I think I blame my mother for possessing so much plant wisdom, and Henry Williamson for fanning the flames. I only say this because today as I was quite literally rooting around in search of a rhizome in the car park today so I could nail down my unexpected finding of a Hoary ragwort – Jacobaea erucifolia next to the fire escape, I suddenly realized why I was there. “It’s the names, you fool” – I thought. “You’re in love with the names”. Since I was there in the rain, on my knees, digging gently with my penknife so as not to damage the plant, the neighbours may well have though me barking mad but in fact I was rolling the names around in my head – ragwort, ragweed, stinking willie, devildums, dog stalk, mares fart, muggert – among dozens listed by Geoffrey Grigson in”The Englishman’s Flora” – an excellent book which can be read by women too! It was also the plant used by fairies for getting about because broomsticks were much too big which, I suppose, would have been well known to William Shakespeare who knew his plants and their uses very well.
But it was Williamson who got me going; so much so that after I’d read “Tarka” and all the others when I was still very young, I ordered up all 27 (I think) books of his “Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” – which I read avidly until I realized that he held some political views that would have made him a Mosleyite fascist. It was the end of the affair for me, but half the time – I excuse myself here – it was his extraordinary knowledge of nature that captivated me. The only thing that held me back was that when I read the plant names I had never seen them and wouldn’t recognise them if I did. I had become enchanted by the names; seriously and fatally compromised by the words themselves.
Then there was Shakespeare with his woodbine, oxlips, eglantine and all the rest. I would gaze out of the window during English lessons, rehearsing the names in my head like a rosary, knowing that my destiny was supposed to be engineering and all I really wanted to do was understand those words. At the time I wouldn’t have known a botanist from a chimney sweep. My mother’s knowledge of plants was organic – it wasn’t a subject, it was a culture, a history, an upbringing in the Chilterns where, she once told me that the first time she saw a flush toilet she was afraid to use it because she’d only ever seen an earth closet before that.
I bought my first flora “Wildflowers of the Wayside and Woodland” published by Frederick Warne some time before I was 20 and I still have it. The story ought to proceed along the usual tramlines but it doesn’t. Wildflowers were pushed to the edges and we met occasionally during holidays; but slowly as I got older there was more time and I could afford better books – many better books, and it was always there lurking in the shadows. I’m in awe of the field botanists who’ve made a profession of it; in awe of their capacity to recognise plants and remember their latin names – but I think I’ve got the best deal in the end because I spent my career studying what it means to be human, and occasionally getting my waders full in the process. So the plants and small creatures have become redemptive in their way. Even when I work out something that’s absolutely blindingly obvious to the experts, to me it’s a moment of illumination and re-enchantment. A holiday romance revived and, more often than not, a literary experience as well. Of course the irony is that the more I find out the more complicated it all becomes. I’ve written about grass and today I did some more practice identifications but the highlight was discovering that the ragwort in the car park behind the flats was neither of the alternatives I was considering but a third type altogether. As Paul Val
Today the sky was iron grey and it was drizzling but we were both eager to be out so we went off in search of Browne’s Folly a(n) SSSI and nature reserve up a tiny lane that’s exceptionally tricky to find. And so, to get back to the beginning before the bell goes, there’s wild thyme growing there …. and Bath asparagus and loads of other things that most people probably wouldn’t get worked up about but how could you not be bowled over by the pale blue of a field scabious and there’s a patch of grassland there that just shouts orchid! Oh and an abandoned stone mine with bats. It was slippery with mud and Madame was less than thrilled with some exposed bits of path, but the view from the top was tremendous. The folly is a Bath stone tower built during a slack economic period as a highly visible advert for the quarry. I peeped inside and there was a stairway leading in a spiral to the top but no handrail so after a couple of flights my courage failed me and I climbed back down clinging to the wall.
Back home, we resolved to go back for a serious plant hunt, and then we went to the allotment; pruned the autumn raspberries back and tied them in before harvesting some food for the weekend. A lousy weather day completely redeemed by nature, mud and all. And tomorrow there are a couple more raised beds that require our attention.