Going Global – Blake’s Afterlife

Scholar Jason Whittaker, who has written extensively on William Blake over a period of thirty years, shares his first encounters with the work of this visionary and why they led him to explore Blake’s reception in the contemporary world as well as in Blake’s own times. It’s a lifelong interest he shares with so many others that now brings us Global Blake, a new project and an online conference.


It was in a darkened room at Tate Britain – in the final days of the old millennium – that I saw the light.

This isn’t a metaphor. I was attending the Blake exhibition at the Tate in 2000, and the final installation was ‘Cleave 00’ by the conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans. Overhead, a glitter ball was pulsing with light, flakes of reflected phosphorescence shining as they fell away across the shadows of the walls. Those pulses were significant – Morse Code projections of Blake’s poetry, according to the catalogue description. The installation itself was inspired by one of Blake’s small watercolour and pencil sketches, ‘The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall)’, in which the prophet (or, perhaps, Blake himself) was depicted seated at a table, a glowing globe above him as he wrote down the words dictated to him by an angel. The strange, bare perspectives of the room within a room remind me of a Giorgio de Chirico painting or a Rachel Whiteread cast – and I was mesmerised.

Showing A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall) circa 1819-20? William Blake 1757-1827
A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall) circa 1819-20? William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Edwin C. Cohen and Echoing Green 1989 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T05716

While there was part of my brain that was reading the explanation of ‘Cleave 00’ and thinking, “Very clever” in a slightly mocking fashion, I was also enjoying it as an immersive sensorium – somewhat akin to the kind of experiences felt in Yayoi Kusama’s infinity mirror rooms or standing beneath Olafur Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’, a huge glowing orb that lit up Tate Modern in 2003. I’d also long been inspired by the very same ‘dreamachines’ that had been part of an earlier exhibition by Evans. The stroboscopic devices first created by Brion Gysin were intended to induce hypnotic states – to open the doors of perception, as it were – and I’d had a great deal of fun as a student cutting out sheets of card before affixing them to turntables into which a light was suspended in order to bring on my own hallucinations.

The Tate exhibition of 2000 opened my eyes to Blake in several ways, one of which was also extremely significant – and not one intended by the curators. Outside the museum, on the black iron railings that surround the steps leading to the old entrance, someone had affixed a sheet of photocopied A4. On this piece of paper was one of Blake’s images for J. G. Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, showing an African woman being whipped and with a caption protesting some of the sponsors at Tate for pharmaceutical exploitation in Africa.

I was visiting Tate with a good friend of mine, Shirley Dent, who at that time was completing a PhD on Blake’s reception in the nineteenth century, and these two episodes – Cerith Wyn Evans’s ‘Cleave 00’ and the photocopied poster outside the museum – became the opening and closing vignettes of the book that we would write together, Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827.

Placing Blake – past and present

My own initial encounters with Blake had begun more than a decade before while I was an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham. I’d left school with a sketchy notion of the poet of The Tyger and London, and was aware that he had produced some paintings, but it was at university that my perceptions of the artist were transformed. Two of his works electrified me: the first was the image of ‘The Ancient of Days, which I kept as a poster on the wall of my room; the second was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I had been raised as a good Catholic boy, and to read a prophet who dined with Ezekiel and Isaiah while proclaiming that true poets were of the devil’s party quite literally turned my world upside down. I was nineteen, and I often tell people who ask about such things (which happens on a fairly regular basis, considering my professional interest in Blake) that reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was the moment that the lights went on in my mind – and that they have never gone off since.

In the intervening time before visiting the Tate 2000 exhibition, I had immersed myself in Blake’s esoteric visions of British history, eventually converting my PhD into a book, William Blake and the Myths of Britain. A key factor in this first decade of my Blakean life, however, was that I tended to firmly place him in the past. Like many literary scholars of the time, particularly those working in fields such as Romanticism, I had become a confirmed historicist (at a time when it was still fashionable enough to be called the New Historicism – capitalisation required). To understand Blake, or any writer and artist, fully, we must study them in the environment that created them. I do not disagree with this as an important principle of scholarship, and it has been very important to my most recent book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, in which I very much seek to place Blake within the fascinating world of London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But this obsession with the historical Blake was beginning to resemble that other obsession of an older generation of scholars with the historical Jesus as opposed to the living Christ.

Blake's reception: Showing the cover of 'Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake', by Jason Whittaker
‘Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake’, by Jason Whittaker

During the decade I had been working on Blake, I noticed from time to time that plenty of other writers, artists and musicians I was interested in expressed their own fascination with the engraver and poet. Whether it was William Burroughs, Angela Carter, J. G. Ballard, the Surrealists, Chris Ofili, Patti Smith or Julian Cope – all of them had intriguing things to say, and not always complimentary. Indeed, this spirit of contrarieties was something I would grow more and more to appreciate about Blake, that just as he had attacked and rewritten Milton and the Bible out of his love for them, so plenty of later artists and writers would attack and rewrite Blake – as well as emulate him – out of their love for him.

Mapping Blake’s reception

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Radical Blake. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was just how much of the subsequent two decades would be given over to mapping out the reception of Blake in art, literature, music and culture. I had blithely assumed that there would be one, maybe two books to write covering the subject, but over the intervening years I have both contributed to and greatly enjoyed seeing other academics produce works that show the ways that William Blake has shaped the modern world. Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki demonstrated just how important Blake was to twentieth-century Japan, while Colin Trodd explored his influence on the early modern art world, Linda Freedman traced his impact on American literature, and Sibylle Erle and Morton Paley drew together scholars from across Europe to illuminate his afterlife on the continent. The list goes on – and there are others, including Roger Whitson, Tristanne Connolly and many, many more, who have become good friends through our shared (often contrarian) love of William Blake.

For much of the past decade as well as writing more formally about William Blake I have often shared my thoughts on the poet and artist through a blog, Zoamorphosis.com. While I have occasionally lamented the obscurantist tendency which caused me to register that particular domain name (taken from a 2007 paper I had given on the mutations and transformations of Blake in popular culture), I am also rather fond of what I have come to think of as a playground for Blake studies, where experimental ideas regarding his work and reception can be explored and enjoyed. The site has recently been updated and refreshed – most of the work has been done behind the scenes to bring it up to date with contemporary technologies, but there is also a new approach to projects, both current ones such as a series of short videos I’m producing about Blake’s work, Zoavision, and as a site for future work, such as on Blake-inspired music and a new book on the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022.

Global Blake

One significant project that is ongoing, and represents a high point for me in terms of reception studies, is Global Blake, an international conference taking place this month. The original notion to bring together different visions of Blake from around the world was proposed to me by David Worrall, back in 2006, but credit for the current conference must go to Sibylle Erle, my co-organiser and the person who, more than anyone, has worked to bring Blake scholars from around the globe to explore what this Romantic artist and poet means to them in different countries and continents. We have been overwhelmed by the responses and wealth of rich detail produced by our original call, and we hope that Global Blake can serve to drive the intellectual appreciation of this once-neglected artist in an international context. After two decades exploring what Blake means in the two centuries after his death, I’m looking forward to many more years finding new Blakes in new locations.

Showing the website for Global Blake online conference, January 2022
Click to visit the site for details and registration for the free online international conference.

Notes

For more information on the Global Blake project, visit globalblake.zoamorphosis.com. The free online conference runs from 11th to 13th January 2022 and features an array of keynote speakers and panel sessions. 

NB: On Wednesday 12th January (8pm) there is a special live screening of 'Finding Blake', the film, with an introduction and Q&A with James Murray-White, its director and the founder and creative force behind our own project. James discusses the completion of the film in this Finding Blake blog post.

Jason Whittaker is Head of the School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln. He is also managing editor of VALA, The Journal of the Blake Society and co-organiser of Global Blake with Sibylle Erle. He regularly blogs about Blake’s reception at Zoamorphosis, where you’ll find articles and links to various other projects by Jason.

Jason’s latest book, Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake (2021), is published by Reaktion Books. Jerusalem: Blake, Parry and the Fight for Englishness will be published by Oxford University Press in May 2022.

Radical Blake: Influence and Afterlife from 1827 by Shirely Dent and Jason Whittaker (2002) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Jason’s book William Blake and the Myths of Britain (1999) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Jason mentions several other scholars’ work on Blake:

The Reception of Blake in the Orient, edited by Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki (2014, Bloomsbury) brings together research from international scholars focusing attention on the longevity and complexity of Blake`s reception in Japan and elsewhere in the East. “It is designed as not only a celebration of his art and poetry in new and unexpected contexts but also to contest the intensely nationalistic and parochial Englishness of his work, and in broader terms, the inevitable passivity with which Romanticism (and other Western intellectual movements) have been received in the Orient.”

Visions of Blake: William Blake in the Art World 1830-1930 by Colin Trodd (2012, Liverpool University Press) explores how William Blake achieved classic status. “What aspects of his art and personality attracted and repelled critics? How was the story of his afterlife coloured by debates and developments in the British art world? Moving between visual and literary analysis, [it] considers the ways in which different audiences and communities dealt with the issue of describing and evaluating Blake’s images and designs.”

William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture by Linda Freedman (2018, Oxford University Press) covers a wide range of forms including prose, newspaper and periodical publication, the novel, music, theology, film, visual art, and poetry.

The Reception of William Blake in Europe edited by Morton D. Paley and Sibylle Erle (2019, Bloomsbury) “is the first comprehensive and systematic reference guide to Blake’s influence across Europe. Exploring Blake’s impact on literature, art, music and culture, the book includes bibliographies of major translations of Blake’s work in each country covered, as well as a publication history and timeline of the poet’s reception on the continent.”

You can view John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) online at the British Library. John Gabriel Stedman, a Dutch army officer, joined hundreds of other troops to fight against and suppress armed rebellion in Surinam. His diary of his voyage and time in the colony formed the basis of his Narrative, and William Blake made the engravings, based on Stedman’s own drawings. 

Auguries of Innocence: the Connected and Consequential Cosmos

Reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo took inspiration from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in a new-found understanding of the natural world through chaos theory and fractals. Here, he shares his appreciation of Blake’s words and their popularity for how they speak directly to the heart of the matter.


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Why is it that these opening lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence have become so well-known? Might the answer draw out a dichotomy in our modern relationship with the cosmos, yet still augur well for our necessary reconciliation with the web of life?

I cannot now recall when I first encountered these lines yet I suspect it was in the early nineties, around the time of my introduction to chaos theory and fractal geometry following a travelling scholarship to the USA. Whilst I may have begun with an intellectual interpretation of his poem’s beautiful opening invitation, his words would have resonated with my felt experience of the connective patterning of the world around me. I’m sure I’m not alone in having seen the macrocosm in the microcosm, and vice versa. Blake’s words are popular, I suggest, because they speak directly to the heart of matter.

auguries of innocence - repeating patterns in nature
A familiar fractal metapattern: what social scientist Gregory Bateson called ‘the Pattern that Connects’.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

Recalling that trip to the USA, and a mind alive with new-found understanding and meaning, I began to see further into the depth of the world as I toured nature preserves around the southeastern states. And not just with my mind; an artist’s feeling sense was being nurtured too. Atop a landmark granite outcrop in Georgia, I took a photograph that was soon to have great significance for me. The subject was simple enough, a crescent of lichen and moss initiating the process of plant colonisation around a small solution pool of less than half a metre square. With time, as weathering and root action proceeded, they would be joined by grasses, perhaps a shrub or two, even a pine sapling. In awe of the power of the vegetal realm, there I left it.

Vegetal beginnings; the solution pool atop Heggie’s Rock, Georgia.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

A golden thread 

On my return to the UK I began to satisfy my craving for more knowledge of chaos theory, the self-similar scaling of fractals and, inevitably, quantum physics. Within a better grasp of Life, how might I use this information in my work with plants? It wasn’t long before serendipity offered its help. The latest issue of a magazine subscription included a supplement on Australia, within which was a photograph that rather took my breath away. It was an aerial shot of a beautiful bay fringed by mangrove forest, this forest exhibiting the same light/dark green banding as the lichen (light) and moss (dark) in Georgia. The similarities can, of course, be explained rationally, and yet, for me, it was a heart-felt sign; here was a golden thread to follow.

The serendipitous, scaled-up vegetal crescent on the coast of Australia.
Photograph: Unknown

Plants have long ignited my imagination, and they had taken me to the States. These days I have a growing appreciation of the extent to which they have supported me throughout my life as I have searched for meaning in various ways and places. They have been both generic and specific totems. It is with deep gratitude that I now work with them as nature connection portals for others, supported by the latest discoveries in plant behaviour, intelligence and connectivity. My interest in physics has continued alongside, especially in recent years with the fascinating insights arising from the field of unified physics (readily accessible via the Resonance Science Foundation, for instance).

Auguries of innocence: a unified field

This new physics is radically evolving our modern worldview, evidencing the ancient spiritual mantra, known to Blake we might imagine, that “All is One”. The mind is now explaining what hearts have long felt; rather than having separatist dominion over a ‘clockwork universe’ of parts, we are an expression of a living cosmos that is far more than the sum of its interdependent parts. The ‘Ocean of Being’ is now described as an immersive, unified field of energy from which all physical matter is spun into patterned existence across an infinite scale. As plant cognition scientist Monica Gagliano puts it, “we are not in nature, we don’t go to nature. We are nature. We literally spring out of the planet.”

auguries of innocence - the cosmic matrix
The cosmic matrix, the “flower of life”, each circle actually an overlapping sphere in 3D.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

This unified field expresses the sacred geometry known to the ancients, its foundational structure represented by the ‘flower of life’ symbol, and its fundamental energy flow pattern by the yin yang symbol. Inherent to the latter is a reflexive learning and evolving mechanism known as ‘feedback/feedforward’. This is reflected, for example, in the Earth’s electromagnetic field or a halved apple. Simply use opposing fingers to trace a pattern exiting one pole, passing along either side, re-entering at the other pole, and reuniting via the core. In other words, what is given out to the world is received back, things work or they don’t. Just as Blake’s poem goes on to suggest, our actions have consequences for us in time, and we can learn and evolve accordingly.

William Blake’s Newton (1795): colour print with pen & ink and watercolour.
Image: The William Blake Archive

And so, we come full circle. Whilst Blake took issue with the emergence of Science, most notably with his painting Newton, this adventure in reductive reasoning – the so-called Enlightenment that became what countercultural intellectual Charles Eisenstein calls the ‘Story of Separation’ – was perhaps a necessary detour for humanity. Putting a positive spin on the matter, the inherent and multivalent learning therein has likely moved us forward as a species, delivered us to a more informed space. I would like to think that my personal journey into disconnection has had a similar outcome in microcosm. It could be said that we have come full spiral; indeed, in 3D the yin yang’s energy flow pattern is in fact spiralling (for a visualisation, see the link in the notes below).

Better connection

As heart and mind, feeling and intellect reconvene in our crisis-ridden time there would appear to be cause for hope. Yet, however resonant our intellect, that is no guarantee of better decision-making. Consider the decades of appeals to society with respect to climate change. The world around us and its events need to be acutely felt for effective action to be taken – what has been called compassionate empathy – just as you might act on chronic pain within your own body. The revolution is love, as they say, and we care for what we love.

Thankfully our heart connection is always there for us; to modify an old adage, you can try to take the child from the cosmos yet you can’t take the cosmos from the child. The new physics is telling us that at the centre of every 3D yin yang, at whatever scale we choose – from proton to galaxy, we will find singularity and the intimate portal of connection with the unified field of the cosmos, or ‘Source’. Far more than a pump, the human heart, generator of the body’s largest electromagnetic field, is in every sense our centre of felt connection.

Auguries of innocence - the seed of truth
Whatever the scale, there is a seed of truth at the heart of matter.
Photograph: Pete Yeo

It is no coincidence that just when we most need to reconcile ourselves with our planetary home there is now a popular surge in nature connection activities, like forest school (for all ages) or foraging, alongside ecological campaigning. A beneficial aspect of today’s media is that they are helping us feel the collective trauma. The restorative power of our heartfelt connection, evidenced also in the rise of forest bathing and nature prescriptions, can even ‘resuscitate’ those numb to the world around them, to quote nature connection practitioner Danny Shmulevitch. It could be as simple as bathing in a starry night. The joy of the world is as much ours as its pain; as the yin yang symbol shows, they are intimately entwined.

Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro the World we safely go
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine

These later lines from Auguries of Innocence further evidence Blake’s channelling of some mighty wisdom, describing the seed of truth at the heart of matter – our consequential connection to cosmos. What, I wonder, might have happened if Isaac Newton had interpreted his falling apple another way, coming to know that he had held infinity in the palm of his hand and eternity in that hour? Blake may smile wryly at the question, yet in fairness to Newton, I’ll close with a line from another popular text, the Desiderata by Max Ehrmann.

No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.


Notes

In his previous Finding Blake post, An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?, Pete finds inspiration in William Blake’s poem that later became the hymn Jerusalem when contemplating the impacts of our changing climate on Britain’s evergreen plantlife.

For more from Pete, see his website, Future Flora, and his similarly-named Facebook page for weekly musings. Lately, he’s felt a call to write more expansively on the need for a more holistic and reverential relationship with the plant realm (and hence all Life). At times the muse has felt rather Blakean.

You can read Auguries of Innocence and more of Blake’s poems at Poetry Foundation. In a September 2020 article on Blake’s four-fold imagination, Mark Vernon discusses Blake’s view of the limitations of the ‘singular’ vision of science as exemplified by Isaac Newton and illustrated in Blake’s painting.

Wikipedia, as ever, has useful introductions to chaos theory and fractal geometry, and there is more at the Resonance Science Foundation, a global research and education non-profit organization working for the unification of physics and science as a whole.

You can hear plant cognition scientist Monica Gagliano, as quoted by Pete, discuss plant sentience in this 2020 podcast from Camden Art Audio. For more on the ‘flower of life’ and yin yang symbols Pete discusses — and illustrates in his image, the cosmic matrix — again Wikipedia provides good overviews. Pete has provided this link to a more 3D illustration of the spiralling nature of the yin yang energy flow, as mentioned in his text.

Pete mentions the thinking of Charles Eisenstein on the ‘Story of Separation’, and you can watch a short video of Charles talking about the root of this separation on his website.

For more on the restorative power of connection with nature, see these pieces on forest bathing and nature prescriptions and the work of Danny Shmulevitch.

Finally, the full text of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata is available here.

An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?

Reconciliation ecologist Pete Yeo has long seen heavens in wildflowers, these days working with plants as portals for human-nature connection. In this post, he finds inspiration in William Blake’s poem that later became the hymn Jerusalem when contemplating the impacts of our changing climate on Britain’s evergreen plantlife.


This essay was first published in February 2021 by the University of York’s Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, and Pete Yeo adds for Finding Blake:

Having been a long-time but distant admirer of Blake, the muse offered “And did those feet in ancient time…” up as inspiration for An Evergreen and Pleasant Land? I didn’t appreciate at first how appropriate it was, though shouldn’t have been surprised. That choice has certainly helped disseminate the essay and its message, of how we might better flow with, rather than against, wider nature, through reference to the climate-induced rise of evergreen vegetation in a traditionally deciduous Britain.

Such ideas exemplify the connected worldview that I have been exploring for decades now, through spirituality and, more recently, the latest insights from the field of unified physics, for example. Both say the same thing — All is One. Which is why I’ve always loved the opening lines of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Though I can’t be sure what he truly meant, for me they beautifully convey the cosmic unity of infinitely scaled energy patterns; a sacred geometry also witnessed in a spiralling galaxy, a hurricane, and the stirred cream in a coffee. Another essay may beckon from the Ocean of Being.

An Evergreen and Pleasant Land?

Laurel - an evergreen species doing well in Britain
Japanese laurel is one of a number of Asian broad-leaved evergreens now naturalising in warmer locations across southern Britain

Whilst Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ clearly featured ‘pastures’, then as now England’s natural, spontaneous vegetation tends towards verdant yet deciduous forest.

This has not always been the case; not so long ago in the geological past the climate was too frigid for most plants, whilst further back in time it has been decidedly subtropical. These warmer epochs witnessed the prominence of evergreen woody species, such as those constituting so-called laurel forest. Climate change is now inviting such vegetation back with profound consequences for our relationship with the land and its always evolving ecosystems.

Laurel forest is characteristic of those lands that have a subtropical climate, both warm (not hot) and wet, often forming the ecological transition between tropical and temperate vegetation (though also found at higher and cooler elevations in the tropics). Alternatively known as laurisilva it is dominated by broad-leaved woody evergreens, their glossy leaves reminiscent of the true laurels (Lauraceae, a family of ancient lineage), many of whom are present. Certain warmth-loving needle-leaved evergreen conifers also feature.

And did those seeds in ancient time,
Fall upon England’s mountains evergreen…

In his book, Inheritors of the Earth (2017), evolutionary biologist Chris Thomas draws attention to the Pliocene epoch (5.3-2.6 million years ago). Then, global climate was 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer, and thus moister, than today, and this is the likely climate territory we will reach by the end of this century. In the Pliocene laurel forest was far more prominent in Europe than it is today. Whilst most scholars doubt Jesus ever set foot in England (the question in Blake’s poem), and the fossil record is patchy in regards to past flora, at least some laurel forest representatives will have been present here at that time. Wind the geological clock back towards the even warmer Eocene (56-34 mya) and there is clear proof for this part of the Earth.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. These biodiverse European forests became impoverished by the succession of Pleistocene ice ages (2.6m-11,700ya) which removed most of the cold-sensitive trees, including a majority of the broad-leaved evergreens. Due to the obstructive alignment of European mountain ranges their chances of ever returning from their southern refugia, such as the Iberian Peninsula, were greatly reduced compared to, say, the eastern parts of Asia and North America. And yet some were able to head north again after the ice ages, though these were descendants that had learnt to cope with cooler, drier conditions. English natives holly and ivy are both examples (to which we can add the conifer yew), whilst other laurel forest relicts such as cherry laurel, holm oak and rhododendron were able to make it to the British Isles during one or other of the warmer interglacial periods (a reality that strangely has no bearing on nativeness).

That last trio are once again reappearing (the rhododendron often as a new hybrid), a Second Coming of sorts — or perhaps third, or fourth — not welcomed by everyone (think: ‘alien invasives’). They are being joined by a significant number of far-flung broad-leaved evergreens, especially from Asia, many of whom are close relatives of pre-ice age species. Indeed, I recently observed my first wild camellia seedling, relatives of which are known to have been present in England back in the Eocene. What’s even more telling is that it’s not just woody representatives of laurel forest that are now thriving; Caucasian giant hogweed, Chilean giant rhubarb and Japanese knotweed all hail from laurisilva zones. The Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland’s wild distribution maps illustrate the extent of naturalisation of such species, some being more advanced than others. The heat island that is London along with the warmer parts of England, Ireland and Wales tend to witness the first arisings.

Evergreen species such as bay laurel are becoming increasingly common in the wild in Britain.
A new and ancient flavour to our landscape; bay laurel (the culinary herb) is becoming increasingly common in the wild across southern Britain.

I’ve been closely following one particular broad-leaved evergreen species for many years — bay laurel, the familiar culinary herb. This Mediterranean laurel forest relict, and a true laurel at that, has been cultivated in sheltered localities around Britain for centuries, yet was only observed wild from 1924. That lag is far beyond any expected for a climate-compatible species and strongly suggests a warming factor, with bay laurel now becoming commonplace outside of gardens around southwestern England in particular, where I live. I offer a small, local peri-urban roundabout as example; the native species planting of 30 years surrounding it now features an emergent laurel-like understory with over 120 evergreen saplings. Of these, bay laurel is co-dominant alongside holm oak, with some native holly and a small amount of laurustinus (also from the Mediterranean). Bay laurel is clearly enjoying the warming climate, along with, I suspect, our wetter western seaboard which already supports a variant of temperate rainforest. In turn, birds are obviously relishing this new local forage, its black fruits like mini-avocados (to which it is related).

As Chris Thomas puts it, ‘the rediversification of European forests is underway.’ Admittedly, this is not simply due to our warming climate and reducing frosts that now allow seed-set and dispersal. The process has been facilitated by our global society, our love of trade and, especially, horticulture. This ecological mixing was likely inevitable at some point due to larger Earth cycles yet it all represents a great acceleration of evolutionary processes, and brings novel tensions. We are where we are, however. Whilst throw-back winters may occasionally slow evergreen progress, sufficient warming is already locked-in, however good our efforts at emission mitigation. This invites us to adapt and welcome laurel forest species, and to reconcile ecological and cultural tensions as far as possible, without need for Blake’s ‘chariot of fire’.

Holm oak - an invasive evergreen species?
Holm (holly) oak is already extensively naturalised across southern Britain, as here along the Norfolk coast, and regarded as an invasive species by some.

For this floral shift has consequences; there will be losses, and there will be gains. For example, broad-leaved evergreen trees and shrubs can create a dense, year-round shade to the detriment of herbaceous flora, such as Britain’s popular woodland wildflowers. Native holly is no different in this regard. However, we have a relatively small native flora, especially in regard to woody plants, and laurel-like species will enrich our beech- and oak-dominated woods. Increased biodiversity equates to more options and greater resilience as our ecosystems – our life-support systems – face an uncertain future. So, on the one hand a heartfelt aesthetic loss, on the other an overall ecological gain, though future generations may be less invested in the loss as a result of shifting baselines.

Laurel forests don’t represent an ecological downgrade; instead they can be seen as a future-fit ecosystem upgrade. Consider that warmer and wetter conditions tend to benefit fungi, including the pathogenic kind. It’s probably no coincidence that cherry laurel and rhododendron are both known to be resistant to such threats. The leaf litter of introduced bay laurel has also been shown to often support subtropical, even tropical, fungi, which leads me to wonder about the role of such evergreens in supporting climate-compatible fungi (or vice versa). For the appropriate fungi, whatever their specific ecological role, are critical to ecosystem functioning. This exemplifies the challenges facing ecological relationships with the northward migration of species.

Given the ecological resilience offered by broad-leaved evergreens there may be the temptation to be proactive and accelerate their presence across our landscape, though caution might recommend simply allowing spontaneous naturalisation (a similar tension being apparent within the rewilding movement in regard to native species, of planting versus spontaneous growth). The forestry sector is already thinking ahead, trialing eucalyptus and holm oak, as well as thermophilous needle-leaved evergreens like Atlas cedar, Japanese cedar and coast redwood. And as our agricultural sector evolves, toward regenerative practices in particular, we may see the rise of our own versions of traditional Iberian agroforestry systems, featuring evergreen tree crops like cork and encina (a variety of holm) oaks.

Both sectors could increase evergreen naturalisation, but neither to the extent of horticulture. The RHS report Gardening in a Changing Climate (2017) offers a glimpse of the relevant changes we might expect in this sphere. It suggests that camellia, escallonia and other broad-leaved evergreens could become the dominant hedge and boundary plants in the West Country by 2100. Warmer still yet drier East Anglian gardens could (in 2100) feature many of the laurel forest relict species that survived around the Mediterranean, such as myrtle and strawberry tree. Both scenarios would nurture an increasingly evergreen landscape, and likely be augmented by other subtropical evergreens such as palms.

Silverberries - another evergreen starting to naturalise in our changing cliate
Silverberries (Elaeagnus) are now beginning to naturalise as a result of better fruit set. The author observed his first sapling (of a garden hybrid) in 2019, in Devon.

One way or another our landscape is going to change over the next few generations, perhaps dramatically. My vision is that the necessary responses come as consensual evolution rather than the apparent revolution in Blake’s poem. Key to this will be the ability to see beyond the losses relating to all meanings of this ‘green and pleasant land’, toward the laurel-like silver linings set to ‘shine forth upon our clouded hills’. That way, we help liberate the future from the past, ‘dark satanic mills’ and all.

Whilst it’s been fun to riff with William Blake’s poem, it highlights the importance of responsibility and choice. Our actions, and the perceptions that inspire them, will decide whether we meet a pleasant land in the future. As we undertake a necessarily sacred renewal of our relationships within the dynamism that is Life, a bigger canvas eagerly awaits the more reverential flourishes of our human artistry.


Notes

For more from Pete, see his website, Future Flora, and his similarly-named Facebook page has been the platform for weekly musings. Lately, he’s felt a call to write more expansively on the need for a more holistic and reverential relationship with the plant realm (and hence all Life). At times the muse has felt rather Blakean.

Laurel forest, also called laurisilva, is a type of subtropical forest found in areas with high humidity and relatively stable, mild temperatures. The forest is characterized by broadleaf tree species with evergreen, glossy and elongated leaves, known as ‘laurophyll’ or ‘lauroid’.

For further information on the ancestry of British woodlands, see Roots and Branches — while the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland’s wild distribution maps illustrate the extent of naturalisation of so-called invasive species.

A shifting baseline is a type of change to how a system is measured, usually against previous reference points (baselines), which themselves may represent significant changes from an even earlier state of the system. The concept is relevant to all aspects of change and the failure to notice change in the world today.

The Royal Horticultural Society’s report Gardening in a Changing Climate (2017) describes some of the impacts our changing climate is expected to have on Britain’s gardens. 

In ‘Jerusalem’ – a Song, an Idea, Few Can Resist, Finding Blake’s founder James Murray-White reflects on the enduring, but shifting, resonance of Blake’s famous lines on Jerusalem for visions of ‘England’s green and pleasant land.’ And in Jerusalem in South Molton Street, we filmed actor Matt Ray Brown reading Blake’s poem in Blake’s house in South Molton Street. Do also check out Another Jerusalem, where artist, musician, illustrator, songwriter and poet Salli Hipkiss introduces her poem, Another Jerusalem.