January 1st 2016
There is, it turns out, an ocean of difference between recognising something and identifying it. If you were to set out right now and stop at every bird or plant or insect you came across and not leave it until you knew its full name you’d be hard pressed to move a yard a day. And yet most of us, me especially, have always claimed of ourselves that we’re interested in the natural world and we manage to walk twenty miles, on a good day, without apparently missing a thing.
On the left, for instance is a photograph of a seagull near the water. I know it sounds silly but I got Stella to walk about 2 miles in a freezing wind so I could get this exceptionally stupid shot of bird which I knew was a seagull but had no idea what sort. Was it a rarity? Well, no. In fact it took several weeks and a flock of apparently identical birds outside our flat in Bath to figure out that it is a Black Headed Gull which in the winter has a white head with a small comma like darker mark behind the eye.
What is the reward for wasting all that time answering a question that hardly seems to matter much in the great scheme of things? My answer is that it makes me happy. I’m happy to know that (even if I believe that seagulls nest in bin-bags), I do know the name of that particular one. The world gets a bit richer for me and I think that’s the pleasure of naming things. By naming things the world gets bigger, richer, more structured and ever more bafflingly beautiful, and equally it changes and deepens my relationship with it.
So that’s the origin for this notebook. I resolved to name things, in a more or less half-hearted way, because it made me happy. Initially I thought I could confine it just to things I noticed without trying , but the problem is that noticing things – anything at all – seems to sharpen the appetite for noticing more things. Noticing seems to be like a kind of intellectual muscle that gets stronger the more you use it and it seems to grow the interest until a simple walk along a lane becomes very slow indeed, and very rewarding. And it’s not just the walk, it’s the homework afterwards and very often the return visit and another set of observations.
The idea of actually keeping a journal alongside came a bit later in April and May when we paid our first visits to Marloes and I started to make a list of plants I’d seen. Once again I discovered that plants I thought I knew may not have been what I previously thought. The dread words “are you sure?” kept being whispered somewhere deep inside my mind and I was forced to admit to myself that I wasn’t sure at all. I was taking hundreds of photos and I wanted to label them so that I could be reasonably sure I wouldn’t be exposed as a poseur, and I wanted to keep them in a form where I could enjoy both the photos as well as the context in which they were taken; any notes, why we were there at all and what we were doing apart from rooting around in hedges.
I wasn’t starting from nowhere because I’ve always had a lively interest in wildlife and plants in particular. This flared into something much bigger while I was a groundsman for a couple of years after art school and I spent many hours skiving off identifying and drawing flowers and fungi. Looking at the drawings and paintings now, and remembering what gave me the biggest headaches (Veronicas!), I can see that what I lacked was any systematic understanding of the structures of plants. And so I bought a copy of Rose because many of the names I could just about remember had been moved after DNA research. I also bought Stace because that was the last and canonical authority, and finally a hand lens because I’d managed to lose my old one at some point in the intervening 40 odd years.