The greatest advantage of the phone camera is the sheer convenience I suppose but it’s not always the best tool for the job. The upper two photos were both taken with my Pixel 3 phone – it was a sunny day, the subject, a beautiful wooly thistle – Cirsium eriophorum was sitting still, and depth of field, the extent to which the photo remained focused throughout the whole depth of the subject wasn’t a great problem. I knew what it was and in the perfect conditions it was a useful aide memoire of our walk. My intention in taking the picture was also to have a sample for the iRecord software while I’m learning to use it. I don’t suppose for a moment the County Recorder would be thrilled to receive yet another record of a pretty common plant, but I’ve discovered over many years of failures that it’s better to learn to use new software before getting things right turns an opportunity into a panic. The other reason for using the phone was because we were out for a fairly long walk and the thought of lugging a camera, flash unit and tripod up a steep hill was a bit daunting. However, no matter – it all worked seamlessly and I was able to snatch the shot without making my companions wait.
The lower photo was a different kettle of fish altogether. Yesterday we met up with our grandchildren and their mum & dad in the Forest of Dean – two trips in a week. My secret plan (well it’s not secret any more because I’m writing about it) is to encourage our oldest grandson to get involved in natural history – he’s really keen, and if we can release just one more young naturalist into the world I’ll feel my efforts have been worthwhile. So we were doing a very informal session on the difference between sedges and rushes – you know the rhyme, sedges have edges, rushes are round. These little mnemonics are really catchy and useful and of course they make the task of identifying plants so much simpler. If you can get the family right you can jump start the process of finding the name, and nothing fires you up more than a few early successes.
But in the process, I noticed a Euphorbia lurking in the margins of the track. They’re unmistakable as a family, but getting down to the species or further needs closer observation which would have taken more time than I had. So I took a photo – it’s photo number three.
One of the most difficult lessons I’ve found, in identifying plants, is to evolve a modus operandi for looking at them. Field botanists who know their stuff (exactly like birdwatchers) talk about the “jizz”. As you get more familiar with plants there are many that some lucky souls can identify from ten feet away but which will tie me into knots as I plough through the keys. I say to myself that it’s like practising piano scales, it’s hard, repetitive work but it’s essential. When there’s no time to identify a tricky plant on the spot I could, I suppose take a small piece home and identify it but – and it’s a big but – unless it’s so common I probably know it already – there’s always a possibility that I’m damaging something precious and so a careful photo that embodies the key features is the better way of bringing some evidence home.
What’s wrong with the photo, then? Well, it’s not terribly well focused and not of sufficient quality to enlarge greatly. I didn’t take any measurements and so I’d have to guess how tall it is and how large are those very odd flowers. I didn’t scuffle around at the base to see what was going on there (stolons? rhizome? – all that kind of stuff) and also I didn’t get nearly enough detail on the leaves, how they were attached to the stalk, whether they were opposite or alternate, I didn’t make a note of the soil or the neighbours or where exactly it was (edge of wood, middle of footpath, deep shade, on the edge of a pond) and I didn’t think to take a grid reference from my phone. Once again, it’s not the end of the world because it’s almost certainly a wood spurge – Euphorbia amygdaloides – but let’s say it was a rarity, for instance, then if I presented it to the county recorder for verification they’d probably tell me (in the nicest possible way) to get lost.
So – message to myself –
- 1. Take the tripod and camera etc.
- 2. Make the notes
- 3. Practice more
But finally, develop good habits. Habits – good ones, that is, are the foundation of all virtues because if you develop them well, you’ll do the right thing without having to think about it and that will keep you out of all sorts of scrapes – both botanical and ethical.
Enough! there’s just enough time to write about the journey home. We discovered that the old Severn Bridge was closed and so we were left with the choice between driving in the wrong direction almost to Newport and then heading back; OR driving up to Gloucester alongside the River Severn and along the edge of the Forest of Dean and back down the A38 with the Cotswold escarpment on our left. Well that was a no-brainer. Forest on the left, Cotswolds on the right and the glorious Severn between them, on a sunny day in high summer with the windows wound down in the campervan, tractors cutting and gathering silage in the fields all around and everywhere the delicious smells of summer and salt water and the joy of being out in it after weeks on lockdown.
Alleluia I say! And finally, some photos from the Bath Skyline walk.