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.

Often the wildlife just comes to us

After a pretty intense posting yesterday I thought I’d kick off with these two visitors who just turned up. On the left a hoverfly – Hyathropa florea sunning itself on the allotment. It’s a stocky creature that’s probably one of the fruits of the rush to build ponds on the site. It emerges from a rat tailed maggot – not a pretty sight! – which lives in the dank and smelly shallows of untended ponds and wet places. The other slightly more glamorous visitor is a Jersey Tiger moth that settled on our window this morning. One of its favourite food plants is hemp agrimony which we have large drifts of, growing on the river bank.

I wish those two observations made me as clever as I possibly sounded. In truth the combination of the Pixel 3 phone and a wifi connection for the Google Lens app does a lot of the heavy lifting for me. It’s by no means infallible, so I need to check nearly everything against the print guides but it often leads me to the correct page, and the more it’s used the more accurate it becomes. The database must now be absolutely gigantic, and that should make plant id’s available and less daunting – which can only be a good thing for citizen science. Let’s not be sniffy about it people!

Yesterday, at last, we made our way up to Alexandra Park, a tremendous viewpoint overlooking Bath

We’d been woken early in the morning by a tremendous thumping bass note that sounded as if it was emerging from a car parked outside. Sadly the truth is that an illegal rave had put 3000 people on to a very quiet and very species rich disused airfield to the north and east, just about four miles on from the top right hand of the photo. The police were unable safely to intervene until mid-day yesterday. Quite aside from the damage to the site, these huge gatherings can become centres of infection – superspreaders, and I’m sure that many young people think they’re immune. They’re not of course.

But from the top of Alexandra Park, we also has a lovely view looking down on to Bathampton Fields – the grassy triangle at the centre. We are so lucky to live in the midst of this environment. It’s easy to slp into the lazy assumption that all the good things are somewhere else – usually somewhere exotic – and yet the little patch of land in the photo has everything to offer and it’s barely fifteen minutes walk from home. There are more natural riches within walking distance than you could shake a stick at, and certainly enough to discover and learn an impressive number of plants, invertebrates and birds.

And finally, to cap a lovely day, my borrowed microscope arrived, along with an invitation to try my hand at making a video about botany on the wrong side of the tracks – a sort of ‘really rough guide to the botanical thugs, chancers and parasites that share our habitat here’. (How’s that for a working title J – ?) The microscope came from the same person that asked me to make the video – oh my goodness now I’m indebted over my head! I can’t begin to express how much difference a stereo microscope makes to plant identification. I have a strange relationship with new technology and often I have to leave it on the desk untouched for a week or so until I’ve rubbed some of my scent on to it and it doesn’t feel strange any more. Not so this time . It’s a thing of beauty and it works. The sense of three dimensionality, the ability to look around the subject is really wonderful, I’m quite besotted; and – I’ve been thinking about adding some videos to the blog for ages so this has given me just the shove I needed.

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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