Big Deal – Small Skipper

I hate the term nectaring, mostly because it’s an in-house term that distances the experts from (the) hoi polloi, and so I’ll say that this Small Skipper was feeding on one of the the Potwell Inn Lavender bushes and it was a delight to see it there. One of the claims of gardening in the way that we do is that by planting flowers to attract pollinators, they will just turn up in their thousands. That’s the theory and it’s always good to accrue some evidence. The photo, by the way, was just taken on my phone – a Pixel 5. The phone has become a marvellous tool for natural history, but insects and especially bees and butterflies pick up the least movement. Flies, with their big compound eyes, have almost no blind spots and are able to scarper even before your shadow falls on them. This, then, was a lucky shot.

The perfect way to observe and record very small creatures and plants without frightening them off comes down to a choice between a heavy long focus camera or a pair of binoculars that can focus at close range. I first saw such a pair being used to scout for liverworts on a wall on a Bath Nats walk. Later I saw them being used to scan the ground for interesting lichens. On Wednesday, maybe three years after first seeing them, we went on another event searching for medicinal herbs in Friary Woods near Bath and I spent much of my time talking to a lovely bloke who was an expert on all things insect. We had a County Botanical Recorder leading the walk and a keen birdwatcher with us as well, and so it was an opportunity for some serious learning to happen. By the end of the walk I’d resolved to get a pair of these binoculars for Madame.

It’s not difficult to feel completely intimidated by experts. I never leave home for one of these field trips without being filled with trepidation, and yet as time’s gone on I’ve realized that very few of them are professionally qualified – we’re all mostly self-taught – and I’ve yet to meet an expert (a real one that is), that isn’t willing and usually eager to share their knowledge. If you’ve ever felt too shy to join a group and go on a natural history walk, I’d urge you to give it a try. It’s dangerously addictive! So much so that that Professor Insects and me had a great laugh over one of his friends asking his wife – “has he always been like this?”

Another conversation ranged around the odd name of the Nipplewort. To me at least the flower looks nothing like a human nipple, but rather resembles the grease nipple on an old machine like a steam engine. One of the women on the walk asked me if I was also a steam enthusiast. I’m not really, but I do get very emotional around steam trains so perhaps I’ve yet to engage with that one. Anyway she told me that she’d been dragged around every engine shed in Scotland by her dad who was obsessed with steam and so she knew immediately what I was talking about. Nipple isn’t a word that gets used much in natural history.

So the photo of the Small Skipper at the top of this piece isn’t really where the rubber hits the road when it comes to field botany. The really exciting photos for me were these:

I found this plant while I was scouting around in a patch of rough woodland field edge and I thought I recognised it. I didn’t even manage to get the little clip-on macro lens straight on my phone on the left hand picture. “It’s Rough Chervil” I thought, even though I knew in the back of my mind that wasn’t right. So I trotted up to the Recorder with my trophy and asked her. “It’s Upright Hedge Parsley” she said – without a second glance. “But why?” my mind silently grumbled even as I was thrilled by actually finding one of them after looking – in a more or less blind way – for several years. “Torilis japonica” – what more poetic name could there be? So there’s the learning point; not getting it right but getting it wrong in the company of someone who knew what she was talking about.

Rough Chervil

I went back to the picture library on my phone where I had a photo of Rough Chervil that had been verified by the East Cornwall Recorder in May. It’s a tiny difference but you’ll notice that the stem joint is slightly swollen in the Chervil whereas in the Hedge Parsley it isn’t. I should say that I was only able to do this because I stuck to my guns and I’ve been laboriously working through all my photos and tagging them properly. Have your eyes glazed over yet? Anyway, joy of joys, not an hour later I found some Rough Chervil and successfully identified it properly. With field botany making a mistake in the right company can get you a two-for-one offer. The plants of the Carrot family – the Apiaceae, or Umbellifers can be very confusing because they can occasionally only be identified by examining a ripe seed with a magnifying glass; but by the end of the walk we’d found Wild Angelica and Fools Parsley too.

So far as finding remnants of a 13th century friary medicinal herb garden goes, we didn’t find anything that couldn’t be found in a dozen other places with no religious associations, but that simply demonstrates how widespread herbal medicine was, even up until the early 20th century. Coincidentally, Madame has been reading “A Midwife’s Tale” the diaries of Martha Ballard, an 18th century American midwife and healer; reading me great chunks of it to whet my appetite. I’ve got half a dozen herbals and what strikes me as I read Gerard or Culpeper is not so much the complexity of herbal medicine as the limited range of complaints it was able to address. 18th century suffering is familiar to all of us; toothaches, boils, broken bones and rheumatic complaints, “womens courses” gets mentioned a lot as do many of the complaints now controlled by antibiotics. The biggest worry is that would-be practitioners and foragers too, really need a solid background in botany unless they want to risk muddling two superficially similar plants with potentially fatal consequences; and I can vouch for the fact that it’s a steep hill to climb.

The Birds and the Bees – messy gardening.

The Potwell Pond

We were in our bed this morning and Madame was reading the RHS magazine and – over slurps of tea and biscuit dunking – we fell to discussing the merits and failures of the Chelsea Flower Show. She has the advantage over me in this instance because she’s actually worked on a display there. I should say, by the way, that we were in our own bed because our trip to the Cambrian Mountains had to be shortened since the advertised campsite shop was tragically empty, and what few things there were (paralysed longlife milk and potato crisps) could only be bought for cash. Either way round it was a return journey of 20 miles to find an ATM or a pint of fresh milk and some bread.

Anyway it’s not that I’m against flower shows, in fact the old and much missed Bristol Flower Show was an almost spiritual event in my estimation. However, show gardens leave me somewhere between boredom and incandescent rage. The claim that the ludicrous expenditure of time and energy – and here I also mean the sort of energy that flows from oil wells – is somehow justified by the fact that these playthings of the wealthy are subsequently loaded onto lorries and installed as wholly artificial showpieces somewhere else, simply doesn’t add up. Neither does the claim that these chimeras might inspire us to greater gardening heights. At best they are entertainment for those who can afford the tickets, and the recent eruption of rusting water towers and post industrial, angst ridden greenwashing is an insult to those of us who actually put a hand to the plough rather than treat nature as a gawping opportunity.

Abolishing the boundary between Nature and horticulture.

The Potwell Inn allotment raises a finger to beautifully coiffed paths and chemically sterile soil. Notwithstanding the eagle eye of the Head of Allotments we bend every sinew to abolish the boundary between nature and horticulture. We have Dandelions, Common Ramping Fumitory (vanishingly rare in this area), rushes, Nipplewort, Sowthistle, Sorrel, and any other weeds that come for a season and fulfil some useful service to the birds, bees and other insects. The Potwell Inn allotment is the meeting place of all of the pieces I write. The place where gardening, field botany, natural history, birdwatching, herbal medicine, cooking and eating meld into the rather fuzzy concept of being fully human within a community of shared (and occasionally contested) values.

…….. and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

What this doesn’t mean is that the Potwell Inn allotment is an unkempt wilderness; quite the opposite. What it does mean is that we spend as much time listening to what our patch of earth seems to be saying to us as we do, planning what we would like to eat; and we’re not the only metaphorical mouths that deserve to be fed. This morning, for instance, I was watering when a young dog fox came to within fifteen feet of me and marked his territory on a compost bin. The allotment depends for its functioning upon a breathtakingly complex set of relationships of which we are just one part. Bees, flies including hoverflies, beetles and bugs; fungi and bacteria feed on our plants but provide indispensable service to us as they pollinate and predate on other pests and pass our digested green waste back into the soil . We feed them and they feed us! It’s taken seven years to even begin to crack the code.

Heaven forfend! is that Bindweed there?

There are areas where, for no fathomable reason, nothing ever grows well. The underground hydrology has its own mysterious life with a water table that seems to rise and fall and sometimes even breaks out in the form of a spring beside the cordon apples. We know the track of the sun in winter and high summer and we know where the frost pockets are and from which direction the plants need wind protection. We have discovered that plants have minds of their own and pay no attention to textbooks or common practice. Our vegetable beds are all interplanted with herbs and flowers, many of them self seeded from previous seasons so, for example we don’t actually sow Foxgloves or Borage; Lovage and Angelica. As biennials they might not appear every season but they appear nonetheless. Our fruit trees are surrounded by Garden Mint and Catmint, Marigolds, Borage, Achillia and Nasturtiums. Our only physical pest controls are various grades of netting thrown over hoops. This kind of knowledge isn’t exceptional or mystical – it was the commonplace wisdom of gardeners and farmers for generations until the misbegotten birth of industrial farming turned malignant in the 1950’s, and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

This kind of gardening doesn’t have a name; doesn’t have an orthodoxy and endures no bishops, experts or high priests. Its sole guiding reference is time, patience and rootedness.

“If we lived here we’d be home now”

The headline, by the way, isn’t mine. I once heard an American writer describing her childhood during which her father – who was a travelling salesman – would take her on interminable road trips which always ended in a more or less seedy motel.

Far be it from me to describe our campervan, which we call Polly – the hero of the Potwell Inn – as seedy. We’d prefer to call Polly “lived in” . Who cares about the odd battle scar or missing wheel trim? It is completely true that when we roll onto a campsite loaded with field guides, binoculars, drawing equipment and wine, we are at home already, surrounded by our familiar objects. After a flurry of hammering to put up the windbreak and then experimenting with the aerial to see if we can get a comms signal, we’re done. The new Netgear router and Ponting omnidirectional aerial have managed to turn a weak or invisible phone signal into a very tolerable 4g+ signal between 10 and 50 Mb/sec.

This time we’re in the Cambrian Mountains in mid Wales – not very far into them because the roads are at best tiny and more likely nonexistent. However we’re parked up next to the River Towy which surrounds us with a comfortable babbling sound overlaid by sheep on the hills- could anything be more restful? It’s one of the least visited wild places in Wales which means it’s really quiet. Typically, as we drove in, I remembered that we’re in yet another quarry/mine. The last campsite which was only ten miles away by road had seen 500,000 tons of shale rock extracted to get at the “dirty” quartz” which, when each 10 tons was pounded, milled and treated with mercury (which necessitated it being taken to Germany for processing), yielded 1g of gold. The mines were first opened in Roman times but then became disused pretty much until a succession of Victorian and early 20th century entrepreneurs lost their shirts on them. The problem seems to be that they needed to pay their miners whereas the Romans used slaves. As you see – nothing much changes. A perfectly viable industry closed down by militants who expected to be paid for risking their lives!

Anyway the trip round the mine was fascinating, especially as we had a professional geologist as a guide. What was equally interesting for us was that we emerged into a path that took us through a lovely wildflower meadow where we clocked several plants I’d never seen before including one relative rarity which necessitated a very friendly exchange of emails with the County Recorder who corrected one and verified another, (whorled Caraway). Yesterday we went back again for a closer look and confirmed that the whole field was full of marsh plants – a highly distinctive habitat known in Wales as Rhos and in Devon as Culm. Who’d have thought of marsh plants on a boiling hot day 600 feet up a hill. Happy days! So, with a couple or three records accepted we wandered back down and found Valerian, Bilberries and these stunning Fox and Cubs – at least three times as tall as I’ve ever seen them before. An ideal photo to accompany a piece about gold mines I think.

Fox and Cubs – Pilosella aurantiaca

The mine workings have mostly been removed, but some authentic pithead gear was brought from another gold mine in North Wales and there were enough industrial artifacts around to give a real sense of what went on there.

So today we drove around to Rhandirmwyn where we found many interesting fungi three autumns ago. The immediate quarry (deliberate pun I’m afraid) is to find Spring Sandwort which I’ve probably missed on Velvet Bottom but may well still be in flower here – if it even grows here. On the map there’s one record somewhere near here but nothing else for many miles. That’s one I’d love to get a record for! – it’s one of those lead loving plants that thrives on polluted slag and there’s an enormous abandoned lead mine within easy walking distance – as long as Madame doesn’t put her foot down; or rather refuses to put it down in search of yet another little white job!

What about the allotment? you may well ask – in the tone of a concerned social worker. Well, allotments are communities and we look out for one another so our neighbours are watering the polytunnel and the rest can look after itself. Meanwhile we’re having a ball in spite of the fact that rain is forecast for the whole of our stay here.

Sometimes I share the mess with an aphid

If you like, you might see this as (probably the only) candid photograph of the Potwell Inn. As you see, it’s not glamorous and – as a friend once pointed out – the stack of interconnected six way sockets under the desk are dangerous and possibly illegal; but it’s where I go to skulk, ponder, remember, puzzle, dream, study, read, write and occasionally paint. The shutters are half closed because that way I can avoid looking at the car park and enjoy the roofs of a Georgian terrace and a couple of trees sunning themselves under the blue sky and summer clouds. Skies, like railway lines, link places together in the imagination. Sometimes I wonder how it’s possible to be homesick when you’re at home and I don’t know the answer, except that the Potwell Inn is the closest to the home I pine for, and like any self-build project it seems to be taking an eternity to create.

Last night a group of travellers pulled onto the green – there were something like ten trailers and an assortment of people from burly men who looked faintly terrifying, a big gang of children who wrestled, tumbled and played on the green with full hearted enthusiasm while their parents stood, arms folded, defying the twitching curtains. A policeman turned up on a bicycle and some negotiations took place – he seemed to be on first name terms with them. When I spoke to him later he said that he was surprised to see them because they usually parked up on Lansdown. I said that at least it would force the drug users and their dealers to find somewhere else. He ignored my remark resolutely and said that the Council would get the paperwork to evict them first thing in the morning. We stood and watched the children playing joyously and felt almost envious of their freedom. Then suddenly they all packed up and left, like a circus leaving town and the green felt empty once again.

The Potwell Inn is a bit like that. It can appear and disappear like the mirage of an oasis; a fugitive dream when you’re lost somewhere between the Favella and the Steppes; and I’m always searching for that sweet spot in between.

If the Potwell Inn had a field it would look like this.

Sadly our backyard is shared with twenty cars. For many decades it was a builders yard and then when the block was built it was levelled and covered in tarmac but – never maintained – it now sustains a small community of absolute diehard plants who make a scant living on the thin accumulated dirt. They change from time to time, and even move around – one patch of slime mould has retreated down the concrete steps and taken up residence next to a clump of Herb Robert which can live on fresh air it seems. You might curl your lip at a blob of gelatinous olive green goo; but I’ve seen reports that it’s capable of being extremely purposeful and has some efficiency at negotiating mazes.

I did once make a list of species and it was in the high twenties; but it seems to change every year. This year we’ve got a splendid collection of Great Lettuce along with its cousin Wall Lettuce. They won’t win any beauty prizes but they’re brilliant for practicing your botanical skills because getting a proper ID demands a good deal of close attention to detail.

The smaller cousin, Wall Lettuce, is doing exactly what it says on the tin and is growing in a narrow crack between the ground and the wall.

However, none of this is going to stimulate much more than a forensic interest in an urban specialist. The fact is – even to my friendly eye – they look a lot like weeds. The only wonder is in the fact that these ugly sisters are related to the lettuces we grow on the allotment. In fact the Latin name of the Great Lettuce –Lactuca Virosa – suggests some kind of toxic properties – maybe they’re soporific? who knows. That’s an experiment I’ll leave to someone else.

Anyway, the real excitement this week came from a visit to Dyrham Park’s White Field – in the photograph at the top. Untouched by modern agrichemicals or ploughing it’s the kind of wildflower meadow that once existed almost everywhere. It was our first visit for three years after Covid rampaged across the country. The field is cut for hay at the end of the month – I bet it smells heavenly – and if I use the word awesome I mean it precisely in a way that trespasses into the territory of the spiritual. Our main target was the Bee Orchid, but sadly we didn’t find any. However within fifty yards of walking into the field we found Early Purple and Pyramidal Orchids – they were everywhere. I’ll put some photos below this – I’ve been avoiding using Latin names because Madame reproached me for rehearsing them as we walked through the dense flowers. I love the English plant names for their poetry and history but I’m afraid Latin is the way to go if you’re trying to ID something. I’ve got a book on English plant names by Geoffrey Grigson and when you look at the number of plants that share the same English name you soon realize that wildflower lovers from two adjoining counties might use the same name for totally different plants.

So among the plants we soon noticed was one known in English as Jack go to bed at noon, or Goatbeard. Huge downy heads resembling Dandelions but filmier and even more lovely. Down in the hands and knees zone were Yellow Rattle and Common Broomrape; Purple and White Clovers, Birdsfoot and all the usual suspects. Towering above were drifts of Smooth Hawksbeard and Oxeye Daisies with the seedheads of Ribwort Plantain, Sheep’s Sorrel and Cocksfoot grass. It was a joy to see them bending in waves against the strong wind which was limiting the activities of butterflies. You can often find Marbled Whites there. It’s a shame that despite the nearby car park being almost full, we were completely alone except for a solitary dog walker. It seems that most nature lovers prefer their wildlife mindfulness moments on the telly. Anyway; the photographs convey – to me at least – far more than any words could do.

Mint Moth joins the list of allotment visitors

Mint Moth

Having posted about a proper regional rarity yesterday I should say the Potwell Inn is positively promiscuous in welcoming allcomers to feed on our allotment. Immediately next to this moth, the Iris Sawfly caterpillars were getting on with eating our pond iris leaves. I’m pretty sure there are predators that can grab a meal from them. Even slugs and snails are allowed on unless they make too much of a nuisance of themselves when Madame snips them in half with the gardening scissors – returning them to the pathways and beds for the birds. I’m wholly unqualified to identify all the many species that come to us but I can feel a list coming on with the help of the Bath Naturewatch group who usually get an insect ID back in minutes. It’s amazing what you can spot during a bit of close-up hand weeding. We’re not the Chelsea Flower Show here – it’s free admission to anyone apart from the two legged grazers who shamelessly nick our produce without noticing the trailcam. Our biggest visitors are the badgers and foxes and the smallest ….. well, we’ve never seen them.

The Blackbirds are almost on the permanent staff because they keep all the path edges clear of molluscs and their eggs, and who would begrudge the Robins a worm or three? Our philosophy is to discourage pests with nets of anything from 1mm mesh against carrot fly, up to larger netting to keep the pigeons and the white butterflies off the brassicas. It’s a live and let live philosophy that sees pests, diseases and weeds as an important part of the big picture because they often signal a problem that needs attending to.

Gardening this way is like a long seasonal conversation between equals. We greet one another, say thanks when thanks are required and please when we’re harvesting or we’re not sure we’re on the right track; and so the fruits of our labours aren’t just fruit and vegetables, but insights into the way the earth works – and if that sounds like hippy dippy nonsense – well don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

The colour comes from a dark form of Elder

This is the beginning of the season of plenty but it’s also very hard work. We overheard another allotmenteer a couple of days ago, lamenting the fact that her crops had all but disappeared under the weeds, and from predation. They’d obviously received a notice from the Council and she complained bitterly “It was fine when we left it” . That would be at the end of last year’s school holidays in September. But with fresh Basil on demand, strawberries and Asparagus almost over and potatoes just weeks away it feels good to be alive – even though our backs ache. A year’s supply of ruby coloured elderflower cordial is standing on the kitchen table, labeled and sealed.

Now the allotment is a nature reserve!

The garlic patch has been invaded by an extremely attractive but rather invasive plant. It’s been hanging around for years, and for years we’ve yanked it up by the handful and got rid of it – occasionally on the compost heap I suspect. Three years ago I had a go at identifying it because it definitely wasn’t anything I’d seen before. After a trawl through the books I got as far as a family name – Fumitory – but further investigation foundered when I discovered that it’s one of those so-called difficult plants for which you need specialist skills.

Oh no it’s not – oh yes it is!

I called on my friend Rob who has abundant specialist skills, and he gave me a very hesitant answer emphasising he wasn’t completely certain but it could be Fumaria muralis, the Common Ramping Fumitory – which isn’t at all common in these parts. Three years later my ID skills have improved a bit and after a bit of a thing with some Fumitories while on holiday in Cornwall last week I became fairly confident that I know what a Common Ramping Fumitory looks like, but when we got home I could that see that our allotment invader doesn’t quite fit the bill. So I took a lot more macro photographs, came up with a possible Fumaria capreolata, the White Ramping Fumitory which looked closer to mine, and sent them off to another local expert who thought that they were the (uncommon), common type after all; closing the circle and going back to square one. However she suggested that I might send off the photos to the National Referee and get his opinion.

Philosophy, like science, is as concerned with good questions as it is with good answers, but any half decent philosopher will tell you that questions can be troublesome or even dangerous at times. I emailed the photographs to the National Recorder and two hours later a very brief note came back saying it wasn’t either of the previous two ID’s, but is a Tall Ramping Fumitory – the appropriately named Fumaria Bastardii subsp hibernica. It was only when I searched on the distribution map for the plant that I realized it hasn’t been seen here in Bath for at least 40 years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and gave up trying after 5.00am. In my emails were congrats from the local recorder and the President of the Bath Natural History Society.

So that’s the good news for the day – although I have to say my only contribution to the find was a sharp eye and some persistent questioning. All the rest was done by a great team of experts, and thousands of volunteers who helped create the maps. But the next question is much trickier. What do we do with a rare plant in the middle of the garlic patch? – oh and another plant in the broad beans? I suppose the greatest reward for me is to have learned so much about a difficult family of plants. I can look a Fumaria in the eye now. That’s quite a feeling.

So aside from all the excitement we used the extra daytime to bake some bread and go up to the allotment early and get some watering done – the last three months have almost amounted to a drought – mercifully broken last week when we harvested around 500 litres of rainwater. After that we weeded and planted out the outdoor tomatoes, and fed the asparagus which needs to recover during the summer. We don’t spray for anything, so we have to pick the asparagus beetle grubs off by hand. We’ve had a great crop of strawberries from the new plants too. May is a tricky month and most of us take the risk of getting runner beans in as early as possible. Over the years we’ve learned to do two sowings a fortnight apart so that we can fill any gaps due to frost damage. The Potwell Inn allotment is sheltered from south-westerlies but very vulnerable to cold easterlies which can hammer even hardy early sowings. We had a few losses among the Borlotti beans but we were able to fill the gaps today. Our biggest enemy at the moment is Field Bindweed which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Finally we’ve spotted Damselflies on the pond. It’s into its second year now and maturing nicely. The pond is in a small area no more than maybe 12′ X12′ and surrounded by narrow borders which are crammed with Foxgloves, Angelica, Lovage, Catnip and many smaller herbs and flowers. A proper miniature cottage garden.

I also put together a little collage of photographs of the polytunnel. In the autumn I sieved a big load of our home made compost and we spread a 3″ layer across the tunnel beds. LIke the rest of the allotment we don’t dig. Now we’ve planted out tomatoes, aubergines, basil, Minnesota Midget melons and marigolds which are doing really well. The photo at the top is where we’re at right now, and the others – left and right of the sieving (hard work), are where we got to last summer. The melons were absolutely stunning so we’re giving them lots of food, love and water in the hope of even greater glories later this year.

Then just to cap a busy day we picked a mixture of white and purple elderflowers and put them to soak in boiling water with lemon and orange zest. We’ll do two batches which will keep us self sufficient in Elderflower cordial – until next May. In fact I was so thirsty I was drinking the last of the old supply while I was grating the zests. And we’ll probably be in bed by 9.00pm.

Google Photos as a natural history resource.

Most of these photographs were taken on what turned out to be a life changing trip to Dartmoor in March 2016. The Potwell Inn didn’t exist; we’d been through retirement and a major family crisis when our second grandchild was born with a still undiagnosed genetic disorder; we’d moved from a large vicarage to a small flat in Bath and the allotment was yet to come. Christmas had been a write-off and we had taken ourselves off to St Ives in the campervan in search of some respite – in the dog days of the old year just as a major Atlantic storm reached the south west.

January 1st 2016 – a stupidly hubristic resolution

The key photograph here is the one of the (at the time) unidentified little seagull. We were leaning on the railings above the harbour just down from St Ives lifeboat station and watching the gulls when I realized that this gull was very different from some of the other gulls and I had no idea what species it was. I remember feeling faintly annoyed with myself and later that day we went into the bookshop and bought the first bird guide we’d ever owned. It was about then that quite the stupidest resolution I’ve ever made began to form in my head. I would not – I resolved – pass by any plant or animal, without naming it. The picture I took that day was completely hopeless in terms of identification, even with an 80mm lens there was no detail that had any significance so far as I could see. Just for the record I now know perfectly well that the dark smudge behind the bird’s ear is all that remains of the Black Headed Gulls’ distinctive summer plumage on December 29th.

Before we retired (i.e when we had a bit more money), I bought an iPhone and a Macbook. Madame had already settled into the Apple ecosystem because she was teaching photography at the time and it made sense for us to share resources. For the first time I owned a mobile that would add location data to the EXIF file. At roughly the same time I started keeping a private journal using Day One software and this integrated seamlessly between the iPhone, the Macbook and a big desktop. But it wasn’t so long before we came up against Apple’s policy of abandoning their products by making it impossible to upgrade the software. Day One suddenly stopped talking to my Macbook and when I complained I was told that it was my fault for not upgrading. We struggled on for several years, but applications like Photoshop and Lightroom were less and less easy to run on our aging machines and in any case their memory hogging features were far beyond my own needs. I was using Microsoft Windows for work and so we landed up in the worst of all worlds, moving photographs between incompatible software. Heaven knows how much data was lost; but in the end I began a long process of ditching Apple and moved as much data as I could find into Dropbox as a security for the future.

It was our oldest son who broke the impasse by giving me an old Pixel 3 phone after an upgrade and I started using Google Photos. To be honest there was nothing about the iPhone that I particularly missed, and when – a couple of years later – he gave me a basic HP Chromebook that he’d acquired during another upgrade, and after he helped me with a fast and pretty seamless setup and data transfer, I put my agonisingly slow Macbook on a shelf and started enjoying an entirely new and fast cloud-based ecosystem.

Anyway, to get back to the photographs at the top of this post, they represent something of a sea change. My ludicrous resolution to try to name things brought about a move towards much more purposeful photography. As my interest in plants moved up a step, I discovered that well composed photographs of plants I didn’t recognise, meant I didn’t have to dig them up and take them home which is at best inconsiderate and at worst illegal. It’s taken ever since to refine the technique so that I remember to photograph the sometimes apparently insignificant details that make the difference between a correct and a wrong identification.

None of this particularly mattered, of course, as long as I was the only person ever to see the record. But then, as I wrote in a post last week, I began sending them for verification by the local BSBI East Cornwall recorder – which is when it dawned on me that my photographs were more akin to archaeological compost than a filing system. Looking for old photos meant trawling through thousands of them in the hope of alighting upon the right one.

By now I’d got myself a powerful little Pixelbook and I was beginning to understand that the originally utilitarian Google Photos has a few new tricks up its sleeve. One of Google’s most useful – although much feared – attributes is its formidable artificial intelligence software. If you’ve ever used Google Lens on the phone you’ll know that. It can be a curse as well as a blessing – this morning I had an email from someone asking what was the launching fee at Percuil. We were on holiday for the last two weeks and I mentioned Percuil several times in the blog and the odd request must have flowed from a bit of AI that was too clever for its own good.

Google Photos uses AI to do a lot of basic sorting and indexing of photos behind the scenes; so I can search on months and years, faces and places. But last week I wanted to start indexing keywords like genera, species, English and Latin names and various other bits of searchable data. I’d contemplated using some third party software but after hours of searching I couldn’t find anything I liked better. Any records I’d submitted or had accepted would be somewhere in one of a number of vast external databases, but I wouldn’t be able to access them in a simple personal list.

So here’s the exciting thing. After a bit of experimentation it seems that contrary to what I read on the internet, I can do keyword searches on terms that I type into the “details” column at the head of all the EXIF data. The only downside is that the AI facilities remain in play, so a keyword search on primrose might yield a few lookalikes as well – not the end of the world in my view. My guess is that some of the AI used in Google Lens is already being built into Google Photos. The software connects seamlessly to WordPress, so I can use my photographs in this blog; and I can easily forward diagnostic photographs to the referees for acceptance.

When we go out plant hunting I take the phone with a macro lens so I can take the necessary photos. I’ve got stacks of useful apps on the phone as well, including OS mapping, accurate National Grid references, altitude, and shortcuts to the BSBI plant distribution database. I’ve also got iRecord, I Naturalist and a link to the local list of plants which I download as a PDF before leaving home. Google Lens is surprisingly helpful in steering me in the right direction but it’s not infallible. Of course I will take a book along with me but I always take photographs because I can use them with my library of plant books at leisure when I get home. It doesn’t always work, and I often have to go back, look more closely and take more photos in order to do a full ID.

The upshot is that the more of this kind of intense work I do, the more my plant ID skills improve. Typing details into the software drills the English and Latin names into my memory very effectively too. I think the take-home point is that while for some people, staggering across a bog with a large camera and tripod, an expensive GPS unit and a copy of Stace 4 weighing in at well over a kilogramme is the only way forward. But for my purposes I can get it all into a pocket without my trousers falling down. I take a 6″ ruler, I use my walking pole as a 1.5 metre measuring stick. I take a plastic zip bag, just in case; a Rite in the Rain waterproof notebook and a pen that writes on it underwater and upside down – who knows when that might be needed! a scalpel and a couple of hand lenses. Total weight around 500g.

Maybe I’ll be forced to eat my words one day, but this seems to me to be the simplest and cheapest way – it’s free – of creating a searchable, automatically backed up photographic database for plant recording. No good at all, of course for insects, mammals and birds because they all race around too far away for a phone camera. But my subjects stand still – unless it’s very windy – and best of all the photos escape the dangers of being lost forever in my fallible memory. What’s not to like?

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.

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