Tag Archives: nature

1958 advert for Shell nature studies guides

You know when you pick up an old book and there’s something tucked inside a previous owner was using as a bookmark? And it’s amazing?

This weekend’s find: An advert torn from a 1958 edition of Punch, for the Shell guide to “Life in the Corn”. If you can’t make out the blurb of text, it starts: “In the growing and ripening stages corn and hay are a sanctuary for wild life which man does not invade”. The small print on the right hand side recommends books based on similar posters, and I found a few other examples of the series in the Advertising Archives (put “Shell” into search). It ends with a tagline that might make some gasp: “You can be sure of Shell. The key to the countryside”.

I would have guessed the thing we now call “greenwash” wouldn’t have started to emerge until the growth of the green movement from the mid-1960s onwards (and a Greenpeace USA history describes it as a phenomenon of the 1970s onwards). But I suppose the energy industry has always had a significant impact on the landscape, people will have noticed that, and so companies will have sought to minimise negative reactions. More simply; nature is nice, lots of companies draw on allusions to it in advertising.

Has anyone done a history of adverting the oil industry? That’d be a fascinating project.

EDIT: (via twitter) Shell sponsored nature guides because people drove to see nature. Of course! It’s a mid-20th century rise of the car and suburban life thing. I’m such a city kid that didn’t occur to me (parents didn’t have a car a lot of my childhood, I never learnt to drive). I didn’t find the Wikipedia entry on the Shell guides when I was having a google for this post, but it’s quite clear there. These were edited by John Betjeman and focused on different parts of Britain. However, re-reading the small print on this advert, I’m not sure this series are quite the same thing, even if they may well come from same relationship between nature and the oil industry. The Betjeman Shell guides were rooted in places, like a tour guide, these were themed around nature (flowers, birds, insects, etc).

EDIT2: (again, via twitter) Guardian piece from 2009 on a recent re-issue of a similar book and great online archive.

Nature in cities: the weird trees of Seattle

Eagle, Seattle

I took this photo yesterday morning, out for a walk in the mist around Seattle’s waterfront. The red pointy thing on the left is Alexander Calder’s The Eagle (painted steel, 1971) next to a few trees planted within the Olympic Sculpture Park. I snapped a picture, cropped it and uploaded it to this page. There you go. Nature: tamed, translated, abstracted and remediated several times over.

Something about the abstracted eagle and that carefully planted line of trees reminded me of the new Lorax movie, which I saw last week. [Warning: very minor spoilers] It’s a fable on the distance we’ve come from nature played out through a juxtaposition of real trees and remote-controlled manmade ones; the message being we should stop letting industry fabricate a sellable, apparently controllable nature, and instead just let it grow. And yet, despite this message, it’s told through an odd Dr-Seuss-by-way-of-Pixar fantastic hyperreal style of cartooning. I’m not about to appeal to a knee-jerk critique of postmodernity and plead for a simply really-real depiction of nature. When there was all that fuss about the BBC and polar bears last year, I rolled my eyes at the naivety and largely went with the George Monbiot view. As I argued last month in respects to protest symbols and museum artefacts, sometimes we have to re-make nature to really see it, or at least to share a view of it. Still, the way in which the Lorax movie’s message is presented does inspire a certain type of head-desk. Why not just go outside and get your hands dirty planting something? (arguably because a movie allows the production of consumable goods, but that’s a whole other thread of head-desking).

Back to the sculpture park. A bit along from that eagle is a silver tree. I think it is also made from steel, but I couldn’t find a label. It was slightly like a Dr Seuss illustration itself, and eerily beautiful amongst green grass and pink flowers, also in the mist. I saw a crow fly around and then perch upon one of the higher branches. I’m not sure what Dr Seuss would have made of it, something about the sight reminded me of L. Frank Baum.

Silver tree, by Seattle Art Museum

There’s something about trees in cities which says a lot about humans’ relationship with nature in modernity. Planted to provide controlled moments of green amongst browns and greys, they may annoy us with pollen or overgrowing roots but we generally appreciate them. Especially in the case of the London plane, they can be surprisingly study, despite the pollution thrown at them. They give us shelter, shade and air, as well as changing the more regulated colours, lines and shapes of a modern city. As the Trees for Cities campaign argues, cities need their trees. It’s also worth mentioning Seattle’s “renegade park” the Pollinator Pathway – a mile long corridor of gardens aiming to combine art, ecology, science and community engagement – which has a display case just next to that silver tree.

If you want something really Seuss-like, in downtown Seattle someone’s painted a load of trees bright blue. I googled “blue trees Seattle WTF” and discovered it’s more art, designed to draw attention to deforestation. According to a piece on Atlantic Cities, the artist used a colorant that doesn’t harm the trees, even if it’s designed to jar with your idea of a healthy tree (it’s worth clicking the Atlantic link to see a picture of them covered in blossom, quite something, or there’s more on the artist’s website).

Trees painted blue, by Seattle Occupy

I’ve saved the best trees in Seattle till last though, and they’re a lot simpler. These were a bit south of the sculpture park, by some rail tracks running alongside the harbour. Someone had hung piping between the trees and stuck a load of plant ports made from old milk cartons to it. Water-cooler sized bottles were stuffed in the trees’ branches, with the pipes running out of their mouths, which I guess provide a watering system of some sort. They aren’t as polished as the silver tree or as striking as the blue ones, but they’re stunningly beautiful and quite the best bit of bunting I’ve seen all year (I live in London, I’ve seen a lot of bunting this year).

Many of Seattle’s trees made me smile, but these milk-carton plant-bunting ones inspired me. You can watch the oh-too-ironic Lorax movie or you can go out and plant something. Go, try guerrilla gardening.