Each one of these photographs has a share in today’s post. The first two on the top line are celebrating the fact that we finally finished harvesting our summer seasonal crops on the allotment. So Borlotti and the last of the tomatoes are in the photograph, but outside the flat we’ve got old and new potatoes, and squashes while still on the allotment are peppers, cucumber, beetroot and chard, runner beans and seven varieties of apple; so all in all not a bad year and the stores are full for the winter and hungry gap. It was hard work getting everything ready to come away, especially in the midst of a heatwave but we got it all finished and ready so we could come down here and do some end of season botanizing.
Sadly the campervan had other ideas and so I’ve spent hours crawling around in impossibly small spaces attempting to diagnose three distinct problems – ghost drain on the leisure batteries, bad contacts on the fridge supply and an apparently non functioning battery charger. Apart from the lethal possibilities of poking around in the circuitry hidden behind the wardrobe, I tend to get cramps and my arms are covered in bruises. I found that the grey plastic distribution board had a big boys section (live mains) and a child’s play area for the 12 v circuits. Luckily there was no temptation to do anything other than housekeeping because the fine weather broke this morning with such vengeful and remorseless storms that we spent the rest of the day trying to get two sets of wet clothes dry again. On the plus side I’ve found fuses where I didn’t even know there were places and I’ve thanked Harold Wilson for inventing the Technical School which gave me the confidence to approach these problems rationally and without fainting. Classical education is all very well but it doesn’t understand circuits. I feel uniquely fortunate that in addition to the technical stuff I learned Chaucer, 2 modern languages, 20th century American poets and discovered singing before I discovered hormones.
There’s another day’s Camino lined up and I may try and finish it tomorrow but there’s one place I need to go back to again. It’s our absolute favourite walk down the bridleway from Gerrans to Percuil harbour. On Thursday we sat on the bank of the creek and listened to the Curlew and all the other seabirds and it felt as if I was floating halfway between earth and heaven. These liminal places, on the edges of sea, sky and land belong to no-one and are in constant motion. It’s possible, here, to imagine an earth without me and not feel sad about it.
You may disagree, but for me this gall, growing on an old enemy to any farmer or gardener – Creeping thistle – is exceptionally beautiful. It suggests a tiny Baobab tree. If you were interested to Google up the fly itself – named on the caption – you’d see that flies too can be very pretty; these are called Picture Wing flies and I’ve never seen one, so there’s still plenty of wildlife for me to look out for.
I wrote a few weeks ago about the sowing of wildflowers along the edges of several paths in the grounds of Dyrham Park. I have to question my reasons for disliking out-of-place wildflowers because I’m quite sure that a kind of covert “wild-ism” can establish itself and become a brake on wildlife conservation. With global and disastrous heating of the climate; we’re certain to see many of our native species disappear and be replaced by migrating plants moving north to escape from the heat. We’re going to have to learn to welcome all sorts of human and non human strangers here and we’re going to have to learn to say sad farewells to old friends if we’re going to regain the earth as a friend. We’re also going to have to accept that when every news bulletin features the latest out of control fires across the world it’s we who are responsible. There’s no future (really!) in treating climate disaster as an abstract concept – we have seen the enemy – it is us!
I said at the time I wrote about this, that I thought many of the artificially seeded wildflowers would look lovely for a season and then fail to thrive and for once I’m sorry that I’m right, because it’s happening already and the thugs are reasserting themselves in a big way, and chief among them is the Creeping thistle. Yesterday in Dyrham Park the National Trust was deploying volunteers to cut them down. Truth to tell, the only way to control them properly is to pull the young plants out by hand, roots and all. The game volunteers were working with strimmers and sickles in a snowstorm of thistledown and undoubtedly this pernicious weed spreads viable seeds; but it gains control of large tracts of ground by spreading by rapidly growing roots which, like Bindweed, can regenerate from small fragments. Alongside the newly laid paths which, a couple of months ago were covered with wildflowers, the Creeping thistles already reign supreme in the overly rich and recently overturned soil. Re-establishing wildflower meadows is the work of decades. Meanwhile the Hogweed is showing the door to the Wild Carrot and a few poppies struggle to flower. Our son’s partner muttered that “they’re all weeds as far as I can see” and she’s right.
But aside from grumbling about missed opportunities; something else has been on my mind. A couple of days ago I mentioned Geoffrey Hill, the poet and writer of a poem sequence entitled “Mercian Hymns”. I was musing on what a strong sense of rootedness in a landscape means whilst reading “On the Black Hill” by Bruce Chatwin. I first read Geoffrey Hill maybe fifty years ago and although I loved Mercian Hymns I didn’t really understand the poem. This brought back to my mind one of those turning point memories from decades back. I was having real problems with the choir in one of my churches. There’s no getting away from it, they hated me with the kind of hatred that thrives like the creeping thistle in the virtuous people of the church when they’re not getting all their own way. So in a last ditch attempt to get them to cooperate, I enlisted a friend – a great musician and conductor who was struggling to teach me to play the piano – to come and run a rehearsal for me. The choirmaster had, by this time, walked out. Imagine this choir as a group of surly sixteen year olds in detention on a hot Friday afternoon. They were not going to cooperate even if the roof fell in. So we struggled on for a while and my friend suddenly marched across the chancel; tore the hymn book from the hands of one of the ringleaders of the rebellion; threw it violently on the floor and shouted in her face – “For goodness sake forget the notes and look for the music!” That was pretty much the end of the choir, but soon I recruited musicians and singers; learned to conduct and passed my music theory exams so I could engage with them on more like equal terms.
It was a thrilling intervention that, this week, suddenly helped me to understand what I was doing wrong with Mercian Hymns. I had been struggling to understand the words but failing to find the music. So I immediately searched and found a second hand copy of the poems for £8.00. It arrived on Wednesday and I found that it was speaking to me in a language I could inexplicably understand. When the book arrived I tore open the package and at once saw the cover. It was Paul Gauguin’s painting “The Vision after the Sermon”.
I have to pause here and take a deep breath because this Old Testament story about Jacob crossing the Jabbok brook is immensely important. You can read it in Genesis chapter 32 if you wish, but you don’t need any faith at all to learn from it. Jacob is making a life-changing journey into a new life; leaving his family and everything familiar behind. He crosses the river and spends the night wrestling with an angel, demanding a blessing from this mysterious being. The angel gives him the blessing, but injures his hip at the same time. Psychoanalytically, this is about as important a story as they get. Carl Jung spoke often of our wounds as being integral to our creativity. We work from them; we grow from them. But the story goes further because it tells us that creativity and generativity are a relentless struggle with forces we barely understand. If you’re a writer or an artist; if you’re a farmer or an allotmenteer or a parent or if you wish to live a virtuous life seeking justice or compassion, you are going to have to wrestle with the angel, sometimes all night, and even at the cost of getting hurt – demand that blessing and live with the consequences.
So where does that leave us with the Creeping thistle with its very own gall? Where does it leave us with weeds and disappointments and failed crops? Where does it leave us when we confront injustice and inhuman behaviour? Where does it leave us with loss and gain?
Well, it leaves us exactly where we are already but suggests that the only way forward will – almost always – come at a cost. We need the kind of honesty that tells us – this is going to hurt – but it’ll be worth it in the end.
A lovely day at Dyrham Park with the Grandchildren and their mum. We’ve pretty much got used to the absence of the deer since it was culled due to so many animals being infected with TB. But the knock on effect of their absence is obvious when you compare the photo in the header with the one below. Firstly, of course we notice the much more ragged look of the avenue of Lime trees today. The header shows how closely cropped the lower branches used to be, and the avenue had a formal, clipped quality that led the eye forward. Elsewhere, the change in grazing has allowed the coarser grasses to take over because, sadly, mowing cannot replicate grazing as a means of improving grassland diversity. Let’s be fair, if you know where to look the variety of grass species is (so far) about the same but it’s consigned to smaller areas.
Today the two figures are the mothers of the figures in the header – Madame on the left and our lovely daughter in law on the right. But there’s good news too. It’s been hard to get any official information about the return of the deer herd; but today we discovered – by talking to a couple of friendly volunteers – that there are plans to restore the herd some time next year. We’d noticed that there’s been a continuing programme of installing high fences around the park. In our helpful conversation we discovered that the fencing is not so much about keeping the Dyrham Park deer in but keeping the wild (possibly infected) deer out. The badgers in the park have all been trapped vaccinated and released, and soon – we know not when – a new herd will be brought in. Hooray!
For today our grandkids hunted grasshoppers, spotted buzzards and we were able to talk to them about wildlife.
Back home we’re up to our necks in produce; processing tomatoes for the winter, for instance. I’m completely knackered!
Liquid sunshine they call it here. We thought we’d make a brave dash for some decent weather but the weather didn’t read the forecast as usual, and instead of drifting over Swindon it hung about here for the sole purpose of testing our resilience; but if you listen very carefully you can hear the sheep … Continue reading “The glory that is Pen y Ffan”
Liquid sunshine they call it here. We thought we’d make a brave dash for some decent weather but the weather didn’t read the forecast as usual, and instead of drifting over Swindon it hung about here for the sole purpose of testing our resilience; but if you listen very carefully you can hear the sheep on the hill, coughing. We’re immediately alongside the Monmouth and Brecon canal, which is the first place I ever saw a kingfisher – like watching a jewel burst out of the bank. The canal is well known for its red colouration – I’ll take a photo later on the way to the pub. Today when we crossed at Talybont and the water was the colour of a robin’s breast. All due, apparently, to the puddling clay they used in construction.
The rain has been continuous here in the Bannau Brycheiniog (it gives me great pleasure to give the Brecon Beacons their proper Welsh name; all the more because it’s described as some kind of woke thing and Rishi Sunak doesn’t agree with it at all.) All together now – “Bannau, Bannau, Bannau” – doesn’t that feel good?
I’ve been wondering – being interested in words – what the fine line is between ‘Inhumane’; ‘Inhuman’ and ‘subhuman’. – I mean how many virtues would you have to lack to become subhuman or even non human? Or are virtues like the magnetic field of the earth’s core, flipping from time to time. I mean honesty and compassion – they’re so yesterday. Anyway the glory of Pen y Fan is concealed behind a curtain of cloud today so if someone reading this feels able to pop up to the top and bring the real ten commandments down, because the ones that Moses brought were obviously fake; all that woke leftist claptrap about loving your neighbour and not killing people – even lying through your teeth which is an artform gets banned. Good old Boris could break all ten commandments in half a day without breaking a sweat.
Tomorrow is going to be grey but dry, and Thursday is going to be hot. I’m hedging my bets by bringing plant and fungus books. The canal is a great place for wildlife and we decided to risk a high-season break at the last minute, but we had to buy time to come here by working overtime at the stove, preserving the fruits of the allotment.
Tomas Dadford, who built the canal, took the cheapest route, following the River Usk and reducing locks to a minimum. So there’s the main road, the river and the canal, all following the same contour at different heights. There are places along the towpath where you can get lovely views over the Usk valley, and when we camped here a couple of winters ago there were also stupendous views of Pen y Fan. All very elemental.
OK so there’s nothing much to see here; no great rarity except for the fact that I’ve never, ever noticed it before – and I don’t mean I’ve never noticed it here in Bath, I haven’t noticed it anywhere. I was stomping alongside the pavement below Royal Crescent in a barely suppressed rage caused by a third futile visit to the pharmacy trying to get the drugs that were prescribed for me six weeks ago. Nothing unusual there, then, but what was noteworthy was the fact that the moment I noticed this tiny stranger (the flowers are barely 3mm across) my mood changed dramatically for the better.
There’s a big family of wildflowers known as the Apiaceae. They used to be known as Umbellifers but nothing stays the same for long in botany – so think Cow Parsley, Hogweed, carrot; that kind of plant with the flowers gathered in a sort of umbrella shape at the top of each stalk. They can be a bit of a baffling family because it’s so easy to get them wrong. They flower at different times in the season and you rarely get to see them side by side so you can compare them. Over the years I’ve learned to identify quite a few of the common ones – often by looking at the seeds with a hand lens; but with this particular flower I realized that somewhere deep in my memory and in an unconscious act, all the plants I knew by name had passed rapidly through my brain and in an instant I knew that I didn’t know what it was.
So I took some (terrible) photos – not really knowing what I was looking for – and then very roughly identified it at home, starting with Google Lens (feel free to hiss) and then with three or four books I’d got a ballpark idea of what I was looking for. Then armed with one or two key points – the leaves and stalks turn red as they age; the leaves, when crushed, have an unpleasant smell; the seed capsules are very prominent and green and so on. This morning I went back and checked once more. Perish the thought that I’d dare to criticise the experts but the leaves, when crushed, didn’t smell so much of petrol but was more like the smell of the Woundworts. There were traces of red on the lower leaves and some stems which matched the descriptions in colour and shape; so yes I’m satisfied that it was Stone Parsley. A quick search on the BSBI Atlas database revealed that it had been recorded previously in this part of Bath, so it wasn’t rare – it was just rare to me – and I felt the day had been vindicated.
I remember the first time I ever encountered the difficulties of being sure about members of this family of plants. When I discovered that I might have to look at seeds with a magnifying glass, my heart sank and I carried the sense that this was an impossible task for decades. But slowly I learned how to look properly and now I can approach them in the knowledge that close attention to detail is all it needs, and if that doesn’t yield a name, then I am allowed to phone a friend.
Why am I writing this? Well I have so often been put off by well meaning people who will give a Latin name but not talk about the process which leads to it. Being entirely self-taught I am never confident of pronouncing the names I do know, but years of exposure to multiple different pronunciations of the same name by equally competent experts assures me that if I go ahead and mispronounce it with confidence, most people will be filled with doubt that they’ve been saying it wrong. It’s a kind of bluff that usually gets me there.
Of course doing field botany can be difficult and occasionally intellectually challenging, but it’s also tremendous fun; especially if you’re out with a bunch of experts who are also good company and best of all, good teachers. From time to time I like to bang on a bit about the way that so many people assert – without offering any evidence – that nature is good for us. Well perhaps I could offer the idea that mindful and alert walking in nature cheers me up, stimulates the mind and is good physical and even spiritual practice. It can even stop me brooding about the state of the NHS.
Luckily the threatened rain held off all day yesterday so our time with the grandchildren, while their mum was at work, was at least dry enough to go over to Dyrham Park for a bit of fresh air and subtle natural history. I’ve been going there for over sixty years – when I was young and before the National Trust acquired it I was a bit of a trespasser. I used to cycle ten miles or so culminating in a fearfully steep hill on my old gearless Raleigh bike, and climb over the wall into a different world. Much later on Madame and I would hire horses at the stables and ride through the park only more or less in control of their ill-tempered behaviour. I remember one particularly evil horse called Copper who knew every low branch in the park and took off at a full gallop hoping to unseat me. I was never a natural rider!
The field now called Whitefield was directly adjacent to the hill and the wall and so, although this is just a faint memory, I must have laid on my back there and watched the clouds passing overhead; one of my first experiences of what came to be known as oceanic feelings, although at the time I was too young to have known anything at all about Rolland and Freud – but as a result the place has always been very special to me.
Back, though, to Dyrham Park in 2023 and the creeping sense that the 21st century hunger for what the copywriters call “experience” as they tack it uneasily to any old event; has infected even the National Trust . What might once have been going to look at a garden is inflated to “Having A Garden Experience”, as if somehow the having of anexperience adds a new layer of gravity and depth to it. This shift of emphasis also leads to the awful domain of the curator whose superior understanding of almost everything from art to gardens and Egyptian mummified remains compels them to lead us by the hand through the world and – where there’s not quite enough interest to it – to put the missing bits in. We buy our tickets at the entrance and get our biodegradable bag of ooohs and aaaahs to spend on the way around.
This is especially troubling in relation to nature and wildlife because being driven around a wildlife reserve behind a tractor with a rather loud commentary is in no sense a substitute for lying on your back and watching the clouds, listening to the birds and getting a Cider With Rosie view of the lowest level of plants; in amongst the roots and stalks. To be clear, there are no tractors or commentaries at Dyrham Park but some of the most lovely footpaths have been winter proofed with intensely white crushed limestone in order to direct the visitors around the park without getting their shoes muddy and – what’s worse – the edges of the paths have – in some of the busiest areas – been sown with wildflowers mixes that feature plants which would not normally be seen there. In high summer they’re extremely pretty but there’s no signage to assist visitors in understanding that this is a thoroughly unnatural display. In fact these wildflower displays might even nudge visitors into thinking that ecological destruction is not really happening because they’ve seen fields that are absolutely full of life. Yesterday we even spotted Cornflowers, alongside Poppies and other all-but-extinct pests of arable land; virtually poisoned out of existence by intensive agriculture in their natural habitat. There were huge drifts of Wild Carrot looking rather out of place but stunningly beautiful architectural plants in their more usual setting. This was a trick that the planners tried to use to greenwash the development of the riverside in Bath. Sadly, but inevitably the wildflower mix only lasted for one season and then were outgrown by the usual thuggish natives.
The awful truth is that there is just one area of genuine wildflower meadow in Dyrham Park and that’s Whitefield now fringed on two sides by a road and an expanded car park, and yesterday – after a lovely display of wildflowers and orchids in early spring – now bone dry and looking all but dead because the truth is – beyond the fences – the curated scenery of the pay to view park mocks the climate destruction and extreme weather conditions that are causing increasing extinctions of some of our most rare plants. Worse still, it’s outside the boundary of the park and is used as a dog walking area. This was brought home to us yesterday when – as we always do – we took the grandchildren to their favourite part of every trip there; playing in the stream that flows down from a spring below Whitefield, following the road down to the big house. But it wasn’t there; it had dried up completely. Whitefield looked more like the South of France in August. Notwithstanding the rain running down the windows as I write this, we’re in drought and we’ve been in drought for months.
But nothing dampened the enthusiasm of the grandkids for hunting grasshoppers and crickets, and I even managed to work in a brief lesson on grass ID with the oldest. We play natural history games constantly in the hope that some of this invaluable knowledge will rub off on them. I was blessed by a Grandfather and a Mother who did the same with me and it enriched my life. I wonder if we’re not our own worst enemies when it comes to understanding and teaching about climate change. Dyrham Park, beyond the gaudy displays and formal gardens has got some really good plantlife. With three children to look after it’s hard to spend time riffling through the grass; but yesterday offered a feast of grasses apart from the usual suspects like Cocksfoot, Perennial Rye and False Oat grass. There were Timothy, and different Fescues, and some very fine grass – probably clinging on after the departure of the deer. There was Yorkshire Fog … oh and I could go on, but my point is that if we want to encourage people really to treasure the environment we need to encourage them to give the time and energy to move into a deeper slower and more personal experience of the natural world.
I used to have an inspiring teacher who taught us how to read literature better by way of what he called CAT sessions. CAT stood for close attention to text. We could spend an hour unpacking a single sentence. Natural History deserves its own CAT sessions. Yesterday I noticed something about the Wild Carrot flower that I’d never seen before. I’ll put the photo below, but if you look carefully you’ll see a red flower in the centre of the umbel. I’d never before given it the close attention it needed and when I checked it got even more interesting because no-one really knows what it’s there for. I think I must have assumed it was one of those bright red beetles sometimes known as bonking beetles. Some suggest it may be to attract pollinating insects but who really knows; but simply noticing it reminded me how poorly I often attend to the smallest details of wildflowers.
Back home we fed the children with hot dogs and afterwards the oldest told us that they’d had hot dogs the day before, and then when we delivered them back home they asked what was for tea and their Mum said – Hot Dogs. Three days running – poor souls, they must love us!
This post, which is a bit of a change from my usual more lyrical writing, came after spending a couple of very happy hours going through my photographs and doing a bit of ID searching and cataloguing while I went along. I know it sounds very nerdy, and I suppose it is, but it always gives me intense pleasure – especially when I discover that I have already photographed a plant which I’ve only just learned how to identify. My collection of thousands of photographs is more than a library catalogue because each one recaptures a plant, a time and a place; it lights up my memory of events and places that might have happened years ago.
It was the appalling thought that these irreplaceably beautiful reminders of our vulnerable earthiness might not be available to our grandchildren that made my hackles rise. Field botany; the finding and mapping of plants is overwhelmingly done by volunteers like me (in my very small way). The more data we gather the more it becomes obvious that the rate of extinctions is accelerating and that more and more of the plants described in literature will no longer be found in a ruined environment. This is not an act of some invisible and spiteful god but the inevitable consequence of the deranged relationship of the wealthy countries with the earth. I use the word deranged thoughtfully because it seems to me that it’s only what’s known as cognitive dissonance – our ability to obscure and tolerate the yawning chasm between our beliefs and our aspirations – that stops us from rising up in rage against this cruel extractive and exploitative regime.
… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.
Juvenal 2nd Century Roman poet – in Satire 10; 77-81
When Juvenal wrote this he was not so much criticising the Roman elite as raging at the way the mass of people preferred free food and lots of violent and bloody spectacle rather than engage in their civic duty and responsibility; and – sadly – it’s not difficult to see a parallel between the declining Roman Empire and our own times. Our society is in terminal decay with corruption, greed and institutional lying, obscured by the salacious reporting of sexual scandals in the media.
So at what point does our capacity to believe Mother Julian, that “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”, break down? When will our hearts finally rebel in the face of the incontrovertible evidence of catastrophic climate change, economic collapse, and hunger? How much longer can the final demands pile up in the hallway before we – the people – demand better? The bread is becoming unaffordable and the circus is a seedy porn show so – something has to break soon.
But just when we need visionary leaders, we get lumbered with two main parties who seem to be neck and neck in a feeblest platitude competition; staring into the abyss with their political telescopes firmly planted on their blind eyes. Personally I wouldn’t vote for either of them if the only other candidate was a dead sheep. The present electoral system has been so rigged by the powerful that without urgent reform the lights will go out while they’re still organising the agenda for a preparatory discussion among five of their mates. But we need not (must not) resort to cudgels or any form of violence. Bernard Lonergan came up with a list of seven virtues which we should try to live out ourselves in order that we can demand them from our politicians. As I write them out I’m astonished at how naive they sound and yet … here they are from Wikipedia:
“be humble, be hospitable, be merciful, be faithful, reconcile, be vigilant, and be reliable”
Or to take a more traditional approach – and I’m sorry that both these examples come from Christian teaching:
Justice; Temperance; Prudence; Fortitude
Or to take a Buddhist view of the virtues:
loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity
I could go on but suffice it to say that almost all religious faiths, not to mention atheism and agnosticism will come up with a very similar group of virtues. This isn’t something that confines itself to the religious or those capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast; and here it might be wise to remember that there’s abundant scientific evidence that those who do easily believe those six impossible things are utterly immune to evidence – which only seems to strengthen their belief; as witnessed by those groups who withdraw to the desert to await the end of time who, when it fails to materialise, blame themselves for calculating it wrong: or indeed those brexiters who say the problem isn’t that it was a terrible idea but that it was badly implemented!
Politicians have one point of vulnerability which – even with the help of the largely supine media – they cannot conceal. If we refuse to vote for the charlatans, the delusional, the liars and half-wits and lend our votes to the most virtuous (people displaying the qualities I’ve listed above) then it’s sending a clear message to them all that we demand change and won’t tolerate backsliding on promises at the behest of paid lobbyists. Neither of the two main parties in the UK meet those criteria and so I’m happy to say I won’t vote for them but I will vote for the candidates who embrace earth-first policies and are prepared to change the electoral system so that it can deliver the policies we need to avoid catastrophe. He have to elect leaders who walk the walk and not merely talk the talk.
In an idle moment this morning I did a search of my photos using the search term “fern” – really just to see how much Artificial Intelligence the Google Pictures search engine uses. I was expecting to see all the ferns I’d identified, of course, although the indexing of my pictures sometimes takes quite a while; but what I didn’t expect was page after page of thumbnails of the ones I’d photographed intentionally but never identified – or photographs where ferns just happened to be in the frame. Nowadays, of course, I am consciously interested but two possible explanations come to mind. Firstly (and I know this is true) I’ve always loved ferns for their architecture but was never brave enough to even try to identify them. The second thought is that they’re ubiquitous, absolutely everywhere. If you’re in almost any landscape from mountain to mineshaft, you’re likely to find ferns, but of course you often don’t see them because they all look more or less like bracken, they’re not interesting to birds and insects and they don’t have colourful flowers.
However this isn’t going to be either a dissertation or an evangelistic tract on ferns. What I want to think about in this post is the underrated spiritual practice of attentiveness. When our first two children were toddlers we lived in Hotwells in Bristol, at the bottom of Hope Chapel Hill. We had no car, and bicycles were no use at the bottom of one of the steepest hills in the city, and so we walked up to Clifton to do most of our shopping. The walk would often take twice as long as it needed because the boys were absolutely fascinated by the flotsam that collected in the deep cracks between the cobbled gutters. Theirs was a wonderful non-discriminatory curiosity and included the whole compass of litter from dog-ends to bottle tops, twigs, stones, feathers, ring-pulls from cans, broken bits of plastic, mirrors, bits of string and soggy ink-run love letters and final demands. I always admired them for the joy they were able to derive from simple ordinary things and let them get on with it. My intervention moment came somewhere between dogs turds and dead pigeons and we always had a packet of wet wipes somewhere about us, just in case.
The point of that excursus on why our children should probably have been taken into care is that the process of instilling discipline, obedience and so-called grown up distinctions between right and wrong; clean and dirty; appropriate and inappropriate, interesting and unimportant, are the prison chains of our culture. We all know about the blowhard critic of so-called modern art, shaking their purple wattles and declaring that “any child could have done that!” and it makes me want to weep for the loss of my own innocent eye; the paralysis I used to experience in the face of a sheet of empty paper; the toleration of my subconscious prison warder who said no to every intuition. For years, in my late teens and early twenties I could only write with a cheap fountain pen on sheets of kitchen paper, torn into approximate A4 sheets. The paper sucked the ink off the pen and trapped the thought before it could be crushed by the censor.
Attentiveness isn’t – to my mind – the exact equivalent to mindfulness because although it focuses equally on the moment, it goes further than merely noting the present without judgement but includes a strongly purposive engagement with it. Imagine taking a walk in the woods and purposefully engaging with nature; glimpsing the sky through the trees and reading the clouds for rain; keeping a sharp eye on the plants you pass and looking for anything that’s the least bit unexpected or out of the ordinary – a patch of lighter green; a grass that’s taller than its companions and looks just a bit different; a fern gr,owing like a shuttlecock instead of randomly like bracken; a purple flower that looks like an orchid – but which orchid? a dandelion that turns out on closer inspection not to be a dandelion at all, but something different; the seed head of what turns out to be a Goatsbeard that blows your mind with its intricacy and mathematical exactitude; the little weed with no petals that lives in a gateway and smells like a pineapple when you squeeze it; the bright sulphur yellow butterfly in the early spring; the sound of an owl – but which owl? – at dusk; the heart stopping moment on the riverbank when a hare leaps a fence at great speed within feet of you; the bright red mushroom, flaked with white scales that looks like the ones that fairies sit on in children’s books.
In essence, attentiveness forces you to slow right down because you’re drinking in the sights and smells and sounds. There’s no element of inner struggle to calm the mind because it’s working at full stretch – just not on the stuff that keeps you awake at night. And of course the imagination is working in conjunction with the five senses – looks like; sounds like; smells like; feels like; although I’d give tastes like a miss in the absence of a skilled guide. Attentiveness can become an intellectual challenge too; demanding further study in order to unravel the mysteries.
But the practice of attentiveness also awakens a profound awareness of the sheer beauty of the natural world; so beautiful in fact that it sometimes seems gratuitous sometimes erotic in its sensuousness – and that’s occasionally reflected in the local names for plants. English names, for example of Cuckoo Pint- Arum maculatum are unashamedly vulgar. The ‘pint’ for instance refers not to the standard glass of beer, but to “pintle” – the socket into which the rudder on a boat fits and a Scottish slang word for a penis. Put the two together and you get the reference to cuckoo in the nest and also the allusion to the pintle being – well, in someone else’s nest. Two other local names for the same plant are Preacher in the Pulpit and Lords and Ladies; I hope you won’t need me to explain!
Often when we’re walking slowly we get startled by runners busily breaking records; dog walkers chatting in groups who could walk past a small war and not notice and even botanists who – GPS in hand – rush to the next rarity, missing the beauty of the everyday and the ordinary. But the ordinary almost always turns out to be extraordinary when you take a closer look – especially if you’ve got a magnifying glass. Ubiquity doesn’t or shouldn’t imply not worth bothering with.
A couple of ideas worth holding on to, or better perhaps stealing back from religious orthodoxy are wonder and glory. I think we shy away from them because of their associations or perhaps they make us afraid our friends will think we are a bit mad. Slowing down and practicing attentiveness in nature will almost inevitably lead to that surging joy (which could still be surges of natural endorphins – but so what)? There’s nothing like a good surge of joy for lifting you out of despondency!
And as for the confusing plants …. vive la difference! Below, some finds for today. I recognised the Sea Plantain and the Rock Sea Spurry, living dangerously on a busy path, but as for the interesting brown lump exposed on the rocks at very low tide – who knows? ……. but it was completely fascinating.
I guess that the harrowing of a field, even with a team of horses, would come to a halt when the tines dug into a mat of this plant. We’ve seen it before but always near the coast; I think the last time was in Portscatho in Cornwall but that was before my phone camera days – now my Pixel 6a does it all + lat & long which with a bit of fiddling yields a National Grid reference and a searchable database as well.
But I also love the name, because resting and harrowing have such wide fields of reference and the plant name Restharrow conjures up a ploughman calling his team back by name with a loud whooooa and pondering his next move. Wood engravings by Thomas Bewick, paintings by Samuel Palmer and the writing of George Ewart Evans come to mind and I’m plunged into rural history by a small but very pretty plant and a name with a cloud of meanings.
These words, the ones that trail clouds of meanings are useful but also tricky. On Friday night I was sleepless for hours. A southwesterly gale was blowing; rocking the campervan and soughing noisily through the leaky windows and I caught sight of the moon through a small gap at the top of the blind. But the moon wasn’t about to lend herself to any of the usual associations. For a start she was pale golden yellow rather than silvery and her usual progress across the sky seemed – well – vagrant, furtive under interrogation by my sleepless mind. Is it even possible to imagine a vagrant moon, stealing across the sky over Ramsey Sound with a haul of sunshine from somewhere always beyond the western horizon and then sinking quietly behind the clouds, or behind the brightening sky, in the dawn?
I lay awake for a while more and had one of our nocturnal chats with Madame, then fell asleep eventually attempting to disambiguate the highly ambiguous Male-ferns we’d found and photographed. It’s like counting sheep without ever arriving at a conclusion and sleep came as a relief
I think I must be addicted to the west; to sunsets and South Westerly storms and to the sunny days that always feel like a gift rather than a right. Here we watch the fierce tides flow through Ramsey Sound, intermittently covering and revealing the Bitches, a dreadful reef to any unwary sailor or canoeist – not that it ever seems to deter them. During the daytime the peace is rent by the ribs which offer so-called wildlife tours around the island but which seem to be extreme water adventures in anything but name, probably terrifying the wits out of any seals unfortunate enough to have hauled up on an inaccessible beach. I really cannot imagine any less viable way of seeing wildlife than travelling in a (f) bucking rib at 30 mph.
The gale hasn’t let up for days, but we get intermittent spells of sunshine and it’s been good for plant hunting and then cataloguing in the stormy intervals. That’s a good holiday – arriving with a suitcase full of worthy books, encountering the mental equivalent of a clump of Restharrow and being forced to slow down or take a break.