I’m constantly writing and thinking about the reason the natural world so deeply affects me (and so many of us), in such a way that it’s almost impossible to express in words. Feeling good about the natural world hardly does justice to it when for instance – at the moment of taking this photograph of the Percuil river – I was so filled with inexpressible gratitude and joy. It was an intensely spiritual moment, I might say; except that any half sensible interrogator would ask – “Well what does spiritual actually mean?”
We’d just walked down the path in the photo, through open woodland that was just alive with wildflowers. Now and again we caught glimpses of the river across a gated field entrance but mostly we were concentrating on re-finding the reliable patch of Early Purple orchids we’d found several years running. The dappled woodland was a perfect setting for the yellows, blues and reds of Celandines and Buttercups; Bluebells, Cow Parsley, Herb Robert and Red Campions. Little moments of visual intensity suspended in air above the green background; a silent triumphant chord turning one of the five senses into another.
Plant hunting turns out to be an incredibly sensual experience. With a bit of experience the exploration of any new plant – it needn’t be rare at all -uses all of the senses. The texture, colour, minute details of form, taste, (used with extreme discretion) and smell. The geology underfoot, time of day and time of year, exact setting – mid field, hedgerow, open woodland or dark forest; all these play into a reflection that draws on our memory and previous experience distilled down to a single moment with a single expression of Nature.
Yesterday I was idling along looking at different kinds of Dock – I was able to comfortably name three – all of them ubiquitous in this country – Broad Leaved, Curled and Common Sorrel. I could have managed a couple more but they weren’t there, but in naming them I used exactly the sensual plus procedure I described above. When I started out I almost always forgot the diagnostic powers of stroking and sniffing, until I encountered Hedge Woundwort whose crushed leaves smell horrible.
When we reached the little boatyard at Percuil we sat on a wall in the sun, looking at the moored boats when Madame caught sight of a familiar plant right in front of us. “Its Fennel” – she said – “Go and look”, and so I did. It wasn’t difficult because we use Fennel and grow it ourselves. So a roll between the fingers and a sniff confirmed beyond any doubt. But at this point the story took another entirely new turn because the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland), have just published an online database of all the plants, their distribution, their increase and decrease in the face of this environmental catastrophe. Thirty odd million records processed and mapped. So out came my mobile phone and with a few taps we discovered that Common Fennel is indeed very common around the coast but hasn’t been recorded in the little four kilometer square in which we were sunbathing. So that’s a new record that sits like the last piece of a jigsaw in a long coastline.
But once you’ve photographed, checked and rechecked and consulted the field guides and satisfied yourself that the name is factually correct, there’s always a remainder. A chunk of the experience that refuses to be reduced to dimensions and probabilities and pays no heed to logic and expertise. It doesn’t even have to be a rare plant – it could as easily be a Dandelion. Maybe some kind of spirituality is where that remainder lives. When all the pub quiz / trainspotter stuff is over and done, something is left that feels as if it’s mostly made from love, wonder and gratitude. A whole other sense above and beneath the tactile, the sensual and the intellectual. Maybe the beginnings of a Green Spirituality lie within this barely explored sense. The earthy, material, exhilarating phenomenon that we call Nature speaks through our senses. Here’s the orchid – still there and below that, some bits and bobs including a stunning bit of walling.