Another week on the Lleyn peninsula, at the feet of the Snowdon range and jutting out into the Irish sea. The drive home was an idyllic spring journey through three mountain ranges, Snowdonia, the Cambrians and then the Brecon Beacons. I suppose we could have driven home the quick way via the motorway network but then we’d have missed the superb clear views of the mountains. On one occasion a couple of years ago we took a wrong turn and drove up beside the Arenigs and Lake Bala. It cost us a couple of hours finding our way through the Welsh Marches but it felt as if we were following in George Borrow’s footsteps as he researched for his book “Wild Wales”.
The weather was iffy to say the least, but then it usually is in North Wales, and we found sunshine and time for walking every day – which led to a surprise discovery. Coltsfoot (bottom left) isn’t rare by any means but I haven’t seen it for over a decade. The last occasion was on a bike ride along the Severn estuary when the verges were thinly covered by melting snow. It’s one of those plants which flowers before the leaves emerge and I suspect the contrast of golden yellow against the mud spattered roadside snow caught my eye. I’ve been back to the same place often at this time of the year to see it again, if only because it cheers me up to see it defying the last of winter, rather like Celandines do. It’s possible, though that I haven’t found it because it just wasn’t there – because it’s fussy about its environment, but only in the sense that (like the Twits) it relishes disturbed and unpromising environments like landslides, mudslides disturbed ground and generally mashed up land. Last week there were so many Coltsfoot plants punctuating the wind and sea-lashed mud cliffs of Porthor beach, I thought I’d gone to heaven.
And I really like these places. Madame rolls her eyes and laughs at me when I run rapturously towards a slag heap, but here you can find some of the great survivors of the plant world. Often absolutely tiny, they make a scant living in the most unpromising places; for instance those lumps of dark rock in the bottom right hand photo are actually lead slag and in early spring, Common Whitlowgrass is among the few plants that can tolerate the concentrations of heavy metals like lead. The top right photo is of Danish Scurvygrass growing in pure sand. It’s common all around the coast, and I once chewed some (picked out of dog range) and it tasted pretty horrible – like gone off horseradish with mustard. For sailors however it was once a lifesaver due to its concentration of Vitamin C. Foragers like it for reasons best known to themselves and for them the good news is that salt gritting the roads has created Scurvygrass highways, reaching inland on verges.
Many ferns too can scratch a living on drystone walls and almost bare rocks, and so the list goes on. The adaptations to allow these precarious lives are as varied as the species themselves, and that’s the thing about evolution – it’s got time and sheer weight of numbers on its side; so many combinations and mutations to select from. One seaside favourite is the thickening and toughening of the skin – the description succulent kind of misses the emphasis that should rather lie with the plant’s capacity to resist drought, salt and all the other indignities of marginal life. Some ferns rely on what’s called apomixis – they’re self fertilised and so the minute spores can set up shop almost anywhere without fertilization by another plant – and my goodness they can travel in a favourable wind.
I get bored by formal gardens mainly because their glorious arrays are almost always the result of intensive breeding and human effort. They’re the well bred six footers who always get noticed first at the bar whilst the rest of us poorly bred peasants have to wait.
The most misused concept in farming is the idea of “improved pasture” because it’s not improved in any conceivable way- it’s just more productive in the single sense that it makes cattle fatter quicker. But the fact is that unimproved grassland yields better, stronger, far more biodiverse, health promoting and nutritious food; not just for meat production but also capturing and sequestering more carbon whilst sustaining the intricate web of wildlife – birds, flowers, pollinating insects in balance. Improved grassland is just a wasteful and expensive way of turning soil into dirt!
I don’t blame the farmers for this impasse. Decades of government policy and propaganda from supermarkets and agrochemical businesses have promoted the gods of economy, “progress” and yield, but just as the Canaanite god Moloch demanded child sacrifice, the gods of intensive agriculture have sacrificed the soil; offering only dwindling returns and throwing countless small farmers into bankruptcy and poverty.
Of course, picking up my initial thread, some plants will succeed in the most impoverished and polluted situations – which may be of comfort to those foragers who haven’t yet tried salad leaves contaminated with heavy metals. But there will be no botanists there to record and admire them. You see, to return to the idea of evolution, we have to remind ourselves that evolution carries on whether or not there are any humans around. After the barren earth and the inevitable famines, there will be plants and every other kind of wildlife, doing what my favourite plants have always done; adapting surviving and flourishing. This is the point we’re missing. If we want to survive as a species we need to follow their example and adapt the way we live until balance is restored once again.
There will always be snake oil sellers who offer fossil fuelled shares in going back to the good old days. Laugh at them. Laugh in their faces at their risible stupidity, because if there’s one thing we’ve forgotten in this scientific age it’s encapsulated in this adapted quip.