Some images just don’t work with a phone.

The greatest advantage of the phone camera is the sheer convenience I suppose but it’s not always the best tool for the job. The upper two photos were both taken with my Pixel 3 phone – it was a sunny day, the subject, a beautiful wooly thistle – Cirsium eriophorum was sitting still, and depth of field, the extent to which the photo remained focused throughout the whole depth of the subject wasn’t a great problem. I knew what it was and in the perfect conditions it was a useful aide memoire of our walk. My intention in taking the picture was also to have a sample for the iRecord software while I’m learning to use it. I don’t suppose for a moment the County Recorder would be thrilled to receive yet another record of a pretty common plant, but I’ve discovered over many years of failures that it’s better to learn to use new software before getting things right turns an opportunity into a panic. The other reason for using the phone was because we were out for a fairly long walk and the thought of lugging a camera, flash unit and tripod up a steep hill was a bit daunting. However, no matter – it all worked seamlessly and I was able to snatch the shot without making my companions wait.

The lower photo was a different kettle of fish altogether. Yesterday we met up with our grandchildren and their mum & dad in the Forest of Dean – two trips in a week. My secret plan (well it’s not secret any more because I’m writing about it) is to encourage our oldest grandson to get involved in natural history – he’s really keen, and if we can release just one more young naturalist into the world I’ll feel my efforts have been worthwhile. So we were doing a very informal session on the difference between sedges and rushes – you know the rhyme, sedges have edges, rushes are round. These little mnemonics are really catchy and useful and of course they make the task of identifying plants so much simpler. If you can get the family right you can jump start the process of finding the name, and nothing fires you up more than a few early successes.

But in the process, I noticed a Euphorbia lurking in the margins of the track. They’re unmistakable as a family, but getting down to the species or further needs closer observation which would have taken more time than I had. So I took a photo – it’s photo number three.

One of the most difficult lessons I’ve found, in identifying plants, is to evolve a modus operandi for looking at them. Field botanists who know their stuff (exactly like birdwatchers) talk about the “jizz”. As you get more familiar with plants there are many that some lucky souls can identify from ten feet away but which will tie me into knots as I plough through the keys. I say to myself that it’s like practising piano scales, it’s hard, repetitive work but it’s essential. When there’s no time to identify a tricky plant on the spot I could, I suppose take a small piece home and identify it but – and it’s a big but – unless it’s so common I probably know it already – there’s always a possibility that I’m damaging something precious and so a careful photo that embodies the key features is the better way of bringing some evidence home.

What’s wrong with the photo, then? Well, it’s not terribly well focused and not of sufficient quality to enlarge greatly. I didn’t take any measurements and so I’d have to guess how tall it is and how large are those very odd flowers. I didn’t scuffle around at the base to see what was going on there (stolons? rhizome? – all that kind of stuff) and also I didn’t get nearly enough detail on the leaves, how they were attached to the stalk, whether they were opposite or alternate, I didn’t make a note of the soil or the neighbours or where exactly it was (edge of wood, middle of footpath, deep shade, on the edge of a pond) and I didn’t think to take a grid reference from my phone. Once again, it’s not the end of the world because it’s almost certainly a wood spurge – Euphorbia amygdaloides – but let’s say it was a rarity, for instance, then if I presented it to the county recorder for verification they’d probably tell me (in the nicest possible way) to get lost.

So – message to myself –

  • 1. Take the tripod and camera etc.
  • 2. Make the notes
  • 3. Practice more

But finally, develop good habits. Habits – good ones, that is, are the foundation of all virtues because if you develop them well, you’ll do the right thing without having to think about it and that will keep you out of all sorts of scrapes – both botanical and ethical.

Enough! there’s just enough time to write about the journey home. We discovered that the old Severn Bridge was closed and so we were left with the choice between driving in the wrong direction almost to Newport and then heading back; OR driving up to Gloucester alongside the River Severn and along the edge of the Forest of Dean and back down the A38 with the Cotswold escarpment on our left. Well that was a no-brainer. Forest on the left, Cotswolds on the right and the glorious Severn between them, on a sunny day in high summer with the windows wound down in the campervan, tractors cutting and gathering silage in the fields all around and everywhere the delicious smells of summer and salt water and the joy of being out in it after weeks on lockdown.

Alleluia I say! And finally, some photos from the Bath Skyline walk.

The devil is in the detail – small is beautiful.

A red letter day

-and so either of those two headings would have done. Firstly, though – oh joy – they opened the Welsh borders for day trips (not for overnights) again and so we fetched the van and did a socially distanced triumphal entry into God’s own country without fear of being cast into outer darkness. I can’t begin to express how good it was to cross the Severn Bridge again and although we crossed back into England no more than five miles up the road, it felt as if we’d crossed a line in our heads as well. This was our first trip out in the van since our disastrous adventure in February when the charger controller and the batteries all failed and we sat it out for a week with no heating or lighting; and so – although I’d repaired and replaced them all – we were unable to take the van on to the road to test it until the lockdown was eased.

When we stand at the high point of Dyrham Park we can look across to the Forest of Dean as it forms the opposite line of hills beyond the River Severn. It’s a favourite view and so the Forest was our destination for the first trial run. The border between England and Wales threads through the two countries in a more or less random way as it moves northwards towards the Marches, and there’s a kind of transitional culture as you move up the Severn Valley; the accent a curious mixture of Gloucestershire and Welsh intonation. Welsh language is hardly spoken in this part of the world, though the language is compulsory for Welsh schoolchildren. Here, rugby rather than football is the game of choice. Ancient river fishing by nets is still clinging on, although the elvers that used to be caught and added alive to breakfast eggs have become such a delicacy in Japan that the waters are almost fished out. Thirty years ago the salmon putchers caught few fish, but now as the Severn is becoming cleaner, the salmon are returning . We’ve spent so many happy hours over in the Forest it was wonderful to drive over there again after a very long wait. Our last two camping trips were abandoned due to the torrential rain we had during the winter.

But the day also felt special because we were able to step outside our confines for the first time – in our case since early March. I’m certain we’re not alone in finding the first steps outside in the wider world just a little scary, knowing that Coronavirus is still with us and likely to remain so.

Anyway, the drive was uneventful, the weather remained dry and the sun even shone from time to time. This was never going to be a walk – that’s for next time – just a check on the campervan with a cup of tea and a sandwich in the car park at Speech House.

And so to the small and beautiful. I’m discovering that one of the best things about learning to identify as many grasses as possible is that they’re absolutely ubiquitous and so the merest layby is an excuse for a botanizing expedition. Grass, I’ve discovered – although it’s everywhere in the UK – is infinitely more various than you’d ever notice from a car window, and it’s terrifyingly easy to become a kind of wild eyed grass twitcher. This is my first in depth look at a specific family of plants – the Poaceae – and because wherever you are there’s going to be grass (no not that sort!), it’s as addictive as crack cocaine.

I only started this malarky because _

  • I was challenged by a proper field botanist who said they were easy, and –
  • Knowing the most familiar grasses would instantly add a dozen species to every expedition

So the Speech House car park was fair game and after a decent interval for tea and biscuits I searched a small patch of rough grass and found two new grasses I’d never keyed out before, and this is where the devil and the beauty are absolutely in the detail. This is the activity to die for! an arcane language, specialized equipment (well, a decent hand lens), loads of incomprehensible books to buy and a field that not many people get into, and also – for all of the above reasons – it has the great advantage of letting you show off just a bit (carefully) on field trips.

All grasses look the same until you look properly and then they’re different. However many almost identical looking grasses are also different when you look at them very closely indeed and then they sprout a multitude of identifying features like shiny knees and bearded ones or even modestly hairy ones – almost always less than a millimeter in size. Being a promiscuous lot, some of them can only be identified by DNA analysis- but that’s a whole series of Jeremy Kyle beyond my modest capabilities. Who’d have thought that serious examination of a grass’s naughty bits needs a low powered microscope. However a good phone camera with a macro capability can capture a huge amount of information I can take home for later. I’m astounded by the quality of these pictures taken with a Google Pixel 3.

So that was today – a dusty old patch of grass and weeds on a car park, but tremendous fun. Here are some more pictures of the ragwort that unsurprisingly was growing in the same spot. Was it jacobaea or squalidus? To be honest I’m never quite sure but I think these were Senecio jacobaea because although the tips of the leaves look pointed with the naked eye, the photo shows them to be distinctly rounded. As I said, the devil’s in the detail.

%d bloggers like this: