Walking down to the sea today with the sun on our necks I experienced what John Betjeman once said of walking the River Kennet – “the glory was in me”. I find that phrase greatly moving in the way it situates the glory within rather than outside and apart from us like something that might be measured and described but never gulped down in great draughts. We come here, (I come here at least), for the plants. In the spring and early summer these western coastal fringes are a feast of botanical delights. In past walks I’ve listed well over 70 plants in flower, barely leaving the ten miles of local coastal path. When we arrived, until Saturday evening, we were enveloped in mist and cloud with the temperature sulking at around 13C. Then the sky finally cleared and the sun came out and the restrained hedgerows burst into flame.
Let’s be clear, I’m still – relatively speaking – a botanical novice on a mission to name the plants and animals I encounter. I hesitate to resort to biblical stories for fear of turning people off, and I’m not very religious myself, but I always loved the one of the two alternative creation stories in the Old Testament in which Adam is given the task of naming the creatures. Homo Sapiens – the thinking animal is only a (relatively unimportant) part of the story. Being human is, or should be, as much about naming and befriending the manifestations of creation as it is about categorising, weighing and measuring them. There’s something fundamental in the business of knowing names because it reaches out and creates a bond, a state of interdependence between the participants. We are mutually beholden – because we have put the work in, or in that unlovely management phrase – we’ve got skin in the game. Once we were strangers, but now after a time of intense regard and thoughtfulness we are on first name terms because we are all scions of the same root (and I’ll come back to that point in a moment).
Of course, that degree of plant scrutiny while you’re walking to the Co-op to buy a pint of milk would be inappropriate, which means that when – at last – we’re allowed out to do some serious plant hunting, a change of gear is called for. We’re a bit rusty, and walking with attention needs practice – that’s all getting your eye in means. Five years ago, when I made the utterly hubristic resolution not to walk past anything I couldn’t name, I quickly realized that in spite of a lifelong interest in wildlife, I hardly knew a thing – I was still really at the buttercups and daisies stage.
I suppose it will seem a bit strange to a thoroughgoing materialist but the plants have always been as much a spiritual quest as they are about ticking of boxes, and so, to pick up that earlier thread, I want to throw a brick into the water. “In the beginning” says St John, “was the Word” – the Logos.
Marvellous I always thought, until John spoiled everything by attempting to restart the whole creation from metaphysical ground zero. Gary Snyder, in the final essay in “The Practice of the Wild” – “Survival and Sacrament”, refers to the Easter Liturgy – the great sequence of songs and readings rehearsing the history of humanity. For me it was always the greatest of all the liturgies; to sing in plainsong a melody and words that were always almost unbearably powerful – so powerful I had to rehearse for an hour on my own to get beyond the tears.
But there was one flaw, and that was the attempt to restart the story at the beginning of the Christian era and erase the millennia, even geological ages that went before. Whether it should be the first verses of Genesis or the first verses of John’s Gospel that comes before all the other readings and psalms I’ll leave to the theologians. I am sure, however, that they both belong at the beginning of the liturgy. I have preached a thousand times that when God speaks, things happen. From the Big Bang to the construction of the large Hadron Collider and from the first slime mould to the emergence of distinctively human life we are all spoken. The horror of the separation – the true original sin, if you like, came on the day we decided that the story was all about us and that the rest of creation was there to service our greed.
So to get back to the plants, it seems to me that the whole of nature amounts to the speech of God, of the Dao or the Great Spirit – it doesn’t matter about the name; maybe Judaism is right, it can and never should be uttered. But the earth and all living things and all inanimate things like water and mountains are spoken out of that primordial moment, and because all of the ten thousand things are ‘spoken’ it makes perfect sense to me that the plants, being some form of ineffable language; speak – as do the mountains and the seas and all the living creatures of which we are just one. The mountains speak ‘mountainish’ and the seas speak ‘sea-ish’ and the plants, obviously, speak plantish, and I’m just struggling to learn plantish – it’s very beautiful.
And so the walking becomes a meditation punctuated by greetings – “Hi sheepsbit!” I say in my head, or perhaps in my heart, and the sheepsbit somehow acknowledges me. “Hello bladder campion” “Hello silverweed” and, on a good day – “hello dodder – haven’t seen you in a while”. The English stonecrop positively glows at me in pale pink and, just as I’m pausing to speak, a ring ouzel slips away flying low. I’ve only seen them twice and first time I was so surprised I emailed the County Recorder to ask if I was seeing things. Today I was completely confident.
Often I make lists but when I do I write the english names in first, because the names in themselves make a kind of poem or song about the past – ploughmans’ spikenard, dyers’ greenweed, woundwort, restharrow. To lose any one of these common and relatively insignificant friends would be a tragedy. What if, one day we came here and walked as we always do down towards the bus stop and the marshy ground at Pwll Trefeiddan and there were no southern marsh orchids, no ragged robin, no flag irises and none of the broad bodied chasers and damselflies who live there, glinting azure blues and reds. That’s the thing about naming and befriending; about beholding even the most common and inconspicuous fellow beings. They matter, not just as ticks on a list but as memories, precious moments, explosive little revelations.
And it goes further than names because so many of the plants have been useful to humans in some way. We eat them, grow them and forage for them. Historically they’ve been the cure for many of the simple disorders and afflictions we suffer from – yesterday, for instance, growing in the wall of St Non’s Well was a clump of pellitory of the wall – traditionally used to treat urinary complaints. Knowing the properties of plants adds a whole new depth of meaning and relationship, and it’s the erosion of our relationship with plants. with the whole natural world that has allowed us to become careless of the environment. I don’t in my heart believe that anger and demonstrations will achieve what can only be done by reconnection. The earth will be safe only when enough of us get our eye in.