A rainy day brings me face to face with my chaotic records.

Until quite recently I’ve been rather dismissive of record keeping. I’ve seen so many people sitting hunched in front of screens, entering data for hour after hour, and thinking to myself that such ant-like industry was a bit tame compared with having the wind in your face in some wild and remote corner of the countryside. However I had a sort of Damascus Road conversion this week when I realized how much I rely on my fallible memory.

So, for instance I recently came across a single Corn Marigold growing at the edge of the coast path. It’s one of those species that’s slowly disappearing because it contaminates grain crops and can make them go mouldy; and so farmers can get exemptions to spray them with weedkiller. OK I recognised it because I’d seen it before and took all the photos necessary to send it to the local Vice County Recorder for verification. All very laborious but the record was accepted and I was extremely pleased with myself.

Pleased, that is, until I tried to find the photos I’d taken of the same plant in Pembrokeshire, which was where the farmer explained to me the paradox of needing to spray off a vulnerable plant in order to make a living. I’m pleased I didn’t have to adjudicate in that case, but it was – he insisted – a very involved process. He was no cowboy; he played his farming by the book. This all took place in 2016, and in spite of a lengthy and time consuming search through thousands of photos I couldn’t find them. In fact, of the thousands of photos I’ve taken of plants, I’ve always relied on memory to find them again. There are no grid references, just dates – and no notes or I/D’s. So to verify a ten year old photo I just have to hope that the photo was good enough to convey the essential details, and with some plants that might mean a 3mm long seed. Usually they aren’t that good. I’ve tried using a very expensive Panasonic camera with an even more expensive Leica macro lens but it weighs a ton and slows down our walks to divorce speed. It’s been a steep learning curve to make the best of my Pixel 6 phone with an add-on macro lens.

Anyway, enough technical talk. The nub of the problem is that I don’t take the necessary notes on the spot, and I’ve never made my photos searchable by using keywords. Even worse, now I’ve started successfully submitting records to the BSBI I don’t have a personal copy of the plants I’ve recorded, along with all the other useful information. If it takes an optimistic one minute to make a record, it’ll take somewhere in the region of 200 hours to enter the data; and realistically it could take twice or three times that because many of the records would need identifying all over again. My respect for those industrious ants hunched over their laptops has soared.

Of course I’ve got handwritten notebooks going back fifty and more years; but they’re spasmodic, unsearchable and without photos. Worse still they contain stacks of shopping lists and phone numbers and references to books – you know the kind of thing. The only sensible option is digital and after a lot of searching through applications that monitor your mood, send you inspiring messages and increase your productivity I came back to the beginning and Google Photos where they’re all stored already with their EXIF data which in the case of the Pixel 5 stores location, although in an incomprehensible and difficult to convert form. Phew.

Hedge Woundwort

I think the heart of the problem is that I’m a bit of a Tigger; always on to the next thing, and because I’m a writer I use photographs as much to record feelings as for raw data. I love writing; I love writing this blog – but behind the scenes there are two almost conflicting aims. The writerly aim is to capture and hopefully convey the inspirational beauty of the earth. The scientific aim is to understand and to record the things I see in a way that can add to our knowledge and understanding of the earth. The conflict is expressed neatly in the names of flowers. Will it be the English names; imprecise and sometimes downright misleading, but often poetic and expressive of historical uses and ancient magic; or will it be the Latin? Will it be Hedge Woundwort or Stachys sylvatica? I would never want to choose because both English and Latin names are indispensable to me. The poetry and beauty of Eyebright, with its intimation of ancient usage carries so much metaphorical freight, we’d be all the poorer if it were shoved aside by the pedantic application of its scientific name – unless – that is, you’re trying to figure out whether it’s thriving or failing when getting the name exactly right for the species is a matter of real importance.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

There are literally millions of records of British and Irish wildflowers, all searchable and nearly all down to the ant-like industry of thousands of volunteers recording and entering the data and the handful of poorly paid professionals who struggle to keep the whole show on the road. Why is it important? Mostly because the only weapon we have left to oppose the destruction of the earth or the gifting of our land to extractive industrial agriculture is strong and reliable evidence of the biological diversity of the land they covet. There’s no credible argument against this. The future is either green or it’s Goodnight Irene for all of us and our putative descendants. Governments will argue in bad faith that there is no evidence for X or Y, knowing full well that there is no evidence because they starved these essential scientific bodies of the funding they needed to gather the evidence.

My chaotic records, I’m ashamed to say, are of no use at all in this threatened world unless I get them organised. I get it. This blog is just one thread of my fascination with what makes us human. It’s the visible conversation about the relationship between the Potwell Inn and being fully human; our lived experience in all its partiality and confusion. The other thread is the urge to identify, record and understand what is here in order that we can make a reliable inventory of what we have, what we are losing and what we have lost. Hard nosed and factual, industrious and perhaps a bit dull; except that I spent a couple of hours yesterday dissecting and photographing some Cow Parsley and comparing it with some Rough Chervil. I can’t begin to tell you how enjoyable it was!

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.

Meanwhile – back at the Potwell Inn

They say that fine words butter no parsnips so I thought that – amidst the philosophising -it would be good to show that even while we’re away the allotment goes on producing. If ever there was a defense of no-dig gardening it would look something like this. With a bit of frost on it from last week, this parsnip will be sweet and delicious – as will the leeks and the other winter veg which just get on with it. In the polytunnel we’re cutting radishes and fresh lettuce; parsley and coriander too. Winter veg are so much less fussy than summer ones. This week will see the propagators in action again as we prepare for the spring. The just in time principle which emerged along with lean thinking in Japanese car plants of all places, is especially suited to allotment planning because we need the plants at (as nearly) the right moment as we can manage; climate change permitting. So we haven’t overwintered broad beans this year because for the last two years severe east winds in March have decimated them. What we don’t want is a load of stressed out plants being kept in pots long after they were ready for transplant. So the annual gamble begins tomorrow, having received all the seed orders and planned (almost) where everything is going to go.

But allotments and more in-depth study are only a part of this year’s plan because I’m determined also to get out and do some serious botanising after a two year enforced layoff. I also want to do some serious work on the insects that visit us around the house and on the plot and so I’ve just shelled out on a macro lens adaptor for my Pixel 5 camera. Although I’ve got a very fine Leica macro lens it takes an eternity to set up shots and you almost always need a tripod and flash units. This 25g treasure arrived yesterday and I had a brief chance to play around with it. Some initial photos of random things on my desk are below. I also took a photo early yesterday of one of our orchids in flower. It’s entirely by natural light – there’s an abundance that floods in through the south facing windows in the flat, and as I walked into the room the sheer beauty of it grabbed me and so I just took the picture. It’s not edited or altered in any way.

And here are a few of the test shots with the macro lens. I can’t wait to get out there!

Getting control

It’s a concept I’ve always been a bit suspicious of – controlling can be a dangerous addiction for anxious people and yet these last few months of lockdown have revealed a more kindly, almost therapeutic aspect to taking control. This devastatingly unoriginal thought came to me this morning in the kitchen when I was working my way through half a dozen routine jobs and suddenly experienced a ‘flow’ moment while I was straining the kefir.

I guess during the lockdown and the general strangeness that surrounded us, especially at the beginning when we were unable to rely even on essential supplies, routine became comforting. Getting bread on the table, getting our hands on 16 Kg of bread flour, replenishing almost any supplies can go from being full of stress to offering strong reassurance that in spite of everything we’ll get through. In our case a stone heavier because we’ve been eating all that therapeutic bread, and don’t even ask about biscuits. But getting by, being even a little bit in control, is a a small blow against the chaos – a finger in the air against the malign gods of incompetence. All the queuing and bulk buying of toilet rolls and flour turned out to be a proxy battle against something else, even if we never worked out quite what it was.

The picture at the top is of some Lords and Ladies – Arum maculatum, the roots of which were occasionally eaten during famine times when it was known as Portland sago. It’s fairly dodgy stuff that needs careful preparation – roasting and grinding to destroy the irritant sharp needles that, if eaten carelessly could make you very ill. However for me today it was a reminder that we’re in high summer now and there are hints of autumn everywhere.

There is a real sense of sadness that the seasons have passed us by this year, although I’ll be forever grateful that being grounded for several months has forced us to explore locally; and there’s been so much to discover. The allotment has been our saviour of course and we were glad to be working flat out during the spring and early summer. Now, in high summer there’s a bit of a lull and that’s given us the time to resume some longer walks and explore some local delights.

Today, once I’d finished a pile of prepping in the kitchen – bread, kefir, stock – and brining some onion rings for tonight’s panzanella – we went up to Bannerdown in search of butterflies and for me to do some more grasses. Slowly slowly I’m becoming more familiar and realising that giving consideration to the habitat, for instance woodland, unimproved grassland or marshy ground, simplifies things enormously.

I was also using the Panasonic Lumix camera with a 45mm Leica macro lens. Phone cameras are so so good these days that most of the time they’re perfect, but some days, like today, I really want to play with aperture and speed to get effects like bokeh (which is a pretentious way of saying blurred backgrounds). Learning to control exposures and apertures takes a while but it’s always worth the effort. When we were at art school, technique was rather frowned upon – which was why so much poor work was produced. For me the beauty has always been in the detail, and although I do photograph whole landscapes from time to time, they’re usually taken as a scene setter for the detailed view. There are some of today’s pictures below, but there’s one I couldn’t take because even with pretty good kit it’s just too small.

I grew up with false oat grass – it was the one from which you could strip the seeds between your thumb and finger as you walked past – like popping bubble wrap but back in the olden days before it was invented. However, being familiar with something and walking past it every day is not the same as knowing it, and because it ages, ripens and deteriorates during the season it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the mangled bit of dry straw is false oat or something else. I was examining an aged plant today and I took a very close (x20) look at the awn, it’s the bristle on the outside husk, if you like, of the tiny seed casings and it’s tiny, but so beautiful. It’s a world of arabesques and curlicues from the bend of the hook to the spiral markings at the base it could have been fashioned in gold by a fairy blacksmith. If I can’t get a photo I’ll have to make a drawing from the microscope and put it up. That’s what gets me about nature – it’s so unnecessarily and extravagantly lovely however you look, from telescope to microscope.

The other thing that blew me away today was how loud the insects are when they are working in such a rich environment. On a scale between exhausted industrial grass and irreplaceable pristine meadow, Bannerdown inclines towards the neglected grassland tag. But that’s still rich. I imagine they must cut it regularly or it would become scrub, but the flowers today were wonderful and the bees, flies and other insects were having a wonderful time. Their hum was continuous and generated by thousands of pairs of wings – like a symphony orchestra holding a long ppp note, full of harmonics; lush, fruitful and happy.

There were no wonders among the butterflies but the B Team were all playing. There were common blues, a couple of brimstone, speckled wood, meadow brown and innumerable little brown mothy jobs in the grass. As we left another butterfly spotter was just getting into his car. “Did you see any chalk-hill blues?” – he asked. “No we haven’t – are they around?” “Well I heard a report about one the other day but I haven’t seen any here for years”. Perhaps they should amend the notice board and put a “not available” sign beside it.

Back on the allotment we decided to give up on a group of bush tomatoes that have contracted brown stem rot, so we picked all the remaining green tomatoes – probably five or six pounds of them – and I’ll make chutney with them. The rot is caused by heat and water stress, and made worse by watering on the leaves. We’ve had temperatures going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow; we’ve had hot humid weather, days of intense sunshine and days of heavy rain. It’s enough to cause any plant troubles. With the green tomato crop secure now, we can let the rest of the Crimson Crush ripen on the vines. They’re our mainstay for the winter, and we make many litres of sauce and passata with them. With a bit of pasta and some parmesan, you can make a cracking meal in ten minutes. But tonight it’s going to be panzanella – my favourite tomato salad ever!

Small world

Having pretty much run out of plants to look at, and after my brief encounter with the wall lettuce, I found myself noticing one or two plants I’d never looked at properly before. There’s a posh word for an environment created by a large block of concrete flats with an adjacent car park that used to be a builders’ yard. It’s more often applied to old gasworks and factory sites and presumably was also used to describe bombsites after the war. It’s ruderal – which derives from the Latin for rubble and describes land disturbed by human activity, exactly like building a block of flats. I prefer to think of it as meaning rather rude – which is what you tend to become after three months locked up in a concrete block with the only view from your desk being a car park on an old builders yard. I think there’s an elegant circularity to that paragraph but you may disagree.

Anyway, style apart, I was wandering through the car park and I noticed a thin, straight line of tiny plants; eking out a living on the tarmac below the vertical line of windows at the back. Occasionally I get interested in these tiny wonders – like the slime mould that took all winter to descend the fire escape steps, or the rue leaved saxifrage on the same steps that gets away with its precarious situation by setting seed before the summer does for it.

But these little plants were tiny – really tiny – and clinging low to the ground, constantly being trodden on and driven over and baked in the heat of the sun in recent weeks. It seemed to me that this was all slightly miraculous and deserved a bit more of my attention. The three plants, I pretty sure, were

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Biting Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris

So the next thing to do was to take some samples and bring them up to the study for a closer look. The first obvious thing was that they had been much affected by their impoverished environment they were like miniature versions of their more prosperous cousins. But under a 15X lens I could see that the pearlwort had a number of even tinier, almost transparent beetles living on it. The plant itself was living on a substrate of some kind of moss, but I don’t have a microscope and so I couldn’t take the ID any further. And neither could I tell you what was the name of the beetle. If my knowledge of plants is a bit wonky, my knowledge of insects is non existent.

The next step was to set up a real camera with a macro lens and take a close-up photo. The photo at the top of the page is about 7X magnification of the pearlwort and if you look carefully at the top right quadrant you might spot one of the beetles. You can see that the presence of the water absorbing moss is probably part of the pearlwort’s survival strategy. Wonderful stuff. I was so pleased I started another list of plants I could see through the window which I may share if I ever complete it. Anyway I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s a whole small plant world that we tread on every day without thinking.

Back in the Potwell Inn I started a new sourdough loaf using a new organically grown and stone ground flour that we bought at the mill yesterday. It was nice to get out for a bit but the mill is extremely inaccessible and on both occasions I’ve been there I’ve taken a wrong turning and landed up driving down a narrow track with potholes big enough to lose a tractor in, and ending in an impassible ford. Madame adopted the brace position throughout and comments about my driving were exchanged and so we retraced our steps and took the proper track – which was almost as bad. Nonetheless the contactless handover (see yesterday’s post) was seamless and we drove home feeling that somehow we were dragging an elk back to the cave. At any rate the flour will see us in bread for another three months.

The rain has at last arrived, and this morning I checked the water butts to see if my elaborate water harvesting had worked, and yes – there was a satisfying increase in the stores – sufficient to check that the descending cascade linking the five 250 litre stores was working and it was. As each barrel fills, the water flows to the next in sequence.

Our life here is not exactly Selborne, but in many ways it’s just as rewarding to be able to make friends with these overlooked weeds. Tomorrow the sun will shine again and we may even take a turn around the farmers market – our first trip there for three months. Masks will be worn, of course. We almost went last week but we chickened out at the last minute. We’ll probably chicken out again tomorrow – we have no idea how to stay safe any more!

Hello Flower!

_1080763At what point do you admit to yourself that you’ve got a bit of a problem? Not, I hasten to add, some sort of dreadful problem like drinking too much, after all who doesn’t enjoy a top ranking landlord’s breakfast like gin and cornflakes? No, this problem is to do with never knowing when to stop trying to identify a flower when you’ve got the family and most of the name. but you want to know the species, or even sub species as well.

IMG_5461This one’s been bugging me since we first started the allotment because it’s just so prolific, and I’ve tried a dozen times to run it down. I thought it might be a Corydalis because it looks a bit like that, but after my close encounter with a similar plant to the one on the allotment at St Davids last week, I did a bit of detective work and discovered that Corydalis has not been seen in the Bristol region for decades so I discarded that in favour of Fumaria  – I’ve already written about this –  and plodded on with magnifier, steel ruler and multiple floras – up to and including Stace.  The problem is that there are so many criteria for sorting them out that you just have to get close-up and personal. And so here’s my idea of close-up and personal:

IMG_5471

_1080761So above, here’s my Panasonic Lumix GH2 – old but lovely – and a 45mm Leica Macro -Elmarit lens, mounted on a Manfrotto tripod and ball head, and to the left there’s a photo of the fruit which shows that it’s smooth.  That’s an important diagnostic. And so the unexpected ID seems to be that this is  Fumaria muralis, the common ramping fumaria (and I can vouch for the ‘ramping’ bit!) and the reason that this is a surprise is that it’s quite unusual in Bath or indeed in the whole Bristol region. In case there are any proper botanists out there, the flower length is on the high side at around 15mm, but the sepals are spot on. The overall height is a bit high as well, but Stace says it’s very variable so I’ll go with the smooth fruit which is a clincher.

All that’s about a couple of hours work and five or more books and regional floras.  The picture at the top is about X7.  Elsewhere on the Potwell Inn allotment we cleared the bed for the leeks, added mountains of discarded chard to the compost heap and so we also added a good deal of cardboard and shredded paper to stop it getting slimy. The elderflower cordial was not the best we’ve ever made and that’s one for a second attempt

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