The gall wasp's fruit

Rain in the backcourts; rain-soaked harling on the building opposite; that black rain that gathers in gutters, pools on the lids of plastic bins, and keeps us indoors: a pandemic of rain. Whatever is happening in our human lives, the world goes on in its own way. It cares not a jot for us. On the other hand, it sustains us: rain is much-needed to allow nature to flourish — nature: meaning, all that is not us but includes us. We make a home in the world. Usually, it’s a community effort and not a solitary one; though we may often feel shut off from others. But even in solitude we are a community. The close entry system buzzes and it is the postman, the binmen, the man who brings my shopping, the delivery man; the phone rings and it is the nurse, the bowel-specialist, my brother, my parents. Via Zoom and Skype and Whatsapp I see my partner and I see my friends. Email connects me to colleagues and another group of friends. Out there, the farmers are still working the fields, the processing plants are still processing food, the packaging plants are still packaging, the couriers are still carrying, so that — even in isolation — I do not go cold, or hungry, or want for the latest book, or the latest electronic gadget. Ink comes for my pens. Paper. On my tablet I watch BBC Alba in full confidence that the language is still “obstinately alive.” With the purple-black iron gall ink, with the onion skin paper, I write letters to poet friends (who are more than just poets). So even in isolation we are a community and nature is not something out there, distant from us, but here in the city, we are still involved in an occupation of nature.

Some time ago, a gall wasp — either by parthenogenesis or two-sex propagation — injected its larvae into a species of oak, causing the formation of a gall, a lump, a woody boil, and there they isolated from the outside world, though fed by nutrients and rain and sunshine taken in by the oak through its roots and leaves and bark. The growth they formed is often known as an oak apple or oak marble gall. The galls are rich in tannin. After fermentation, gum Arabic (the sap of the Acacia plant) is added to increase viscosity. The resulting ink is semi-permanent but being acidic can, over the course of a few hundred years, lead to ink corrosion, depending on the paper used. Due to this corrosive nature it’s important not to let the ink sit too long in the pen. So thanks to the pre-Lockdown gall wasp I am able to write letters that will not fade, though nothing I have to say is particularly worthy of preservation. But poets hanker for immortality more than, say, writers of shopping lists, prescription cryptologists, or those obsessed with feuilletons (little leaves — inked in by scribblers of the everyday, leaving brief descriptions of a time and place: somewhere between a memo and a memento).

So. The gall wasp’s fruit is not only the oak apple but Da Vinci’s drawings, the Codex Sinaiticus, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the observations of Galileo Galilei, birth certificates, marriage certificates (which some would wish not to be permanent), death certificates (definitely permanent), and other legal documentation that demands the use of archival inks. Isolation? No! About us stands the whole world that we divorce ourselves from when we talk of nature as though we are apart from it. The pen in my hand, the words I apply to paper (another process we could consider), the music in my ears, the knowledge in my head: all are processes of nature that we are bound up in. We are not isolated. Not entirely. The world sustains us, rather than harbouring any ill-will towards us; it is true, it lacks compassion, lacks spite — though often we project such emotions onto it. The coronavirus does not act wilfully. It just does what every living thing does: lives. And to live is to consume. And to live is to reproduce. And on and on it goes. But nothing is ever permanent. Even the rain has stopped.

Written by Gregor Addison.

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