Photograph by Max McClure
I recently visited Seeds of Change, Bristol’s floating ballast seed garden. This is an art project on a disused barge that’s permanently docked in the city centre on the floating harbour. You can look down at it from the park wall above but to get to it and walk on it, you have to access it by boat along the city’s water course. It’s small, obviously, and charming. It’s been carefully designed to create “a contemplative architectural space”, according to the Arnolfini, Bristol’s contemporary art gallery that oversees the project, and it consists of plants that are all non-native to Britain. These plants have been grown from seeds that were excavated from the river bed, then germinated and finally planted and grown. I went on a tour organised by the gallery and yes, not only did I find it a contemplative space but one that offered me riches to contemplate too.
First of all, how did these exotic, non-native seeds end up lying on the bottom of the river bed in Bristol? Between 1680 and the early 1900s ships’ ballast was apparently dumped into the river at Bristol. Bristol has a history based on sea trade (not all a history to be proud of, either) and trading ships arriving in the port were often weighed down with earth, stones and gravel from wherever it was in the world they they had set out. This ballast contained plant seeds from the countries of origin and it was all unceremoniously offloaded into the river at Bristol on arrival.
Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves discovered that these seeds could lie dormant on the river bed for literally hundreds of years but that they could be salvaged, germinated and then grown into flourishing healthy plants. Working in collaboration with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, the Arnolfini and Bristol City Council, she conceptualised a project to plant and bring these seeds to life. This project was realised and given the overall title Seeds of Change. Every year different seeds are germinated and then planted making the garden, in the words of the Arnolfini, “a living history of the city’s trade and maritime past.”
Imagine. Ballast – just whatever was in the earth as the ships set sail – randomly enriching wherever it was that the ships arrived. Amazing! It made me think, then, of the ballast we all carry, maybe unknowingly and unwittingly with us through our lives. Some of that may come from places of joy but some may come from dark places too. It’s going to have built up into quite a collection as we get older.
“I found myself wondering about the bits and bobs that we all will have picked up from different sources through our lives and how they have leave their traces in the people that we become.”
As I looked at the delicate and rather pretty plants that had set sail from such places as India, Australia, north and south America, southern Europe, Turkey and Iran, I found myself wondering about the bits and bobs that we all will have picked up from different sources through our lives and how they have leave their traces in the people that we become. They’re not necessarily hugely significant traces, they may be to do with how we tie our shoe laces or how we make our beds but they’ve come from here and there depending on the people we’ve met and who have influenced us as well as the places we might have visited.
In my case, take the way I do the dishes, for example. It’s a Greek way, not a British one. I tend to rinse under the tap. The British way is to rinse in a bowl. I put that down to my Greek father – not that he ever did much washing or rinsing of dishes (I had to add that) – but he certainly was insistent as to how both should be done. It was under free-flowing cold water, and absolutely not
in bowl (or “boll”, as he would call it). I think this is still the Greek way you rinse dishes.
Occasionally I find myself saying ‘kerful’ instead of ‘careful’. That comes from a Scottish lady who used to care (ker?) for me when I was a child. I say an American ‘twenny’ rather than the British ‘twenty’ due to prolonged visits to the US and keeping company with my handful of very dear friends out there. I am ashamed to say that when I play tennis, which I played a lot in Greece during my formative years, I tend to grimace, announce Na! and push my outstretched palm in the direction of my face when I make a stupid error (Greek friends and family will know that this isn’t very polite). I learned to pile books vertically, in piles on the floor, rather than (or as well as, thankfully) horizontally in bookcases from a friend’s house I visited in my twenties. I have adopted various expressions (for example, “okey-dokey-smokey” (instead of a nice, simple yes), “let’s make movies” (meaning let’s go), “it’s a boo-ray day!” meaning half boo-hoo and half hooray, and “I’ve made myself a peeg!” my father again, meaning I’ve made a pig of myself) from all sorts of different people who have just been there, at different points in my life.
You get the idea. None of this is what you might call ‘profound’. But it made me smile recognising the people, some of them significant players in my life, others who may have just brushed past me, who’ve left their traces as well as the places that have left theirs. And a little bit grateful too.
“We are all hybrid individuals, full of our own random ballast seeds that may have germinated unexpectedly, yet richly… Even if we have stayed forever in one locale, the traces of elsewhere will be inevitably within us.”
In short, the Seeds of Change project made me think of the seeds that we all carry within us, that we’ve picked up from here or from there, and that may lie dormant or may germinate and come alive within us as we get older. And the older we are, the more ballast that will have been chucked our way. As I sat in the pretty and peaceful garden on the barge – originally a disused and rather ugly concrete bit of detritus itself (apparently as the warehouses opposite were being recast into gentrified apartments, the developers asked for it to be removed from sight) – I amused myself by thinking of my own ballast and the seeds that have changed me. I found myself reflecting on how we are all hybrid individuals, full of our own random ballast seeds that may have germinated unexpectedly, yet richly, and how, even if we have stayed forever in one locale, the traces of elsewhere will be inevitably within us.