A rainy day brings me face to face with my chaotic records.

Until quite recently I’ve been rather dismissive of record keeping. I’ve seen so many people sitting hunched in front of screens, entering data for hour after hour, and thinking to myself that such ant-like industry was a bit tame compared with having the wind in your face in some wild and remote corner of the countryside. However I had a sort of Damascus Road conversion this week when I realized how much I rely on my fallible memory.

So, for instance I recently came across a single Corn Marigold growing at the edge of the coast path. It’s one of those species that’s slowly disappearing because it contaminates grain crops and can make them go mouldy; and so farmers can get exemptions to spray them with weedkiller. OK I recognised it because I’d seen it before and took all the photos necessary to send it to the local Vice County Recorder for verification. All very laborious but the record was accepted and I was extremely pleased with myself.

Pleased, that is, until I tried to find the photos I’d taken of the same plant in Pembrokeshire, which was where the farmer explained to me the paradox of needing to spray off a vulnerable plant in order to make a living. I’m pleased I didn’t have to adjudicate in that case, but it was – he insisted – a very involved process. He was no cowboy; he played his farming by the book. This all took place in 2016, and in spite of a lengthy and time consuming search through thousands of photos I couldn’t find them. In fact, of the thousands of photos I’ve taken of plants, I’ve always relied on memory to find them again. There are no grid references, just dates – and no notes or I/D’s. So to verify a ten year old photo I just have to hope that the photo was good enough to convey the essential details, and with some plants that might mean a 3mm long seed. Usually they aren’t that good. I’ve tried using a very expensive Panasonic camera with an even more expensive Leica macro lens but it weighs a ton and slows down our walks to divorce speed. It’s been a steep learning curve to make the best of my Pixel 6 phone with an add-on macro lens.

Anyway, enough technical talk. The nub of the problem is that I don’t take the necessary notes on the spot, and I’ve never made my photos searchable by using keywords. Even worse, now I’ve started successfully submitting records to the BSBI I don’t have a personal copy of the plants I’ve recorded, along with all the other useful information. If it takes an optimistic one minute to make a record, it’ll take somewhere in the region of 200 hours to enter the data; and realistically it could take twice or three times that because many of the records would need identifying all over again. My respect for those industrious ants hunched over their laptops has soared.

Of course I’ve got handwritten notebooks going back fifty and more years; but they’re spasmodic, unsearchable and without photos. Worse still they contain stacks of shopping lists and phone numbers and references to books – you know the kind of thing. The only sensible option is digital and after a lot of searching through applications that monitor your mood, send you inspiring messages and increase your productivity I came back to the beginning and Google Photos where they’re all stored already with their EXIF data which in the case of the Pixel 5 stores location, although in an incomprehensible and difficult to convert form. Phew.

Hedge Woundwort

I think the heart of the problem is that I’m a bit of a Tigger; always on to the next thing, and because I’m a writer I use photographs as much to record feelings as for raw data. I love writing; I love writing this blog – but behind the scenes there are two almost conflicting aims. The writerly aim is to capture and hopefully convey the inspirational beauty of the earth. The scientific aim is to understand and to record the things I see in a way that can add to our knowledge and understanding of the earth. The conflict is expressed neatly in the names of flowers. Will it be the English names; imprecise and sometimes downright misleading, but often poetic and expressive of historical uses and ancient magic; or will it be the Latin? Will it be Hedge Woundwort or Stachys sylvatica? I would never want to choose because both English and Latin names are indispensable to me. The poetry and beauty of Eyebright, with its intimation of ancient usage carries so much metaphorical freight, we’d be all the poorer if it were shoved aside by the pedantic application of its scientific name – unless – that is, you’re trying to figure out whether it’s thriving or failing when getting the name exactly right for the species is a matter of real importance.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

There are literally millions of records of British and Irish wildflowers, all searchable and nearly all down to the ant-like industry of thousands of volunteers recording and entering the data and the handful of poorly paid professionals who struggle to keep the whole show on the road. Why is it important? Mostly because the only weapon we have left to oppose the destruction of the earth or the gifting of our land to extractive industrial agriculture is strong and reliable evidence of the biological diversity of the land they covet. There’s no credible argument against this. The future is either green or it’s Goodnight Irene for all of us and our putative descendants. Governments will argue in bad faith that there is no evidence for X or Y, knowing full well that there is no evidence because they starved these essential scientific bodies of the funding they needed to gather the evidence.

My chaotic records, I’m ashamed to say, are of no use at all in this threatened world unless I get them organised. I get it. This blog is just one thread of my fascination with what makes us human. It’s the visible conversation about the relationship between the Potwell Inn and being fully human; our lived experience in all its partiality and confusion. The other thread is the urge to identify, record and understand what is here in order that we can make a reliable inventory of what we have, what we are losing and what we have lost. Hard nosed and factual, industrious and perhaps a bit dull; except that I spent a couple of hours yesterday dissecting and photographing some Cow Parsley and comparing it with some Rough Chervil. I can’t begin to tell you how enjoyable it was!

Culture war on the allotments

After an exhausting couple of busy weeks on the Potwell Inn allotment we’ve come down to Cornwall for a break. Luckily we were blessed with some decent rain as we left and although it made for unpleasant driving on the motorway it was a joy to think that the allotment was getting a thorough soak. Happily too, we’ve got brilliant neighbours who are always willing to lend a hand with watering the greenhouse and the polytunnel. Although the greenhouse has an automatic watering system, it’s very difficult to calibrate because the pressure goes down as the water level in the tank decreases, and occasionally a bit of gunk jams the inlet valve open so it floods the plants and does as much harm as drought does. There’s no doubt that personal attention is the least foolproof way of going on, but we all need a break occasionally and so we help each other out.

In fact, half the joy of allotmenteering is the community of interest that it builds. The gardeners on our site are a pretty fair representation of the hugely diverse and polyglot population of Bath. When we talk of culture we need to remember that the root of the concept comes from the uniqueness of our highly local ways of living, growing, talking and celebrating. You can either treat diversity as a threat, or (so far as I’m concerned) a marvellous melting pot in which everyone becomes both teacher and student. To use a slightly academic phrase, what diversity offers is the prospect of emergent properties; insights and techniques of the utmost importance in a time of huge threat.

So it came as something of a surprise when, after a hiatus of two years, the council announced that plot inspections would take place in early May and, rather than acknowledging that the site has never looked better with so many newcomers taking on empty and neglected plots; started to send out letters threatening eviction for quite trivial and, in one case, quite imaginary infringements of the rules. Sheds, one allotmenteer was informed, were not permitted to have windows. No trace of any such regulation can be seen in the 27 pages of mostly sensible rules but suddenly we are all in danger of being evicted as a result of rogue windows. The Potwell Inn allotment will probably get away with it because since the vandalism on Christmas Eve our shed hasn’t had one and the void has been covered with an empty manure bag, tacked on. We may, I suppose, still be turned off under a newly invented rule that advertising is not permitted. Another member was threatened because they were using an old cast iron fireplace as a firepit.

We were, however, warned that “non fruit bearing trees” with a trunk diameter of more than 3/4″ are not permitted. This is an (unwritten) extension of the sensible rule that standard fruit trees are prone to shading neighbours’ allotments. All of our trees are on highly dwarfing rootstocks, but Madame stuck a small piece of pruning from a bay tree in the ground in the hope it might preserve the leaves better than hanging it in the kitchen. We got an email detailing the ferocious and land grabbing propensities of bay and were “advised” to remove it. Our experience of bay trees is that they can get out of hand, but over pruning will often kill them.

So what on earth is going on? It seems to me that there’s an intriguing allotment culture war going on between an official with a very rigid historical view of what constitutes a proper allotment and a bunch of new gardeners who are entirely free of any preconceptions about double digging, National Growmore fertilizer and finely calibrated straight rows. On the one hand there is the stereotypical Mr Digwell with his trilby hat and pipe and on the other a new culture of recycling, upcycling and acute environmental awareness. The 25% of land on which we are allowed to grow flowers is more likely to be occupied by more recently sanctified “weeds” than cut flowers destined for the church porch.

I propose a test case with the lovely Echium pininana (photo above) which fails the regulations in every way being way more than three inches in girth, as much as ten feet tall, but which dies at the sniff of a frost and in summer is always alive with bees and other pollinating insects including armies of ants. And in any case, what on earth constitutes a non fruit-bearing tree. Without winter berries many of our overwintering birds would simply die and so – are cotoneaster bushes (in sensible numbers) friend or foe? Whose idea of fruit or food are we meant to be protecting?

Ironically the Council has announced a whole raft (I like that word because it implies imminent flooding, which is all too true), so a whole raft of green measures including green corridors which, truth to tell, is exactly what we need since Crest Nicholson were allowed to build houses for the wealthy on the southern riverbank which, before the construction of flats which resembled Russian bonded warehouses, was a post industrial urban wildlife haven. Of course we need houses, but not just for the wealthy!

So there we are – away in the wilds of Cornwall with the campervan; hunting for plants and – to be strictly accurate – guzzling wine and snoozing in the sunshine too. Will there be a menacing letter waiting for us when we get home? Time will tell I suppose, but this battle isn’t really about windows or trees it’s about dreams, it’s about saving the planet, it’s about listening to new ideas and new ways of doing things and it’s about widening the slit in the sentry post of petty regulations to see the wider picture.

There’s a huge difference between looking and beholding

My old music teacher AF Woodman had an assortment of names for me. Sometimes he would address me as “rod, pole or perch“, and on others he would extend my name by stressing every letter into a strangulated “poe-ill”. I didn’t care what he called me because he gave me a lifelong love of music. One of his pet phrases was – “I know you heard it Poe-ill; but were you listening?

Much later in life I was on a retreat at the La Retraite convent in Clifton, and we were invited to take the hands of a complete stranger but rather than something easy like telling them what we had for breakfast, we were instructed to behold one another. This turned out to be incredibly hard for me because it involved letting my guard down. It was, in its own small way, a life changing experience, because it uncovered a complexity and depth of possibility in an encounter with a stranger that eventually became the key to my pastoral work. Dangerous, messy and (in a very limited sense) erotic beholding, enabled a form of listening which involved all of the senses.

It took its toll, of course, and eventually I just ran out of steam. Too many bereavements; too much grief. I needed to get out before I burned out.

Anyway, that was then and as I’ve written here before, the key to surviving crises is a capacity to reinvent yourself using the strengths that are left after the broken bits have been laid up; all of which maunderings lead to a further look at the alleged healing powers of nature. The italicized “alleged” is not there to knock the idea but it’s just asserting that the healing powers of nature are a hypothesis not a natural law.

On Monday last we went back up to Velvet Bottom in a further search for Spring Sandwort – Minuartia verna. Our recovery from Covid – which we caught a month ago – has been very slow. The acute phase was pretty horrible, but that was followed by all sorts of symptoms that seemed more psychological than physical. Combined with a really busy time on the allotment it was as much as we could do to keep up with the routine work because any physical effort seemed to drain us both completely. So our trip to Mendip was compromised by my incapacity to focus, or draw any inspiration at all from what would normally excite and engage me. Madame was kind enough to keep her counsel, but I must have been a miserable companion. All I could think of was to lie down on the grass and sleep. Fortunately, a week on, we both feel almost normal again.

The urge to lie down on the warm grass, though, was inspired by an experience in my early teens when I lay on the grass on Rodway Hill and had what Romain Rolland described to Freud as the oceanic feeling. I’ve no idea how long it lasted but I seemed to be completely absorbed into the earth and her processes. From my point of view it was a completely passive experience and even though I was very young I just gave myself up to it. It was a completely unasked for healing that I’ve never forgotten. I lay there looking up at the blue sky, dappled with summer clouds and listened to the wind riffling through the drifts of grass. Now, with hindsight, I would include this in a description of the healing powers of nature only with the proviso that it can never be sought – it’s an experience of undeserved grace that can’t be guaranteed in any particular place, and which only fell to me a couple of times despite many attempts to force its hand.

But there’s another way of engaging with nature that’s quite different and is capable of and responsive to being sought; and it involves a kind of beholding, directed at natural rather than human subjects. Yes of course it’s possible to reduce field botany to a kind of trainspotting, and I’m certain that there are people out there who ask nothing more of nature than a new record. But when I go out on a field trip with some people, I sense that their engagement with the tiniest of nature’s gifts is far deeper; a two way engagement that both speaks and listens. To walk with such a person is – to quote a favourite heretic

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour

From Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

For them a tiny rope of mycelium tracking across a dead tree; the elaborate hieroglyphic of Graphis scripta lichen a couple of inches in diameter on a tree trunk , the little Moschatel with its cubic flower head giving it the name Town Hall Clock; these are not ticks in a box but true encounters – beholdings, if you like – engagements with nature that have spiritual power and maybe even (if the seeing becomes a true beholding) an offer of healing. So in this sense too, it means something more than wishful thinking to speak of the healing powers of nature.

I hesitate to introduce terms like dangerous, messy and erotic to the pursuit of field botany, but if they have any use, it’s to move the heart of the enterprise away from the rational calculations of the identification key, spreadsheet and grid reference towards something more akin to wonder. Perhaps the healing powers of nature could be more easily embraced after her re-enchantment.

You’ll know where we are if you’ve been following!

Yes – of course we’re back on Mendip but this time just above Velvet Bottom because today we thought we’d explore the Ubley Warren and Blackmoor nature reserves. This is such a unique environment that it comprises getting on for ten nature reserves, some of them SSSI’s (sites of special scientific interest) and all of them with a handful of rare and nationally rare plants.

You’ll see that the ground well and truly deserves the local description of “gruffy” – that’s to say thoroughly worked over by lead (and possibly silver) miners since Roman times. These deep cuttings are known as rakes and the spoil heaps, although mostly no longer bare, are a specialized environment for plants tolerant of heavy metal contamination.

Having found the Spring Whitlow grass – Erophila verna in Velvet Bottom a couple of weeks ago I was keen to see if we could find another specialist called Spring Sandwort and so we concentrated on likely looking ground – all to no avail because I think we were a bit too early.

Anyway, we did find a rather knackered Early Purple orchid (Orchis mascula) snapped off at the bottom of the stalk – possibly by a marauding dog – and then as we carried on looking through the list of likely/possible rarities we came across Dwarf Mouse Ear – Cerastium pumilum – which is nationally scarce, and also Alpine Pennycress – Noccaea caerulescens which is similarly rare. And if that sounds either lucky or clever I’m reminded of a story I heard about a very well known local drystone waller who was asked how much he charged. He answered that it was £100 a yard – at which his questioner backed away, saying it was a lot to pay for a load of stones. Well, he said, it’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine for knowing what to do with it! My luck today owed everything to the research I was able to do before we even left the flat, and I contributed nothing at all to the incredible databases and local floras that showed me exactly where to look. As per Mark Twain; it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

The only downside to a delightful morning were the bags of dogshit abandoned almost everywhere we went – come on you retards – you’ve already picked the disgusting, slimy (and warm) mess, up. Just take it home for goodness sake!!!

All of which ranting brings me back to an often visited question – “does the Potwell Inn really exist?” Well yes it does – in one sense only; because its only physical manifestation is the campervan (called Polly) in which we can close the door against the Idiocy. But it principally exists in the form of a conceptual framework that gives me just about enough head space to survive. The Potwell Inn is the place in my head where poetry and art jostle with spirituality, green politics and where walking and botanizing or looking out for living things are not merely allowed, but encouraged. The Potwell Inn is a space in which the gentle domestic arts of growing and cooking and eating together and building community are not treated as a bunch of hippy idealism or even communist infestation.

So the Potwell Inn hereby permanently bars the cretinous bunch of sociopaths, adulterers, drug abusers, liars, fantasists and thieves in the government, along with all their media supporters, lobbyists, climate change deniers and Russian backers who abuse our intelligence day by day. They should not enter the premises because they will not be served, and if they persist they will be sent to the end of the nearest pier where they can parade their meagre comic talents before an audience of stuffed weasels. This is the only way I can stay sane; by carving out a small space where I can grow to be as human as is possible for me and the people I care about, by creating an alternative to our etiolated spiritual and moral environment which sucks all possibility of creativity out of the air we breathe.

The Potwell Inn is a challenge; a one fingered salute to polluters, poisoners and to the entitled. The Potwell Inn is a refuge; a retreat house and a portal. Everything that happens here is true; but “here” can pop up anywhere – wherever the Potwell Inn sets its foot on the ground. Even if that ground happens to be an old slag heap, buddle pit or mine tip.

Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

This is the season when most of the allotment is the kitchen

That’s a bit of an exaggeration because we’re still harvesting an abundance of broccoli, leeks, chard and parsnips from the open ground, and lettuce, coriander, parsley and spinach from the polytunnel; but these are the last of the winter crops and we’re just entering the hungry gap; the period between the past and the coming season when there’s not much about. Most people would assume that the hungry time is in midwinter but it’s not. This is the time when the stores come into their own. The jams, preserves, pickles and the food in the freezer are what get us by even though the temperature may be in the late teens and we’re dressed in T shirts. Revelation of the year is the wonderful flavour and texture of our own home-grown borlotti. So plump and soft and full of goodness. This year we’ll grow even more, because they store so well. But in reality it’s that time when the myth of self sufficiency is punctured by the cold logic of the seasonal year. The last frost can be as late as May 6th here and it’s heartbreaking to see prematurely exposed plants wilt and die.

The strawberries from last year’s runners, that I moved to their new bed a few weeks ago are flourishing under a fleece covering and even showing a few flowers. Angelica, lovage and French sorrel are all going well and the first asparagus tips are poking gingerly through the soil. Broad beans are safely under bird nets and every bare patch of ground is eagerly covering itself with opportunist weeds. The saddest casualty of winter is my beloved Sweet Cicely which is at best a short lived perennial. It’s a devil to get going but we’ll try again in the autumn. Last year we doubled the number of dwarf fruit trees and they’re all looking good with the apples in flower. Even the speculative planting of tiny rhubarb stools (Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise) have come good; but we’ll leave them to gather strength this season. There are now three successional varieties of rhubarb to supply us from March through summer.

In the kitchen, though, it’s all going well with the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, lettuce, melons, courgettes and peas all potted on, and there are seed potatoes out on the landing. So this is Spring; the season of hopefulness and big dreams.

More on foraging

The glossy magazines continue to publish articles on foraging; some even daring to suggest that foraged food might help bridge the poverty trap for some people. I’m a foraging cynic. Recently we had reports of professionals stripping Cornish lanes of wild garlic. In Epping Forest the foraging of fungi had to be banned after entrepreneurs were found taking tens of kilos of fungi for sale to flashy restaurants. Nearly all the articles I see are written by people who make a living either by stripping the land themselves, or by running courses on how to do it. The idea that taking huge amounts of food away from its habitat – because it’s ‘free‘ – is somehow more “green” than growing some, (but never all) your food, is a dangerous fantasy that draws on precisely the same selfish and greedy instincts that underpin factory farming and fossil fuel extraction.

If, and when, we find something wild and delicious – field mushrooms for instance – we take enough for one feed and that’s it. I’m absolutely not arguing that picking a few blackberries, elderflowers or sloes is going to drive the trees to extinction but I’d apply a test that was suggested to me many tears ago by one of my mentors. Take (or give) enough not to be ashamed, but never enough to be proud.

The very moment in a foraging expedition where you have enough is the moment to stop. When gratitude for the gift slips into pride, the gift becomes toxic. One of my books on herbal medicine makes the admirable suggestion that the harvesting of plants and flowers for our healing should always begin with an act of thanksgiving. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I think it’s absolutely right, and I often find myself saying thank you out loud when we’re harvesting from the allotment. My maternal grandmother had a little saying that I hated when I was young because it always seemed to go with not being allowed any more pudding. She would say “enough is a feast” .

The single most awe inspiring thing about nature is not the big televisual stunts but her sheer undeserved generosity. When we abuse that generosity we become the prodigal children who want to spend the family inheritance in excess and then come back when it’s all gone and beg for more with a mumbled and insincere apology.

Revisiting the scene of a crime.

I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.

Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.

So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.

Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.

The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.

In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

All too often this quotation from Robert Burn’s poem “To a mouse” is trotted out as bleak comfort offered to someone who probably had it coming. In fact it comes some way into the poem which includes this thought provoking phrase:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union

An’ justifies that ill opinion

Which makes thee startle,

Robert Burns – To a Mouse.

The poet (and farmer) has just disturbed the mouse in its nest whilst ploughing and pauses to reflect on the cost to the wild world of our illicitly claimed sovereignty over the earth.

In the photograph above the poem, the third year of an expensively and poorly conceived piece of planners’ greenwashing in the centre of Bath. Nature – some daft city-born architect must have thought – can be bought by the metre, just as books can be bought by the metre by the illiterate rich, to dignify a patch of bare land. If I could land one blow for common sense amongst town planners it would be to teach them that meadows and their flowers are quite different from arable wildflowers. They’re highly specific habitats and attempting to transplant either group into an alluvial spoil heap by way of a seed impregnated membrane is just about as magical as magical thinking gets. Of course the developers didn’t give a flying fish about the wildlife, but a bit of greening always plays well with planning committees.

The first year the poor things germinated they were almost immediately suffocated by their thuggish neighbours. I was pleased to photograph some corncockles there a couple of years ago but now there are nettles and rough grasses which would have grown anyway. These meadow specialists would never be grazed, and neither would the arable weeds enjoy their brief moment in the sun at harvest or in spring; but grossly overfed by the alluvial soil on the riverside would succumb to their sturdier neighbours. The only survivors were some Comfrey and some rather lovely Vipers Bugloss which will be lucky to survive the redevelopment about to be unleashed upon them.

But not to exempt ourselves and the Potwell Inn from the possibility of hubris -I have to confess that the very day our illustrious leader, the Smirking Codpiece, announced that he had personally abolished Covid in fierce hand to hand combat; Madame and me caught it good and proper and had to shut the Potwell Inn down for ten days while we coughed, sneezed, sweated, wept and dribbled in ways too terrible to describe. We too – our son was quick to point out – had it coming because we went up to London to see the Who in the Albert Hall, and everybody knows that pensioners are the principal vectors of infection and five thousand of them croaking and puffing on their ventolin inhalers whilst singing Pinball Wizard in weird old peoples’ voices was bound to lead to trouble. I felt one step away from being compelled to sign an enduring power of attorney agreement!

The photograph was taken today while we went out for a long therapeutic walk along the river and the canal. It was great to be out again after our negative tests, until – that is – we were caught in the most tremendous winter storm. The sky turned to Paynes Grey and a clap of thunder preceded a truly magnificent hailstorm that went on for ages. We managed to find a bit of shelter behind a wall and under an Elder tree with no leaves, on the canal side. But while Madame had a rather posh hydrophilic fleece on, mine was filled with old hens feathers and collapsed into a soggy heap after a couple of minutes.

I had hoped by now to have done at least one more trip to Velvet Bottom, having got hold of some fascinating geological maps to sort out what’s going on under the surface and in the soil. In the process of gazing at the maps I had one of those moments of sudden intuition that illuminated to me the reason I’m so in love with these places. It’s because I’ve spent most of my life living in them and the plants are childhood friends. I never knew their names and my mother couldn’t really help because she’d been born on the Chilterns and her foundational plants were quite different, but a bare field of fescues shimmering in the wind can reduce me to near tears. Everywhere I’ve loved has been post industrial; mostly post mining. The house I was born in was in what was once a mining area; part of the South Gloucestershire Coalfield. Opposite my primary school was the Cossham Hall – a community centre and once a library, founded by Handel Cossham. Cossham Hospital which we all made use of was also paid for by him. He was everywhere. A few weeks ago we visited Greyfield Wood with the Bath Nats, and again it was a strange meeting that I couldn’t put a name to – until we got home and I discovered it was the site of a huge coal mine which, in the nineteenth century, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of coal. Only the subtle traces remained but they were sufficient to make the neural connections that constitute a kind of cultural memory. Lizard, Pembrokeshire, Dartmoor, South Wales, Mid Wales and Snowdonia all bear the same scars and carry their unique heritage of half recognised plants.

So as soon as we get over the post-covid exhaustion we’ll go back to Mendip armed with a list of heavy metal loving plants that appear on the BSBI maps of the area. I’ve already found one and I can remember several more from pre-recording days which I can’t claim until I’ve found them again. I’m slowly turning into a trainspotter – heaven help me!

Walking through nature and walking in it.

Falconer with a Harris hawk – taken 2 years ago

An intriguing couple of minutes yesterday. I heard a familiar commotion out on the Green and when I saw a crowd of very agitated seagulls circling in the air and filling it with alarm calls, I knew a once what was happening. It took a moment or two to spot the cause of the din and I saw the falconer with his gauntlet walking up the pavement before I saw the hawk flying from tree to tree, jesses trailing, but always keeping an eye on the fist that held the food. This was exercise with a difference because we see them fairly regularly working the green together and they may be taking part in an experiment to make the gulls feel too unsafe to build nests. The hawk never kills – is never allowed to kill – the gulls. Trust me, nesting gulls start their din at four a.m. in the summer and apart from the noise, they make a thorough nuisance of themselves in the tourist areas, hoovering up discarded fast food and leaving impressive quantities of crap as a receipt. The council have tried pretty well every conceivable tactic for discouraging the gulls, but this seems to be less cruel and much cheaper than climbing up to the nests and oiling or removing the eggs before they hatch.

even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she never once looked up

But to get back to the point; whilst I was watching this moving spectacle I saw a young woman walking down the pavement dragging a wheeled suitcase behind her and carrying another bag in the free hand. She never once looked up to see the cause of the commotion, and even when the hawk swept past her almost at head height she kept her head down, loaded her case into the boot (trunk) and drove off.

Hawking purists rather look down on the Harris because it’s not a native UK hawk and it happens to be rather easier to train than some of the natives. We British are never happier than when we’ve got someone to look down on and so the Harris is generally thought to be a bit minor league – if only for the purists. Most UK bird books don’t even include it. As for me the sight of any hawk working is a thrill and the Harris is a big bird. You couldn’t confuse it with anything other than a hawk, but then its white tail stripe is an obvious giveaway.

I’m indebted to Alan Rayner, a marvellous naturalist, evolutionary biologist and past president of the Bath Nats for the title of this post. We were out on a field meeting once and he used it to describe people who are too self absorbed, too quick, and too busy looking at their mobiles or fitness trackers meaningfully to enjoy an encounter with nature. Not to mount my soapbox yet again; I’ll just say that powering flat out down a towpath trying to walk twenty miles in six hours is unlikely either to result in a real encounter or a measurable change of mood.

There are many first encounters I’ll never forget. The first kingfisher on the Monmouth and Brecon Canal; the first heron that rose up from the pool behind behind a cornish hedge like a creature from the Jurassic age. The first red squirrel skitting along the horizontal branch of an old beech tree on my Grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns (back in the 1950’s) and then nothing until we went camping in France about ten years ago and there they were; oh and I should mention the first sighting of Madame at a CND meeting. We both long for a first sighting of the otters that we know patrol the river near to the Potwell Inn, but we haven’t yet dragged ourselves out of bed at dawn or stayed out leaning on the fence after dusk. Maybe we’ll fix a trail cam on one of the trees at the water’s edge where there’s a likely spot.

Coming back after one of our trips is always an odd time. The weather in Cornwall was getting fiercer by the day, and the campervan – being old and temperamental like me – was playing up. The long dark nights during which we had all the lights and heating running so we could carry on working was inexorably draining the batteries towards the point of no return and so we came back two days early and humped the batteries upstairs to recondition and charge them. Aside from nailing a couple of relative rarities (yet to be adjudicated) the new miFi system worked brilliantly, so for the first time ever on that campsite we were able to keep in touch by phone. My hopes of keeping tabs on the plants down the field path were raised greatly when we booked another two weeks down there in May. Back home the plants are nonetheless fascinating but perhaps a little less glamorous. However, beggars can’t be choosers and urban botany is all the more rewarding because the plants themselves are real survivors, eking out a living in the most unpropitious circumstances.

The journey home was pretty eventful too. We saw a car which had cut us up earlier , pulled over by no less than four police cars. Later one of the unmarked cars passed us at well over 100 mph shortly before we passed a mini engulfed in flames. Luckily the occupants were standing further up the motorway looking bewildered. Next up we saw five police cars perform a rather balletic stop by surrounding and slowing another car until it was forced to concede. The fifth car then blocked the motorway whilst a sixth, further up, led a slow traffic jam of cars and lorries to avoid a massive pile up.

So now there’s lots to do on the allotment and lots also to learn on this new computerised recording site. I haven’t yet given up on paper records, though. That would be to tempt providence!

Postscript

The air ambulance landed on the green a few minutes ago and already it’s gathered a crowd of onlookers. Sadly, these days it takes a helicopter and a seriously hurt human being to get our heads up.

The earth is the most wonderful photovoltaic cell – and it’s a gift.

Earlier today – after days of heavy rain – we drove about fifteen miles west along the coast from Mevagissey to Portscatho, via a diversion to the outskirts of Truro for a visit to the Great Cornish Food Store where we stocked up on some lovely local cheeses. By the time we’d stowed everything away the sky had cleared and we took a chance on a walk down to a local beach

So here’s my first list of the season; not a hands and knees search by any means but a simple stroll down the lane that runs from Gerrans down through Rosteague and on to Towan beach – no more than 3 miles down and back, that gave us 20 species of wildflower, and an interesting fungus; 17 of which were flowering. There were many more in full leaf and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were in excess of 50 species of flowering plant if you were able to walk the track throughout the year.

Starting from top left, and snaking down the rows from left to right – we found

  • Dandelion
  • Lesser celandine
  • Primrose
  • Common dog violet
  • Greater stitchwort
  • Polypody fern
  • Herb robert
  • Alexanders
  • Cow parsley
  • Snowdrop
  • Greater periwinkle
  • A Tremella indecorata (I think) brain fungus
  • Small flowered geranium
  • Red campion
  • Navelwort
  • Mind-your-own-business
  • Winter heliotrope
  • Three cornered garlic
  • Daisy – growing amongst cleavers and lords and ladies

There can’t be many more tranquil and inspiring setting for a bit of spontaneous botanising than lanes and tracks. Most of them aren’t designated in any way; they’re open access and you can find them all over the country. Of course wildflower meadows are the Royal Opera but I’m more of a folksong fan myself. Ordinary and local – like peasant – are praiseworthy in my phrasebook.

Yesterday was at the opposite end of the spectrum because I found a couple of plants – one in the wrong habitat altogether and the other either very rare or very underrecorded. I’ll write more about these later. A week of rain gave me time to visit the websites of the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) and iRecord to discover how they could help me be a better amateur field botanist. Until I gave it a full three days of practice I had no idea how useful and how huge their databases are.

The greatest revelation of all is that you can research a favourite area and discover what plants grow there. You can discover where to find a plant you particularly want to see and you can check the distribution of every living thing to see whether the flower you’ve found even grows in the place you’re searching. Think of it – instead of stumbling around (like I’ve been doing) hoping to chance upon something special; you can search with a reasonable hope of success. That’s not cheating – it’s science! It doesn’t mean that your find isn’t what you think it might be – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (as they say). It does mean that you need to be thoroughly sure of your ground before you make a claim you can’t stand up.

So I’m in heaven and full of Trelawney cheese. Madame is sitting next to me drawing and the last two hours have flown by in silence. Something odd happens when we’re in the campervan; I sleep happily for nine, even ten hours and feel completely free from stress. The world is going to hell in a handcart; we’re governed by liars and morons and the news is so distorted we don’t even bother to listen. I’d like to say I’ll pray for the people of Ukraine but I don’t think anybody is listening.

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