On being an outsider.

Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth beach in the gale yesterday

Notwithstanding the cool welcome at the end of the lane, and the Free Wales stickers on the signposts, my love of Wales is undiminished by any sense of guilt at being English – not least because I’ve never owned a mine or a blast furnace; I’ve never taken a penny out of Wales; my whole investment has been spent locally, and there will never be a time when I will be able to afford land or property here. I would support independence in a breath; and if there was enough time, learn the language because it would give me a whole new field of expression . I just think it’s one of the most beautiful places; plundered to near dereliction and stripped of its natural resources from water (see Dryweryn) through coal, copper and manganese to its language and most talented young people who simply can’t afford to live here anymore. Have I left anything out?? Oh and its poets – the Thomas’s – RS and Dylan; its underrated artists; its folk tales, food and farming history. I think I’ll shut up there.

Is there anything I don’t like so much? Well perhaps a certain lugubriousness at times. Some insularity, which never plays well with me because I live in a street where you can hear six languages in a hundred yard walk – which makes for a rich community. An occasional tendency to self pity – which I regard as by far the most pointless waste of emotional energy ever and finally a love of dressing up; most acute in Anglo Catholic priests and Druids. These mild criticisms probably seem a bit rich from an Englishman but there we are; call me a critical friend. In my defence I’ve never felt at home in an English culture that the media and right wing politicians conjure up under portraits of Winston Churchill. In all our many visits to this country I’ve only once experienced the old and legendary situation where the locals all started talking in Welsh when I walked into the pub; and that was when Operation Julie was underway and Tregaron was about to be turned upside down over an LSD factory run by English hippies. I know this because I was teaching one of them at the time (and in a prison – him, not me).

Anyway I just wanted to describe the place we’re staying at, whilst preserving its location except to say it’s on the Lleyn peninsula. As I write this I’m looking through the window and down a steep sided valley lined on both sides with an impenetrable thicket of Grey Willows, Sloes, Hawthorns and Apples; so shriven by the constant fierce weather that they look as if they’ve just about given up. The valley runs about a quarter of a mile to the Irish Sea and down it runs a brook that, emerging on to the shingle beach, spreads itself generously, sinking into the pebbles. Occasionally we see seals both there and also further up the coast. There are almost always Rock Pipits. The sun is just setting into the sea in a clear sky after 48 hours of constant gales and fierce rain that howled and rattled around the house without ceasing. At the end of the footpath to this little beach we’ve got a favourite mushroom spot, but this time there were no field mushrooms but a rarely reported fungus we’ve never seen before called Agaricus littoralis which has recently been given the English name “Coastal Mushroom”; and another called Macrolepiota excoriata which has been given the English name – “Frayed Parasol” – two for one annoyingly difficult fungi renamed by the radicals!

You might think that the award of an English name was an uncontroversial nod to the growing popularity of foraging but you’d be mistaken. Every pursuit has its Victorian Society or Prayer Book Society for whom the Latin binomials were obviously in the bibliography of one of the lost books of the Bible and must therefore never ever be tampered with. Harsh words have been spoken on this subject. Anyway, these Coastal Mushrooms were a tough gig and even now I’m not totally sure. I’ve been unable to find any reference to them as edible so we didn’t. Personally I rather like the sound of Brain Funguses, Dog’s Vomit and Dog’s Cocks – not to exclude Slippery Jacks. They’re like the Victorian names for moths – descriptive and downright poetic. The last time I allowed myself to be so contrarian in a newspaper article I was thrown out of a fishing club for noticing in print that sewage was getting into their expensive trout stream! Maybe they should have listened.

This is a wonderful place for wildlife. I just went into a local village to pay a bill – cash of course! – and as I parked up I saw this wall, resplendent with hard ferns and Maidenhair Spleenworts, not to mention the lichens.

The little valley below the cottage is a haven for insects, and therefore birds. Kestrels hunt the clifftop, constantly mobbed by Jackdaws and Crows. The understory is a rich mixture of Bramble, Hart’s Tongue ferns and other ferns; Maidenhair Spleenwort and – nearer the stream – Water Mint. There are foxes and badgers too along with a multitude of pollinators and bees. At night we hear Owls.

We started coming to Wales after Cornwall was so badly damaged by tourism – but now, in the absence of RS Thomas and the redoubtable Keating sisters the campsites are spreading along the coastline, and local people are being driven out by the rising price of housing because they can’t compete with second homers and Airbnb rentals. The butcher’s shop where RS Thomas once publicly upbraided the butcher for labelling his meat in English is now a Spar shop. There’s a huge selection of booze on sale at every local shop these days. Are we – the Potwell Inn crew – part of the solution or part of the problem? We’ve received nothing but warmth and kindness from local people here. Dunno, then. I just love coming here – although we could have done with a bit less rain this week.

And yes, the trees in the bottom left photo really do grow at that angle!

Magic Mushrooms

Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria

On Wednesday we went on our first organised fungus foray of the season with Bath Natural History Society. Fungus hunting goes better when there’s a bit of rain beforehand and Wednesday really benefited from the showers earlier in the week. The weather has changed decisively since the equinox, and autumn has taken over with a series of Atlantic lows with winds and showers coming from a more westerly direction.

Smitham Chimney

But this was very far from a foraging expedition for a couple of reasons, the principal one being that we were back in one of my favourite environments; the heavily polluted lead rich spoil covering an old lead mining area. Some specialized plants and fungi have a marvellous capacity for surviving in this dangerous environment and can concentrate heavy metals in themselves sufficiently to cause a serious risk of poisoning. That, of course, is entirely separate from the usual risk of misidentifying a fungus and poisoning yourself over supper. In fact a lively conversation took place about near misses amongst some of us, with Yellow Staining Mushrooms – Agaricus xanthodermus – being a popular mistake, although we had all stopped short of eating them after cooking them and then suffering from serious doubt. Another unexpected danger came from eating St Georges Mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa – which are universally regarded as edible (they’re really good to eat) but two of our fungus hunters had suddenly developed an intolerance for them after years of uneventful enjoyment.

For me, the principal reason for fungus hunting is firstly that they are simply so beautiful. Just look at this False Chanterelle – Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. Never mind that it doesn’t taste as good as the proper one; just look at the gills and think of a gothic cathedral.

But secondly because they are some of the most impressive organic chemists anywhere in the world. They talk to each other, link up in mutually beneficial relationships with plants which, incidentally, is why you should never dig up an orchid because without its mycorrhizal neighbour it will simply die. Without fungi the earth would be thousands of feet below a layer of unrotted vegetation and, of course, they are both food, medicine and – dare I say – widely valued by many cultures including our own – as a gateway into a deeper spiritual relationship with the earth and with our own most troublesome thoughts. But don’t try this without proper help. I’ve never tried it at all, but that’s because I’m too scared! I should add that the real magic mushroom – the Liberty Cap – can be very problematic for some people. When I was a community worker we dreaded the autumn because the local lads – normally affable if rather naughty – would mix magic mushrooms with cheap cider, becoming highly unpredictable and occasionally violent as a result.

In fact in four hours with fifteen of us searching, we didn’t find a single genuinely edible species. Foragers like to go on about a wide variety of species but many of them are between disappointing and vaguely unpleasant. The most colourful species were the Fly Agarics which could be eaten – but only if you enjoy uncontrollable hallucinations and being sick.

The safest way to learn about them is to go out with someone who really knows what they’re doing, and I guess an ex President of the British Mycological Society is as safe as a safe pair of hands could be. In fact we had a variety of fungus literate members with us, along with a microbiologist, a professional forester and ecology graduate plus a couple of really expert botanists and an entomologist. Not to mention some envy inducing binoculars and cameras. But the great thing about these local Natural History societies is that absolutely everyone is both friendly and completely committed to sharing their enthusiasm. If you live near us there’s a link to Bath Nats on the sidebar.

I would seriously recommend anyone with an interest in natural history to unplug the telly and join their local society. They all have summer field trips and winter lectures, often with national experts, and I promise you’ll soon find that a walk, even through your local park, will be an entirely new and richer experience. And I should admit that when we first joined we were very apprehensive about looking silly or ignorant, hovering at the back in case anyone asked us a question. What we quickly found was that many of these people were doing really important voluntary work by recording plants and wildlife. Volunteers are at the heart of all our efforts to stave off environmental catastrophe because it’s the volunteers who overwhelmingly provide the millions of data records that form the backbone of conservation work. I’d even go so far as to say that – if you want to save the earth – learn enough about plants or birds, insects fish or mammals to be able to submit records. I’ve made some awful mistakes and not once has anyone made fun of me.

Anyway that’s enough about volunteering. Let me show you the most boring picture ever:

Lead moss

Well I did warn you! But in fact it was the highlight of the trip as far as I was concerned because it’s something I would never have found without help from someone who really knows what she’s doing. It’s not a fungus at all but another of my metallophytes. It’s an absolutely tiny moss that grows on the most polluted lead mine waste, and is called Lead Moss – Ditrichum plumbicola. Normally with exceptionally rare plants you’d keep the site obscure but in this instance I’m confident that you’d never find it in a month of Sundays, because it’s absolutely tiny – those are worm holes to give you some sense of scale! plus it’s in the database for anyone to see. Here’s a macro photo that I really struggled to take. Those shoots are not much more than 1 mm tall. What a day!

So here are a few more photos taken on the day. It was inspirational – but then isn’t nature always inspirational? And if you’ve ever wondered what mycelium looks like , just look at the last three pictures. The bulk of the real fungus is underground. Isn’t that stunning? And the beetle is a new and difficult invader called the Poplar Leaf Beetle.

Revisiting the scene of a crime.

I thought I remembered writing about this several years ago, but a search failed to deliver. I was thinking back to a Bath Nats fungus foray when a visitor harvested an entire stand of Parasol mushrooms behind the back of the group leader who, moments earlier, had asked us to leave them for others to enjoy. Anyway that memory has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s a bit of an argument for the so-called tragedy of the commons; the pernicious (to my mind) argument that the peasants couldn’t be trusted not to take more than their share of the commons and so enclosure was the only humane solution. More humane, it transpired, for the landlords than the peasants who were driven off the land and into the towns and cities. The afternoon was made all the more poignant by the fact that the larcenous offender was the daughter in law of one of the biggest landowners in one of my parishes.

Anyway that patch of land has always stayed in my mind and what with lockdown and closure of the grassland we haven’t been able to see whether any permanent damage was done. Fungi are very seasonal and you have to be there at the right time. However on the back of this doleful memory I taught our grandson how to look for patches of darker grass in the field where, if you were lucky, you would find fungi at the right time. He was a quick learner and was eventually sprinting from patch to patch, finding fungi. In this instance they were St George’s mushrooms; one of the simpler ones because they fruit early in the year, around St George’s Day, 23rd April.

So today after a frosty start we went back to the same walk and before long I spotted a clump of much greener grass amidst the winter colours. Poking through were what looked (from a distance) like the flower heads of Ribwort Plantain – which would be a very odd time for them to flower. A closer look immediately showed that the grass was Meadow Foxtail; handsome with its roots in a nitrogen rich fungal feast. I looked around and it seemed that there was some sort of association between the grass and what I know will be St George’s mushrooms within the next few weeks, because the Foxtail was entirely limited to the the darker green patches in the field.

Anyway with that little question/project hovering in the back of my mind, we wandered on down through the terraces and spotted a clump of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Trachystemon orientalis) growing in the shade of a wall and gate as we entered the formal gardens. Slowly; too slowly, learning your flowers moves from the starting point of answering the “what’s that” question with a blank mind, towards a much better starting point – that’s to say – “I know I don’t know that one, but I know what family it belongs to.” I knew that I didn’t know what this pretty borage – looking plant was called. I should say I’ve got into the habit of naming plants we pass (silently) and trying to remember as much about them as I can. It’s a great way of learning and shortens the recognition process greatly.

The big decision to come from our spontaneous visit today was that we should adopt the circuit of the park, including Whitefield the magical wildflower meadow, as our regular walk. Even though the car park can be hideously crowded the fact is most folks don’t stray far from the house and formal gardens; dogs are banned, so apart from arriving and leaving we’re pretty much on our own.

In the back of my mind at the moment – jogged by a new series of a popular TV series – is the idea of pilgrimage. I’ve had some experience of pilgrimages since I invented a 45 mile walk from Malmesbury to Littleton on Severn and led yearly pilgrimages for years. I also walked a 200 mile stretch of the Camino. I need to think some more about this but it seems to me that the difference between hiking and pilgrimage concerns intention and reflection. Pilgrimage, in my mind, is a form of liturgical walking; expressing rhythmically through legs and feet what’s more normally expressed in music and song. What I can say with absolute certainty was that an accidental and very short pilgrimage to St Non’s Chapel in St David’s yielded more spiritual insight that any of the tougher walks I’ve done; so it’s absolutely not about blood, sweat, tears and suffering. It’s about vulnerability.

A breath of hope!

Winter Heliotropes

It’s been a testing few weeks for all of us, I know, and there’s something energy sapping about living in a country that’s pretty much falling apart under a corrupt and incompetent government. I could list the terrible consequences of government idiocy but there doesn’t seem much point – we all know how and why they’ve failed; it’s just kicking them out that seems so difficult.

But there’s been another psychological hurdle at the Potwell Inn, and that’s a birthday that seems to take me over a line. Six years ago, when we retired, a friend had a T shirt made for me with the slogan “I’m not old I’m experienced!” written on it. Madame wouldn’t let me wear it outside because she said it seemed aggressive – “tough!” – I thought; “I’m not ready to screw my life down into the box marked old man”. There are so many assumptions about us – that we’re slow and doddery; that we’re all right wing bigots; that we have no idea about technology or media and that we have nothing to say that a young person might find remotely interesting. Harrumph!

Anyway, walking along the canal yesterday, these winter heliotropes made my heart sing; flowering, as they do, when the rest of nature looks like a dog with worms. They have a curious and indescribable scent; flower for a couple of weeks and then revert to looking like coltsfoot: most confusing.

In Henrietta Park we found a priceless oyster mushroom growing on the side of a long dead tree. I photographed and left it and then a couple of days later we found it had been cut off, probably by an urban forager. I was slightly peeved because, had it been left in place, it could have inspired lots of people to try to identify it. Who knows ? a future president of the British Mycological Society could have been jolted into a lifelong passion by that single fungus. The same tree had some nice brackets, turkey tails and honey tuft on board. What a good idea to resist all thoughts of tidying the stump away in favour of teeming fungi, going about their business clearing up dead matter and storing carbon.

The robins seemed more than usually pugnacious on our walk, and we spotted the Widcombe heron, not to mention wagtails, mallard, moorhens and swans – which we now know how to sex: dead easy when you’ve been taught to examine (from a respectful distance) necks and beaks (well, noses I suppose). The river, meanwhile, was flecked with foam and the perfume of detergent filled the air near Pulteney weir. While the new omicron variant of Covid stalks the streets we instinctively avoid crowded places now and didn’t feel able to go to the last indoor meeting of the Bath Nats – which is a massive deprivation for us; a second winter with no lectures and no meeting up with friends. Anyway, dawn will come and the heliotropes were a lovely sight in a grey landscape.

Rainy day thinking

I think this one is Rhodymenia pseudopalmata – rosy fan weed

It’s a rainy day today, although the wind has died back a bit and the temperature has dropped a little further. We managed to get out for a walk down to the beach during a break in the weather and Madame collected seaweeds and pebbles to draw while I dozed in the sun watching a common seal popping its head out of the water from time to time, giving me a thorough inspection. The curiosity was mutual, I’m bound to say but I’m intrigued at our sentimental attitude towards a pretty serious predator. This sentimentalisation of the animals is almost encouraged by the kind of natural history films that present nature as a comforting spectacle full of anthropomorphised animals whose every action reflects the finest human values.

Anyway, rainy days are great for reading challenging books and I haven’t been able to read more than about 20 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The technological society” at any one time without taking a break. I could say that I wished I’d read it when it was first published in 1957 but, aged eleven, my French was at the la plume de ma tante stage under the merciless eye of Whacker Allan whose Parisian pronunciation constantly got me into trouble, driving around on holidays in Provence.

Perhaps now is the perfect time to take it on, though, because my entire life has been lived since his forensic takedown of the more idealistic post-war twentieth century sociology. The last chapter of his book is a prophetic look at the year 2000 which did not have the ‘benefit’ of living through currency crashes, pandemics, monetarism and economic game theories, mass migration, energy wars, environmental catastrophe and the rise and rise of computing; and it’s been much worse than he predicted. On the plus side, I am learning a great deal about the underlying reasons for our lemming like rush to the cliffs.

Apart from reading and looking at seals – which we always seem to spot accidentally – we’re pretty much on our own here. The sensible walkers, having looked at the weather forecasts – have nearly all gone home and there’s just out of season people like us, and a few birders dragging their giant scopes and cameras along the clifftops. There’s no garden to speak of where we’re staying, just a deep valley lined with impenetrable brambles, blackthorn and hawthorn towards the top and then shrubby willows down towards the stream that flows out across the small beach. At the back we’re surrounded by elderly apples, shriven by the constant gales. It’s a perfect environment for birds and so we can spend hours looking down the valley with binoculars.

On the clifftop, apart from a brain teasing array of gulls; there are carrion crows, rooks, chough and jackdaw as well as the jays in the valley. Most of them are easier to identify by their calls if they’re at a distance; but the choughs seem to have the extraordinary ability to perform 360 degree rolls when they’re showing off. Our quiet clifftop walk yesterday was accompanied by the crashing of waves thrown up by the wind driven swell, punctuated by fighter planes roaring overhead and a single engined plane nearby that was performing similar tricks to the chough – barrel rolls, diving and looping the loop. Three ages of flight charting the unstoppable growth of technology and culminating in the formidable killing machines that can fly from here to Northern Ireland and back in the time it takes us to walk down from the cottage.

Sadly we’re here just that bit later this year and so it looks as if the field mushrooms have either come and gone – or perhaps they’re waiting for more clement weather. The circle of fairy ring mushrooms is there at the end of the footpath. They’re easy to dry and string together to hang in the kitchen and although they’re not in the porcini league they make a decent contribution to a stock. Apart from that there are loads of psilocybin as well – which would probably make an even more interesting stock but I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to hallucinogens.

Time will come, I think, when the war on drugs will finally end and we shall be reading even more breathless articles from the selfsame journalists who were all for banging up recreational drug users for life – singing the praises of the new wonder drugs and printing verbatim the press releases they get from big pharma who’ll want to get in on the act as well. Cynical … moi? I’ve always remembered James Belsey, leading reporter on the local paper in the days when that meant something, saying to me – “Dave you’ve got to remember that journalists are bone idle and if you write their copy for them you’re much more likely to get it in the paper”.

What ails you?

As I was reading today the question popped into my mind whether Amish farmers, who avoid any kind of modern technology, have capitulated to the spirit of the age. From a bit of fairly shallow research it seems that not all Amish farmers are organic and some may even use chemicals. I’ll carry on investigating because it would make an interesting study . But in the course of following that question up I realised that to characterise organic farming, the rewilding movement and the innovative grazing systems now being explored as sentimental and backward looking is precisely to miss the point. One thing about technological society (mechanical mind if you like) is its capacity to sweep up small inventions made across history and amalgamate them into emergent technologies. We can’t save the earth by regressing to an imagined golden age but we have to move into the future with all the challenges and dangers that the technological mind presents, and make it safer and more sustainable for the earth and all its creatures including us and beginning with the grail question – “what ails you?”

Where to start?

Riddling out the twenty first century dross

One leaf fluttering,

tells of autumn

0ver all the country.

From “A Zen Forest” Translated by Soiku Shigematsu – White Pine Press, Buffalo
Working at the riddle

There’s a certain mindlessness about riddling compost. I sit in front of the open bay with a large bin between my knees and the riddle resting on two short lengths of wood. When the riddle has passed all the friable compost I throw the dross into a bucket and reach again with a spade to take another spit and repeat the process – over and over. Whatever escapes the bucket gets into my boots and over the path. The bits that don’t pass both the sieve and my close inspection after each load give me pause for thought. You might think the dross comprises mainly sticks and stones too large to pass through the half inch mesh, but that’s not quite true. Most of the riddled out waste is bits of plastic from old pots, the remains of so-called biodegradable teabags, old compostable sacks and metal pegs. Of course there are intractable pieces of wood in there; smooth pebbles that come from who knows where? – maybe the beach on Lleyn where we harvested seaweed for the asparagus bed two years ago. Oh and the inevitable cabbage stumps which, however hard you smash them with the back of an axe seem to resist the great carbon cycle.

Next door to the bay I’m clearing is one that’s now full to the brim and badly needing a thorough turn. On the surface are the barely wilted remains of plants we’ve only just placed there; but as I turn the heap and dig down further, things get darker and less recognisable. There’s no great smell but an abundance of slugs and snails near the top, along with wood lice, and minor league chompers in their thousands. Then as we go further we find worms in glorious writhing abundance. Very occasionally a startled rat jumps over my shoulder and scuttles off, low to the ground. I used to try to kill them with the yard fork but the very act of angrily striking at their sleek bodies seemed sacrilegious.

After a couple of months undisturbed in the next bin – the one I was clearing yesterday – and minus the twenty first century rubbish there is something that looks and smells just like earth which, of course, it is. But not just ordinary earth because in its return journey from the harvest it’s gone through the insides of a dozen little animals; been processed by fungi and finally passed through a worm – maybe two worms – richer from its passage than anything you could buy from a garden centre. Not just compost, but our compost; primed with all the fungi, bacteria, colloids and nutrients that belong in this tiny patch of the earth’s surface. Our allotment and our compost. No wonder the plants love it!

So the act of riddling, because it’s so repetitive, has a meditative quality as I participate in the alchemical process that renders green plant material mixed with cardboard and wood chip into soil. I watch each large bucket filling – as much as I can comfortably carry into the polytunnel – pondering on the process that yields such a wonderful substance and rehearsing in my mind where it should go. When I built the four bay composting setup two years ago I had no idea whether we would ever be able to fill it. I just knew the quantity of compost we would need to spread a couple of inches over the whole plot and hoped for the best. Last autumn we were in a hurry and so we just spread our first batches unsieved and picked out the plastic as it rose to the surface. It was so rich in nitrogen we experienced an explosion of leaves, often at the expense of fruit. Better prepared this year, we’ll treat it like the expensive luxury it is and sieve it all properly. Riddling is hard on the back and you definitely value the things you’ve worked hardest on, and so we intend to mix it with topsoil and a little sand for drainage.

The little quotation from “A Zen Forest” reminded me of the way we read the seasonal signs on the allotment. I guess it’s easy to feel you’ve done something when you use a strimmer or a powerful machine to shorten the hours it takes, but the din of the machinery blots out every natural sound as well as filling your nose with petrol fumes. These simple, repetitive manual jobs can be done in thoughtful silence and while you reflect, the allotment gets the chance to speak as well. It’s even better when the silence is filled with gratitude. The zen sayings caution against trying to explain or describe what is essentially beyond words. One of the sharper ones reminds that words are the hitching posts that you tie doneys to! Nonetheless, even if words can only get you to the foothills of the mountain they have some worth so long as you know when to stop.

Mindless tasks aren’t remotely mindless it transpires. They can be mindful beyond the mind’s capacity to explain. As the seasons progress we move from winter through spring and summer and then approach autumn once more. Each season brings love and loss; generosity beyond our dreams and hardship as well. It seems corny and defeated to embrace them all equally as teachers; but the machine has yet to be invented that can control the way of things – for which we can thank whatever higher beings we might follow, and be thankful for those challenging riddles in every historical culture that force us to abandon the fierce consciousness of the machine.

Our twenty first century culture is destroying the earth – we’re quite sure of it now; and so each moment of contemplative silence feeds us as the compost will feed the ground. We shall grow together; minds and compost alike sifted by riddles.

At home with the fungi

Well, not really – but I found the tiny Coprinus (bottom right) growing down in the dark in the compost heap today. I don’t know why but it surprised me because the heap, being full of green waste, was rather hot and the reason I was scratching around in there was to add a barrow load of dead leaves to bump up the brown waste proportion. I’ve learned that if I can smell the heap it’s going (or gone) anaerobic and needs turning along with more brown waste. The effect of the two actions is often surprisingly quick as the heap heats up so quickly.

It was whilst looking for a photo of fully grown member of the species (Lawyers Wig in old money) I randomly typed “fungus” into the Google Photos search line and after a brief interval, hundreds – and I mean hundreds of my photos of fungi going back over a decade suddenly appeared. I’d heard that the search engine had been improved, but this was wonderful because I usually spend ages searching manually through the thumbnails to get the picture I need. It’s a blogger’s dream because I almost always use the photos I’ve just taken because the prospect of searching is so long winded.

Anyway, this is yet another serendipitous moment (synchronistic if you’re a Jungian) because I’m halfway through reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book “Entangled Life” and it falls neatly within a current line of science that’s rewriting our whole view of ecology. For me the most impressive learning point is how well it supports the view that all life is – at its most fruitful – collaborative and cooperative. If ever an idea needed to be born today it’s that one!

After a day working on the allotment in the rain we were glad to get back home. Complete with a meal of the first tiny potatoes and a bag of broad bean tops. There’s tomorrow’s food sorted,

First field trip of 2020

IMG_20200105_114148

Don’t worry – it gets better than this. Everything of any value was removed from this wreck years ago and all that remains is a heap of rusting steel plus an empty can of cider in the boot. The sheer effort of getting it down a muddy track must have been a piece of heroic, almost Fitzcarraldo stupidity, and a fitting memorial to our culture I think. Anyway there was much more to enjoy today apart from my delight in collapsing sheds and old wrecks. There is nothing quite as exciting or challenging as going out on a field trip – OK a long walk – with some genuine experts on hand. Today we were spoilt for choice with a (county recorder level) botanist, a local historian and naturalist, a leading ecologist and an ex president of the British Mycological Society quite apart from some heavyweight birders and a botanical artist. Walking can get quite slow when the objects of interest are so frequent, and so it took us twenty minutes inspecting a passing stream for Signal Crayfish before we even set off. Apparently a local resident has perfected the art of trapping them and eating them for breakfast! – we found his creel lurking there, baited (we were told) with cat food.

From the outset we were away not with just one heron, but a whole heronry of about half a dozen nests with three birds perched high up in the trees overhanging a Honda car dealer. What was it I wrote yesterday about urban wildlife? As we walked on we saw (and heard) all the usual suspects like thrushes and robins, but also a young buzzard, a kestrel, nuthatch, goldcrest and to cap it all we were shown a nesting site for ravens at the end of the walk inside the Bath Abbey cemetery.IMG_20200105_125957

Within the plants, it was good to see rosettes of primrose leaves in the same graveyard (they’re brilliant places for wildlife – you need a PhD to walk through Smallcombe Cemetery with any intelligence). But there were Winter Heliotrope in full perfume for once, and a pair of Arum cousins, one a native – Lords and Ladies and the other its ornamental relative from Italy rapidly making a nuisance of itself in this country and called – surprisingly perhaps – Italian Lords and Ladies.

There were numerous other goodies around, but having someone on the walk who combined expertise on bryophytes and fungi kept us looking at the limestone walls and paths.  Incidentally, he was carrying a second pair of binoculars which he used for close scanning. I tried it on the carpet when we got home but neither of our binoculars would focus down below about 7 or 8 feet.    There’s no point in bigging up your knowledge under these circumstances, the best thing to do is watch and learn with your notebook at the ready. I know a few fungi, and they’re not plentiful at this time of the year but we spotted Wood ear and Yellow Brain fungi.  My photos weren’t very good because I had only taken my mobile phone.

But the biggest excitement of the day was getting close up to some bryophytes. Unlike most humans, they actually look more and more beautiful the closer you look. The thing is they’re often very small and inconspicuous so you tend to overlook them.  That’s not a bad strategy since I’ve just spent over an hour trying to identify one photograph because there are a great number of things that you might (I might) casually describe as ‘moss’, ‘fern’ or ‘liverwort’.  Actually until today I had very little idea what liverworts actually looked like, and there’s the best reason for joining a natural history society and going on field trips, because there will be someone that really does know and the chances are they’ll be a great teacher who’s only too keen to share their expertise. So here’s what a liverwort can look like very close up –

Aren’t they stunning? the textures are unlike anything you can see in most plants. I’m not completely sure about the Targiona hypophylla because I identified it myself, but the other was identified by a national expert so you can bet your boots on it. Even I think I’m sounding a bit breathless about all this but we had such a good time today among some lovely people, we learned a lot from them and, best of all, I discovered that there’s a whole world of winter lists out there to satisfy even my propellor headed tendencies.

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And below are a few things I didn’t manage to identify, apart from the Maiden-hair Spleenwort on the left. I was intrigued by the reason for it being so named.  A quick flick through Wikipedia suggests it was once used to treat diseases of the spleen, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that use, only for chest complaints and menstruation problems, for which there are many more commonly used treatments.  So it’s a lost etymology as far as I can see.  One other interesting fact popped up, though. There is another plant called maidenhair fern – whose leaves are exactly like miniature versions of the leaves of the Maidenhair tree – Ginkgo biloba. 

So here’s the rogues gallery of today’s unsolved mysteries.  I really like having a few of these because it keeps me going back.

Fatal temptation – looks like a free lunch!

I suppose this photo might have all sorts of hidden gems in it – there may be a rare moss or liverwort there but what caught my eye were the innocent loking Amanita phalloides var alba  which could look a bit like  ‘wild mushrooms’ but are really Death Caps.  They’re usually a vaguely yellow or greenish on the cap but this is  the variety that looks most like a field mushroom. Two things ought to warn you of danger immediately – firstly Field Mushrooms don’t have that name by accident, they grow in fields. Secondly, Death Caps have white gills, not brown.

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We were in Eskdale, walking back down from the spectacular Stanley Force which lies on on a tributary steam to the River Esk. “Force” seems to be the local name for waterfalls – and when you see one with this power it’s altogether appropriate. It’s about 60′ according to the guidebooks, but I’d put the depth from the lip at nearer 40′, maybe 60′ from the top of the gorge. Either way round you wouldn’t want to fall from there. When you look up at it there’s a tremendous sense of exposure, but actually the path isn’t nearly as bad as it looks, notwithstanding the warnings everywhere. The biggest challenge was driving rain; the whole gorge looked and felt like a chillly tropical forest. Fabulous bryophytes there.  I don’t know much about them except that when you look at them through a pocket magnifier they’re absolutely beautiful.  The last climb up to the viewpoint was a bit of a scramble but what with the noise and the height it was properly exciting. One of Wainwright’s favourite places, they say – but then everyone who wants to sell an ice cream in the lakes makes the same claim. There are a number of newish footbridges in place to cross the beck, and without them the whole enterprise would be a bit of a desperate scramble unless you were prepared to wade across. As we were walking up someone spotted a red squirrel, but despite moving as quietly as we could we never found any. On the way back we met a man who’d been up the fell in May and had found Mountain Ringlet butterflies there – sady, life’s just too short for me to do it all! The Western Fells are very beautiful, it’s a shame they’re so far from our home.

IMG_6074But that wasn’t all we did today because we’re staying in Ravenglass and that’s at one end of the narrow gauge Ravenglass and Eskdale railway line that runs up Eskdale to Dalegarth, the starting point of our walk.  We’d chosen to go today because it was forecast to be sunny and dry. However we’re in the Lake District which has its own climate, and it rained heavily on and off all day – luckily we took our waterproofs and enjoyed the challenge.We travelled up the line in a little carriage, but coming back we rode in one of the open trucks which was much more fun, open to the weather and the spectacular views. I was born and brought up next to the main line north from Bristol and the sheer smell of engine smoke and steam sets of a firework display of childhood memories.

 

An interesting find on the next door plot

Here’s a tiny cluster of fungi I noticed while we were talking to our neighbour on the allotments. I’m absolutely not a specialist in this field, but I had a look through the books and I think this may be Helvella leucomelaena – the Sooty Cup or White Footed Pixie Cup.  If it is, it’s not where it should be and it’s quite rare.  However, we use so much wood-chip on the allotment it could be one of those species that’s benefited from human activity. Any experts out there?

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