Starting at the southern entrance to Finsbury Park on Seven Sisters Road, walk anti-clockwise around its perimeter: towards Manor House Underground Station, then north along Green Lanes, before snaking south-west through residential streets until you reach Stroud Green Road, and join back up to the entrance of the park. This walk should take around 50 minutes.
During this time, let your surroundings dictate the rate of your breathing, and notice how it changes with the pace of what is happening on the streets around you; between frenetic and congested roads and the pockets of peace and solitude. Take note of your proximity to the barriers and entries to the park, and your proximity to green space.
Now enter Finsbury park and walk to the pond in its centre. Pick a starting point and walk clockwise around the perimeter of the pond. Focus again on your breathing. Take long, deep breaths – in and out, in and out. Notice the vegetation – the sounds of wind rustling leaves and swaying branches of trees. Listen out for the sound of squirrels, birds, insects and other wildlife. Breathe in and out.
And focus on the water; its rippling surface, its reflection of the sky, and any activity beneath its depths. Continue to breathe deeply and, when you’re ready, take a long, deep breath, and dive in.
During the first weeks of lockdown, images of animals taking to quarantine-emptied streets spread across social media. Hundreds of sheep marched the streets of Samsun in Turkey. Goats ate their way through the front garden foliage in the sleepy village Llandudno on the Welsh coast. A village in Yunan province, China, was stampeded by elephants before they keeled over in a tea field, drunk on corn wine. And with its canals vacated of cruise ships and gondolas, swans and even dolphins appeared within Venice’s waterways.
I had spent a month the previous summer in Venice – the original quarantena city. It is hard not to think of that old adage that Venice is sinking as you move amongst it’s beautiful, crumbling buildings; and during my stay, the sense of its impending doom was palpable. The cruise ships that ploughed through the lagoon towered over its Renaissance skyline, steadfastly approaching it as though they might crash up against the city (this wasn’t out of the question – that summer, a number of crashes and near misses involving cruise ships took place in the city). At the Biennale, an opera about the end of days took the form of a day on the beach. This gave my visits to Lido an unwanted, ominous undertone; like a faint, deep hum of Armageddon amongst the dunes.
On one of my first evenings there, the weather turned quicker than I’d ever seen before; from gelato melting sunshine to a fierce thunderstorm that felt as though it had been conjured by a Disney villain. Within minutes, the sky turned algae green and sheets of rain lashed down against the lagoon. It felt as though I were underwater; flooded streets displaced turtles from the fountains at Monumento a Giuseppe Garibaldi. Only the gale force winds and seizure-inducing lightning storms reminded me that I hadn’t sunken with the city.
So I took some comfort in these images of clear waters and wildlife tempted back to the lagoon. Yet why or what these images soothed was less easy to pinpoint; Venice was still within a century of collapse, only now into clearer waters. But, looking at the images from my bed in London — a bed that, within a month, had also become my office, dining table, Zoom background, safe haven, straight-jacket — those images, for one reason or another, helped me to breathe easier.
When I learnt that the images had been faked, I somehow was not surprised; just disappointed, like a schoolteacher resolving a playground trist. The dolphins were, in fact, pictured swimming off the coast of Sardinia, whilst swans have always cruised the canals of Burano. Even the drunken elephants looked likely to have been an online concoction.
Yet whether these images were fake or not was perhaps less important than why they caught my, and others’, attention. Whether they inspired comfort or discomfort, people grasped them because they seemed to show that humanity’s grip over nature was not as tight as once thought. If all it took was a few weeks of staying indoors for wildlife to take over, then surely other seemingly irreversible damage could be just as easily remedied. Of course, this was not a silver lining to lockdown – itself the consequences of our tipping of the ecological balance – but, rather, a red herring, spotted swimming amongst the dolphins.
here is a breathing exercise
most breathing exercises are designed to calm you down
you’re told to breathe in through your nose
and out through your mouth
you might listen to a mindfulness app
in through your nose
or a wim hoff tutorial on youtube
and out through your mouth
where they tell you to be aware of the weight of
your body against the chair
or of your feet against the ground
they might tell you not to try
and tune out the sounds around you
but to let accept these sounds and absorb them
as part of your meditation
studies have shown that
the positive effects of mindfulness are small
but that many people find the practice
has the opposite intended effect
that it can lead to increased anxiety
a rising panic
can you feel it in your chest?
that tightening feeling
your heart racing
your breathing going out
try to take a deep breathe
and get your breathing to normal
the app might say
breathe in through your nose
they will instruct
and out through your mouth
but it’s easier said than done
and perhaps you need to feel anxious
maybe that stress
will lead to change
rather than apathy
Yet this notion of letting nature take care of itself is as alluring as it is misleading. Such a hands off approach to conservation, commonly termed rewilding, relies on our understanding of what wildness is. Our view of Nature has always been a construction in opposition to Order; one carefully cultivated, like an English rose garden.
I found Venice to be as much a city of gardens as of canals; whether strolling across its now paved campo, through the Giardini – Nature organised by sovereignty – or lying in the shade of the pines of Parco delle Rimembranze. I also found that the lagoon itself was a garden.
Venetian bees, like all Venetians, are in constant battle with the tide. Wild bees have always been drawn to the native fauna of the lagoon. All kinds of halophilic plantlife – sea aster, sea-lavender, a Venetian variety of samphire and, crucially, limonio – grow in the marshes’ sandy-clay soil. Beekeepers have cultivated the area since the 1800s; barges of bee hives and apiaries placed on stilts in the marshes, the result of keepers’ quest for their balsamic honey.
Nomadism is key to producing honey in the lagoon today. Bees that spend the spring in the veneto hills are brought down to the marshes to capitalise on the late summer bloom of Limonium. Whilst the output of these bees has never been large, today the small yield is further diminished by rising sea levels. The continuous degradation of the salt marshes, due to both the wave motion and the subsidence caused by rising sea levels, makes the areas in which to find the Limonium increasingly rare.
The bees’ efforts result in a truly unique nectar; the miele ranges in colour from amber to hazelnut brown, and the taste is distinctly salty, like the lagoon itself. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but then again, neither is Venice.
I also found that the Garden of Eden does exist – on Giudecca. The garden does not take its title from its Biblical namesake, but after Frederic Eden, an Englishman who bought the land in 1880. Eden’s wife was the sister of Gertrude Jekyll, a famed horticulturist, and this largest of private gardens in Venice was typical of a nineteenth century English garden of the time. It once was home to a range of flora and fauna: pine trees, cypresses, oleanders, lemon trees, magnolias, pomegranates, bergamot, vines, violets, tropical plants and verbenas. But Eden’s great love were roses, and in his personal paradise Eden planted all manner of them in a labyrinth of pergolas.
Eden has changed hands since its Genesis; at one stage, it was even owned by the daughter of the King of Yugoslavia. And its high profile owners have always attracted VIP visitors. Under the Edens, the likes of Marcel Proust, Henry Sickert, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Henry James frequented the garden. Around 1908, a period when Jean Cocteau often visited, the garden became a well-known cruising spot. But when I made my way to Eden, I found the garden closed off, which it has been since it was bought in the 1980s. I email the foundation that now owns it to ask if I can go in, and get a very kind reply telling me: No. My cruising Eden is thus left locked away, to overgrow – and perhaps one day overflow – in to the canals of Giudecca.
Giardinera (the female form of gardener) is an Italian vegetable relish, made to preserve the harvest of crops throughout the winter months. Carrots, green beans, cauliflower, peppers, onion, olives and celery all work well, as does a clove or two of garlic. Cut these into small pieces and brine them for 3 days in a saltwater solution in a warm spot.
Doing this ferments the vegetables – a process that utilises micro-organisms for the purpose of preservation. Crucially, fermentation is an anaerobic process; it can only take place in the absence of free oxygen found in the air. To avoid this, place your brined vegetables in a glass jar with a sealable lid. Make sure the jar can be easily burped or has a valve where gas produced during the ferment can escape; if not, the jar will explode.
After three days, taste and feel for texture; it should have that characteristic funk and still a slight bite. Then put in to a pickling solution, made from one part water to one part white wine vinegar and sugar, and flavoured with black peppercorns, bay, pepperoncini, mustard, fennel and coriander seeds. Then put it in the fridge and start eating after a day or two.
Fermentation is not only good for the cultivation of one’s own microbial health; as a practice, it is a means of resisting the standardisation of culture and of connecting to our ancestry. It can even be viewed as a form of resistance. As Sandor Ellis Katz describes: “Resistance takes place on many planes… Not everyone can or should be a farmer. There are many ways to cultivate a connection to the Earth and buck the trend toward global market uniformity and standardisation. One small but tangible way to resist the homogenisation of culture is to involve yourself in the harnessing and gentle manipulation of wild microbial cultures.”
As you eat your giardiniera, notice something beyond its tangy taste; feel the change in your gut. Let the preserve perverse; the fermentation foment.
Jack Halberstam explains that, in a world in which so much is wrong, bewilderment – the state of becoming lost, perplexed and confused – becomes a generative political category. Rather than rewilding initiatives and worldmaking projects, the only solution is to unmake, unbuild and unimagine our current condition.
Weeks after I left Venice in 2019, a comedy of errors ensued. Just minutes after the Veneto regional council voted to reject plans to combat climate change, their offices flooded. Like dolphins in its canals, the flooding of the council chambers seems too perfectly constructed of an image; a symbol of political apathy and disorganisation constructed to go viral. However, this was not a meme, but stranger-than-fiction reality. The floods across the city had been the worst since 1966, with more than 70% of the city affected and, tragically, caused two fatalities.
Excuse the irony: Venice is like a canary in a coal mine. So what to do when that canary starts flapping its wings against its cage in distress? The devastation of the 2019 floods at least inspired some progress; a year after the floods, the city’s MOSE floodgate system protected against another devastating aqua alta. After much flip-flopping, cruise ships have finally been banned from the lagoon – to the disgruntlement of tourists.
For now, it seems that efforts to save the canary have resulted in reinforcing its cage. What an unmaking of that cage would look like is unclear; what bewilderment would mean for Venice is almost unthinkable. But bewilderment – that feeling of being lost on the streets, lost at sea – has always been a condition of the Venetian experience.
walk in to the sea at lido
swim towards the horizon
follow the waves and dorsal fins
and don’t forget to breathe