We’re back in Cornwall; this time on the Roseland Peninsula and in the campervan. We were pretty knackered when we arrived but after an excellent 9 hours and 44 minutes sleep we felt rested and ready for Madame’s favourite walk ever. This is a campsite we’ve stayed in for years and between the site and the sea there’s a bridle way about 2.5Km long lined on both sides for the majority of the way by Cornish hedges. It’s a very special environment – partly at least because you rarely see anyone on it apart from the occasional walker or horse rider.
Today we saw Red Admiral, Small Blue, Small White and Orange Tip butterflies; we saw a buzzard hunting at a little distance and later we saw a Kestrel no more than 25 m away. It was a wonderful and inspiring sight with its capacity to keep its eyes completely still over the prey, whilst fluttering and gyring in the sky.
On the way down to the sea I kept on seeing such a variety of wildflowers I decided to record them whilst walking back up the hill. There were way more than I recorded, but I made a list of forty species in the gathering rain. I was never more grateful for the waterproof pen and notebook. Many of them require further exploration but that’s half the fun. For instance I caught sight of a single Geum urbanum, that’s to say Wood Avens or Herb Bennet in the UK. The word “Bennet” caught my eye because Benedict was often shortened to Benet. So Herb Benet has a history in herbalism – probably because this ‘Blessed Herb’ found a use in herbal medicine, probably because of its aromatic root. There were also large numbers of Pellitory of the Wall – Parietaria judaica – used to treat urinary infections. Of my forty plants, twelve were either traditionally used as foods or medicines – excluding the Foxglove which will damage your heart!
They’re all common enough plants; for instance the Broadleaf Plantain travelled to the US in migrants’ boots and spread wherever they went – hence the First Nation name “White Man’s Foot”. It’s apparently a remedy for foot pain – you just wear a fat leaf inside your socks. I really should try it some time. A guide at the Lost Gardens of Heligan once showed us how you could peel off the outer skin of Navelwort – Umbilicus rupestris -with your thumbnail, and apply the sticky side of the leaf to your skin as a kind of natural plaster. I’ve often wondered whether Stitchwort is a cure for the kind of stitches you get when you run?
Anyway, on our return to the van, and when the real work began, I began to wonder whether my Fumaria could possibly be F. capreolata but, like the Polypody, that ID might demand a microscope.
I was especially pleased that my list of forty species was as long as my previous best but which took a fortnight to complete, but the price you pay for speed is a bent back and a compulsive swivelling of the eyes; not a good look.
Yesterday was just one of those days that left me almost breathless with pleasure. We were five old friends whose various relationships reach back way over fifty years; five old friendships that have seen and survived all manner of triumphs and tragedies and five human beings sharing a walk (well, more of an amble) on a stunning spring day, while we followed the course of the remains of the Somerset Coal Canal which was built to carry coal from the North Somerset coalfield to the junction with the Kennet and Avon canal, near Dundas aqueduct. For me, a light bulb went on when I realized how much of the old stone structure had survived, but Madame also had it written down as a place to return to – a lot!
It wasn’t a long walk by any stretch but we gave it several hours anyway, soaking up the sun and exploring off the path from time to time, looking at plants and rusting iron lock gate nails with equal interest; catching glimpses of the equally abandoned railway line that forced the demise of the canal. For me it’s a paradise of post industrial relics and possible sites for interesting wildflowers, and by all accounts it has some very interesting geology, which is always good news for plant hunters. But it wasn’t all green wellies and Tilley hats. C and I had a friendly bird app competition with our phones and I realized that the absence of an in-phone database meant that hers identified a Black Cap Warbler much faster than mine which was still looking for a signal. Just for interest I was using Birdnerd and C had Merlin – hers was clearly better for off-grid id’s – mine’s always worked perfectly well but perhaps I’ve just been lucky with phone masts.
There were no rarities spotted, but it was just as reassuring and pleasurable to see Dandelions, Cuckoo Flowers, Cowslips, White Nettles and Ground Ivy all flowering in profusion. The only oddity was what I think must have been Weld – Reseda luteola, AKA Dyers Weed, Dyers Rocket or Yellow Weed. No prizes, then, for guessing what it was once used for. If it was Weld I suppose that would make it a post industrial plant relic from a much earlier historical moment. Lurking up and down these beautiful valleys are the ruins and remains of monastic communities with their medicinal herb gardens and watermills, grinding grain from local farms. Far from being enjoyable just for its remoteness and quietness, you could almost feel the presence of innumerable farm labourers, fishermen, monks, boaters, miners, navvies and railwaymen, all those faint echoes flowing towards the river Avon. The horizons are punctuated by the silhouettes of grand mansions and farms such that we were obliged to consider the source of all that wealth. One of our party had long dead ancestors who were in the cloth trade and who may have furnished the backs of navvies, slaves and workhouse inhabitants. with fustian – rough but hard wearing cloth that combined cotton weft on linen warps.
We finished up – as all good walks do – in the pub where I photographed the hauntingly lovely sign at the top of this post; something I’ll come back to in a moment.
I’ve been struggling for a long time to find a way of expressing what seems to me to be a fundamental difficulty in this post-religious age. A few days ago I wrote this:
the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework?
The trouble with words like Spirituality and Love is that they’ve been so trampled upon by blowhards, bishops and pornographers they no longer have any meaning at all except for a vaguely felt inflammation of the imagination which could be anything from a vision to a mild virus, and so writing about such things becomes an exercise in frustration; altogether lacking the tools for the job.
For me, best and most creative ideas come when the parts of a solution finally come together for no discernable reason except the relaxed mindfulness of a walk. These ideas, quite often, are not the lofty analytics of a Holmesean three pipe problem. They can seem vulgar, irreverent and occupy worlds so different it’s almost like harvesting the energy of colliding comets.
So here’s the problem – how can we find a contemporary way of expressing the content of words like spirituality and love. What kind of love, from all of the available flavours, would best express our love for the Earth in this age of catastrophe? and secondly, what form of spirituality could provide a language accessible to the religious, the determinedly non-religious and that huge population in the middle who long for a structure, a framework for understanding a way of being human that isn’t part of what’s destroying us all?
And so what about these three components?
The marriage service
These three rather disparate ideas have at least one thing going for them because they include a painful (but not fatal) human condition, a plant that provides a useful remedy, and a form of words that might just provide the beginnings of a framework.
Let’s take Chef’s Ass first. If you’re working in very hot and humid sweaty conditions – for instance in a restaurant kitchen, polytunnel or just walking for long distances in inappropriate clothes you may contract a very uncomfortable form of abrasion rash known colloquially as chef’s ass in the trade. I consulted our son – who’s a chef – on a possible cure, and he said he’d once tried alcoholic hand gel which turned out to be effective but screamingly painful. I hoped I could find a less extreme cure for my similar gardening related problem and turned to our home made Calendula Cream which, to my great surprise and relief worked miraculously well. It’s so cheap and easy to make I wonder why anyone would pay £15 for a tube, or resort to potentially dangerous remedies like hydrocortisones.
Forget God for a moment because there’s absolutely no reason to invoke any kind of higher level supernatural powers here. The earth provides us with a multitude of effective remedies for many unpleasant, painful but non-malignant diseases. Calendula is just one example. Now the application of the cream did the trick for me, but that left me with the odd sense that I should be able to say thank-you for that help. I get exactly the same feeling harvesting our produce, eating it and sharing it with friends. That unchannelled, unfocused gratitude needs somewhere to land but all too often, like a boomerang, it circles back on itself and manifests itself as pride.
I know I’m using a religious term here but bear with me just for a moment while I explain. Pride is a very dangerous thing not least because it blinds us to our own fallibility. But collective pride – for instance in our ability to solve every challenge, even catastrophic climate change, through our own cleverness is a form of idolatry. Our thank-you’s desperately need to be channelled into something less destructive than pride.
So with that in mind I’ll turn to to some words from the marriage service which once seized me so powerfully in the course of a wedding service I was taking, that I had to stop in my tracks and recover my wits before I could continue. Each of the couple (and I’m using this example in a completely secular and non gendered way) say to one another – “All that I am, I give to you, and all that I have I share with you”. From that moment onwards I almost invariably reminded my couples that the second half of the promise was the easy bit. “All that I have I share with you” is the kind of arrangement that any half witted solicitor could organise. It’s a kind of prenuptial clause. But the second half of the promise- “All that I am I give to you” is on a different plane. How many of us have even the faintest clue what “all that I am” means for ourselves, let alone our prospective partner?
And yet the point here is that the earth has made precisely that promise to us. The earth says – “all that I am I give to you” and means it utterly, to the end. But we, in our infinite pride, forget that in this imagined marriage relationship with the earth we secretly and covetously hope to get our hands on the money and say that sentence with our fingers crossed behind our backs. There’s no more destructive relationship than a one sided and selfish marriage. This is not a religious point!
So at last I come back to the pub sign. I’m a sucker for naive paintings and a complete fool for the ones that express in paint something that the painter could never have articulated in words. Our angel, with a look of considerable doubt on her face is taking an anchor from the heavenly (that’s the hope bit) to the earthly ( that’s the anchor). When the rope breaks there’s no guide to the way back and we are lost. So to recap from the top; all those ancient voices flowing down to the river and onward to the sea were the hopes of our ancestors, lived out in the world of nature that provided food and health as best the earth could offer. It was greed and selfishness that fouled things up and because of that idolatrous worship of our own powers we now face an existential crisis.
Ironically (or maybe not), we five walkers all agreed that it wasn’t just the complete ineptitude of our politicians or the continuing impact of lockdown; the war in Ukraine, or even the cost of living that was making us depressed and unhappy. There is something deeper that wrecks our sleep and furnishes our worst dreams. Without finding a new relationship with the earth and all living things we’ll remain delusional, lonely and ultimately doomed.
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.