Saturday, March 27, 2010

spring wind / animal culture

A day or two after a spring blow, I was under one of those hybrid black poplars and saw treasures from the crown that had snapped off and landed at my feet, branches heavy with green buds that were about to burst. What happens up in the crowns of tall trees is something that is intentionally hidden from the predations of ground-dwellers like us. I took some twigs home and put them in a vase, and a couple of days later I had the chance to see these catkins close to.

I am not expert enough to know the differences between poplar hybrids. Generally, I'm referring to the ones, grown in small plantations for timber, that have sharply ascending but still angled branches, broader and more handsome than the brush-like Lombardy poplars. There are several different kinds, but all I think hybrids of the native black poplar and the American cottonwood. The catkins appear well before the leaves, so the pollen can stream forth unimpeded on the breeze.

If the rookeries of Melksham are anything to go by, then hybrid poplars are highly favoured by rooks, the crotches being ideal locations for sturdy and permanent nests. I have many questions about rookeries, but there are none very close to where I live. I think they would make a great subject for the study of animal culture, that is, for local forms of behaviour that persist from one generation to the next. I would like to know how the nests are maintained, how they are allocated each season, whether the rooks ever sit in the nests except when bringing up young, whether it is only the female who does so, whether other species are discouraged from nesting nearby, and all about the social interaction between these highly social birds, especially the interactions that are not directly concerned with the grand but easily-interpreted stories of mating and breeding: it seems to me that here is the locus where we should look for animal culture.



Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

(The text as it's generally published, e.g. where I found it, in Country Verses, edited by Samuel Carr, 1979. Text is from 66 poems, except for the title and the hyphen in "elm-tops".)

10 iii 16
Going home

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

(from Notebook containing drafts of 66 poems, 25th June 1915 - 24th December 1916. The capitalization of "Winter" is hesitant.)


Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
And saw from elm-tops delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, winter pass

(from Notebook containing drafts of 27 poems, 1916.)


OVER the land half freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed,
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as a flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

(from - internet representation, introducing casual changes.) I do appreciate "half freckled" - it's more accurate than what Thomas wrote. Because when the snow is patchy in one area of the view you can bet it's disappeared altogether from another. But in another way this modernizes the poem, because we now take for granted an English landscape that is much more open than it was in the days of the elms. Thomas' point was that, being down at ground-level, humans couldn't really see the bigger pattern in the way that the rooks could. Not that the "point" is really what makes the poem tick - the final line doesn't repay much reading, it's just an enabler. The force of the poem really lies elsewhere: "cawed / And saw" mysteriously evokes the scrambling activity of the rooks; "speculating", while partly evoking the comical appearance of the rook's face (from a distance) also emphasizes that comical solemnity (the term follows inevitably) is exactly inappropriate to their manner, that there is a total difference between animal experience and human experience, that their posited wisdom/superior vantage point is a wisdom beyond and quite unlike the wisdom of solemn old gazers in human society.


Thomas wrote this poem near Sevenoaks. He had already enlisted, but wasn't sent to France until November 1916 - he was killed in action soon after arriving at the front in April 1917.

As Thomas's poem confirms, up to the 1970s the rookery-tree of choice in southern England was usually an English Elm (Ulmus procera). This was because the elm was a hedgerow tree and it overlooked the rookery's feeding-grounds, which is what rooks want (the size of a rookery matches the acreage very precisely). Coincidentally or not, the upswept shape of the elm crown rather resembles the shape of the hybrid poplars that rooks favour these days. As for Thomas' image of "flower of grass" - though this comes in to the poem mainly for its unseasonable breath of midsummer - the distant edges of the winter elm-crown do have a tufty look that could vaguely suggest the panicles of meadow-grass or Yorkshire fog in their open state. I am basing that remark on photos. To see it today, you would pretty much have to go to the Brighton enclave, where the council chose, uniquely but successfully, to preserve their elms by watchfully cutting away diseased limbs whenever they appeared: a far-sighted decision that saved a lot of money as well as the traditional appearance of Brighton's streets.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Brief hist / IS / lit ephem

Just published a review on Intercapillary Space of Tony Lopez' Darwin...

I momentarily lost myself in a three-vol orgy of cut-price bookbuying in The Works yesterday - two of the vols being photographic guides (Collins) to UK Wild Flowers and Trees, by Paul Sterry. The Flowers is the less significant volume, and I think Collins use of the word "Complete" in the title is pushing the limits of definition. Even so, the dramatic improvements in colour photography and reproduction over the last few years mean that the the book does have some genuine usefulness. Check the duckweeds and small flowers on the docks, for example... Collins Complete British Trees is the real revelation, though. Here are photographs of every Sorbus endemic - leaves and fruit(surely a first)- a really useful supplement to Stace, and more up to date, e.g. it includes Sorbus 'Taxon D', a recently identified Exmoor variant - the elm pages are good too. But it's less comprehensive on common exotics that most people are far more likely to come across - extremely perfunctory, for example, on ornamental cherries (and surely the photo of "Sargent's Cherry flowers" is a crab apple?). But a useful complement to Alan Mitchell's books: Mitchell was interested in park and specimen trees, in practical forestry and landscaping; Sterry is interested in ecologies and semi-natural woods and hedgerows, hence he favours native species. Either way, Nature never entirely yields to being booked. (My third vol was "100 Songs in 100 Years", which will teach me to play and sing Fascinatin Rhythm, Georgia on My Mind, Only the Lonely, All Along the Watchtower and the Theme from Titanic among others.)

Here are my notes for the day, should it ever arrive, when I look for Sorbus species in the Exmoor area:

S. acuparia - Rowan. Pinnate leaves and purple buds. Watch out for Service Tree (S. domestica), also with pinnate leaves but completely different fruits (larger, green flushed red) and green buds (Bristol Channel area).
S. torminalis - Wild Service Tree, scattered in SW. Uniquely shaped leaves, basal lobes projecting at right-angles. Fruit brown.

S. anglica (part of Sorbus intermedia agg., intermediates between S. aria agg. or S. torminalis and S. acuparia). Small shrub (to 3m). Leaves somewhat lobed in lower half, but only 1/6 to 1/4 to midrib (S. intermedia is much more obviously lobed). Fruits crimson, v small lenticels. Mostly limestone.

S. porrigentiformis (part of Sorbus aria agg.) To 5m. Leaves obovate, toothed with apical tooth projecting. Fruit crimson with few large lenticels mostly towards base. Limestone.
S. rupicola ("Cliff Whitebeam") (part of Sorbus aria agg.) To 6m. Leaves narrowly obovate, straight-sided, entire in lower half. Fruit deep red with many medium lenticels. Usually limestone.
S. vexans (part of Sorbus aria agg.) Tree to 6m. Leaves obovate, entire in lower third, toothed lobes distally, apical tooth not projecting. Fruit scarlet with few lenticels. Old red sandstone. Near Culbone.
S. 'Taxon D' (part of Sorbus aria agg.) variety of S. vexans, rounder scarcely-lobed leaves and smaller fruit. Near Desolate.

S. devoniensis ("French Hales") (part of Sorbus latifolia agg., intermediates between S. aria agg. and S. torminalis). Tree to 7m. Leaves broadly oblong-elliptic with sharp teeth, lower erecto-patent (exactly like what you'd expect from crossing wild service tree and whitebeam). Fruits brown with many lenticels. Well-drained soils.
S. subcuneata ("Exmoor Service")(part of Sorbus latifolia agg., intermediates between S. aria agg. and S. torminalis). Tree to 10m. Leaves ovate elliptic, lobed 1/4 way to midrib. Fruits brown with many small lenticels. Old red sandstone.

I finished Stancliffe's Hotel last night. Charlotte Bronte is really one of the most wonderful writers in English - I mean wonderful as in "beyond anything you could imagine". And yet she sits there centrally in comfortable GCSE country, too. But these Tales of Angria give you a completely different idea of her (my relativistic fancy about a changed perception of "juvenilia" has already emphatically come to pass, in CB's case).

What else is on the floor? Ion (Euripides, not Plato), the Mourtray Family (Elizabeth Hervey), Kipling's stories (following last week's chilly but pleasant visit to Bateman's on its first day of the season) - A Sahib's War and Mrs Bathurst both for the dozenth time at least, Lisa Samuels' Throe, Bill Griffiths' Collected Earlier Poems (RSE), Sudden - Gold Seeker (Oliver Strange), Pope's Dunciad, När jag var prins utav Arkadien (Göran Printz-Påhlson, not Barbro Lindgren)...

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Thursday, March 11, 2010


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