The heading at the top is the title of a very good Mose Allison song – “What’s your movie?” – which takes the mickey out of people who build their identities out of film characters. Although I love the song and laugh out loud at it, I’m also aware that none of us is able to escape the temptation to weave a narrative around our lives. The problem is that we don’t need to be even remotely out of the ordinary to be able to weave multiple narratives. So with that caveat, please welcome my first ever botany book – Warne’s Wildflowers of the wayside and woodlands”. I think I must have bought it in my late teens and – truth to tell – it was never that much use. The illustrations were miles away from the plants they depicted and the resolution was so poor that at best they gave an impression of the plant; and fatally – there were no keys at all apart from some line drawings sorted by the colour of the flowers. I had no technical knowledge of plant families and so the only means of naming one was to laboriously turn the pages until I found something that looked like – even vaguely like – the plant I had in front of me. Madame will testify that this made for very slow and exquisitely boring walks on her part. Consequently – much as I’d like to – I’m unable to construct a credible narrative around my career as an amateur field botanist. My movie is more like an inconclusive list of rough drafts and false starts that should never have seen the light of day.
However the passion for observing and naming plants never went away and over the years I’ve accumulated an unholy number of books, most of which were totally beyond my comprehension when I bought them. Over fifty years I sort of caught up with most of them whilst simultaneously throwing myself into the pit of incomprehension by buying yet more.
Yesterday I got lucky and found a copy of the out of print New Atlas of the British & Irish Flora, for £34 on the Oxfam website and it was while I was pondering where I was going to find a space for it that I found my battered old copy of “Wayside and Woodland” languishing behind a row of more prestigious looking volumes. When I opened it, I noticed the long dead vetch flower – brown and flattened – which I must have stuffed in there pending further investigation. In those days I hand no hand lens and no other way of taking it any further. It took several years longer to buy one, and I borrowed my first microscope only two years ago; and still the flower sits reproachfully in the book like a photo from a holiday romance, wagging its finger and asking what took me so long? I was utterly vexed by veronicas and distracted by dandelions and daisies. Any self-taught botanist will tell you it’s a prolonged agony of blind alleys and mazes.
And so I have passed the three consecutive Atlantic storms that squatted on our horizon and tormented us this past week- by mugging up on grasses, gathering my kit together, re-registering on iRecord and assembling my field guides ready for our first proper plant spotting trip down to Cornwall. Cornwall is early and later we’ll move up the West coat of the UK as far as North Wales hopefully catching the same plants several times. Suddenly I’m energised and better prepared than ever before. I watched three of the brilliant BSBI webinars on grasses and then ploughed through the introduction to the BSBI handbook on grasses, looking up all the terms I still don’t fully understand. This is a bit of a grudge match because during a field trip with the Bath Natural History Society, I mentioned to one of its luminaries that I found grasses difficult. “Oh” she said – “Grasses are easy!” She’s a brilliant and normally patient teacher and I’m pretty sure she’d intuited the fact that I can’t resist a direct challenge. Gradually, after three years – two of which were wrecked by COVID – I’ve made a small start – decades after I should have done.
Ironic isn’t it? Just as I’m beginning to get my act as a field botanist together, the proper botanists have retreated to white painted rooms, DNA analysis and electron microscopes. I can’t tell my haploid from my diploid and neither do I have the faintest idea what a palisade variant of non Kranz (C3) anatomy might be (actually I’ve an idea it’s to do with photosynthesis). My dearest wish is just to walk through a flower meadow and greet each of its inhabitants by name. My biggest fear is that I’ll be among the last people to be able to do so.