Is botany nothing more than a science?

The Pilgrim church of St Maelrhys Church, Llanfaelrhys, near Aberdaron, Lleyn.

Buried in this churchyard are Elsi Eldridge, who was the wife of the poet RS Thomas; with their son Gwydion. RS married again after Elsi died and is buried near the door of St John’s Church Porthmadog. Also buried here is the lovely radical priest Jim Cotter who wrote the most wonderful prayers and liturgies. Needless to say the church Authorities had no idea what to do with him but he was an inspiring teacher and marvellous company and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Church of England gave him (and me) space to breathe. And finally the Keating sisters, friends of the Thomas’s, gardeners of their house Plas yn Rhiw – now owned by the National Trust – and scourges of coastal caravan sites are buried here too. All of them were artists. This churchyard is a powerful place for quiet reflection.

Well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!

The quote came from a Gloucestershire stonemason I knew who was once asked how much he charged for a yard of drystone walling. When he gave the price the enquirer reacted with some scorn. “Forty pounds for a load of old stone?” – he replied. “well it’s a pound for the stone and thirty nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Another secondhand book arrived in the post today. It’s called “Welsh Fare” and it was written by the anthropologist and researcher of tradition Welsh life, S. Minwel Tibbott who worked in the Welsh Folk Museum gathering and curating oral traditions. I found it in the bibliography of Carwyn Graves book, “Welsh Food Stories” which I mentioned last week. As soon as I opened the book and started to read through the recipes, the memory of the stonemason’s reply flooded into my mind, and it wasn’t so very long before the image of the churchyard on Lleyn joined him. Why so? well it was because the recipes list the very simplest ingredients without giving the slightest clue what to do with them, and knowing what to do with them has largely disappeared. Here’s a recipe for

Teisen Ddim – buttermilk scones

  • One pound plain flour
  • Quarter pound lard
  • A little salt
  • buttermilk

Rub the lard into the flour, and work in the other dry ingredients. Mix with buttermilk and knead to a soft dough. Roll out on a floured board and cut into small rounds, approximately a quarter of an inch thick. Bake on a moderately hot bakestone spread with butter and serve warm.

Llandeilo’r-fân and Heol Senni, Breconshire.

It’s all perfectly clear – except that unless you keep cows and make butter in the traditional manner by allowing the milk to separate overnight when it begins to ferment naturally, and then churn the butter in the traditional manner to separate butter from buttermilk; and unless you have a traditional bakestone and have learned what “moderately hot” feels like even assuming you have the means of heating it – well you’re not going to be able to bake the buttermilk scone.

Of course you can buy buttermilk from Tesco – except it’s not proper buttermilk but a factory made imitation – and the butter if it’s like the farmstead butter actually produced in old Welsh farmstead dairies, won’t be nearly as salty; like 3.5% salty – keeps better! And as for the lard you’d probably keep a large pot of pork lard which you could add to as you cooked joints from the fattened pig. Coincidentally it was Madame’s birthday yesterday so we had an extended family gathering and I slow cooked a whole shoulder of pork to make pulled pork for the boys and their partners. Even from a free range Gloucester Old Spot pig, shoulder is remarkably cheap and when you cook it very very (12 – 14 hours) slowly overnight it releases a huge amount of fat – dripping – which is ten times as rich and tasty as the bleached and purified block you slip into your shopping basket when you think no-one’s looking on disapprovingly. Finally the locally milled flour would have been rather darker and much more flavoursome than supermarket white. I used to bake with a marvellous 81% extraction white(ish) flour milled by Bacheldre Mill, now sadly no longer made. I hope I’ve made my point here. The simple list of ingredients tells us almost nothing if it’s become detached from its culture; and so – finally – I can leave the churchyard whose occupants once embodied a culture that’s largely disappeared, buried under second homers and Airbnb lets, and switch the topic to the so-called science of botany.

TV programmes on botany are as rare as hens’ teeth these days so we were filled with hope and excitement as we watched the first two episodes. The pleasure didn’t last. The unspoken assumption that ran through it like the writing in a stick of rock was the faintly smug and self congratulatory thought that traditional knowledge of plants was mostly held by deficient traditions which only needed some solid reductive science to reveal the truth. It reminds me of a story told to me about Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi – who according to legend, reproached a tour guide near to the Victoria Falls who had foolishly asserted that the Victoria Falls were discovered by the explorer David Livingstone. ” I think” – he said – “You’ll find that we knew about them long before Livingstone got there!” Bishop Henry visited us once when one of the boys was in peak teenage rebellion, and he so charmed the angry rebel (I just love your green hair) he almost curled up in his lap and purred like a cat.

So the programme rambled on in a more or less predictable way through the history of scientific botany without so much as a mention of traditional herbal medicinal wisdom and without any sense of the vast contribution of the ancients from Dioscorides onwards. The plant kingdom was just treated as another exploitable resource to be catalogued, analysed and turned into a profitable enterprise. No sense of wonder, no mention of the inter-relatedness of all living things, no mention of the profoundly important role of plants in synthesising complex compounds beyond the reach of organic chemistry (which is by far the more interesting thing about photosynthesis and fungal networks). The last programme comes out tonight and I’m dreading the triumphal moment when the presenter announced that we’ve cracked some sort of code – probably gene editing – and finally we can exploit the poor old plants in any way that turns a profit. Wheat berries as big as pineapples or some such nonsense.

It rather reminds me of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play “Equus” – “Without worship you shrink”. To approach nature without humility, armed with scanning electron microscopes and DNA analysis misses a large part of the point. Of course I’m pleased when science discovers a new cure for malaria, or breast cancer or whatever else by understanding plants better. But plants aren’t just there for us to exploit – and misunderstanding that essential point is leading us towards extinction.

*** I just watched the last programme – it exceeded my misgivings so now I’m really scared.

Not for purists!

One of the delightful aspects of doing a bit of urban botany is the hazard/opportunity to find members of the brigade of irregulars lurking just about anywhere. Purists, of course, go out armed with a complete set of preconceived ideas of what ought to be growing in a particular habitat and get a bit piqued if they don’t find it. But they get positively tetchy when they find usurpers taking up good wildflower spaces. Some plant lovers are a bit less fussy – I’ve got a copy of J W White’s 1912 Bristol Flora and it’s got loads of ‘foreigners’ in it. He seemed to delight in examining the edges of the railway lines on Bristol docks to see what had fallen off the wagons and – like all good trainspotters – he was going to record it even if it belonged more rightfully in a Reader’s Digest book on flower arranging. I’m absolutely with him in his determination to refuse to be sniffy in the face of the temporary visitor, not least because they must all, necessarily have their story.

I’ve already mentioned the possible corn marigold on North Quay and we went back again to take a closer look and yes I’m sure it’s an out of place and out of season lover of arable crops and sandy acidic soil, neither of which is the case where it landed up – in a coir mat impregnated with wildflower seeds and bought no doubt from a horticultural wholesaler as part of an architect’s idea of what constituted wild. OK I am just a bit cross about that aspect of the story because there were loads of perfectly good and properly naturalised wildflowers there already, but they were plantworld punks, weeds, all of a piece with the graffiti on the 1960’s (and about to be demolished) multi story car park. On the other hand, one golden corn marigold on a grey and damp day cheers you up no end. Whether it deserves a tick or a place in a local flora I leave to the experts, but I rather hope they’ll treat it as a genuine refugee, escaping from the arable fields where it once grew wild in the days before Mecoprop-P and Clopyralid and I rather hope it will carry on bringing a bit of colour to the river bank with its offspring.

The other unexpected flower was the pot marigold near Cleveland House on the Kennet and Avon canal. This one, I’m sure, self seeded off the roof of a moored up narrow boat, or at least that’s the most likely and unvarnished possibility. But being both a romantic and a writer I like to think of its journey on the roof of a narrow boat being tended by someone with an interest in medicinal herbs who, for all I know, reads tarot cards sells calendula cream at the local farmers’ market. Back in the day you’d have found hemp and cereals from the holds of passing barges but there are a surprising number of medicinal herbs alongside the canal whether by accident or design. Bargees had next to no access to official medicine and I have no doubt they became adept at recognising and utilising the plants that grew where they travelled and probably made sure they could be found along the length of the canal network. Many of these plants are promiscuous self-seeders and I greatly enjoy finding them and trying to find out what they were used for. The tradition that was once passed down from (mostly) mother to daughter has all but disappeared now. I think my own mother, born in 1916, must have been among the last generation to know her wildflowers so intimately although she never wrote anything down or even passed her knowledge of their uses on. That’s the way of oral tradition; it can disappear in a generation; driven out in her case by the wartime invention of the antibiotics which she worshipped.

Half a mile apart, it would be so easy to have assumed they were the same species and that’s why it helps to develop the habit of close attention to the details of plants. Like the winter heliotrope that’s in flower at the moment – it could easily be butterbur – except butterbur doesn’t have a perfume; and in a couple of months when the flowers have died back, you might think the leaves are just right for coltsfoot – another medicinal herb, by the way. I’ve attached all of those names to the plants in question but as soon as it flowers, the perfume and the season narrow it down to one candidate. Maybe I’m weird but I find that terribly exciting. “Wait and see” – one of my mother’s favourite comments – is a good rule of thumb when you don’t quite know what a plant is called. Otherwise take a copy of Stace, a ruler and a hand lens and kneel down in the mud for twenty minutes while your long-suffering partner looks on her mobile for a discreet dating agency for botanical widows . I once knew a devoted twitcher who for twenty five years had spent all his holidays up to his waist in Norfolk fens. I asked him once what his wife thought about it and he said he’d never asked her! I bet she’s got a burner phone hidden at the back of the wardrobe.

So my solstice list of plants in flower goes up to fifteen, and sixteen if you add a single grass – cocksfoot. Grass flowers are tiny and can be a bit technical but I promise you this grass was flowering. Grasses, of course, don’t need pollinators at all, their reproductive apparatus is brilliantly simple and effective. But the flowering plants are different and just show that we shouldn’t only be worrying about bees because there are hundreds of pollinating insects, some of them completely specialised, and many of them are in danger from insecticides, pollution and habitat destruction too. I could go on but it’s nearly Christmas.

Below is today’s picture of the latest royal navy patrol boat, cleverly designed to fool French and Spanish trawlers fishing illegally within our proposed 200 mile limits. I think it was built from a design by the present Education Minister. You will probably be impressed by the attachment swivel for the space saving Mark IV 32 degree compass.

%d bloggers like this: