Sunday, July 17, 2011

Thoughts on flowers and landscape

The Pembrokeshire lanes are past their best. In June they sing with pinks and blues and the trumpets of foxgloves, gorse buds crowning the higher verges. The tradition here is not to use hedges between the fields, but to pile earth over stones, creating steep banks that effectively become meadow strips. By July the flowers are browning, long grasses bending over the last of the pinks; soon the council will be trimming the verges, clearing the roads for the hoards of summer tourists.

This process of cutting back is evidently essential to ensure the flowers return next year; like true meadows the banks need to be 'harvested' though I couldn't fully explain why. Indeed, I was thinking about this yesterday as I walked with Jane down the old drove road, noting all the flowers I could name and the many more I had no clue of. Wild plants, I said are something I know very little about.

That statement is relative. I clearly know something about how they thrive on the Pembrokeshire field banks, and for all I used the words 'pinks', I do know a Ragged Robin from a Red Campion - the blues would fox me though. I may not be able to name more than the common species but I'm generally aware of the presence of plants and their effect on the landscape.

Apart from butterflies (about which I do know quite a bit), the same goes for most aspects of natural history. I can identify more birds than the average person, but as soon as it comes to the 'little brown jobs', I'm lost. Moths I could tell you the family grouping but then it might get sticky; the same for fungi, sea life, and dragonflies. As for beetles, bugs and spiders... and what exactly is a lichen?

The truth is I'm a generalist, and a thin one at that. I know a little about everything and have a wide selection of identification guides for the times I bother to look things up. When I do, I'm usually checking for the name, which, when you think about it, is also a pretty superficial knowledge.

Last year I spent a week in North Wales with Nigel Brown from Bangor University; he knew more about the natural world than anyone I've ever met - he certainly knew about lichens, explaining that they're the symbiosis of a fungi and an algae. He knew too about the geology, the mammals, the rivers and the weather; we ran a moth trap every night and looked at stars through telescopes. A fascinating time, and if you're interested he's running a coastal wildlife weekend this september.

I shall never have Nigel's wealth of knowledge, but I've come to accept that's okay. I've realised something else too: that if I have any specialism at all, its an acute 'sense of place'. That's an imprecise concept, but I suppose I'm very aware of the overall the landscape, its relationship with the wider geography, culture, present and history. It's not enough for me to look at the mountains and rivers, I want to climb or kayak them; I want to walk or run the coast paths, to stand under the waterfalls, visit the derelict quaries, remote coves and down at heel towns. In Wales, where I've been doing this for twenty years, I'm acutely aware that I don't speak the language.

It is significant I think that although I write a lot about landscape I seldom take notes. I'm as likely to create a montage of photographs to trigger inspiration than to refer to lists or jotted reminders. Yesterday I could have picked some flowers to identify, but I didn't. Most important to me, is the way the landscape feels and that is largely an internal thing; a kinesthetic experience, in the language of the neuro-linguistic types. It is something more than knowing the names of plants or birds.

Or perhaps I should say it is something different. For deep down I wish I knew what those blue flowers were called, and those little brown birds that flit between the hawthorns. As for the browning grasses that define the lanes in July - I've never really thought about those.


  1. I too am a generalist, knowing more that most people I suspect but not enough to be an expert on anything. Sometimes I wish I wasn't, mostly when spending time with someone who is a true expert, but mostly, like you, I am happy enough with that. There is only one life to live after all and I would lose as well as gain if I focussed solely on one of the many things I love!

  2. Great post - thanks for that. I grew up in North Pembrokeshire, and although I now live what seems like a world away, I return as often as I can and think about the lanes and the beaches and the hills all the time.

    I'm like you in that it's the 'feel' of a place or landscape that interests me firstly. I'm trying to learn how to identify trees at the moment. But it is slow progress!

  3. The great thing about knowledge is that it can always be added to and expanded if the thirst to do so is there... the thirst is the only thing that can't be learnt.

  4. I think a lot of us know 'a little about everything' and surely that makes us more interesting people than someone who knows a lot about one thing? And the fun part of not being a know-all for me, is the excuse a lack of knowledge on a certain subject gives me for visiting the bookshelves of charity shops or secondhand bookshops, buying a book if the subject really gets to me so that I want to know more than the answer to the question I had.
    And blogland is so useful for answering questions. I recently posed a couple on a gardening post, and whilst the answers to one question weren't correct, it made me more eager to find the answer myself, which had previously evaded me. Now I know that the black stemmed plant I didn't know the name of, is a black stemmed wormwood, an artemisia. And the search for the answer took me to interesting webpages, books on gardening tucked away at the bottom of bookshelves. Now the only problem I have is, remembering the name!

  5. I paraphrase a little, but Richard Feynman told a story of how as a boy he was out walking by a pond with his father, who said "see those other boys out with their dads? Their dads are saying "see that duck? - that's a Mallard". But in France it's called a col-vert, and in chinese it's called a "chan-suy" . And when you know all that, you know something about people perhaps, but you know nothing about the duck. How does it fly? What does it perceive?"

    It is important to know what it is that you know.

  6. that photo looks like a scene from australia

  7. You live in a beautiful part of the world, Mark. I wish I knew more---one reason to read your blog.

  8. I am what used to be called a "Jack of all trades and a master of none." My goal in life was to change the last adjective to all. I can't even imagine going through life with one job - say a pimp or a drill press operator.

  9. Your thoughts on Flowers and landscape were very appreciated and surely got me to thinking about all you wrote. I would say, I too am a generalist (and I kinda like that word, thankyouverymuch). Here also, we have the identification books for beetles, birds, wildflowers and so on...but mostly, I simply like to know their names and where they came from... It satisfies enough hunger, that I don't feel I need to know it all. Great post!

  10. I have, over the years, bought a lot of books to use in the identification of birds, bees, bugs, plants and trees. Now, I use the Internet but have found that to be very misleading as roses are posted where pinks should be and a daisy is not always a daisy but you can find them there amongst the daisies.

  11. Thanl you Mark, for the comment and compliment on my latest posting. I have started my Norfolk village tales again, and really hoping that it doesn't get invaded by the Chinese/Japanese who started to use it as a forum for their own conversation and the only way I could stop it was closing the blog. I really don't want to have to do it again. Can I block them if they appear?

  12. Do you mean 'generalist' or 'journalist'?? I think there are those of us who just have a thirst for knowledge of all kinds, who love learning and love passing it on through teaching or writing or art.

    I am a Gemini through and through - a butterfly which flits from flower to flower, appreciating the beauty of each but knowing there is more out there to be discovered and enjoyed.

    I have loved doing my horticultural course but know that much of what I have crammed into my head for those pesky exams I could just have well looked up in a book if suddenly I needed an answer!!

    Life is about FEELING. I think to have sensitivities and sensibilities is a true gift. All the rest can be learned.