Gosh we’ve been busy getting ready for the next trip. I think I’ve finally got the courage to start officially recording some of the plants we hope to find and so it’s been a rush to gather together all the tools and to figure out how to use them. So I hope you’ll forgive me for failing to find a ghost orchid or anything remotely rare but settling on an ubiquitous weed like couch grass simply to check on some ID keys and test out the macro extension lens on the phone; and I’m feeling ever so pleased.
There’s a bit of a knack to taking photographs for plant ID’s because they need to capture as much as possible of the kind of technical information you’ll definitely wish you’d recorded when you get back to base; things like grid references and what kind of soil and light conditions not to mention – in the case of grasses – all manner of obscurities concerning ligules, auricles, lemmas glumes, stolons, rhizomes and spikelets. So while we took a break from planting out broad beans I pulled a lump of the revolting weed out of one of the allotment beds and tried to remember all this stuff as I took the photos. I know it’s all a bit technical but there’s something very lovely about grasses because they hide their differences so completely. Half a millimetre can be important. This reminds me of one of my theology tutors who used to run what he called CAT sessions – close attention to text. We discovered that the really important understandings demanded time, attention and focus. Drill down hard enough and what appears to be a uniform field of grass can become a garden of delights. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!
The other bit of plant recording I’ve had to learn is the software. There’s a mountain of data out there in databases which must have taken millions of voluntary hours of recording and checking. OK I’m a complete nerd but I think I’m happier growing and examining plants than I am frothing at the mouth while I scream at the television. So couch grass became a rehearsal for the really good stuff which I’m so looking forward to finding this season.
Later, just for fun, I dug into the herbals and discovered that however much we gardeners loathe the stuff there are people out their who are prepared to pay £10 for 100 grammes of the offending roots. By all accounts (and lacking any scientific proof as far as I could find out) couch roots have some healing properties. By my reckoning there must be many thousands of pounds worth of herbal remedy underground at the allotment site but the sheer agony of digging it up would need the price to go a lot higher than that. It is, however, the most tremendously vigorous plant. I read later about an experiment where 20 week old couch tillers grew 5 metres – 15 feet in a few weeks while throwing up over 200 buds. Oh to think that it’s an incomer brought in centuries ago. My mum was an inveterate smuggler of purloined cuttings from every garden she ever visited – perhaps it was an ancestor of hers that brought the wretched weed here.
Anyway, the kit is assembled, tested – and we’re ready to rock and roll this season. Fortunately while I crawl around in the dirt in lovely places, Madame will be bingeing on drawing with ink and bamboo pens; inspired by David Hockney’s latest book. In the background I can hear our waterproofs taking an interminable time to dry in low heat after being re-proofed. We’re optimistic but not reckless.
According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.
In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.
But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.
However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.
Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.
Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.
Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.
The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.
And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.
Had the strangest experience last night as I settled down to identify a grass that I’d gathered on our walk to Sham Castle (yesterday’s posting). There must have been something about it that caught my eye, because when I opened the polythene bag that I carry around with me – just in case – there was another identical sample inside that I’d forgotten about. So why was this particular species of grass- which turned out to be (I’m pretty sure) common bent – Agrostis capillaris – speaking to me so loudly?
If you’ll allow me a tiny digression, the microscope has been a wonderful help with grasses, but also with random bits of unspeakable things like earwax which turn out to be pretty interesting as well! Anyway, the bent grass, to get back to the point. The thing about it was that it seemed to be carrying an inordinate amount of emotional freight with it. The pursuit of grasses has been as much an intellectual challenge as anything else. I’m trying to know them well enough to identify them confidently, simply because I was challenged by someone I respect greatly and I love a challenge.
So on the microscope I went through the increasingly familiar routine, much helped by the BSBI webinar material, and then keyed the sample out and there it was; one of two possibilities and in the end I plumped for common bent. And that might have been the end of the story if I hadn’t been mulling it all over in the early hours of this morning during that half awake, half asleep time that’s so full of lateral thoughts and unexpected revelations, and it became clear to me that I needed to go to Rodway hill.
If it weren’t for Rodway Hill, or Rodway Common as it’s also known my life would have been radically different. It was a place of powerfully charged moments. I had a strange, almost religious experience there as a young teenager when I once laid down on the grass and moments turned into infinite time. It was the first, but not the last of my experiences of what came to be known as the oceanic state. At a much more mundane level it was the place that Rogers’ Fair set up one warm summer evening and I first heard the Everly Brothers in a moment charged with eroticism, generators and diesel fumes. It was there with Madame that we once gathered 40lbs of blackberries with which we made dreadful chutney. It was where I went to school and it was the view from the window that sustained me through hours of tedium. It was the territory of my adolescence and so everything about it must have become charged with significance. And the common bent had something to do with it and so I dragged Madame over there in torrential rain this morning to get some photographs and to track down the ghostly presence.
It was a pretty scary experience – I felt a bit silly chasing down the bizarre idea that I am somehow connected to that landscape. Even as we set out I was wondering if the landscape was acting as an immaterial hard drive; if it could be possible that some of my memories were held there waiting for me to reclaim them. But however mawkish and stupid it might sound, the moment we set foot on the common they were there waiting for me.
I’d already done a bit of research into the surface geology of the area and I couldn’t find any real connection between the calcareous soil up on the Skyline walk and the mildly acidic soil on Rodway common, but either plants don’t read textbooks or they’re far more adaptable than we think, because there was the grass, the grass I once laid down next to and lost myself; the grass through which the wind would flow with a silvery kind of sound if you listened carefully enough. But there was more, because the harebells were still there and then in a proper flow moment I found woodruff – Galium odoratum one of the bedstraws and what I think was blinks – Montia fontana which I can’t remember ever noticing before. The gorse and the bracken were all there in abundance too; despite being surrounded now by a six lane circular road and thousands of new houses but the school and the common have survived. It was an extraordinary moment – to be there in the rain, reconnecting with my very young self and being able to name at least some of the plants that had lodged in my unconscious mind.
Of course the downside of the avalanche of feelings and memories was the thought that I might have been a complete weirdo as well, but there we are – Madame must have found something tolerable in me, (although she occasionally reminds me about her patience and forbearance in staying put!).
But if anything comes out of this strange day, it’s the extension of the notion of hefting that I’ve written about before. As I looked across the common, which is smaller than I’d remembered, I could see in an instant that the landscape is marked by what the Mendip people call gruffy ground. For whatever reason, whether surface mining took place there? – since it’s within the South Gloucestershire coalfield and there are records of a coal mine in Mangotsfield; or perhaps quarrying for stone? – all the local walls are built with that kind of sandstone, or whatever other reason. It doesn’t matter. The poor soil, delicate grasses, the pockmarked ground have become a sort of default in my mind and in the most peculiar way they hold me and I still seek them out like a sheep turned out on to the hill in the summer. Everything changes and nothing changes.
On the way home we took a detour past my old home which, ironically, is at the other end of the Bristol Bath cycle path; the other end of the same old railway line that still passes today. It looked much the same with new windows. Mr King’s allotment which was at the bottom of the garden over the tunnel entrance is now completely overgrown but can never be built on. No-one will ever re-create what he did, an old retired miner who would walk five or six miles to Parkfield in the morning and walk halfway home underground; his allotment was the paradisiacal vision that drives the Potwell Inn.