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Pave it with flowers

JOY of Pavements'' -- the phrase caught my eye. It was the heading of a small back-page item in The Times (London). Yes, I thought, I know that joy. The subsequent paragraph turned out to be a request for information for a survey by the National Consumer Council. ``Are your local pavements a delight to walk on?'' it asked. ``Are they free of litter and in good repair?'' If not, then the reader was asked to send in his comments ``on the pluses and minuses of being a pedestrian.''

I could have sent the council a few choice words on the state of our pavements [British for sidewalks] here in Pollokshields. And I wouldn't be surprised if a few hundred other residents of this splendid Victorian/Edwardian inner suburb of Glasgow have indeed accepted the invitation. By any conventional standards, Pollokshields pavements are a national disgrace. They are in such various states of disruption and eruption that most people just walk down the middle of these tree-lined roads and avenues in stead; the risk of pedestrian/vehicular confrontation is rightly considered as nothing compared with the hazards of negotiating the Pavements of Pollokshields.

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But somehow the conservationist in me resisted complaint. The character of this neighborhood, I feel, might be detrimentally affected in the historically unlikely event (after almost a century) of pavement-repair. After all, Pollokshields is designated a ``Conservation Area.'' Not even a tree can be legally lopped without reference to our bureaucratic masters, without forms made out at least in quadruplicate. So why tarmac the pavements?

No! Let the joy (and unevenness) of our pavements continue! Let streaming rivers of fallen rain meander erosively down their dirt inclines, furrowing miniature valleys and confluences, deposits and deltas. Let the plane-tree roots heave and crack their upper crusts, forming mountainous regions underfoot! Let liverworts range! Let mosses creep! Let summer weeds surge! I would not have it otherwise.

I haven't, in fact, studied the problem, but it seems that the exciting state of these footways may have resulted from uncertainty as to who, precisely, is responsible for their upkeep. Householders, I'm told, actually own the ground as far as the center line of the road running past their garden wall. Nevertheless, the city does surface the road itself -- so why is the care of the sidewalks left to the householders?

Whatever the answer, the result is wonderful variety. Each house takes a greater or lesser degree of interest. Some, it is true, have resorted to tarmac. One, very recently, has done an immaculate job. But others merely dose their pavements with semi-effective weed killer. Still others occasionally hoe or churn. Some spread the area between curbstone and wall with ash, some with gravel. This latter -- known in Scotland as ``chuckies'' -- can be brick red, or ``golden'' quartz, or gray-white granite, pro ducing a cheerful, multicolored patchwork much superior to universal black tar. Some surfaces are thus thinly spread; others are deeply smothered; these last are like walking along a heavily pebbled seashore.

Impassability in certain parts is caused by the plane tree's habit of sprouting hirsutely at ground level as well as in its upper reaches. Left to themselves, these bushy outgrowths can spread clear across the path. The airspace of other pavements is so overhung with unchecked and burgeoning laurel, privet, beech, or birch that a walk with the dog is transformed into an attack on virgin jungle. Suburbia need not be devoid of pioneering adventure.

But my favorite stretch of Pollokshields pavement occurs at the corner of Sherbrooke and Sprinkell Avenues, a peculiarly damp spot fed by an apparently unstanchable ooze of spring water that runs out of the bank and down the containing wall of the contiguous garden.

Here, nature has taken over. It is a meadow, a field, a wild place to hearten the preferences of any ecologist. I have counted no fewer than 20 species of wildflower (``weed'' only to the uninitiated) on this corner site, about 20 feet in extent. Ferocious thistles (this is Scotland) vie with lush dandelions, rusty-seeded docks with pink-and-white flowered clover, elegant barley-grass with coarse hawkweed, hawthorn seedlings with common daisies. The whole thing is topped off with a tall, fine specimen of umbelliferous cow-parsley.

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Out of this herbaceous extravaganza rises, like some forgotten monument from a now-lost civilization, a red, columnar, iron letter box with a domed roof. It is hard to believe that this outpost of the British Post Office (or empire?) is yet visited two or three times a day by a collecting van -- and that without undue disturbance to surrounding herbage.

I often take the dog round this corner, and it is full of the most interesting aromas for his investigative nostrils. It is -- whether through neglect or deliberation -- a positive if small contribution to the inevitable, eventual return-to-nature of one of these man-made mistakes we call cities. From here it is only a notional step away from the idea of actually planting up pavements with grasses and wildflowers, of making them natural cover for returning hordes of hedgehogs and shrews, we asels and rabbits, and visiting ground for butterflies and moths and bumblebees. If you can't pave your pavements with gold, why not reclothe them with poppies, primroses, and buttercups? In Pollokshields nobody walks on them anyway.