Category: Natural History
On ecstacy and getting out (of it) more
5th February 2018
It snowed here in Lleyn last night. It doesn’t usually snow in this maritime climate, it usually waits for another ten miles until it hits the mountains and falls there, but last night it snowed a bit and the surrounding hills were dusted with white when we woke up.
But the thought that woke with me was a nebulous sense of vulnerability associated with growing old and, from there in one of those strange leaps that the mind makes, to writers who share their everyday lives with us whether we like it or not, and from there to the legions on Facebook and other social media. Why is it so important to share everything? Or to include myself among the guilty, why do we do it?
Maybe my waking sense of vulnerability makes a starting point. Possibly it was the news that A has been ill with repeated UTI’s and in bed for a fortnight. Perhaps it was the story of a heroin addict son (written by his father) that we talked about before we went to sleep: these things have a habit of resurfacing in some way. The unexpected idea that, in a sense, everyone suffers from ‘locked in syndrome’ to a degree, came into my mind as I wondered what this strange waking mood was all about. Stripped down to the most basic level isn’t being human necessarily being lonely? -and what was that lovely quote from Chekov? – “If you’re afraid of loneliness don’t marry!” . It sounds harsh but it’s the unpalatable truth we rarely want to address. The starting point for our humanity is a terrible aching isolation. Love, laughter, joy and ecstacy are acts of defiance; and all art – painting, drawing, writing – are a declaration of war. Like Jacob at the Jabbok Brook, we wrestle with the angel who refuses a blessing and we always emerge from the encounter more or less damaged. Art dares to grasp the ephemeral and render it. By painting his rotting leaf in its glorious colours I have snatched it from the same oblivion that awaits me. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my green age” That’s it Dylan Thomas – although the fuse metaphor always seems a bit contrived. “If only you could bottle it” say the emotionally illiterate who can’t be arsed to join the resistance.
And so ecstacy – being out of oneself – is the release from that primordial isolation. The stupidity of trying to describe the furniture in the afterlife and to write the seating plan for the heavenly banquet is precisely that in order to materialise it you’d have to import the very thing it was designed to replace. If I’d had five lovers I would presumably feel five times as lonely in the heavenly kingdom. Thanks, but I’ll take oblivion.
But let’s, for a moment, take the side of the ‘bottlers’ who may have a point. We’ve all had moments that we’d love to be able to hold on to. This journal, for instance, is a way of holding on to the ephemeral that works for me. I’m not offering it up as any kind of exemplar for others to follow, in fact I’m its only reader. But what would it add if I published it? It might add a degree of self censorship, although that always exists in some form. Please meet my superego, my own personal policeman who seems never to go off duty. I think its principal benefit to me would be the assurance that I’m alive. My little protest against isolation and loneliness is no longer the equivalent of a message in a bottle thrown into the raging sea; it’s being heard, it’s being read by six people? by a million people? Does this help me to feel less lonely? Does it give me a friendly hug in a friendless world? Well yes and no. The friends and the hugs are virtual, they’re not real and when I turn my phone off they’re not there any more. The ‘likes’ are not the unconditional ones of sweat and blood relationships, but electronic gestures.
And so I wonder whether there’s a sense in which blogging is the bastard child of ecstacy. That ecstacy is deformed from the sense of being lifted out of oneself, of mysteriously losing oneself as we do when we truly love someone, to the entirely banal sense of sharing what pleases us and makes us feel good. Getting (it) out of oneself, for good or ill, like a form of mental cleansing, thoughts, feelings and emotions – especially when it’s hatred, fear and anger – can be swept into the app and flung into space, and the reward is a handful of emoticons and ticks that can reassure us for an instant that we’re not dead, not forgotten, not alone. I’ve seen it described as a form of narcissism but that’s just a little off target. Yes there are full-on narcissists who waste their time gazing at themselves in a mirror and enjoying it but most of us who have narcissistic tendencies (that’s everyone else, I think) are far more sad and desperate than we are self-satisfied.A few years ago ecstacy stopped being a Greek term and became a drug you could take to feel ‘loved up’ among a bunch of strangers at a club. That’s almost as sad as being alive.
It’s too cold and wet to get out today so apart from going to Nefyn to get some milk I’ve spend all day writing or thinking. From time to time we’re getting intense flurries of sleet and snow and as I was typing I noticed these fine mammatus clouds outside the window. They’re very odd and striking. Beyond them the sea is paynes grey and disturbed. By about 3.00pm patches of blue sky had begun to appear and although the wind is still a fierce and bitterly cold north westerly gale, and where the birds emptied the feeders yesterday, today they spent much of the time sheltering and periodically appearing as small flocks of one species or another.
Tomorrow we must pack up and go home, our drawing pads are untouched. Perhaps next time, we say, and next time there may be flowers or more likely leaves on the blackthorns that edge the little valley that runs down to the sea. Their dense thickets of branches and fierce thorns would be a worthy challenge for an artist with the necessary skills. Deeper down there are clouds of willows whose thin twigs reach upwards towards the light and, at this time of year take on a reddish hue. If I could be bothered to fight my way down there I would find them in bud, I don’t doubt.
Picking up my earlier thread, the other constant factor in our humanity is change. We age, and for years we ignore it or perhaps welcome the changes. We count it as maturity in our powerful days and then we cling to wisdom as the reward for our energy until we notice that our skin and sinews are less resilient than they once were. I once had a dream about being followed by two elephants. i woud occasionally catch sight of them, often a street away. I talked about it to Robin [my psychoanalytic psychotherapist] and he said “I’m a Freudian. They’re sex and death.”
And the Heraclitian theme of endless irrevocable change is what motivates and challenges a gardener too. I didn’t mention gardening as a means of challenging the loneliness, but I should have . Gardening and the love of the natural world teach us how to snatch something from the jaws of the monster. When we sow seeds we raise a finger of defiance to the forces of decay. We think, but never articulate the thought, that we shall live to reap the harvest. And the study of nature what’s that? My endless lists are my way of trying to nail down what’s there, just for a moment. Plants in flower on 2nd August 2017? I identified my first Vipers Bugloss on the cliff at Tenby that day and later I wrote about feeling an almost godlike sense of engagement in naming things.
I have a pen, designed for astronauts, that will write in any weather, upside down, on wet paper and I have notebooks that I can write in under the same conditions. They’re very precious and contain the record of the things I noticed that day. They’re not comprehensive – how could they be? – and to a more accomplished botanist or birder than me they would probably seem rather commonplace. Yesterday I watched sparrows and chaffinches – so what? – well because I really did see them and consequently they were noticed, cared about, recorded. Is that the primordial need that lies at the heart of our humanity? Our need to be noticed, cared about and even recorded?
And isn’t it the case that we are betrayed by a culture that only values the rare and the extreme at the expense of the ordinary? We surrendered the complex metaphor concerning God that had taken thousands of years to perfect and substituted Facebook, Instagram and the TV talent show. No winners, all losers. We each go back at night to our lonely one-room conciousnesses aware that there’s everything to do tomorrow. So by 4.00pm we were feeling a bit housbound and we drove to Porth Dinllaen for a walk along the beach but we were thwarted by a hailstorm that we could see sweeping across the bay towards us. There was a hopeful patch of blue behind Trefor cliffs but soon after we got back from our aborted walk the sleet was coming past the house sideways.
With Sarah and Pete to Newborough Warren, Anglesey.
The view across the Menai Straits from Llanddwyn Island
Sea Holly – Eryngium maritimum on the same wall as the Red Goosefoot and Spear Leaved Orache below
This is Red Goosefoot – Chenopodium Rubrum I’m sure. The only other plant it could be is Saltmarsh Goosefoot – Chenopdium chenopoides but checking the current BSBI list that doesn’t apear there or in Ellis whereas Red Goosefoot does in both lists. What was interesting was that it was growing alongside Atriplex prostrata – Spear Leaved Orache on the same wall, which – I don’t know why – seemed a bit strange. Growing in amongst it is Sea Sandwort – Honckenya peploidesA highly specialized environment I think on a sea wall constantly breached by wind and waves.
I had no idea what this was until I spotted a smaller one nearby and I recognised it immediately as some kind of Lycoperdum. I had to wait until I got back to Tan y Fford to identify it as a Pestle Puffball – Lycoperdon excipuliforme – which has an astoundingly thick and long stalk, unlike any other puffball I’ve seen. A very striking find.
I think this is the first two star nationally rare plant I’ve ever identified. It’s called Round Leaved Wintergreen – Pyrola rotundifolia. Just look at that phallic flower! It was in the red woodland trail through the edge of the woods. Bit of a poster boy for field botany!
This is Vipers Bugloss – again on the island.
Sea Rocket – Cakile maritima
So that was the botanical bit, and very good it was – at least when we got home to Tan Fford. We had driven up to Anglesey to stay overnight with Pete and Sarah who were renting a cottage there. Llanddwyn Island is very beautiful and full of surprises apart from plants. There are a number of buildings including St Dwynwen’s church. She was a 5th Century saint and there’s a lighthouse, coastguard cotages and several prominent crosses. The present church building is a ruin. The best thing about the island apart from the plants are the fabulous views of the mainland
Fish and chip supper and a good deal of wine knocked us out by about 10.30 and I slept soundly but not well, dreaming that the end of the bed was a huge icefall – which discouraged me greatly from going for a piss.
Bit of a botanical binge
Went for a walk along the clifftop in the direction of Porth Dinnlaen and somehow decided to start recording plants in flower. I had, in a sense, gone equipped because I’d taken a GPS and a notebook and pen, and it did rather slow us down. We were out for two and a half hours and managed to walk three miles in total. It was a very grey day after a night of rain and so we wore gaiters in anticipation of mud, but in fact the land here seems to drain very well and we didn’t really need them. Stella has bought a new pair of 3/4 height walking boots to try to support her ankles and so in order to match her I put on my old Scarpas, the ones I did the Camino with, and we set out looking rather imposing I imagine. My old boots are probably the most comfortable I’ve ever walked in but they have the fatal (potentially) flaw of suddenly giving way on wet rock, which makes clambering around on beaches extremely hazardous. Happily there was only one slip today, but it rather puts me on edge.
I was thrilled with the total of 37 plants in flower. It’s the most I’ve ever recorded in one day, and it took several hours back at the cottage to double check and verify them. I was surprised how many I’d got almost but not quite right, however it’s a step in the right direction and I’m getting better at checking for the vital information to record, and taking the right photographs for reference later.Here’s the list – the BSBI record numbers are in the big black notebook but I couldn’t fit them here tidily and in any case they don’t matter just for the diary. I wonder if I should send them to the County Recorder – there’s nothing at all rare or unusual but they do mark the existence of a plant for future reference (global warming, for instance). One plant in particular I’d never heard of Tutsam – Hypericum androsaemum – I was excited to ID it. I was also delighted to recognise 2 different species of Heather.
Achillea millefolium Yarrow
Armeria maritima ssp maritima Thrift
Atriplex prostrata Spear Leaved Orache
Bellis perennis Daisy
Calystegia sepium Hedge Bindweed
Centaurea nigra Lesser Knapweed
Chamerion augustifolium Rosebay Willowherb
Cirsium arvense Creeping Thistle
Crithmum maritimum Rock Samphire
Digitalis purpurea Foxglove
Erica cineria Bell Heather
Erica tetralix Cross Leaved Heath
Filipendula ulmaria Meadowsweet
Heracleum spondylium Hogweed
Holcus lanatus Yorkshire Fog
Hypericum androsaemum Tutsan
Hypochaeris radicata Cats Ear
Impatiens glandulifera Indian Balsam
Jasioni montana Sheeps Bit
Leontodon saxatilis Lesser Hawkbit
Lonicera periclymenum Honeysuckle
Lotus corniculatus Birdsfoot Trefoil
Origanum vulgare Wild Marjoram
Plantago lanceolata Ribwort Plantain
Plantago major Greater Plantain
Plantago maritima Sea Plantain
Potentilla anserina Silverweed
Pulicaria dysenterica Common Fleabane
Rubus fruticosa agg Bramble
Sambucus nigra Elder
Senecio jacobaea Ragwort
Silene dioica Red Campion
Sonchus asper Prickly Sowthistle
Taraxacum officinale agg Dandelion
Torilis japonica Upright Hedge Parsley
Trifolium pratense Red Clover
Tripleurospermum inodorum Scentless Mayweed
As well as plants we had some delightful moments on the beach, where a grey seal came quite close inshore and stared at us with apparent interest. After a minute or so she slipped beneath the waves and disappeared from view, but on our return walk we spotted a very similar looking female hauled out on a rock. She was very pregnant and looked as if she might give birth to her cub at any moment. Big as she was, her movement across the rock was so ungainly and must have made her very vulnerable. We guessed she might have come inshore to find a safe place to have her cub. She was a truly beautiful animal.
We also saw a Shag with three fledged young, sitting on what seems to be a favourire place. There were also a number of Ravens around. We saw five in a field, scrapping in a desultory way halfway between playing and fighting. The only butterfly was a Common Blue feeding on Birdsfoot Trefoil which seemed rather sleepy and allowed me to get close enough with my phone to take a picture.
Later we drove to Whistling Sands to look for the sloe trees we picked from last year but they’d been flailed this year and there was no fruit to be had. The afternoon was turning increasingly grey and miserable and apart from being too warm could have been mistaken for `November it was so gloomy. So we drove through Aberdaron but didn’t feel tempted to get out in the drizzle and came back to the cottage. As a long shot we decided to see what the sloes were doing in the garden and the lane down to the beach and to our great delight we picked five and a quarter pounds of lovely ripe fruit, enough to transform two bottles of gin! With the Damson Vodka we’ve already made we’ll have more than enough to keep us going for the whole of 2018.
I had forgotton to mention that it’s the second anniversary of our retirement.
The very first entry – a hubristic new year resolution
January 1st 2016
There is, it turns out, an ocean of difference between recognising something and identifying it. If you were to set out right now and stop at every bird or plant or insect you came across and not leave it until you knew its full name you’d be hard pressed to move a yard a day. And yet most of us, me especially, have always claimed of ourselves that we’re interested in the natural world and we manage to walk twenty miles, on a good day, without apparently missing a thing.Continue reading “The very first entry – a hubristic new year resolution”