Nothing in nature is without purpose

This beautiful scientific drawing by Margaret Tebbs is from the BSBI handbook “Grasses of the British Isles” by Tom Cope and Alan Gray.

A mea culpa is called for on my part. A couple of days ago I was writing about my excitement at seeing the seed of a false oat grass under the microscope and how I got tremendously excited at its rather extravagant beauty. Now at one level there’s nothing wrong with such a strongly aesthetic response to nature. The sense of wonder is at the heart of our response and it’s been getting a bit of a push at the moment, with so much media coverage of the psychological benefits of being in nature. There’s a slightly creepy feel to some of the quasi religious stuff being promoted, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see instances of miraculous healing being claimed, and no doubt there will be therapists too ….. But the originating emotional response is quite genuine.

Beyond the oohs and aahs, anyone who’s tried their hand at botanical illustration will know how incredibly difficult it is to do justice to the observational science and at the same time capture the sheer beauty of plants. The best I’ve ever managed is to capture them in a small part of a drawing. I’ve got one on the wall in the flat, and although I can see nothing but flaws in the greater part of it, there’s one small passage at the bottom that gets it right – and I often look at it and wonder how did I do that?

So yes – the aesthetic response is good, but it’s never the whole, and as I ploughed my way through the BSBI handbook, I came across the most wonderful explanation of why the awns, the spiky appendages to the seeds of this grass and some of its cousins are as they are. Coincidentally, yesterday I was reading some of the biography of Joseph Banks who was the pioneering botanist on the voyage of the Discovery with Captain Cook and whose work was rather frowned upon by many leading scientists of his day because he had taken up the Linnaean system of classification, and Linnaeus was thought to be all too interested in the sexual activity of plants. For the delicate constitutions of the devout, the thought of fields, full of fornicating plants, was all to much.

But plants (and all nature) are very much concerned with – shall we say – putting it about? and the difficulties of doing so have been addressed by different plants in different ways over evolutionary time. Getting into field botany commits you to a life of examining the naughty bits of plants – how they work, and in this case how they spread their little darlings.

“an object of admiration to all grass lovers”.

Plues “British Grasses” 1867

So lets go back to the picture and notice that there are two awns – one straight and the other with a twist and a bend about half way up. The thing about the twist (which I compared with a fairy blacksmith forging it in gold) is that it isn’t gold, it’s living tissue, and crucially, it’s hygroscopic – it absorbs moisture and as it does so the spirally shaped part of the awn slowly rotates, unwinds. Imagine a time lapse video, and as the relative humidity of the air ebbs and flows, you’d see it waving back and forth like an angry adder. So you’ve got one waving awn and one stiff one. When the ripe seed falls to the ground the first thing it needs to do is to get itself into the earth, so it can germinate and immediately grow some roots. And so, in a tiny evolutionary miracle, this particular seed is able to use the two awns to walk its way into the earth. Self burying seeds no less. For me that adds to the aesthetic experience under the microscope – glory upon glory if you like.

That’s about it at the moment. The Potwell Inn has gone on a rather severe diet and so the last three days have been etched with suffering – well that’s a slight exaggeration, but 40 days in the desert is, by all accounts, a good way of fending off decrepitude and I’ve no appetite for testing my own self-burying skills – there are too many things I still want to do!

Finally a photo, taken on Bannerdown, that I published in a gallery a few days ago – It’s a wild carrot and I thought it deserved to find a place in a bigger format. I just loved the way the sun is shining through it.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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