What’s your movie?

The heading at the top is the title of a very good Mose Allison song – “What’s your movie?” – which takes the mickey out of people who build their identities out of film characters. Although I love the song and laugh out loud at it, I’m also aware that none of us is able to escape the temptation to weave a narrative around our lives. The problem is that we don’t need to be even remotely out of the ordinary to be able to weave multiple narratives. So with that caveat, please welcome my first ever botany book – Warne’s Wildflowers of the wayside and woodlands”. I think I must have bought it in my late teens and – truth to tell – it was never that much use. The illustrations were miles away from the plants they depicted and the resolution was so poor that at best they gave an impression of the plant; and fatally – there were no keys at all apart from some line drawings sorted by the colour of the flowers. I had no technical knowledge of plant families and so the only means of naming one was to laboriously turn the pages until I found something that looked like – even vaguely like – the plant I had in front of me. Madame will testify that this made for very slow and exquisitely boring walks on her part. Consequently – much as I’d like to – I’m unable to construct a credible narrative around my career as an amateur field botanist. My movie is more like an inconclusive list of rough drafts and false starts that should never have seen the light of day.

However the passion for observing and naming plants never went away and over the years I’ve accumulated an unholy number of books, most of which were totally beyond my comprehension when I bought them. Over fifty years I sort of caught up with most of them whilst simultaneously throwing myself into the pit of incomprehension by buying yet more.

Yesterday I got lucky and found a copy of the out of print New Atlas of the British & Irish Flora, for £34 on the Oxfam website and it was while I was pondering where I was going to find a space for it that I found my battered old copy of “Wayside and Woodland” languishing behind a row of more prestigious looking volumes. When I opened it, I noticed the long dead vetch flower – brown and flattened – which I must have stuffed in there pending further investigation. In those days I hand no hand lens and no other way of taking it any further. It took several years longer to buy one, and I borrowed my first microscope only two years ago; and still the flower sits reproachfully in the book like a photo from a holiday romance, wagging its finger and asking what took me so long? I was utterly vexed by veronicas and distracted by dandelions and daisies. Any self-taught botanist will tell you it’s a prolonged agony of blind alleys and mazes.

And so I have passed the three consecutive Atlantic storms that squatted on our horizon and tormented us this past week- by mugging up on grasses, gathering my kit together, re-registering on iRecord and assembling my field guides ready for our first proper plant spotting trip down to Cornwall. Cornwall is early and later we’ll move up the West coat of the UK as far as North Wales hopefully catching the same plants several times. Suddenly I’m energised and better prepared than ever before. I watched three of the brilliant BSBI webinars on grasses and then ploughed through the introduction to the BSBI handbook on grasses, looking up all the terms I still don’t fully understand. This is a bit of a grudge match because during a field trip with the Bath Natural History Society, I mentioned to one of its luminaries that I found grasses difficult. “Oh” she said – “Grasses are easy!” She’s a brilliant and normally patient teacher and I’m pretty sure she’d intuited the fact that I can’t resist a direct challenge. Gradually, after three years – two of which were wrecked by COVID – I’ve made a small start – decades after I should have done.

Ironic isn’t it? Just as I’m beginning to get my act as a field botanist together, the proper botanists have retreated to white painted rooms, DNA analysis and electron microscopes. I can’t tell my haploid from my diploid and neither do I have the faintest idea what a palisade variant of non Kranz (C3) anatomy might be (actually I’ve an idea it’s to do with photosynthesis). My dearest wish is just to walk through a flower meadow and greet each of its inhabitants by name. My biggest fear is that I’ll be among the last people to be able to do so.

Nothing in nature is without purpose

This beautiful scientific drawing by Margaret Tebbs is from the BSBI handbook “Grasses of the British Isles” by Tom Cope and Alan Gray.

A mea culpa is called for on my part. A couple of days ago I was writing about my excitement at seeing the seed of a false oat grass under the microscope and how I got tremendously excited at its rather extravagant beauty. Now at one level there’s nothing wrong with such a strongly aesthetic response to nature. The sense of wonder is at the heart of our response and it’s been getting a bit of a push at the moment, with so much media coverage of the psychological benefits of being in nature. There’s a slightly creepy feel to some of the quasi religious stuff being promoted, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see instances of miraculous healing being claimed, and no doubt there will be therapists too ….. But the originating emotional response is quite genuine.

Beyond the oohs and aahs, anyone who’s tried their hand at botanical illustration will know how incredibly difficult it is to do justice to the observational science and at the same time capture the sheer beauty of plants. The best I’ve ever managed is to capture them in a small part of a drawing. I’ve got one on the wall in the flat, and although I can see nothing but flaws in the greater part of it, there’s one small passage at the bottom that gets it right – and I often look at it and wonder how did I do that?

So yes – the aesthetic response is good, but it’s never the whole, and as I ploughed my way through the BSBI handbook, I came across the most wonderful explanation of why the awns, the spiky appendages to the seeds of this grass and some of its cousins are as they are. Coincidentally, yesterday I was reading some of the biography of Joseph Banks who was the pioneering botanist on the voyage of the Discovery with Captain Cook and whose work was rather frowned upon by many leading scientists of his day because he had taken up the Linnaean system of classification, and Linnaeus was thought to be all too interested in the sexual activity of plants. For the delicate constitutions of the devout, the thought of fields, full of fornicating plants, was all to much.

But plants (and all nature) are very much concerned with – shall we say – putting it about? and the difficulties of doing so have been addressed by different plants in different ways over evolutionary time. Getting into field botany commits you to a life of examining the naughty bits of plants – how they work, and in this case how they spread their little darlings.

“an object of admiration to all grass lovers”.

Plues “British Grasses” 1867

So lets go back to the picture and notice that there are two awns – one straight and the other with a twist and a bend about half way up. The thing about the twist (which I compared with a fairy blacksmith forging it in gold) is that it isn’t gold, it’s living tissue, and crucially, it’s hygroscopic – it absorbs moisture and as it does so the spirally shaped part of the awn slowly rotates, unwinds. Imagine a time lapse video, and as the relative humidity of the air ebbs and flows, you’d see it waving back and forth like an angry adder. So you’ve got one waving awn and one stiff one. When the ripe seed falls to the ground the first thing it needs to do is to get itself into the earth, so it can germinate and immediately grow some roots. And so, in a tiny evolutionary miracle, this particular seed is able to use the two awns to walk its way into the earth. Self burying seeds no less. For me that adds to the aesthetic experience under the microscope – glory upon glory if you like.

That’s about it at the moment. The Potwell Inn has gone on a rather severe diet and so the last three days have been etched with suffering – well that’s a slight exaggeration, but 40 days in the desert is, by all accounts, a good way of fending off decrepitude and I’ve no appetite for testing my own self-burying skills – there are too many things I still want to do!

Finally a photo, taken on Bannerdown, that I published in a gallery a few days ago – It’s a wild carrot and I thought it deserved to find a place in a bigger format. I just loved the way the sun is shining through it.

Bathampton Meadows

How we rejoiced, here at the Potwell Inn, when the clouds finally got themselves organised and it rained enough to relieve us of watering duties on the allotment. It hasn’t been easy to keep going because supplies of garden sundries have been almost unobtainable and we’ve had to resort to the internet several times. It seemed totally mad to have a bag of vermiculite delivered when we’re surrounded by garden centres, and when they finally opened again we went to one we often use, but the shelves had been stripped bare by desperate gardeners. There was one other item that we were running short of because we use quite a bit of liquid seaweed fertiliser, and so I scouted around and ordered ten litres from an internet supplier. It arrived soon enough, but when I unpacked the box the container seemed to have swollen tremendously – I couldn’t get my fingers under the carrying handle, so clearly it was fermenting. Fearful that it might explode, I got a wrench and opened it very carefully and with a gentle sigh it released the smell from hell – like you might imagine gannet’s breath to be. We took it straight to the allotment where the plants will absolutely love it, and when I checked the water level in the second storage butt my cunning plan seems to have worked because the level is creeping up. But with more rain threatened and after a short weeding session – weeds come up much more easily when the soil is a bit moist – we came back to the flat and within five minutes I was drumming my fingers again. I have a very low tolerance for doing nothing; I truly wish I didn’t have it, and so does Madame, but there we are.

So, enthused by my bit of curiosity in the yard yesterday; this morning I did a quick survey of all the wildflowers I could find in our car park.

To be frank, this didn’t look promising, but needs must etc. and I spent a very happy hour with a notebook and magnifier making a list that took me completely by surprise. So here it is –

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris
  • Herb robert – Geranium robertianum
  • Wall lettuce – Mycelis muralis
  • Rue leaved saxifrage Saxifraga tridactylites
  • Red valerian – Centranthus ruber
  • Mexican fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus
  • Canadian fleabane – Erigeron canadensis
  • Wall barley – Hordeum murinum
  • Greater celandine – Chelidonium majus
  • Pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica
  • Tansy – Tanacetum vulgare
  • Cleavers – Galium aparine
  • Ivy leaved toadflax – Cymbalaria muralis
  • Oxeye daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
  • Smooth sowthistle – Sonchus oleraceus
  • Prickly lettuce – Lactuca serriola
  • Wood aven – Geum urbanum
  • Purple toadflax – Linaria purpurea
  • Ivy – Hedera helix
  • Elder – Sambucus nigra
  • American willowherb – Epilobium ciliatum
  • Broad leaf dock – Rumex obtusifolius

There are more, of course, but that will need a more thorough search – and I’m sorry they’re not in any recognisable order which, for librarians botanists and archivists, will be painful but it was the order I noticed them in – and that’s really the point of all this. We’ve been living in this place for almost five years and because it was ‘only a car park’ it didn’t command the same level of attention as – say – Bathampton Meadows, which I’m coming to in a moment. I found more time to botanise on the river bank and towpath because it seemed more obvious to look for plants in those places. But 24 species in a car park with almost no soil? These plants may be as ugly as sin, and ethnically diverse enough to give a Daily Mail reader the vapours, but what they lack in charm they make up in dogged survival. When all else fails and the last bee orchid has left the stage, I suspect these characters – the rogues and vagabonds of the plant world will still be around, offending gardeners and providing botanical lessons for restless people like me.

And so the weather cleared and we decided to go for a walk. The Skyline walk was mentioned but with faintly dodgy weather we settled on a wander along the canal and then off up to Bathampton Meadows. Madame was firm – this was a walk not a botanising expedition – and so I put the hand lens back on the desk but surreptitiously slipped a notebook in my pocket, just in case. We took the second bridge over the canal and up the lane between the lovely Georgian terraces to climb up to the meadows. One of the best things about living here is that you can reach open countryside on foot so easily and without sharing the way with any cars. Cyclists are another thing but ……!

I don’t know the meadows very well and, following Madame’s directive I kept my eyes firmly on the horizon as we followed the path to a spot where we plonked ourselves down to take in the panoramic view of Bath. House Martins were hawking for insects all around us. She was the first to break my trappist botanical silence – “what’s this?” she wondered, pointing to a lovely patch of crested dog’s tail grass. There we were like Father Ted in the ladies lingerie department with me struggling not to notice that we were in the midst of a very interesting bunch of plants. I love a mystery, and what one flora calls “the hawkish plants” are a great temptation. Whether ‘beard’, ‘bit’, or ‘weed’, they’re a daunting challenge to be addressed like a military campaign. But not at this moment. Slowly the prospect of a fully armed return visit was forming in my head while we chatted about the view, and about us, and the lockdown and what it was doing to our heads. It was one of those lovely afternoons when the summer clouds move quickly across the sky bringing intervals of sun and shade. After an hour we grumbled to our feet, stiff with sitting on the grass, and made our way back down the footpath. We’d almost reached the gate when we simultaneously noticed butterflies, dozens of them, in a large patch of longer grass – nothing rare, just meadow browns – car park butterflies, you might say if you were just passing through. Then I spotted yellow rattle, then knapweed and an instant later we saw a solitary marbled white – why is it that spotting a butterfly can evoke such joy?

We celebrated with a black cherry ice cream bought from the canalside hut as we walked home through bigger crowds than we’ve seen in months. They think it’s all over. I really hope they’re right!

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