The Poetry and Teachings of the Yellow Wall Lichen

Erin Farley is the Library & Information Officer for Local History at Dundee Central Library. She has recently completed a PhD at the University of Strathclyde on ‘The Place of Poetry in Victorian Dundee,’ focusing on creative communities and their relationships to place in the industrial city. She is on Twitter @aliasmacalias.

In the mid-1830s, a flourishing of literary societies began in Dundee. Groups of aspirational working class (almost always) men met in coffee houses and attics to lead one another to a holistic understanding of knowledge: literature, religion, science and history were all key to understanding one another. The manuscript magazines they compiled and circulated are forays towards mastering these spheres.[1] The extent to which these disciplines were intertwined may be most evident in the work of the poetic botanist, William Gardiner, whose book The Flora of Forfarshire interspersed detailed scientific observations of plants with poems exploring the moral and spiritual lessons their forms suggest.[2] Born c. 1808 in Dundee, Gardiner made his living as an umbrella-maker. Both poetry and botany were callings inherited from his father, and the intricacies of local plant life were central to Gardiner’s writing throughout his life. His name is better recorded in botany than literary history, and many of his collections of specimens have been preserved.

One of the early collaborative magazines he edited, ‘A Wreath of Wild Flowers’ (1834-6), is notable for its local pastoral poems and contributors’ classical pseudonyms. Gardiner writes as Sylvanus, the name of a Roman guardian of woods and fields. The songs and poems may read as clichéd to modern critics’ eyes, in their descriptions of love among birks and flowers, but they are also grounded in deep observation of place and landscape. The quiet determination with which William Gardiner and his circle walked, looked, and thought about place as industrial capitalism continued to encroach on both their personal time and physical experience of the world has an undercurrent of resistance, and indeed of guardianship of these places.

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Common Orange Lichen. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite the poetic potential of flowers, it was mosses and lichens that ultimately held the most fascination for Gardiner. He was the first to discover British examples of two species of moss in the Angus glens. His enthusiasm also sparked a long-standing interest in lichen in his friend James Scrymgeour, who spoke one evening on ‘The Poetry, Science and Romance, Mission and Teachings of the Yellow Wall Lichen (Parmeilia Pariatina), illustrated by Specimens.’ The title itself is half a talk’s worth. As midnight drew near, someone waved their pocket watch in Scrymgeour’s eye-line, to which he exasperatedly responded “It isn’t watches I’m speaking of, but feal dykes!” Eventually, the long-suffering coffee-house host switched the gas lamps off and left them to it, fumbling for lichen samples in the dark.[3]

Sadly, this infamous speech does not appear as an essay in any of the surviving literary magazines. Perhaps Scrymgeour did notice the echoes of lichen-ness in the work around him. If you were going to find lessons in lichen, collaboration and tenacity might well be the most apparent. Each lichen is not a plant in itself but a partnership in action: half fungus, half algae, feeding and supporting one another. These two entities create something new, and slowly grow, collaboratively. (This may technically be controlled parasitism. It can be hard to tell in collaborations.) Depending on the species, a bloom can take decades, centuries even, to reach its full size.

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Scrapbook p. 70. Courtesy of Dundee Libraries.

Later, Scrymgeour began a scrapbook in a moment of grief.[4] Almost at the beginning of the first book is a copy of a black-edged letter. In the early hours of the summer solstice, 1852, William Gardiner died of typhoid fever, and Scrymgeour was taking on the process of finding support for his young son, now an orphan. Likely it was also left to Scrymgeour to sift through the notes and correspondence in Gardiner’s Overgate rooms, and much of what didn’t fit elsewhere is archived here.

Scrapbooks do not give us a complete narrative. We know that the letters announcing Gardiner’s death were not the first thing to be created, as bits of his life leap out at us from later pages: watercolour paintings from his teens, a tiny envelope addressed to him emblazoned with sheaves of anti-Corn Laws corn, scribbled notes of meetings and the coach times to Braemar. There are newspaper cuttings too, a piece on Disraeli championing ‘self-culture’, declaring life itself a scientific endeavour, but also notices of a lost glove or friend’s wedding. The book feels more like a collaboration than a commemoration, a series of pinpointed moments and ideas, whose meanings radiate outwards towards an idea of people and place.

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Scrapbook p. 30. Courtesy of Dundee Libraries.

The rickety street where Gardiner lived his whole life has been a shopping centre since 1960. In 2016, not long after I began my PhD research into the creative networks in which he was one strong point, a small garden bearing his name was founded at the back of the centre. More than a visual break from glass and concrete, it is that increasingly rare thing, a public place in a city centre which asks only for care, not money. Students from Dundee and Angus College tend the plants, growing fruit and vegetables to give away. Later this year, a new mural inspired by the infinite worlds Gardiner found in local landscapes will take its place in the garden, part of the excellent Open/Close street art project. It takes time to let ideas grow towards each other, sometimes more than lifetimes before you realise how things connect.

Notes
[1] On wider literary society culture and manuscript magazines in nineteenth-century Britain, see Lauren Weiss’ website Literary Bonds: https://www.literarybonds.org/

[2] William Gardiner, The Flora of Forfarshire (Dundee: F. Shaw & W. Middleton, 1848).

[3] William Norrie, Life of James Scrymgeour of Dundee (Dundee: The News Bureau, 1887), p.18.

[4] Scrapbook, Dundee Libraries Local History collection, D21495. The book has previously been assumed to be Gardiner’s because of the items connected to him, but dates and handwriting, not to mention the death notices, indicate that the vast majority was compiled by Scrymgeour.

This post has been re-published by permission from the BAVS Postgraduates Blog. Please see the original post at https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2019/06/03/the-poetry-and-teachings-of-the-yellow-wall-lichen/