There’s a huge difference between looking and beholding

My old music teacher AF Woodman had an assortment of names for me. Sometimes he would address me as “rod, pole or perch“, and on others he would extend my name by stressing every letter into a strangulated “poe-ill”. I didn’t care what he called me because he gave me a lifelong love of music. One of his pet phrases was – “I know you heard it Poe-ill; but were you listening?

Much later in life I was on a retreat at the La Retraite convent in Clifton, and we were invited to take the hands of a complete stranger but rather than something easy like telling them what we had for breakfast, we were instructed to behold one another. This turned out to be incredibly hard for me because it involved letting my guard down. It was, in its own small way, a life changing experience, because it uncovered a complexity and depth of possibility in an encounter with a stranger that eventually became the key to my pastoral work. Dangerous, messy and (in a very limited sense) erotic beholding, enabled a form of listening which involved all of the senses.

It took its toll, of course, and eventually I just ran out of steam. Too many bereavements; too much grief. I needed to get out before I burned out.

Anyway, that was then and as I’ve written here before, the key to surviving crises is a capacity to reinvent yourself using the strengths that are left after the broken bits have been laid up; all of which maunderings lead to a further look at the alleged healing powers of nature. The italicized “alleged” is not there to knock the idea but it’s just asserting that the healing powers of nature are a hypothesis not a natural law.

On Monday last we went back up to Velvet Bottom in a further search for Spring Sandwort – Minuartia verna. Our recovery from Covid – which we caught a month ago – has been very slow. The acute phase was pretty horrible, but that was followed by all sorts of symptoms that seemed more psychological than physical. Combined with a really busy time on the allotment it was as much as we could do to keep up with the routine work because any physical effort seemed to drain us both completely. So our trip to Mendip was compromised by my incapacity to focus, or draw any inspiration at all from what would normally excite and engage me. Madame was kind enough to keep her counsel, but I must have been a miserable companion. All I could think of was to lie down on the grass and sleep. Fortunately, a week on, we both feel almost normal again.

The urge to lie down on the warm grass, though, was inspired by an experience in my early teens when I lay on the grass on Rodway Hill and had what Romain Rolland described to Freud as the oceanic feeling. I’ve no idea how long it lasted but I seemed to be completely absorbed into the earth and her processes. From my point of view it was a completely passive experience and even though I was very young I just gave myself up to it. It was a completely unasked for healing that I’ve never forgotten. I lay there looking up at the blue sky, dappled with summer clouds and listened to the wind riffling through the drifts of grass. Now, with hindsight, I would include this in a description of the healing powers of nature only with the proviso that it can never be sought – it’s an experience of undeserved grace that can’t be guaranteed in any particular place, and which only fell to me a couple of times despite many attempts to force its hand.

But there’s another way of engaging with nature that’s quite different and is capable of and responsive to being sought; and it involves a kind of beholding, directed at natural rather than human subjects. Yes of course it’s possible to reduce field botany to a kind of trainspotting, and I’m certain that there are people out there who ask nothing more of nature than a new record. But when I go out on a field trip with some people, I sense that their engagement with the tiniest of nature’s gifts is far deeper; a two way engagement that both speaks and listens. To walk with such a person is – to quote a favourite heretic

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour

From Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

For them a tiny rope of mycelium tracking across a dead tree; the elaborate hieroglyphic of Graphis scripta lichen a couple of inches in diameter on a tree trunk , the little Moschatel with its cubic flower head giving it the name Town Hall Clock; these are not ticks in a box but true encounters – beholdings, if you like – engagements with nature that have spiritual power and maybe even (if the seeing becomes a true beholding) an offer of healing. So in this sense too, it means something more than wishful thinking to speak of the healing powers of nature.

I hesitate to introduce terms like dangerous, messy and erotic to the pursuit of field botany, but if they have any use, it’s to move the heart of the enterprise away from the rational calculations of the identification key, spreadsheet and grid reference towards something more akin to wonder. Perhaps the healing powers of nature could be more easily embraced after her re-enchantment.

Buddle pits, settling ponds and slag will give you a Velvet Bottom and very beautiful it will be!

This is a dam wall for a settling pond

Need I say a word about my emotional attachment to Velvet Bottom? This post, by the way, refers to lead mining rather than some kind of cosmetic procedure sold by Gwyneth Paltrow. You would be very disappointed in what follows if you were in search of that kind of amusement. The good people of Shipham may not be as enthusiastic about these old mine workings as me because some years ago they were ordered to stop growing and eating their own garden vegetables on account of the dangerous levels of cadmium in the soil -some of it, without doubt, washed down from here. The ponds are the industrial remains of a previous technical solution to a pollution problem caused when inefficient settling of the crushed ore in the buddle pits resulted in lead finding its way into the waters of the several underground rivers that spring from the limestone rock further down the Mendip escarpment; killing the fish quickly and (probably) the residents slowly. The mines have been worked and reworked since Roman times so there’s been ample time for havoc to accumulate, and this should be a salutary reminder to those who think there’s always a technical solution to every environmental problem. The effluent still contained lead, cadmium and goodness knows what other heavy metals. Just to be clear, most of this came from Victorian workings. In earlier times, back to the Romans, there was almost certainly still pollution, because mining and smelting are intrinsically polluting activities. It’s just that when they’re scaled up as they were during the industrial revolution, that they become truly dangerous. With coal from the nearby North Somerset coalfield, and probably in earlier days abundant wood, mining and smelting came together like the Kray twins of industrial growth.

But now there is peace and silence. Where lead ore was once settled in ponds, now adders warm their blood in the sun. Underground a very large system of caves was first exposed in modern times by the 1968 floods; but pioneering cavers like Willie Stanton soon found that in some places the miners had preceded them, leaving their footprints in the mud. Here and there as you walk down the valley you’ll see trial pits and occasionally swallets, gated to keep out reckless and ill equipped explorers.

However, parts of the soil here are so polluted that the whole flora has had to adapt. While we create clean air zones and fight environmental battles that may yet save us from our own historic folly, there was no-one here for the flowers and plants and when you look closely you can soon see the glittering lead slag from which some of the tracks have been made. There are places where almost nothing grows now, or ever will grow in the future. It’s so rare a habitat that it’s even got its own name – Calaminarian grassland – and there are only 450 hectares of it in the whole of the UK. The name comes from a continental violet – Viola calaminaria – that doesn’t even grow here but has the gift of thriving on soil, highly polluted with heavy metals in the parts of Europe from which the UK has detached itself; i.e. the rest of it! The calaminaria part of the name comes from the zinc containing ore, calamine with/from which calamine lotion is somehow made which is very good for calming itchy chicken pox.

So am I telling too bleak a tale about one of my favourite landscapes in the world? I really hope not, because there is an extraordinary beauty in the way that ecosystems can heal themselves. It takes time, sometimes it takes centuries; but slowly nature reclaims what we have damaged because that’s what nature does best, and bare soil is sick, unbalanced soil.

I’ve been walking up and down Velvet Bottom for something like sixty years and every time, it seems to embrace me in its remote quietness. Occasionally the trail runners and dogs owners can be a bit much. The leftovers from picnics and barbecues can be an eyesore but as landscapes go, the high Mendips – never that high – remains off the beaten track if you avoid the hotspots. But close attention to the flora there makes every walk a treat. Here’s a single example. The edges of the buddle pits and settling ponds are particularly heavily polluted but there are a handful of species that have carved out a living there. Last week we got lucky because the flower in the photos below is a very short lived annual, the flowers only open in full sun and by the time its more glamorous and eye catching cousins come along there’s nothing to see. Unless the flowers are open it’s all but invisible, but miraculously it makes a living on the bare slag, helped along I imagine by plentiful rabbit poo. It’s called Common Whitlowgrass – Erophila verna, and is found locally in these bare patches of gravel, pavements and neglected ground across the UK, mainly in the South. The flowers are barely 2-3mm across if they’re open so these photos show them greatly enlarged. You’ve probably got it growing unnoticed on your allotment or in your garden; but here in this hostile environment it’s a token of the healing power of nature.

The name Whitlowgrass comes from the fact that it was apparently used in the past as a treatment – most likely a poultice – for the infected fingernail bed that bears the same name. But not these specimens – please! They’ve got a much more important healing function; they take up heavy metals into the leaves and are potentially poisonous, and in any case it’s illegal – however common they may be. After I’d posted this I did a bit of searching and came up with this quotation from Culpeper’s Complete Herbal . Modern herbals probably don’t mention it because whitlows are a viral infection caused by the herpes virus. As an astringent it may have helped to clean any resulting bacterial infection. Any port in a storm!

“Culpeper’s Complete Herbal gives this plant an alternative name of Nailwort and tells us that ‘it is held to be exceedingly good for those imposthumes* in the joints and under the nails, which they call Whitlows, Felons, Andicorns and Nail-wheals’. The plant was carried to North America by the first British settlers where it was found to be a most useful plant in herbal medicine. “

‘Wildflowers of Ireland’ website

* Archaic term for abscesses.”

“I know a bank whereon …. take 2.

No – really I do, we were there yesterday again, in Velvet Bottom (who could resist such a place name) – it’s almost as good as Condom in SE France where I once resisted a selfie next to the road sign. Condom is famous for its brandy; a friend once told me that he met someone at a conference who came from thereabouts who told him that the local wine was excellent so long as you boiled it!

I’m not sure how to describe Velvet Bottom because it’s a paradox. From Roman times and again in the 19th century it was ravaged by lead mining and even today the soil is so polluted it has a completely unique flora growing in and amongst the usual – less fussy – suspects. But because I’m not an experienced enough botanist I can’t enlarge much on these rarities unless I happen to bump into one of them when I know that I don’t know what it is – if that’s not too convoluted an explanation.

Velvet Bottom is one of my favourite places on earth, honestly. Aside from the plants there are adders in abundance when the sun shines and it’s quiet in a way that holds you and slows everything down. We see people running down there occasionally and I want to shout out “Hey mate – why don’t you sit down and soak it up for five minutes and forget all about your PB time.”

Because I’m not that experienced a field botanist, I get the lovely bonus of finding and being blown away by quite common plants that I’ve never noticed before. So for instance yesterday we found this common centaury – which in my eyes is far from common and very lovely. Back home I discovered some of its traditional names (Geoffrey Grigson’s “An Englishman’s Flora” lists local names like bloodwort, earthgall, feverfew (confusing because it’s not), gentian, mountain flax and spikenard – all of which demonstrates the brilliance of Latin names which remove all the confusion. Richard Mabey also mentions the name bitterherb – and like everyone else from Culpeper to Mrs Grieve cites its use as a digestive tonic. I wouldn’t know because I don’t have the least inclination to illegally pick a plant that I’ve only just met for the first time. The pleasure, so far as I can see into my own mind, is at least threefold. Firstly there’s the thrill of discovery; but then the aesthetic pleasure at the colour and the structure of the plant and then – perhaps more obscurely – the comfort and pleasure at discovering its usefulness reaching back into history. I could add the fourth very acute pleasure for me of the old names. A few days ago we found a musk mallow on the canalside. The very words musk and mallow conjure up a two word poem, overflowing with associations.

I just used the idea of ‘comfort and pleasure’ to describe what it feels like to know the history of a plant’s name and uses, and since I’ve been casting around for weeks now – looking for the reason that we find nature so comforting, even therapeutic – here’s a suggestion that might help.

I hope I’m not being unfair by describing our western, industrialised and individualised culture as rootless. Perhaps it’s just me that feels alienated and despairing at the direction we’re heading in, but I’m sure I’m not alone. So anything that can function as a kind of mind anchor; that puts me back in touch with the past – is a stabilising influence. It’s not at all the case (as critics often accuse) of wanting to go back to the past; but reconnecting with it contains wisdom and insight that we shouldn’t lose. When I photograph the common centaury and discover its history going back as far as Greece from which it gets its name (it’s properties were said to have been discovered by Chiron the centaur – according to Gerard) – something deep is going on. To behold the plant is to behold the faintest image of countless generations of living beings who have treasured it. We are the issue of those unknown people and they can still speak to us in the names they passed down to us.

In one of my churches we had the oldest communion chalice still in use within the diocese. It was made in the late 1500’s and has survived through all the cataclysmic changes since then – and so when, on a Sunday morning I gave communion to my tiny congregation (on one occasion just a single person) I was always sensitive to the invisible presence of the generations stretching back, who had taken comfort from the same chalice. This isn’t a religious point, by the way, it’s about the reverberations of objects and living forms through time.

But enough reflection! Yesterday we saw any number of small coppers and a single green washed fritillary; loads of common spotted orchids (whose leaves weren’t spotted – I do wish they’d read the textbooks!); yarrow, common bedstraw (if you look towards the top of the second photo from the left you can just see the black, glassy slag left by the Victorian miners); ladies bedstraw and wild thyme. Individually they could hardly be thought of as rare and yet, massed in this post industrial landscape, so scarred and pitted by mining, washing ponds and diverted streams; they amount to a unique flora with its own unmistakable sense of place. Could it be that we also still hear the faint echo of two thousand years of mining through the silence?

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