Nothing in nature is without purpose

This beautiful scientific drawing by Margaret Tebbs is from the BSBI handbook “Grasses of the British Isles” by Tom Cope and Alan Gray.

A mea culpa is called for on my part. A couple of days ago I was writing about my excitement at seeing the seed of a false oat grass under the microscope and how I got tremendously excited at its rather extravagant beauty. Now at one level there’s nothing wrong with such a strongly aesthetic response to nature. The sense of wonder is at the heart of our response and it’s been getting a bit of a push at the moment, with so much media coverage of the psychological benefits of being in nature. There’s a slightly creepy feel to some of the quasi religious stuff being promoted, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see instances of miraculous healing being claimed, and no doubt there will be therapists too ….. But the originating emotional response is quite genuine.

Beyond the oohs and aahs, anyone who’s tried their hand at botanical illustration will know how incredibly difficult it is to do justice to the observational science and at the same time capture the sheer beauty of plants. The best I’ve ever managed is to capture them in a small part of a drawing. I’ve got one on the wall in the flat, and although I can see nothing but flaws in the greater part of it, there’s one small passage at the bottom that gets it right – and I often look at it and wonder how did I do that?

So yes – the aesthetic response is good, but it’s never the whole, and as I ploughed my way through the BSBI handbook, I came across the most wonderful explanation of why the awns, the spiky appendages to the seeds of this grass and some of its cousins are as they are. Coincidentally, yesterday I was reading some of the biography of Joseph Banks who was the pioneering botanist on the voyage of the Discovery with Captain Cook and whose work was rather frowned upon by many leading scientists of his day because he had taken up the Linnaean system of classification, and Linnaeus was thought to be all too interested in the sexual activity of plants. For the delicate constitutions of the devout, the thought of fields, full of fornicating plants, was all to much.

But plants (and all nature) are very much concerned with – shall we say – putting it about? and the difficulties of doing so have been addressed by different plants in different ways over evolutionary time. Getting into field botany commits you to a life of examining the naughty bits of plants – how they work, and in this case how they spread their little darlings.

“an object of admiration to all grass lovers”.

Plues “British Grasses” 1867

So lets go back to the picture and notice that there are two awns – one straight and the other with a twist and a bend about half way up. The thing about the twist (which I compared with a fairy blacksmith forging it in gold) is that it isn’t gold, it’s living tissue, and crucially, it’s hygroscopic – it absorbs moisture and as it does so the spirally shaped part of the awn slowly rotates, unwinds. Imagine a time lapse video, and as the relative humidity of the air ebbs and flows, you’d see it waving back and forth like an angry adder. So you’ve got one waving awn and one stiff one. When the ripe seed falls to the ground the first thing it needs to do is to get itself into the earth, so it can germinate and immediately grow some roots. And so, in a tiny evolutionary miracle, this particular seed is able to use the two awns to walk its way into the earth. Self burying seeds no less. For me that adds to the aesthetic experience under the microscope – glory upon glory if you like.

That’s about it at the moment. The Potwell Inn has gone on a rather severe diet and so the last three days have been etched with suffering – well that’s a slight exaggeration, but 40 days in the desert is, by all accounts, a good way of fending off decrepitude and I’ve no appetite for testing my own self-burying skills – there are too many things I still want to do!

Finally a photo, taken on Bannerdown, that I published in a gallery a few days ago – It’s a wild carrot and I thought it deserved to find a place in a bigger format. I just loved the way the sun is shining through it.

Getting control

It’s a concept I’ve always been a bit suspicious of – controlling can be a dangerous addiction for anxious people and yet these last few months of lockdown have revealed a more kindly, almost therapeutic aspect to taking control. This devastatingly unoriginal thought came to me this morning in the kitchen when I was working my way through half a dozen routine jobs and suddenly experienced a ‘flow’ moment while I was straining the kefir.

I guess during the lockdown and the general strangeness that surrounded us, especially at the beginning when we were unable to rely even on essential supplies, routine became comforting. Getting bread on the table, getting our hands on 16 Kg of bread flour, replenishing almost any supplies can go from being full of stress to offering strong reassurance that in spite of everything we’ll get through. In our case a stone heavier because we’ve been eating all that therapeutic bread, and don’t even ask about biscuits. But getting by, being even a little bit in control, is a a small blow against the chaos – a finger in the air against the malign gods of incompetence. All the queuing and bulk buying of toilet rolls and flour turned out to be a proxy battle against something else, even if we never worked out quite what it was.

The picture at the top is of some Lords and Ladies – Arum maculatum, the roots of which were occasionally eaten during famine times when it was known as Portland sago. It’s fairly dodgy stuff that needs careful preparation – roasting and grinding to destroy the irritant sharp needles that, if eaten carelessly could make you very ill. However for me today it was a reminder that we’re in high summer now and there are hints of autumn everywhere.

There is a real sense of sadness that the seasons have passed us by this year, although I’ll be forever grateful that being grounded for several months has forced us to explore locally; and there’s been so much to discover. The allotment has been our saviour of course and we were glad to be working flat out during the spring and early summer. Now, in high summer there’s a bit of a lull and that’s given us the time to resume some longer walks and explore some local delights.

Today, once I’d finished a pile of prepping in the kitchen – bread, kefir, stock – and brining some onion rings for tonight’s panzanella – we went up to Bannerdown in search of butterflies and for me to do some more grasses. Slowly slowly I’m becoming more familiar and realising that giving consideration to the habitat, for instance woodland, unimproved grassland or marshy ground, simplifies things enormously.

I was also using the Panasonic Lumix camera with a 45mm Leica macro lens. Phone cameras are so so good these days that most of the time they’re perfect, but some days, like today, I really want to play with aperture and speed to get effects like bokeh (which is a pretentious way of saying blurred backgrounds). Learning to control exposures and apertures takes a while but it’s always worth the effort. When we were at art school, technique was rather frowned upon – which was why so much poor work was produced. For me the beauty has always been in the detail, and although I do photograph whole landscapes from time to time, they’re usually taken as a scene setter for the detailed view. There are some of today’s pictures below, but there’s one I couldn’t take because even with pretty good kit it’s just too small.

I grew up with false oat grass – it was the one from which you could strip the seeds between your thumb and finger as you walked past – like popping bubble wrap but back in the olden days before it was invented. However, being familiar with something and walking past it every day is not the same as knowing it, and because it ages, ripens and deteriorates during the season it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the mangled bit of dry straw is false oat or something else. I was examining an aged plant today and I took a very close (x20) look at the awn, it’s the bristle on the outside husk, if you like, of the tiny seed casings and it’s tiny, but so beautiful. It’s a world of arabesques and curlicues from the bend of the hook to the spiral markings at the base it could have been fashioned in gold by a fairy blacksmith. If I can’t get a photo I’ll have to make a drawing from the microscope and put it up. That’s what gets me about nature – it’s so unnecessarily and extravagantly lovely however you look, from telescope to microscope.

The other thing that blew me away today was how loud the insects are when they are working in such a rich environment. On a scale between exhausted industrial grass and irreplaceable pristine meadow, Bannerdown inclines towards the neglected grassland tag. But that’s still rich. I imagine they must cut it regularly or it would become scrub, but the flowers today were wonderful and the bees, flies and other insects were having a wonderful time. Their hum was continuous and generated by thousands of pairs of wings – like a symphony orchestra holding a long ppp note, full of harmonics; lush, fruitful and happy.

There were no wonders among the butterflies but the B Team were all playing. There were common blues, a couple of brimstone, speckled wood, meadow brown and innumerable little brown mothy jobs in the grass. As we left another butterfly spotter was just getting into his car. “Did you see any chalk-hill blues?” – he asked. “No we haven’t – are they around?” “Well I heard a report about one the other day but I haven’t seen any here for years”. Perhaps they should amend the notice board and put a “not available” sign beside it.

Back on the allotment we decided to give up on a group of bush tomatoes that have contracted brown stem rot, so we picked all the remaining green tomatoes – probably five or six pounds of them – and I’ll make chutney with them. The rot is caused by heat and water stress, and made worse by watering on the leaves. We’ve had temperatures going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow; we’ve had hot humid weather, days of intense sunshine and days of heavy rain. It’s enough to cause any plant troubles. With the green tomato crop secure now, we can let the rest of the Crimson Crush ripen on the vines. They’re our mainstay for the winter, and we make many litres of sauce and passata with them. With a bit of pasta and some parmesan, you can make a cracking meal in ten minutes. But tonight it’s going to be panzanella – my favourite tomato salad ever!

Wide

This has got to be one of the best views within 20 miles of Bath. Inevitably, given the limitations of a phone camera it’s no more than a taste, but from the top of Blackdown on the Mendip Hills you can see the River Severn as a pale streak below the sky and you’ll have to believe me that with no more than a turn of the head you can take in the Bristol Channel from the mouth of the Severn to the open sea, the end of the Cotswolds to the North, and to the West across the river you can see the Forest of Dean and beyond to the Brecon Beacons. Today we could even see Hay Bluff in the far distance, something like 80 miles away by road. Below and on the plain are the Somerset Levels and it’s an easy walk to Cheddar Gorge and Burrington Combe. It’s almost unfair to have so many nature reserves, SSSI’s and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty within the span of one gaze. Unfair, but who’s complaining? Here I am, the champion of post industrial landscapes and car parks; and William McGonagall of the urban wilderness, celebrating a far more conventional kind of nature.

If ever there was a place made for reflection and contemplation and blowing the dust off, this is it. The birds aren’t singing much at the moment, the chicks are hatched and fledged and there’s no need for showing off to potential mates, but in any case as we walked up from Tynings Farm we were swamped by the sound of a forage harvester getting silage in. We had to crest the hill before we could enjoy the silence that often seems to cloak the Mendips.

Roesel’s bush cricket – which was unscathed after being held very gently by our seven year old grandson.

Yesterday we spent the day in a very different landscape with our grandchildren and their mum and dad. In a busy suburb of Bristol, the countryside seems to reach into the city by way of fingers. An aerial photograph of Bristol might remind you of a wonky wagon wheel with spokes of green, but these spokes are under threat as never before from development. Our family can walk from their densely terraced street to their allotment, behind which there are open fields. They’re never going to be designated or protected notwithstanding the fact that we picked pounds of large sloes there yesterday, and our oldest grandson had tremendous fun catching grasshoppers, as he calls them. He’s lively and curious and these rather stressed fields, leaving aside the quantities of dog shit left everywhere by thoughtless dog walkers, are the bit of the natural world that he and his younger siblings can actually explore and enjoy. Soon they are going to be built over, and the horses that used to provide free manure to the allotmenteers were moved off on Friday. Our middle grandchild was deeply upset as she saw them being led away. Don’t ask me how we can resolve the constant tension between housing and open space, because it’s a nightmare; but wild and open space is as important for child development and grown up recreation as is warm and safe housing. We can’t let it all go into the developers’ offshore accounts.

Family sloe picking

As always, the paucity of the wildlife in the fields was more than made up for by the children. I’m always touched to see their parents struggling to solve the same problems and dilemmas that we faced in a previous generation. For good or ill our children, when they become parents, take with them the experience of our earlier attempts at playing mum and dad – not all of them very good because we had to learn on the job too.

And today belonged to the first field mushroom, the hosts of eyebright and tormentil, the heathers, vetches and trefoils, the cotton grass in the bogs, the south westerly blowing up from the sea, the space to talk and celebrate the fact that we are able to be out there in it and not least to thank our knees and one metal hinge for putting up with us.

Hallucinogenic fly repellant moves in with the cabbages.

Last week I noted here that some stray aubergines had moved into one of the allotment beds and wondered where they could have come from. Seeds, possibly, surviving the composting? But yesterday when the plants came into flower it became obvious that they weren’t aubergines at all but they were, nonetheless, members of the Solanaceae; the potatoes, tomatoes and – well- deadly nightshade, thorn apple and henbane all to be found in any self respecting dark pharmacy. What’s going on? what with killer courgettes stalking the home counties you might wonder whether it’s safe to go out at night, and I’ve still no idea how they got there.

However these rather attractive plants, which turned out to be alternately known as “shoo fly” or “Peruvian apples” – botanically Nicandra physalodes – have left us in a dilemma. The shoo fly name comes from its ability to keep flies and other enemies at bay by emitting a repellant chemical from glands on the leaves. But the leaves and stems and particularly (by report) the seeds, when rubbed into the skin or ingested, are apparently hallucinogenic. That’s the upside, you might say. The downside is that they seed freely and before you know where you are you might land up with an infestation. We could dry them (they dry well, so the flower arrangers claim – any excuse will do) and hang them up in the kitchen to keep flies out. I’m not sure how growing fly repellant plants fits in with the wildlife corridor ethos, but they could possibly be useful in the carrot bed – who knows? I’m intrigued enough to save some seed and grow them in pots that could be moved around the plot. I’ve discovered that the seeds are on sale an a number of reputable places so I guess a “proper” flower gardener would have recognised them immediately and we’re unlikely to get a visit from the drug squad – maybe from a luminescent operatic unicorn, though? Oh do send an alto – I’d love an alto unicorn. Better get some gloves! More seriously I should say that they belong in a seriously poisonous group of plants and could be very dangerous to curious children because they look a bit like Chinese gooseberries.

But yesterday we took a break from exploring the local nature reserves – that’s what we call a holiday in newspeak – and settled down to some routine weeding on the allotment. It’s one of the slacker times of the year; routine maintenance, watering and picking just about cover it. If you don’t pick the courgette today it’ll be a marrow tomorrow, and most veg will give up if you don’t keep picking.

So just to prove that we haven’t gone AWOL altogether here are some photos of the allotment:

Gruffy – 2000 years of history in a footpath.

If Rodway Common was the place that fired me up as a child, this is the landscape that captured my imagination as a teenager – and I’m sorry if my attachment to these rather gloomy, post industrial places offends, but there’s a big chunk of my imagination invested out here.

I came to Charterhouse, Priddy and Burrington Combe not to explore what was on the surface but what was underneath it. I was lucky enough to get a job at the university as what was known as a “Junior Photographic Technician” – it was the kind of work an intern might get these days but there, aged seventeen, they sent me on a course to train as a technical photographer, handed me a very beautiful Leica and a darkroom, and pretty well let me get on with it; calling on me to photocopy; photograph prospective students; and capture whatever else needed recording by the lecturers and post-grads. There was a fabulously well equipped workshop run by a group of oddball technicians whose job it was to turn research proposals into bits of aluminium and electronic apparatus; and Steve was an enthusiastic caver (potholer if you’re from the north, or speleologist in America, I think), who soon took us out with him and his friends .

One of the blocked swallets in Longwood Valley

So this part of the world was the place we came to to learn about caving, using what would now be thought of as completely archaic equipment. The only way of getting a wetsuit was to make your own – which I eventually did, but my gluing of the joints was a bit wayward and it was massively tight in some places and flapped about in others making it both restrictive and inefficient at the same time. The experienced cavers often used electric miners lamps with lead acid rechargeable batteries, but we mostly kicked off with carbide lamps which were smelly, unreliable and occasionally explosive, boiler suits and black helmets that often got soft in wet caves. Ignoring the flora altogether we would crawl and slither down passages that could be very wet or very muddy; soak up the (tall?) stories of exploration and daring by the older cavers and push ourselves to the absolute limit. Perfect fun for teenage boys in fact. If there was a hole in the ground, we wanted to go down it and looking back, we took some hideous risks. My greatest friend Eddy and me had spent holidays playing in the abandoned flues and tunnels in the brickworks so extending our range to natural holes in the ground wasn’t such a great step.

So by the time Madame and me got together I knew this part of the world underground much better than above. It was here that I first heard the term gruffy ground – a miners word for the way in which the landscape is pitted with trial pits and worked out rakes. What I hadn’t thought through at the time, is that these beloved and isolated places were the relics of nearly 2000 years of the industrial extraction of lead. You can see where I’m going here – this landscape had my name written all over it.

Yesterday we waited for the rain to subside and decided to drive up to Charterhouse – less than twenty miles away in the heart of the Mendip Hills. These days it’s a popular place for walkers and there were maybe twenty cars parked above Velvet Bottom, and so we parked next to the Field Studies Centre and walked down to the entrance to the nature reserve. If you were new to this place, you might wonder where the footpath surface came from. It’s shining black and glassy, like obsidian, and it’s slag from lead smelting which began with the invasion of the Romans in the first century, but most of which was produced during the industrial revolution when this must have been a stinking and polluted industrial wasteland. So the first thing about this landscape is that – quiet and beautiful as it might be today – the pollution levels are still so high that it has its own unique flora of heavy metal tolerant plants. Lead, nickel and cadmium levels are so high that tree growth in many areas is inhibited, and gardeners in Shipham just down the road, have been warned not to grow vegetables in their gardens.

Yesterday, though, under a cloudy but clearing sky, the overwhelming first impression was of a very Mendip silence. With Bristol Airport almost out of action (marvellous) the only sounds were wild sounds; of the wind, grasses and trees and of the birds. Up on the ridge in the photograph, a noisy bunch of rooks were enjoying themselves in the air. The second impression was the smell of the sea, of the Bristol Channel, sweeping in from the southwest bearing the scent of salt water and seaweed – the closest we’ll get to the sea this year, I fear.

The plan had been for me to do some grasses while Madame looked for butterflies (she had more luck than me). If you ever ran away with the thought that I knew something about plants, now’s the time to warn you that I really don’t. Within a dozen steps I realized that my carefully researched exploration of meadow grasses didn’t fit. This is the craziest flora. Later, after we got home with me licking my wounds, I discovered that the mixed up flora is the glory of this place. Due to the nature of the underlying soils, there are acid loving plants growing very near to calcifiles and marshy ground specialists. There were old friends but more total strangers, and plants that I knew from elsewhere suddenly popping up as if they belonged there. .More from the British Geological Survey here. It’s the botanical equivalent of the favela – absolutely gripping.

So we wandered slowly down Velvet Bottom (who could resist a place with a name like that?), and found the gated entrances to a cave system discovered long after I gave up, and which turned out to be the fourth deepest cave in the country. It was here we came with the boys once, and watched a couple of adders basking in the sunny heat at the bottom of one of the depressions. The valley deepens and becomes rockier as you descend, and then just before you reach Black Rock nature reserve and then Cheddar Gorge, there’s a footpath that takes you back up the Longwood Valley – another environment altogether, but still bearing the remains of industry beneath the vegetation because water was taken from here to feed the washes in Velvet Bottom. Nowadays it’s yet another nature reserve containing more locked potholes; one of them in particular prone to sudden flooding. Longwood Swallet has a reputation for taking lives.

IMG_20200801_125812

Until this point there wasn’t much butterfly action; some whites and meadow browns; a skipper which I took a rather bad phone camera photo of; a small blue – too far away to identify properly. Then. suddenly a silver washed fritillary flying high and gliding down to feed on a bramble, then – joined by a second – doing a bit of an aerial display, seemingly unconcerned by our presence and this time I did manage to get a slightly better photo. Acid specialists, calcifiles, marsh specialists and now a broadleaf woodland dweller. If ever there was a ‘phone a friend’ place this is it! We did a field trip with a couple of county recorders leading, near here a couple of years ago and it was pretty inspiring. I must try and persuade them to lead another one on our yesterday walk.

We walked less than five miles altogether and yet what a combination of environments – I could hardly sleep for excitement last night. Mercifully it’s raining again so the allotment won’t need watering today. I need to go back to the textbooks. Oh, and isn’t it good to see that even this landscape could recover from human exploitation.

Gert lush

I’m not sure if the phrase gert lush ever properly existed as Bristol slang. Lush certainly did, and meant really good; and gert did too, meaning big. But the combination seems to have come into existence as a bit of a joke when non Bristolians tried to speak like us. However the Bristol accent is not to be trifled with and the dialects tied you down to a single parish sixty years ago; so adding an ‘ul’ to China and saying Chinul or Africul wouldn’t get you very far into my affections. I say I’m a Bristolian because it’s an easy way of describing a complicated situation. If I was being pedantic I’d say that I come from Gloucestershire, but that opens a whole can of worms because the boundaries have changed so frequently over the years that for my first twenty years I lived in three counties without moving an inch. I now live in a fourth newly minted county but I could walk in a few hours to the place I was born. Where I was brought up we still used thee and thou when we thought no-one was listening; and when strangers or teachers were around we could lapse into impenetrability very easily. I love my accent even though once, in a restaurant in Birmingham, the waiter leaned across confidentially as we were leaving and asked “are you a farmer?” I thought it was very funny, but I’m not sure she saw the joke. Nonetheless I have needed to remind one or two people that having a local accent – even a very mild one like mine – doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Anyway, after that long excursus, we were on the allotment last evening and a hot air balloon took off from Victoria Park a couple of hundred yards away. It’s always a lovely sight, and I once had a balloon ride from the exact same spot on a similar summer’s evening some years ago. The launch site is surrounded by tall trees and buildings and so it’s necessary to gain height very quickly; therefore the technique seems to be to fill the balloon with hot air to the point it’s straining at the leash, and then release it like a cork from a bottle. A pretty thrilling experience. In my case we flew south and east, following the course of the river Avon until we swung north and landed somewhere around Marshfield. When the burner was silent we glided noiselessly above the fields and at one point followed a fox which was apparently unaware of our presence above him. All this was thirty years before we moved here and tracking the flight from memory on a map today, I can see that we would have passed exactly over Bannerdown where we spent the day yesterday.

It was – to use the phrase I started with – lush – and I’ve only just remembered that the owners of the balloon were our new next-door neighbours when we first moved here. Lush, then and a bit weirdly prophetic too. The pilot on my flight was a police inspector and I probably found a way of thanking him without using the dialect word to avoid evidencing any potential criminality on my part.

“Lush” – such a rich word; made for a couplet like “lush grass” … Lush, flush, blush; all wonderfully suggestive of fullness, of flow, of generosity or suddenness.

Odd then, to think that what encourages the immensely rich flora of meadows and limestone grassland is a kind of poverty. We’re planning to make a pond on the allotment this autumn, and we’re also going to create a small area for grasses and wildflowers, and that’s led us to an interesting conundrum. We’ve spent four years increasing the fertility of our ground and now, the bed we intend to convert is far too rich to support much more than the rankest of rank grasses and weeds. So the rather complicated plan is to remove most of the topsoil on the proposed “meadow” bed and move it to some new raised beds where it will be just what we need and better than any soil we could buy in. Next we’re going to do the same with the topsoil where the pond is going, and then while digging out the pond, move the less fertile soil and subsoil to the meadow bed to bring it back to level. The exact composition of the surface layer will need to be worked out, but to reduce fertility any other way would mean cutting and disposing of plant matter for years and growing something like yellow rattle to discourage the rank grasses. It’s my favourite occupation – making experiments. For wildflowers and their associated invertebrates, less is most certainly more. We couldn’t resist another trip to Bannerdown yesterday and I went armed with a notebook and a couple of plant cribs. So while Madame hunted butterflies I did a quick survey and in a couple of hours I’d listed fifty species and increased the grass total to fifteen and all of this on very thin limestone soil with rocks poking through in places.

And what struck us most was the heavenly smell of wildflowers. Madame said it was like being a child again. If there was a downside – and it wasn’t a big one – we were accompanied by a land rover towing a seed collecting box behind it. This was part of a project (with input from the Cotswolds Conservation Board), to create a wildflower corridor through Bath and yesterday’s seeds were on their way to Swainswick to re-seed a piece of land there. As we were leaving we passed the fruits of the day’s collection on a large tarpaulin on the ground, and we talked to the recipients and owners of the about to be reseeded field, who were tremendously excited about the project. We can only presume that our little allotment patch of a few square feet will form a tiny part of the whole in years to come.

It sounds counterintuitive to think that to regain lost species we need to make the ground less fertile, less lush; but one of the principal causes of our ecological crisis is the current agricultural policy of driving the land harder and harder using chemicals and artificial fertilizers, and if you’d been able to stand with us yesterday and enjoy the ridiculous numbers of wildflowers and grasses, you’d see why it’s so important to change our whole attitude to farming. But of course the takeaway point is that we can’t avert the coming destruction by writing new rules just for farmers, although that needs to happen. None of us will escape the coming moment of truth unless we all of us change our ways.

I’ve been reading Ann Pettifor’s book “The Case for the Green New Deal” and I think it’s the clearest summary I’ve seen yet on what needs to be done. Better than that, it seems really do-able if we can just knock the idea of continual growth off its perch and stop worshipping the economy as if it were some kind of abstract God, demanding constant obedience to the “Market” – a set of concepts I find almost as difficult as systematic theology. Today, as I write this we’re sheltering in the flat with the temperature approaching 30C. At what point do we start noticing that the king has no clothes?

What was the date of the last time you heard a cuckoo?

Arrhenatherum elatius ssp bulbosum otherwise known as a bit of dead grass

To be able to answer that question you’d need to have heard the cuckoo, recognised it and made a note of where it was that you’d heard it. I know where I heard the last one – it was with friends whose smallholding is near Crickhowell in Wales and I could find the date by looking for the photos I took on that day. That was getting on for two years ago and sadly I haven’t heard one since which gives me a little pang of sadness. What if that was it? – no more cuckoo ever …..

So maybe there is a point in being a bit of a list nerd, even if becoming one means you have to irritate the hell out of all your nearest and dearest while you read (buy) incomprehensible and expensive books, spend hours with pencil and notebook writing in secret code and develop a pronounced bend in the spine as you spend days on end looking at the ground, and enthuse about tiny bits of plants that no-one in their right mind cares a hoot about …. except – I should stop there! But if you’ve done all those things and write the event up and even send an account of it to someone who also records these things but on a grand scientific scale; then it’s just possible that something could be done in time to stop the cuckoo becoming a footnote in an annotated student’s Shakespeare crib.

On Tuesday I gathered 10 samples of grass from Bannerdown and as I mentioned earlier, I was up early yesterday morning and after some pretty intense work I managed to identify nine species; and I even managed to match them with all the other plants we saw yesterday and come up with my first ever NVC (National Vegetation Classification) code. More than a year after my resolution to “do the grasses” I’ve finally reached the point where I’m pretty confident with identifying them, and half a dozen I can recognise from twenty paces. A red letter day for me and possibly of no interest to anyone else, unless like me you’ve embarked on a stupidly difficult quest without much by the way of experience.

So why bother then? Why not leave it to the professionals? Well the answer is that there aren’t nearly enough professionals to do what’s needed. There are now hardly any opportunities to study botany at degree level in this country. We’re in the midst of an environmental catastrophe that will lead to the disappearance or even extinction of a huge number of species from environments that no one has ever recorded – and I don’t just mean Amazonian jungle and Arctic tundra, I mean the derelict site next door, the unappetising urban stream with the supermarket trolleys in it, and the allotment sites that hard up local authorities would love to sell off. The article from today’s Guardian newspaper that I cited above is concerned with UK mammals, and just like the mountain gorillas and snow leopards, our wild mammals live on wild plants, insects and other wild mammals and they are disappearing because their environmental niches are disappearing. As meadows, hedgerows and streams disappear along with all their specialised plants, their larger and more glamorous inhabitants disappear too; so saving the hedgehog means saving the hedgehog’s environment and the multitude of invertebrates that it lives on – which means saving the plants on which those invertebrates feed in turn. The earth is a joined-up ecosystem – with the emphasis on system and it can’t work even if small parts fail. Just as when the hinge on my laptop breaks it becomes a pile of junk. During my grass binge I have spent a lot of time on the internet looking for answers and I promise you I found a website (run by a agrochemical business) headed “How to identify grasses and eradicate them. “Attaboy – lets civilise the lawns and fields of this great country!”. Letting the nettles and the couch grass flower around the edges of your allotment shows you’re a part of the resistance movement.

Natural history has always had its share of amateurs. There are few other disciplines where we can make such a significant contribution. It’s true we don’t have the knowledge or the equipment to study plant DNA at home, but increasingly we’re becoming the infantry in the battle to save nature, (with saving ourselves as a side-order). There’s a place for everyone at every level and the amateur recorders are the intelligence corps, helping to collate the evidence. I first got involved in this kind of thing when I was a schoolboy and sent postcards (remember them?) back to a science project investigating thunderstorms. I remember I had to record the number of seconds that elapsed between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and add a few details about the storm. I think I had to buy my own postage stamps.

However, the reasons for getting stuck in aren’t just about saving our skin. To lift a phrase from a well known naturalist:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx – “Eleven theses on Feuerbach” – (and inscribed on his grave)

So let’s hear it for the sheer beauty of nature, for the way it frames us and sets us within our proper place, for the way it inspires the sense of the numinous, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“, the terrible and compelling face of nature that draws worshippers and list makers alike to record what might be the last great moments of a collapsing civilisation. “Glory be to God for dappled things” said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied beauty” and although these days I find the whole idea of God – especially the great gammon in the sky version promoted by most churches – impossible to understand, I know well enough what glory feels like!

It’s not all turtle soup and silver spoons!

With thanks to Charles Dickens and Thomas Gradgrind for the reference – and we’ve no plans ever to serve or eat turtle soup at the Potwell Inn, with or without the silver spoons.

One of the abiding challenges of writing a blog about being human is the temptation to create a sunny and carefree parallel world in which my ever competent and cheerful alter ego glides effortlessly through life untouched by troubles of any kind. Of course it’s not like that at all and things go wrong all the time – like yesterday when the pride of my civil engineering efforts on the allotment collapsed under the weight of water we’d gathered from some intense rain. I’ve written so often about the water storage project that I should have known it would all come back and bite me and now it has. I could see something was amiss when we came down the path and I saw that the three 250 litre water barrels, instead of standing in a perfect and level line, were leaning over drunkenly against the shed which, having distorted significantly, resisted any attempt to open it. One of the supports had collapsed under the strain of 750Kg of water and the horrible result was all too clear.

It was the crowning glory, or perhaps more honestly the last straw, because the black dog had already been following me around all day. I don’t know why -perhaps it was something to do with revisiting my past; but the mud and silt at the bottom of my inner pond had been stirred up by going to Rodway Common, and I couldn’t quite find the way out of my thoughts. The sight of the water butts moved me into a silence.

Melancholy isn’t just a middle class word for depression, tarted up to make it sound a bit poetic. Melancholy is a mind frame through which all the impermanence and fragility of the world is magnified, and these last months have carried the risk of loss so gravely that there can’t be many of us who haven’t been touched by it. Some will have fallen into depression, which is far, far worse. For the Potwell Inn, of course, the prospect of the landlord sunk in a grey mist did not inspire the landlady, and the lounge bar was as quiet as a funeral director’s waiting room. The television, leaking its poison into the room, drove me to my desk where I got stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and going nowhere. Then, after a disturbed night in which dreamed of being able to fly, I woke up feeling better and in possession of my lyrical mind once more, and also an easy way of rebuilding the water butt structure.

The last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way

What is it about the television at the moment? Endless costume dramas reinvent the past; we’ve got Jane Austin and Downton Abbey (was there ever a more unctuously dishonest series?) – coming out of our ears; and last night Countryfile – welly telly at its middle England finest – tried to present the argument that the gene editing of food crops was not the same as genetic modification. I screamed at the screen fruitlessly – “ask the question you moron!” – knowing that no serious question would be asked. The NFU will get its five minutes as the trades union of intensive farming, and there will be no mention of the adaptability of so-called pests. As Darwin said, when the merde hits the fan, it’s the most adaptable that survive (I paraphrase slightly) and that suggests that the odds are stacked against the farmers who will still be waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come and rescue them when the better adapted blackfly have eaten their wellingtons. Just to put it simply, gene editing is the same game as genetic modification and carries many of the same dangers; and the thought of negotiating around a supermarket between rows of genetically edited carrots and chlorinated chicken does not fill me with joy.

On the allotment we concentrate on building up the soil and we know that stronger plants resist pests and diseases better than intensively farmed weak ones. Yes we get pea moth still, but we get around that by cropping them earlier. Blackfly and ladybirds sometimes take a week or two to move into synchronisation but they always do in the end, and there are a multitude of healthy ways of controlling pests -companion planting, for instance – that can work at scale as well. We often used to joke that the last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way“. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this Covid 19 pandemic, it’s that always doing it this way is the problem, and doing more of it can never provide a solution.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether the human race even deserves to survive, but we have children and grandchildren and there are millions of poor people around the world who will suffer even more than they do already, if we cling to the old ways which – in truth – are barely a couple of hundred years old in any case.

So there we are- no longer Mr Sad but definitely Mr Grumpy – and when it stops raining and I fix the water storage it will be Mr Sunny all over again; and the regulars will ask “what’s he on?” as I pull pints and sing “round and round the mulberry bush” .

This isn’t just a landscape

Had the strangest experience last night as I settled down to identify a grass that I’d gathered on our walk to Sham Castle (yesterday’s posting). There must have been something about it that caught my eye, because when I opened the polythene bag that I carry around with me – just in case – there was another identical sample inside that I’d forgotten about. So why was this particular species of grass- which turned out to be (I’m pretty sure) common bent – Agrostis capillaris – speaking to me so loudly?

If you’ll allow me a tiny digression, the microscope has been a wonderful help with grasses, but also with random bits of unspeakable things like earwax which turn out to be pretty interesting as well! Anyway, the bent grass, to get back to the point. The thing about it was that it seemed to be carrying an inordinate amount of emotional freight with it. The pursuit of grasses has been as much an intellectual challenge as anything else. I’m trying to know them well enough to identify them confidently, simply because I was challenged by someone I respect greatly and I love a challenge.

So on the microscope I went through the increasingly familiar routine, much helped by the BSBI webinar material, and then keyed the sample out and there it was; one of two possibilities and in the end I plumped for common bent. And that might have been the end of the story if I hadn’t been mulling it all over in the early hours of this morning during that half awake, half asleep time that’s so full of lateral thoughts and unexpected revelations, and it became clear to me that I needed to go to Rodway hill.

If it weren’t for Rodway Hill, or Rodway Common as it’s also known my life would have been radically different. It was a place of powerfully charged moments. I had a strange, almost religious experience there as a young teenager when I once laid down on the grass and moments turned into infinite time. It was the first, but not the last of my experiences of what came to be known as the oceanic state. At a much more mundane level it was the place that Rogers’ Fair set up one warm summer evening and I first heard the Everly Brothers in a moment charged with eroticism, generators and diesel fumes. It was there with Madame that we once gathered 40lbs of blackberries with which we made dreadful chutney. It was where I went to school and it was the view from the window that sustained me through hours of tedium. It was the territory of my adolescence and so everything about it must have become charged with significance. And the common bent had something to do with it and so I dragged Madame over there in torrential rain this morning to get some photographs and to track down the ghostly presence.

It was a pretty scary experience – I felt a bit silly chasing down the bizarre idea that I am somehow connected to that landscape. Even as we set out I was wondering if the landscape was acting as an immaterial hard drive; if it could be possible that some of my memories were held there waiting for me to reclaim them. But however mawkish and stupid it might sound, the moment we set foot on the common they were there waiting for me.

I’d already done a bit of research into the surface geology of the area and I couldn’t find any real connection between the calcareous soil up on the Skyline walk and the mildly acidic soil on Rodway common, but either plants don’t read textbooks or they’re far more adaptable than we think, because there was the grass, the grass I once laid down next to and lost myself; the grass through which the wind would flow with a silvery kind of sound if you listened carefully enough. But there was more, because the harebells were still there and then in a proper flow moment I found woodruff – Galium odoratum one of the bedstraws and what I think was blinks – Montia fontana which I can’t remember ever noticing before. The gorse and the bracken were all there in abundance too; despite being surrounded now by a six lane circular road and thousands of new houses but the school and the common have survived. It was an extraordinary moment – to be there in the rain, reconnecting with my very young self and being able to name at least some of the plants that had lodged in my unconscious mind.

Of course the downside of the avalanche of feelings and memories was the thought that I might have been a complete weirdo as well, but there we are – Madame must have found something tolerable in me, (although she occasionally reminds me about her patience and forbearance in staying put!).

But if anything comes out of this strange day, it’s the extension of the notion of hefting that I’ve written about before. As I looked across the common, which is smaller than I’d remembered, I could see in an instant that the landscape is marked by what the Mendip people call gruffy ground. For whatever reason, whether surface mining took place there? – since it’s within the South Gloucestershire coalfield and there are records of a coal mine in Mangotsfield; or perhaps quarrying for stone? – all the local walls are built with that kind of sandstone, or whatever other reason. It doesn’t matter. The poor soil, delicate grasses, the pockmarked ground have become a sort of default in my mind and in the most peculiar way they hold me and I still seek them out like a sheep turned out on to the hill in the summer. Everything changes and nothing changes.

On the way home we took a detour past my old home which, ironically, is at the other end of the Bristol Bath cycle path; the other end of the same old railway line that still passes today. It looked much the same with new windows. Mr King’s allotment which was at the bottom of the garden over the tunnel entrance is now completely overgrown but can never be built on. No-one will ever re-create what he did, an old retired miner who would walk five or six miles to Parkfield in the morning and walk halfway home underground; his allotment was the paradisiacal vision that drives the Potwell Inn.

Going green – ish

Back on the Potwell Inn allotment, we’ve reached peak runner bean and courgette mountain time; not that I particularly mind because there’s no finer meal than a bowl of runner beans with a bit of grated cheese on top – Gruyere turns it into a gourmet meal but Cheddar works perfectly well. The courgette mountain can be very challenging because they have the gift of hiding under the foliage until they’re a foot long and almost unusable. We have several of them and I’m trying to figure out a suitable stuffing – vegetarian for preference because I’ve never seen what the point of putting sausage meat into a marrow might be. A strongly flavoured herby rice would work I think. But it’s miles better to harvest them young and full of flavour, before the seeds develop. I love them sautéd with a splash of lemon juice instead of salt. I’ve never liked the sprinkle of chopped parsley on top, it’s a herb and its place is in a side salad. Neither do I bother with all that salting and washing lark. Clearly there was a time (in the olden days?) when courgettes and aubergines were inclined to be bitter but not now, they’re much too well bred. If you want to stop them from turning into a mush, sauté them fast in blazingly hot oil and you get the brown edges as well as the full flavour and texture plus the excitement of setting off the smoke alarms – it’s a win-win.

So we are slowly turning green in several senses of the word. This is the time to become a vegetarian because you can eat a huge range of fresh, locally sourced and organically grown fruit and veg, and a lot less industrially produced meat. Good for us and good for the environment too. We’re not doctrinaire vegetarians here at all, but we eat less and less meat, and I can see a day coming soon when the minuses add up to a tipping point, but going a step further into veganism would be a much greater challenge, and intensive vegetable farming has its own ethical and ecological difficulties of a different kind and so we’re plodding down a middle path and hoping that sustainable, organic, high welfare mixed farming can provide milk, eggs and cheese alongside arable crops. But if the environmental crisis continues unabated then we may not have the luxury of that option any more and then my biggest fear is that the industrial food processing industry will seize the opportunity to flood the market with more expensive junk food.

Also on the allotment we’ve had loads of invertebrate visitors, two of them were butterflies, a gatekeeper and a speckled wood, that flew by yesterday and posed for me along with the whites, the red admirals and a tiny little shy one that flew away every time I got close – which didn’t. Previously I’d written about the suspected Jersey tiger (moth) that took a break on the kitchen window. I posted it on the Bath Natural History Society Facebook (Nature Watch) site and attracted a cluster of comments about whether I’d got the i/d right. It’s a bit rare in this part of the world, but it seems that as global heating increases it’s moving northwards.

However I’d underestimated the competitive instincts of (some) lepidopterists and was quite surprised at how hard I had to fight for my record. In the end, after a couple of heavyweights took my part it was allowed – or at least I’ll feel brave enough to send it to the County Recorder for verification and a puff of smoke up the gabled chimney. There’s no moral virtue in accidentally bumping into a rarity but somehow I felt as if I didn’t deserve to spot it! In the end, though, it was a very beautiful moth and after our discussion of minute details I reckon if it ever comes across my path again I’ll be able to identify it at twenty paces, and since I thoroughly enjoyed the scrap too, a good time was had by all.

Today we added another part of the Skyline walk, which involved yet another stiff climb up the hill to the south of us. As ever the access to the route allowed us to shortcut along the canal, avoiding the city centre which is more crowded than it has been for months. We spotted the resident heron perched opposite – too far away for a decent picture but I took one anyway. Later we dropped in at Sham Castle, with fabulous views over the City and then looped around the top of the hill, through the University and down Widcombe hill – about seven and a half miles in all; a decent walk.