How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

Plus ça change?

“used to express resigned acknowledgement of the fundamental immutability of human nature and institutions.”

Occasionally I entertain the idea that somehow I’ve matured, evolved – grown up; that I’m not the person I was when I was, say, 25 years old. Madame, I’m sure, would beg to differ but yesterday I picked up and started reading one of my old notebooks and I discovered she’s right. I haven’t evolved at all (but neither has she!).

This entry was written on Tuesday 9th April and I think the year must have been 1973. I was working as a bus driver and groundsman at Clifton College – a job I only got because I omitted to tell them about my qualifications and I merely said I could drive a Transit van. They must have been desperate because they gave me the job and I had two wonderful years living under the radar and learning to drive and maintain tractors, tend and repair grass worn by rugby and cricket and to lay hedges in the winter – best job ever. Oh and I also learned to drive the buses – 1946 Bedford OB’s with wooden seats and crash gearboxes. On my first afternoon I drove all the way from the boathouse on the River Avon to the School, about 5 miles, in second gear because I had no idea how to change up. It was there that I learned to watch badgers and identify the common birds, and there I first began to take botany up a level. I like to think of it as my public school education, and we still live on the banks of the same river.

Anyway, the diary – one of many of which most are now lost – spent twenty five years in a damp garage and so it’s almost unreadable in places, but when I read the section that follows I was astounded how little has changed, aside from the disappearance of so many species. Even the old buses still make regular appearances in 1950 costume dramas on the television.

These following notes are about our walk which took us over Cumberland Basin and over the lock gates, over the river by the railway line, down the footpath that crosses the old Ashton Gate [railway] station and along the cricket field and into Ashton Court, where we walked up the path behind the house and across to the deer park – returning the same way.

The warm spell continued today, and the winds have remained light South Easterly………..We’re beginning to appreciate the warm, light evenings, seizing the chance to walk whenever we can. During the winter our expeditions tend to be rather cursory and confined to weekends, normally Sundays at that! Our progress on these walks is always hilariously slow. I’m determined not to miss anything new growing, so there are protracted arguments and discussions about every plant we see. Still, things are improving slowly. When we lived in Corsham we used to go for walks laden with plant books, tree books and bird books and it might take us all afternoon to get out of sight of the cottage. Now we’ve given up carrying books everywhere so I just have to stop and write descriptions of everything [or make little drawings]. Even then we often have to go back again because the description is inadequate. There’s either no such plant in existence, or there are about fifty all answering the same description. The good moments are like when we went around the Ashton Court nature trail. There was 2 feet of snow the only snow this winter, and suddenly we came across a whole bank of Helleborus viridis. Somehow you feel you’ve discovered something important – a bit rare or unusual. I don’t suppose the plants feel that way about it. Anyway most of our walks are concerned with more mundane things like – are hawthorn and whitethorn the same – or two different trees? Is that a dandelion or a cats ear? or what is that ****** umbellifer? I know they’re all distinct, but somehow ……….

My Journal, 9th April 1973

Nowadays I still carry too many books around, but the mobile phone is brilliant for making records for identification later. Mind you, it’s taken years to figure out what details you need to record. These days too I’m a lot more confident about plants but aside from that, the quotation could as easily have been written last Friday. Walks still take forever and we still argue, in fact nowadays we have to agree in advance whether it’s going to be a walk or a plant walk.

Anyway, back in the kitchen I’ve now almost processed all of the 20lbs of damsons into jam, vodka, pickle and coulis. Tomorrow we’ll start on the third big batch of tomatoes making plain, unadorned passata. After days of confinement due to the rain we spent yesterday having a socially distanced picnic with our family. The grandchildren obviously don’t understand why we’re all keeping our distance, and now they’re going back to school this week and so we all parted sadly because we’ll have to stop meeting for a while. It seemed awful to be promising to meet again at Christmas it’s so far away. One ray of sunshine came late in the day when we discovered we would soon be able to go back up to the Lleyn peninsula and walk to our heart’s content and see the sea and the mountains of Snowdonia once more. We’ll be taking the trailcam with us this time so we can watch birds and mammals even when we’re out walking somewhere else. One of these days we’ll buy a moth trap too and our joy will be complete with 873 macrospecies to argue about!

It’s been a long summer without a single night away from the flat since February and we’re increasingly aware of how stressful it’s been for us and for everyone – and yet we carry serenely on; our passions, interests and compulsions forged in heaven knows what dark familial smithy (I almost wrote dark satanic mill, but our childhoods weren’t that bad!) and hardly even dented by more than seven decades of getting by. There’s so much to be grateful for.

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.

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