knotweed

by lucy cathcart frödén
gabi froden, knotweed, illustration, 2021.

Through several years’ work alongside migrant families in Glasgow, Scotland, and as a volunteer visitor to the only immigration detention center in Dungavel, Scotland, I have witnessed at close quarters the brutality of the United Kingdom (UK) border. Over that time, my understanding of the border as a site of systemic and racialized state violence has deepened. Reading you are here’s call for submissions on the theme of bodies and politics, I was struck by the tangible and physical ways in which increasingly-hostile border control policies impact the bodies of many people in the UK — as well as the many communities of care and solidarity that resist borders in everyday life. This piece of writing is dedicated to one such community: the Life After Detention group in Glasgow.

Reynoutria japonica is a species of herbaceous perennial plant of the knotweed and buckwheat family Polygonaceae. It is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world’s worst invasive species.¹

Drawing the green standard-issue curtains aside, she looks out from the 22nd floor. The disused railway is now so overgrown that it is barely visible, in the hollow between the housing estate and the river. Touching the window with her forefinger, she draws stems and leaves in the condensation, remembering that once upon a time she had thought she would feel safe here. That her body would be allowed to belong.

It is a frequent colonizer of temperate riparian ecosystems, roadsides and waste places. It forms thick, dense colonies that completely crowd out any other herbaceous species.

She remembers right after crossing the border, that feeling of arrival at a long-awaited destination, the relief. Naïve, really, to imagine the border as a simple line, like it is on the map. An inevitable part of the landscape, like the contour line of a mountain range or the course of a river. Something that just exists, unquestioned, neutral, inanimate.

She is far from the border now, but it turns out it does not stay still and let you cross it, at least not in this body. It is writhing, reaching for you, under the surface, unseen. She now realises her body has become the stillness, and the border crosses her. The border is the black-gloved hand knocking on the door before dawn, closing around her upper arm, leaving bruises. The border is no time to pack, sweating, running from room to room, airless. The border is gates, blue uniforms, the sound of heavy keys in lock after lock after lock. The border feeds you, beige platefuls, so much potato, so much stomach ache. The border is eyes on every part of your body, entitled.

The success of the species has been partially attributed to its tolerance of a very wide range of soil types, pH and salinity. Its rhizomes can survive temperatures of −35 °C (−31 °F) and can extend 7 metres (23 ee) horizontally and 3 metres (10 ee) deep, making removal by excavation extremely difficult.

After a couple of weeks, she was released from immigration detention and back to the high rise. Thankfully, the border hadn’t got around to putting her stuff in black bags and destroying it, as it had done to others. She mostly keeps the curtains closed now, although sleep is virtually impossible. Her dreams are filled with plants that won’t stop growing, that fill her bedroom, bind her limbs, grow down her throat.

The plant is also resilient to cutting, vigorously resprouting from the roots. To eradicate the plant, the roots need to be killed.

It is much harder now to do the simple things — step outside the door, wait for the lift, watch the metal doors close. Smiling at strangers takes a lot more effort. But she has found others. Others whose arms are bruised, whose bodies are watched, and still others who care, and listen, and fight. There are Tuesdays at 4 o’clock, around a table with pistachios, pastries, quiet solidarity. Small, steady acts of resistance against the relentless spread of these roots beneath all of our feet.


¹ All italicized text is taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynoutria_japonica.

Lucy Cathcart Frödén is a community musician, linguist, and doctoral researcher based at the University of Glasgow and with arts organization Vox Liminis. Her practice-based PhD explores collaborative songwriting as a research method, and draws on experience of community development and shared music-making with differently-situated communities including prisoners and their families, socially excluded young people, and forcibly displaced people. She is a member of the research team of Distant Voices, a project that explores crime, punishment and reintegration through songwriting. She also makes a podcast, an audio scrapbook of the research process, called Our Chance of Becoming Human.

Gabi Froden is a Swedish illustrator and writer who lives in Glasgow. Amongst her clients you’ll find tThe Guardian, the British Broadcasting CorporationBBC, the National Health Service,NHS and Huffington Post as well as Age UK, Action Against Hunger, and many other charitable organisations. Her children’s books are published in Scandinavia and recent reviews call her work “jubilant.”