Walking with… Botanist Mark Spencer

A couple of Saturdays ago, I met with the botanist Mark Spencer, at Slade Green railway station in south east London, for a walk across the Crayford Marshes (an area of grazing marsh near to Erith) down to the River Thames. I had heard Mark talking about his work on Radio 4’s The Life Scientific (listen again here), so got in touch to let him know about Queer River, and invited him to choose a location for our walk together.

Dr Mark Spencer is an experienced and internationally respected botanist. His expertise covers many disciplines including forensic botany, the plants of North-west Europe, invasive species and the history of botanical science. He also works globally as a seasoned writer, public speaker and television presenter. As a forensic botanist, Mark has worked on various missing person enquiries, murders and other serious crimes.


I layered printed pages with text and found objects as we walked

Mark has been involved in gay activism and HIV/AIDS activism through organisations such as Act Up, particularly in the early 1990s, which struck a chord with me and my research into the relationship between the AIDS crisis and the Earth Crisis, and was a founding member of the London House of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

The Sisters devote ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. The Sisters believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.

LGBT History Project

As Mark and I walked and talked, he shared with me why he’d chosen this place for our walk, and what it meant to him. I asked him questions about the relationship between his work as a botanist, and his identity as a Queer man. We also discussed the impact that the changing climate and sea levels are having on the landscape and its biodiversity, on the value of urban biodiversity in general, and what the likely effects of climate breakdown will be in the future.

On the way, I made notes of key names, facts and quotes, and gathered different objects from along our path and down by the river’s edge. I recorded the walk using a box of pages that I had put together a couple of days previously, sheets of paper printed with maps of the site and images of previous Queer River walks, overlaid with my notes, mud from the riverbank and the objects that I collected (see the ‘The River is a Guide to the Land’ for another example of how I use Walking Pages to document Queer River walks).

Some of the pages after our walk

We talked about the relationship between botany and colonialism, in the context of museums and collecting. I was interested in what Mark had to say about botanic terminology that enables us to understand when and how plants have arrived in this country, and whether they are seen as native, invasive etc. I was also struck by the relationship between the site’s timeline of historic changes/adaptations, its current industrial uses, and the current/coming impacts of climate breakdown – between what many might see as ‘natural’ forces and man-made development.

Plants which can tolerate salt water are becoming more common as sea levels rise, and seaweeds are gradually moving upstream as salinity increases. Dumps of domestic and industrial waste along the coast are at real risk of being submerged and leaking into the sea as the low lying land is engulfed. As Mark said: ‘This is in many ways a Queer landscape… diverse, weird and at the edges… like our community’.

The edge of the Thames at Crayford

Mark shared how his sense of social justice was informed by his upbringing and his queerness, including being bullied at school. His sense of what is kind and fair is profoundly intersectional and ‘frames how I position myself in terms of how I relate to biodiversity.’

I asked Mark of his thoughts on Rewilding, a useful concept we both agreed, but a word which may now be being ‘corrupted’, or morphed from its original meaning, as people use it for all kinds of acts and projects that, although coming from good intentions in the face of climate fear and grief, may do more harm than good.

For example, tree planting schemes that plant trees onto increasingly rare grassland habitats in urban areas, or too closely together and without thought for the understorey, which is necessary for a healthy, functioning woodland ecosystem. Or the scattering of wildflower seed mixes without an awareness of whether those species are suitable for where they are being scattered (or the impacts upon existing vegetation). Mark, as I understand it, champions the process of ‘minimum intervention restoration’, an approach to landscape regeneration that is sensitive to what has come before.

We talked about what it means to be an activist, and why Mark feels the work of scientists such as himself isn’t valued as activism. That his advice is often not sought or listened to when such ‘rewilding’ projects take place, and why it’s the big, visual acts that are often valued, rather than the quieter, slower processes based on research into the site’s ecology and history.

As with all my Queer River walks, there was much more than I could include here. This post is just a beginning. All of our conversation will continue to inform my work both inside and outside of Queer River, and I’m grateful to Mark for being so generous with his time and open with his reflections.

My time with Mark has strengthened my resolve to look more closely at the biodiversity of wetland sites and the relationship between Queer people and wetlands. In recent weeks I’ve been digging a wildlife pond in my garden and have been sourcing native aquatic plants to add to it. I’ve enjoyed being able to spent time focusing on a small scale, newly created, wetland habitat, and watch it change day by day as new organisms such as diving beetles and pond skaters arrive to colonise it. Habitats like marshland, ponds and riverbanks have always captured my imagination with their merging of water and land, their feeling of being on the edges.

In the future I plan to take a walk with the geographer, artist and researcher Sage Brice, whose research in the past has incorporated time spent in a range of watery landscapes, and among other things, making use of peaty soil to draw the Eurasian Cranes she found there. Sage also researches trans perspectives on/experiences of the land.

One of the subjects that Mark and I touched on were the changes that are taking place in our landscapes due to the changing climate, including the spreading of new or previously locally rare plant species, and the influx of new bird species such as egrets and herons. (Alongside the reintroduction of Cranes, White Storks and Sea Eagles. Today it was announced that a scheme to reintroduce eagles to Norfolk has been given the go ahead).

Of course its not all about our landscapes being enriched with a new variety of bird and plant life. As our climate changes and bird species move up into the UK from the south, those species that specialise in living in colder, upland habitats to the north get pushed off of the top. Equally, it’s easy for me to lapse into thinking about new species of wetland plants colonising coastlines and estuaries, or shifting from one place to another, but the fact is that sea level rises may be too fast and too high in the future for these areas to exist above water at all, and many coastal habitats, such as Crayford Marshes, precious strips of land sandwiched between the sea and industrial or housing development, may be lost altogether.

As the waters rise, will there be anywhere for the plants and animals of coastal marshland to move to? Will we finally stop building on floodplains, and how will we manage the retreat from the edges that will be necessary? What will we do when the floodwaters reach the hundreds of coastal landfill sites, waste dumps and nuclear power stations? And how will we coexist with all the other plants and animals as the land shrinks?

Lots more for me to think about, thank you Mark.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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