and also minimizing garbage on the tracks. Yet it’s great that this land exists in a semi-wild state, and cool that it’s so accessible in Yoyogi. I wonder what further uses the lands beside rail tracks and stations could have in cities, suburbs, and countryside. Wildlife habitat, small farms, recreation, bee hives, or other uses.
Walking around the Imperial Palace recently, I noticed what look like roma tomatoes growing on a wall. This vine is a famous weed called “crow melon” (カラス・ウリ). Apparently, it gets its name because it provides food for crows. The plants seems as resilient and citified as its avian namesake.
On the same walk, we noticed a boat in the Imperial Palace moat with guys using a small net to pick up leaves. Perhaps the trees above were pruned, and some fell into the moat. The meticulousness of the moat cleaning makes an interesting contrast for the untamed wildness of the crow melon vine and its avian companions.
In Yotsuya, the Marunouchi subway pops out of ground in central Tokyo. From the platform, there is this amazing view that includes a still functioning, although rarely used service road, an abandoned bus stop and plaza gradually returning to the wild, and a border of exuberant independent plants. There is something beautiful to glimpse this inefficient use of space and so much lush greenery in the midst of a dense city.
The Nezu Museum and its gorgeous Japanese garden are a just short walk from the Nishi Azabu Juban wildness, the Kakuremino bar, and lush sidewalk garden. Many people come to the newly rebuilt Nezu Museum for its exquisite collection of pre-modern art, or the new building designed by Kuma Kengo. I am a huge fan of its garden that combines tea houses and paths in a setting that seems ancient, slightly overgrown, bigger than its footprint, and entirely removed from city life.
When I visited recently, just before closing time towards the end of a long, hot summer, I was enchanted by how the light struck this worn boat, the plants growing in its bow, and the illusion of minimal human habitation in an endless jungle. I was also surprised to see Japanese maple leaves already turning red, despite the temperature being above 32 celcius (90 fahrenheit) for many weeks.
Taken together, these four posts about Nishi Azabu Juban speak to the wide range of nature in the city: professional and amateur gardens, single plants and total environments, built and wild, public and gated, destinations and everyday experiences. Plants grow wild even in the densest cities, but how we choose to nurture them provides endlessly varied results. I am inspired by the full range of possibilities.
When my friend Stokes told me about the wildness in Nishi Azabu Juban, I was somewhat incredulous. He was staying briefly at a childhood friend’s house there, and quickly discovered narrow lanes and uncultivated yards and odd spaces that he insisted on showing me. The neighborhood is in central Tokyo, and includes both very expensive homes alongside more modest, old timers’ residences.
In what must be a planner’s nightmare, late summer weeds are pushing out of cracked concrete steps, barely paved lanes lead to houses, and the urban forest seems ready to reclaim the land. There is something comforting to feel wildness in the center of the city, the impermanence of the built environment, and the power of the unplanned.
I am reading Lyanda Lynn Haugpt’s Crow Planet, a book about closely observing city crows that offer many insights on urban wildness. Haugpt is part of an urban ecology movement that I identify with. If city dwelling is a given for us– as it is for more than half the world’s population–how can we explore and expand our knowledge of nature from inside the city? I suspect that city birdwatching, like city gardening, connects us both with nature and with each other.
I also enjoyed Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark, which explores bird life in New York’s incomparable Central Park. Haughpt’s work goes a step further, by suggesting that we start at our kitchen table, looking out the window with binoculars, and exploring nature on our roofs, outside our doors, and in our immediate vicinity.
I like that Haughpt, a serious birder and wildlife researcher, has chosen the most humble of city birds, and made their stories integral to how we are now changing our views of city life and the relationship between humans and nature. I like her focus on the close observations of the everyday, and admire her narrative power to evoke history, myth, and natural science while reconsidering what city life is and can be.
I am already feeling sad to be close to the end of this inspiring book. Although Tokyo Green Space focuses more on city plants than animals, habitat rather than wildlife, I feel a kinship in her reinterpretation of the familiar and ordinary.
This is one of the blessings of the urban nature project: without the overtly magnficient to stop us in our tracks, we must seek out the more subversively magnificent. Our sense of what constitutes wildness is expanded, and our sense of wonder along with it. (pp 157-8)
Has anyone else read this book? I highly recommend it.
Dokudami (どくだみ) is one of my favorite Tokyo weeds. It grows on cinder block walls and sidewalk cracks. Above is a large patch in front of my apartment building in May. The roughly 2 by 5 meter strip is a never changing display of flowers tended by the residents; its wildness contrasts with the clipped hedge on the other side of the entry path and heavily pruned trees in the parking lot.
Here are some other May flowers, including what is called in Japan “American jasmine.” The middle two plants I do not know the names. The last one is Datura, originally from Mexico.