Thursday, July 26, 2007

our structure

In the time of ripening elderberries the days are characterized by stands and fluff. The fluff is, predominantly, the feathery pappi of Compositae, but also willow and willowherb. The stands are the tall herbaceous plants that muster on roadsides, waste and neglected fields. It's high summer, though this year we're still under daily rain.

A few characteristic herbaceous species that form or contribute to these stands where I live: stinging nettle, rosebay and great willowherbs, hemlock, hogweed, wild carrot, corky-fruited water-dropwort, water figwort, teasel, common ragwort, mugwort, prickly and great lettuces, spear thistle (plus creeping thistle, welted thistle, marsh thistle...), burdock, bristly oxtongue, perennial sow-thistle.

The stand is like an annual and herbaceous approximation to the climax vegetation of trees. A massed stand of nettles looks a bit like a small version of Siberian conifer forest - the same astounding symmetries. Expose the centre of the stand and the resemblance is even closer: the stout stems of the nettles are packed close together and, in their lower portion, brown and leafless - no light penetrates into this gloom. Only the top half of each plant is busy with the activity of leaf and flower, a hot shop. Same thing with a stand of great willowherb - the dead leaves on the lower stem are now chestnut brown and hang withered and adpressed to the stem.

The stands aren't beautiful like the plants we notice in spring and early summer; they are active, productive and complicated spaces. They aren't immaculate tendrils of colour on a blank canvas; they bear their record of diseases for all to see. They are fixed processes. A great town of insects lives and eats and multiplies in their vicinity, they are crowned with birds and haunted by small mammals. Human beings may mow or scythe a stand, but otherwise they never penetrate into one - a world that is entirely alien to us and safe from our intrusion lives just beside our own routes.

In bad weather the composite flowerhead is usually held patiently closed. When the sun dries it, it opens, and then away goes the fluff. As a method of seed dispersal it's so obviously effective that it's almost a bit boring. The horizontal dispersal needs dry air. When it rains the pappi get waterlogged, bedraggled, they no longer float but drop and stick to things. This is by design, to achieve the vertical part of the dispersal, i.e. to get the seed (achene) back down on the ground, and at a time that is optimal for being swilled into a crack in the rich, moist soil.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Brief History etc

I've finally posted my review of John Wilkinson's Lake Shore Drive on Intercapillary Space - and also on the Brief History. The latter compilation in fact contains nearly everything I've written for other publications, though the bulk of its archive was written just for here and for me. Writing about something is a way of learning about it.

I keep updating the entry on Euripides and am still far from finished.

Also new: a brief entry on Trafalgar by Benito Pérez Galdós. This is the first novel that I´ve read all the way through in Spanish. May there be many more!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

starting to run

I've started going running every day - well, almost every day. I've never wanted to do this before but I find it so satisfying that I feel in some buried way I always did want to.

The average lifespans of other mammals in the wild correlate rather closely with their size. On that basis, the average lifespans of humans in the wild ought to be around 33 years and for most human populations until very recently that's more or less what it was. In the wild, running was a natural motion for humans and a necessary one. Most of us now never need to run and before I began this regime I scarcely ever did so; and accordingly, I couldn't. My lungs couldn't supply enough oxygen to keep me moving, and the first time I went out I managed no more than 500 meters and I felt horrible. Little more than a month later I can do a couple of miles rather easily and even then, when I do come to a stop, I don't feel horrible. I've attained some sort of equilibrium and my lungs can always keep up with the oxygen requirement. It feels empowering. Leave my car at the garage to have a bearing renewed: then run home.

One of the illusions I've been living under is that going out regularly to look at nature (plants, mostly) was also keeping me fit.

Certainly, it's useful to be physically fit if you are interested in wild flowers. It's useful, rather than speculating about how the ecology may have changed on the far side of that hillcrest, to say: Well, let's go and have a look! It's useful to be able to range over quite long distances in order to traverse different environments, which are always reflected in the different plants they support.

Many of the best places for plants involve some sort of physical demand. Mountains most obviously require endurance and a lot of scrambling. In limestone country, the most rewarding places are invariably steep gradients where ploughing is precluded and where the liminess outcrops on the surface without accumulation of a more neutral topsoil. Around the sea-coasts you can expect a battering of wind. And even in the cultivated lowlands you need to be comfortable negotiating the hazards of barbed wire, walls, streams and slithery slopes. In both hot sun and light rain it's surprising how soon the weather can start nagging at you and distracting you from taking the time to inspect plants closely.

But unfortunately, though it's useful to be fit when you go out to look for wild flowers, looking for them isn't really a good way of getting fit. It is a very stop-start form of exercise; a maddeningly stop-start form of exercise, as I'm often made aware if I try to combine nature study with going out for a bracing country walk with a non-naturalist friend. When I'm more sensibly on my own, it might turn out that there's so much to see in the first 100 meters that I don't really go anywhere at all. Or I might walk five miles and dash up and down a disused quarry half a dozen times. Only very gradually did I become aware that these latter excursions were becoming rather infrequent. The accumulated weight of all those sedentary years of earning and reading and writing was beginning to tell on me.

Running as a leisure-pursuit is essentially an urban activity, despite the deep unpleasantness of taking in large gulps of traffic fumes, something that as a shallow-breathing loiterer I never really appreciated. With unelastic limbs of an age well past the average lifespan of wild humans, running safely requires a level and trustworthy surface that is hardly ever found in nature; jogging for exercise is, like skateboarding and rollerblading, a creative response to the possibilities of tarmac. I fantasize that one day I will graduate to fell-running and to leaping carelessly from rock to rock as once in childhood forests (Swedish forests are full of rocks), but this is a dream.

It's too early in my new passion to make much observation of anything while running. Wild flower spotting while running seems barely practical and anyway I've banned it, as a temptation to idle; I have a convert's fervour about not stopping. What I feel sure of is that at some stage this activity, like any other, will reveal itself as providing a different awareness of nature; I hypothesise, a greater awareness of smells, a larger view of landforms, a different range of sensitivities to wind and weather. More likely, I haven't yet any inkling of what I'll be shown.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

three stories

"It's only a short one, so she reckons that's all right. Anyway it's mink or something, some vermin. Master and Mistress both smoke like chimneys. She has a cigarette-holder to keep her fingers from going yellow."

"But it must get horrible inside."

"Yes it does. Sometimes a bit of black comes out and it sticks to her teeth. She has them professionally cleaned every six months. She's got one gold one with a diamond inset..."

"So Flounce and Floozy - "

"Nothing's too good for them. They have coats made from the same material as Master's suits. He's taken out a funeral plan with Heavenly Pets. Mistress thinks burials are messy so they're going to be cremated and have the ashes kept in studded casks. With their portraits on the outside. Painted by a local artist. She's already been round to make sketches."


"While I was waking up I was thinking about this idea I've got for something called 'Jamembert'."

"What is that, a kind of spread?"

"I haven't decided yet. It's just a name at the moment."

Gradually people began to laugh about the idea of 'Jamembert' and to embroider on it. Matty began to warm up.

"Yesterday I thought of a new extreme sport called 'stormbathing'. Well, basically the idea is going swimming in dangerous conditions. I'd market a clothing range, the catalogue would have lots of pictures of models standing around on rocky coasts with bursts of spray. It would be technical gear, technical but sexy."

"Or you could call it 'white-water swimming'."

At each invention there was a bellow of laughter. Pint-glasses, nearly drained and slathery with froth, were banged enthusiastically on the table-top. Other people chipped in. The clothing range could be called 'Red Flag'.... One section could be called 'après-storm'...

After a few minutes they dried up, it got a bit too elaborate. There was a pause, people sighed and drank and the quizmaster's voice came through: Now, Question 29. Who was the first footballer to be knighted. That's right, it WAS Sir Stanley Matthews. Stan the Man, God bless him. The answer to Question 29, Sir Stanley Matthews. OK, we're nearly there. Question 30. I think a few of you might have had trouble with this one. It's a saying.

They went up to the bar. Matty made Chris's girlfriend giggle - not about white-water swimming exactly. He saw Becky shoot them both a curious look but he continued to feel unconcerned.


With each passing year he felt more burdened with - more rewarded with - secrets. It was not so much the definite secrets that he learned in the course of professional duties. As time passed, he found that his thinking on so many subjects had become too complex to explain. In a serious conversation his habitual part was not to express his own beliefs but instead to exult in miracles of tact and to yield no grounds for suspecting his entirely divergent opinion of the matters at hand. Instead, he emitted a qualified approval of the other person's prattle. He - well, he tinkered as deftly as he could, strengthening one thought with high praise, passing over another as if it had not been said. He understood the mentalities of people who came to see him as patterns that had been too long formed for drastic adjustment. Patterns that were admirable in their way, often praiseworthy, at worst an earnest response that he might well have shared with them if he had suffered the same portion of experience. It was not his fault that he saw further than they. Indeed he was now so unused to expressing his own thoughts that he was prone to take refuge in confessing that he no longer knew exactly what they were. And perhaps this was actually true. His flexibility, his total responsiveness to the tones and assumptions of those around him was, he hoped, comfortable and attractive. It had become rather important to be on everyone's side. Why he hardly knew. But companionship, after all, was more important than sounding off about what one thought. Love was what mattered most in our world; God knows it was lonely enough without useless confrontations. And no doubt his thoughts were often mistaken anyway, so why rock the boat? Yet at the very outset he made his own diagnosis of the other person's trouble; instantly, and secretly. It might very well not be a matter on which he could claim in a demonstrable way to be qualified to decide. Nonetheless he was sure he was right. He had seen it all before. It was all nonsense. What was the point in exposing his diagnosis to the public view and to the same weary lines of questioning about its relevance or his capacity to judge? That is, if he could even gain a hearing for it - and if he did, he was prone to stumble in the exposition and to become so impatient with the details of his case that he ended up leading people to infer that he believed something silly, something different from what he really believed; perhaps something more like what they believed themselves, or else its mere inverse. Then it seemed he was wilfully contradictory and they began to take offense, unfairly in his view. So it was better to withhold everything. At night he walked in the avenues of his secrets, only on desperate occasions turning aside to scrutinize them; on others, happily much more common, merely quieted by a vague approval of their huge soft shadows.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

another recess

Another recess, a shorter one this time - a week or two. These Spanish trips have something to do with the exceptionally wet summer in England (and with not having a job at the moment). The rare white mullein has failed to produce a flower this year. What seems to strike everyone is the exceptional luxuriance of the common mallow along roadsides: the flowers are really beautiful, seen close up; and ignoring the tatty leaves which are being eagerly consumed by insect life.

Today the sun showed up by the afternoon. It's still summer. A girl's wrist, waving musically out of the window of a car. The long evenings are brighter than the days.

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