Amateur botanist fails to notice breakfast

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I can hardly believe that while I was getting down and dirty with this Sheeps bit – Jasione montana and a macro lens, there was a field mushroom, about twenty times bigger, right behind me, and which I failed to notice until I looked at Madame’s photo. She thinks my tendency to lie down on public footpaths draws unnecessary attention and strikes fear into the heart of innocent ramblers who think they’ve found a corpse.  No-one has actually poked me with a stick yet but I’m sure it’ll happen one day. With warmer weather kicking off again we’re seeing more and more edible mushrooms and they really do taste better than the ones you can buy.  When we lived in South Gloucestershire there was a field next to the church where mushrooms always grew prolifically. There was an undeclared race between me and the village milkman to get to them first.  We never spoke about it as a competition except to brag quietly when we’d had a good haul and I think in the end we came out pretty equal.00100lPORTRAIT_00100_BURST20190914114544753_COVER

Here on Lleyn we’ve found an equally reliable spot near the cottage but our main rival is the sheep. There are plenty of other edibles around like the Shaggy Parasol Mushroom Macrolepiota rhacodes which, I confess, I’ve never eaten, and various puffballs -which I have.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we think about couplets like ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’, and yesterday we were in one of those puzzling places which on one measure was about as wild as it gets, and yet on another had signs of human occupation back to the bronze age, field boundaries almost as ancient, an ancient holy well, the remains of what looked very like a medieval rabbit warren, and a hard concrete road lingering from the second world war and ascending to a derelict observation post, scanning the Irish Sea.

For me, the knowledge that the Uwchmynydd headland, overlooking the pilgrim island of Bardsey feels all the richer for its millennia of human occupation. Neither pristine wilderness (whatever that means) nor intensively cultivated, but populated mainly by sheep and walkers, this is a landscape that puts us in our place, reminds us of just how fleeting our fourscore years are. As we were coming back along the coast we passed the rusting remains of a large pulley lying in the corner of a field and just beyond it the ruins of a winding house, probably used to move whatever was being mined there down to the sea. P1080824At the start of our walk, looking down at the spring that constitutes St Anne’s well, you could see the ancient remains of a settlement that would have given access to fertile south facing soil, security and a good view of the sea and its potential harvest. The landscape has become a palimpsest whose history can be both sensed and actively read through its overlapping scars, whilst still being a rich ecosystem for wildlife, plants and birds.

The temptation to try to press the replay button on a landscape and return it to some notional wild state seems completely misguided to me, particularly if the motivation is to set up some kind of ghastly nature reserve/visitor attraction. The gathering climate catastrophe and the terrible impact of chemical/intensive farming can be addressed better not by doing nothing at all but by doing less of some things and much more of others.  At its simplest, we need to be caring for what we’ve got; caring with every ounce of commitment we can summon up. There’s no technological ‘fix’ around the corner that’s going to allow us to continue in our selfish ways as if the earth existed purely at our disposal.

History and its traces are good for us because they recount both triumphs and failures, the cruelties of child labour, the poisoning of the streams by mining waste, the wealth and poverty side by side, the shame of the enclosures and the theft of common land – all these are written in the landscape and it’s as important to preserve them just as it’s important to protect the wildlife that lives in the remains. This is a landscape for artists and poets as well as farmers, walkers, and birdwatchers.

This poem by RS Thomas must be one of the most commonly quoted on blogs with any interest in spirituality (of any denomination or none), and it’s a personal favourite especially today since we’re staying within a few miles of his parish in Aberdaron.

The Moon in Lleyn
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea’s
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.
But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
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Does an insect know what ‘wild’ means?

IMG_5326It was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said in 1907 – “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”.  Sounds complicated I know, but reverse it and it’s easier to understand.  We humans apply descriptions like ‘wild’, and ‘domesticated’ to wildlife all the time, but do the animals pay any attention?  Do they even understand what ‘wild means’?  And the only answer is – ‘of course – they don’t’. They neither know nor care that we humans have them organised into an exquisitely complicated set of relations that we expect them to adhere to.

Our weekend visit to the Brecon Beacons brought to a head something I’ve been pondering for a while. Being a bit of  purist; conservation – in my mind – often suggests the restoration of a pristine habitat so that the creature or plant in question can, as it were, return to its own ‘Garden of Eden’. During the last war when children were being evacuated away from large cities to be safe from bombing, a huge amount of work was done to discover whether they would be permanently damaged by their estrangement from their natural parents and family environment. The psychologist DW Winnicott came up with a wonderfully fertile idea.  Parenting, he said, whoever it was carried out by, only needed to be ‘good enough’ for children to thrive.

Only a scientist could say whether his idea can be transferred to any other category of life except humans but it remains a tantalising possibility that what most, if not all, life forms need is just a ‘good enough’ environment to survive or even thrive. Maybe – and this idea really excites me – the garden and the allotment, although not quite the traditional haunt of certain life forms, would be good enough to ensure their survival. If that were true, then the distinction between the allotment or garden and the nature reserve would disappear in a blink.  We know already that peregrines – to take one example – can thrive while nesting on tall city centre buildings because there is a plentiful supply of food. Seagulls, including some declining species, can live well in cities – I know they can – because in the summer they wake us up every morning. Likewise, some lowland species like yellowhammer can get by 250 metres higher up if there’s a sufficient food supply.

This year we’ve made a big effort to grow more insect friendly plants throughout the allotment. In particular we’ve planted a lot of Apiaceae – carrot family – because we know they’re great attractors of insects, and today I took a look at some of the angelica plants which have come into flower. The hypothesis is quite easy to prove. Today there were a multitude of insects around the flowers including the bee at the head of the page, and also a cluster of blackfly which – oh joy – were being farmed by ants. I’d read about this unexpected relationship, apparently the ants will even move the blackfly to a more suitable location so they can better feed on the honeydew, but I never saw it before today.  Not in a nature reserve or on the television but on the Potwell Inn allotment.

We are, already, a tiny nature reserve although the better description might be that we have deliberately enhanced our 250 square metres to accommodate a wider range of living things.  I’m not saying we don’t need nature reserves, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, but what I am saying is that we need not see ourselves as junior partners, amateurs or anything but full and crucial participants in the fightback against environmental and climate degradation. I’m really very excited to feel that the two descriptions “naturalist” and “allotmenteer” are not alternatives, but inextricably tied together. There’s no need to choose where we put the effort because they both (all) lead to the same place, a better environment for everyone and every creature, wherever.

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