One sleeting February day, while walking through the City of London, I happened to pass the church of St Giles without Cripplegate. It has been a site of worship since 1090; John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, is buried here. Survivor of various incarnations, reduced to a carapace in the Blitz, the church, now long-restored, sits low and settled. It is stranded like a glacial deposit in a landscape of empty concrete pavements, overlooked by the stratified filing cabinets of life that make up the Barbican towers. A friend who’d once lived there confessed she felt as if she was being filed away at the end of each day.

There wasn’t a soul about; I could have been in a remote landscape. Then, hidden behind the church, I came across a pair of majestically antlered magnolia trees. Still leafless and flowerless, they grazed on moss and underground mysteries. As I slid across the paving stones towards them, they seem to freeze. Approaching tentatively, I feared they might bolt. Buds of fur on every branch invited me to stroke their velvety points.

I was reminded that, at the very beginnings of botany, the ancient Greeks debated whether to include plants and animals in the same kingdom. Theophrastus, in his Enquiry into Plants observed that they had veins, bodily fluids, trunks, limbs, hair, ‘floral organs’ and souls animating their entirety; they appeared to sleep at night, folding their petals, and could reproduce. Just as the stag sheds his horns, and the beast his fur, many of them seasonally shed their parts. Perhaps they were animals with heads planted in the ground. My own encounter certainly left me with the feeling that the magnolias of St Giles’ Church were sentient life forms. More recently, I came across a Rilke poem which reminded me again of this encounter, capturing the sense of anticipation within the dormancy of winter…

[this site’s own translation of Rainer Maria Rilke]

Now the stag roots itself in earth. Lifts and holds 
The mute branched pose of winter’s tree. 
The stillness of its head
Barely stemming a leaf rush.

Da wird der Hirsch zum Erdteil, Hebt und trägt 
den Winterbaum, sein reines unbelaubtes 
verzweigtes Speil. Der Friede seines Hauptes 
reicht nicht soweit, daß er in Blätter schlägt. 
  • Daphne and Apollo © Florilegia
  • Magnolia branch
  • Magnolia
  • Peonies, Magnolia, and Dandelions.
  • St Giles church London

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