Computer says no!

Having gone on – perhaps a little too lyrically – about the joys of big data in yesterday’s post; I came up against one of its limitations today. It was nothing; or it was something …… who knows, but it was a wonderful example of the way that – re-using the phrase I used yesterday – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Or to put it in more immediate terms – there is little to no evidence that the plant in the photo has ever been found in, or anywhere near, the Lost Gardens of Heligan – or even in East Cornwall. This may of course be because the gardens – being lost – cannot be invaded by this plant because it can’t find them. On the other hand, there it was in front of me on Wednesday, and all I knew for sure was that I’d never seen one before …… but it was almost certainly a form of comfrey.

So I spent quite a few painful hours checking and then double checking but, as an amateur, you have to hang your hat somewhere and so I decided it was probably but not certainly Symphytum bulbosa. The haunting possibility is that it’s something entirely different; so much so that any halfwit would have known its real name. Common as muck! Where have you been living, you botanical imposter. And there’s the crux of the problem. There are two possible outcomes to the conundrum and one of them is to submit the record to the scrutiny of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, but who may dismiss me scornfully they may also be looking at the same maps, records and data as me and go on to say that tuberous comfrey simply doesn’t grow where I saw it and so, QED I was wrong.

Now this isn’t that big a deal – it would hardly be a hardly a paradigm shift if I turned out to be right; but the sheer inertia of the system resists change and for a learner like me, taking on a system is a really big deal. Nobody dies either way, whether I’m right or wrong; but if I don’t submit the record because I don’t want to rock the boat, everybody loses. I miss an important lesson, and the maps and data are just that little bit less accurate than they could be.

So I bit the bullet and filled in the online form; emphasising my lack of experience and humility (I wish!) in the company of experts and all that blah blah, and then spent twenty minutes trying to change a GPS reading from my phone to British National grid without realising that the programme accepted it either way. The only thing I forgot to fill in was the species name which by this time I had forgotten. So once I’d found the name again I filled in the form and immediately a red triangular warning sign appeared against the entry; I’d been flushed out before I’d even pressed the send button!

So there we are. My contribution to citizen science is out there, somewhere in cyberspace, awaiting final judgement by a recorder who may well be knackered and daunted by a stack of 10,000 records that they wished they’d never signed up for.

Today the sun shone. There was a stiff northwesterly wind and so we found a sheltered spot in full sun on the beach and I recorded some celandines and sea beet. At least I know what they are.

Heligan – the return

Crossing the jungle

Last time we camped here at Heligan the campervan leisure batteries – (and therefore almost everything else) -gave up and we spent best part of the week (it was February) freezing cold and huddling in the sleeping bags with only head torches to see by. This time we crossed all the T’s and dotted all the I’s and after a lot of maintenance work the van is restored to its full glory. Sadly the weather has been awful, with almost continuous rain, and so it’s been obligatory wet weather gear. Nothing daunted though, we’ve been out and about to see the spectacular beginnings of the magnolia and camellia blossom. The kitchen garden looks a bit like the allotment at home – all dressed up with nowhere to go. What we need, of course, is a bit of decent weather. It’s all very well the Met Office determining that March 1st is the first day of Spring, but for gardeners and astrologers, not to mention traditionalists, the equinox is the real deal. Someone should tell them that nature doesn’t read books – however well indexed. Those extra three weeks make a world of difference. Today as we walked the perimeter of the Heligan estate we could see all manner of leaves pushing upwards but relatively few flowers.

Gunnera plants.

For sheer horror you could do worse than film these Gunneras unfolding in time lapse mode. They might well have been part of the background research for Aliens and if we had the gift of standing completely still and watching for a month we’d probably need psychotherapy! So just to balance things out a little, here’s a Magnolia bloom representing the acceptable face of gardening.


Still it’s true that sometimes the most memorable finds are not the show stoppers, but the ones that nearly got away. I brought a new field guide down with me to try and I was anxious to give it a test run. Weather being weather it would have been hazardous to give it a first run in the rain – the Collins Wild Flower Guide is not for the faint hearted. Before we set out I weighed copies of the Rose “Wildflower Key” which came in at around 800 grammes. The Book of Stace was about 1500 grammes and the mighty Collins swaggered it at 1700 Grammes. You really need some thew to carry it around in your bag ……… so I didn’t!

Anyway, as we were wandering alongside the stream in the woods at the southern edge of the estate I spotted something odd, lurking amongst the vegetation, in this case mostly primroses in leaf. At first glance these tiny (3mm) flowers looked as if they belonged to a sickly Veronica; the leaves looked yellowish and chlorotic. But after I’d walked past a couple of clumps I could see that they were in full flower except the flowers seemed to have sepals but no petals – rather like tiny euphorbias. So lacking the book I took a couple of photos and did some research back at the van where I found that they were golden saxifrages – specifically the opposite leaved form – Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. After confirming it in the Collins WFG and checking the distribution on the BSBI online maps I felt brave enough to record it on iRecord. It’s not showy, it’s not in the least rare but I’d never noticed it before. Sitting in the van and uploading the record with the rain beating down on the roof, felt like a vindication of the day. There are very few activities where a complete amateur can make a difference, and when it comes to the destruction of the environment we need witnesses. Witnesses that can put hard, verifiable records up against the magical thinking of the climate change deniers.

And that’s also why it’s worth recording even the humblest and most common of the plants. If I have a beef with natural history films it’s their tendency to stress the spectacular over the mundane and wrap every living creature into a homesy narrative overwhelmed by overblown musical scores. Natural history as folk religion.

When you think about it, rarity and scarcity are not quite synonyms. Living organisms first become scarce and only then do they become rare. How will we know when an old familiar friend is becoming scarce if we don’t record them when they’re plentiful? Ten thousand records for lesser celandines seems about right, against one for the ghost orchid. But if no one ever recorded the ordinary everyday plants we wouldn’t notice until they almost disappeared – like the cuckoo! Today, standing in the woods, we heard a woodpecker drumming. As a child on my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns, such a sound would have been commonplace; but today it made my spirits leap. In the 1950’s my squirrels were all red squirrels. My grandfather was doing his best to shoot the greys, for which he was paid a penny a tail, I think. It didn’t work, though, and now we have to travel afar to see them. After another rainy day here tomorrow, we’re off to a site on the Roseland Peninsula with a more promising weather forecast.

It’s been an additional pleasure to write this post because a couple of weeks ago we decided to lash out on a portable WiFi router that runs on a data SIM. It seems to be working very well with all our laptops and phones networked and able to stream video. I think it’s known as a MiFi system. Anyway it works for us – so no more standing out in the wet trying to get a signal. With campsite WiFi here costing £15 for three days and not even functioning very well, it’s goodbye to tethering and hello to happy days.

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