‘Let’s start with an earthquake and build up to a climax’, was a saying attributed to the late film mogul, Sam Goldwyn. And we do tend to expect the end of a cycle to be a high point, even if we don’t quite demand the level of excitement Goldwyn was trying to insist on. But towards the end of year the natural world always seems to be at a low ebb. The days go on getting shorter and darker – and usually either wetter or colder or both. The plants have died down; the last of the leaves have finally fallen; the summer migrant birds have long ago gone south; and most of the rest of the wildlife is either dormant (literally, asleep) or lying low.
Most, but not all. In the first place there is a flow of winter migrant birds to replace the summer visitors. Lots of blackbirds, robins and chaffinches arrive here from the Continent, escaping the harsher weather there, together with migrants like the fieldfares and redwings which we only see in the winter. Moreover, some of the resident birds are already looking forward and sensing a new beginning – I’ve heard song thrushes, mistle thrushes and dunnocks singing on the milder days, rather creakily at first but with a growing volume and confidence. And at night tawny owls too are tuning up with some exploratory hooting calls, which are their forms of ‘song’. This reminds us of a paradox. The shorter the day the longer, necessarily, the night, so that at this time of year the owls have their longest ‘days’, which they probably need because their prey is scarcer and harder to find in the winter months. As for the flowers, our daffodils are already shooting up green spears, most prematurely and unwisely; but by the first week of January the aconites will be showing in their proper season, gleaming like old gold in the garden of the Olde House by the stream, which is where I always look for them first.
So, I suppose that if one must name an end the natural year really ends at the solstice of 21/22 December, when the earth is furthest from the sun in its planetary course. After that the days gradually lengthen and the cycles of life begin again. In that case we are now over the dip and on the way to spring, and we shan’t need any earthquakes to give us a good start!
17 December 2002
Looking through a list of Little Thurlow addresses the other day, I realised just how many dwellings are named after some feature of the natural world: flowers are represented in many of the ‘cottage’ names (Lavender, May, Larkspur, Honeysuckle and Rose), trees in The Limes and The Firs, birds in Blackbird Cottage, and of course animals by Fox Cottage. All these recall some real present or past connection, unlike their counterparts in towns and cities where whole estates are sometimes given house names or street names which not even the most optimistic salesman or planner can seriously believe in. To go no further afield into the concrete jungle than Haverhill, for example: at the end of Manor Road you will find Gannet Close, and Rosefinch, Sandpiper and Tern Closes, while off Park Road you can encounter the fragrant delights of Betony Walk, Bryony Close and Spindle Road. Any records of the relevant species would be of some scientific interest…
The same applies to the names of villages themselves, which may also tell a story or reveal an aspect of the past, especially in a county as rich in rural history as Suffolk. Think how many familiar place-names in Suffolk refer to some key identifier in the landscape or its wildlife. Trees are prominent features, of course, and were often important in the rural economy; they appear in such names as Campsey Ash, Elmswell, Oakley, Thornham, Walsham le Willows and, less obviously, Bergholt (birch copse) and Copdock (pollarded oak). Animals crop up too, as in Foxearth, Hargrave (hares), Brockley (brock, the badger), Wangford Warren (rabbits), Hartest (deer) and Martley (a surprising one – martens, which were once to be found in East Anglia). Birds also figure, in such names as: Hawkedon, Falkenham (falcons), Ousden (owls), Elvedon (literally, swan valley, not elvers as you might guess) and Cransford (cranes, another species which used to be resident here in the middle ages and still in fact has a foothold in a tiny Norfolk colony). There are even fish lurking in Fornham (trout) and amphibians in Frostendon (frog valley), and there is at least one village named after an insect – Knettishall, which literally means ‘knat’s nook’.
Most of these names will presumably have evolved from general custom and practice rather than being ‘decided’ on at any particular time. They have a history and life of their own, like the places they denote. They may now sometimes seem quaint or curious, but they are not artificial or purely sentimental, like some of their urban counterparts, and they remind us how in the country at least the natural and the human worlds come together.
17 November 2002
I cut the lawn this weekend, for the last time until next spring, I hope. The grass in our lawns is supposed to stop growing when the temperature drops below 48F/9C, so even with the milder winters we’re enjoying it’s surely slowing down now. Like most people who find mowing rather a chore I often wonder during the summer whether cutting the lawn so often doesn’t just make it grow faster and thus cause more work? Dangerous thoughts… At any rate, this extraordinary growth-rate does demonstrate just why grass is probably the most successful living creature ever. There are over 9000 different grasses and they are found in every region of the world, including the Arctic and Antarctic (where they are the only flowering plants to survive). Grasses evolved some 25 million years ago and quickly became the dominant plant species, especially in the vast steppes, savannahs and prairies which covered much of the earth’s surface. But not only are they so successful in their own right, they also sustain an enormous range of animal species in one way or another. Thousands of different insects and tiny soil animals like worms live in grasslands, just above or below the surface; then there are seed-eating birds like larks and grouse and small predators like rodents, snakes, lizards and frogs; above them in the food-chain are larger predators like foxes and birds of prey; then, of course, there are also the herbivores themselves, like antelopes, giraffe, buffalo, gazelles, and zebra; and finally, the larger predators like lions that prey on those. Grass supports this whole system.
Grasses are pollinated by the wind rather than by insects, which means they spread very effectively, and they have one other special feature which has made them very resistant to damage by grazing, trampling and cutting. New leaves grow not from the tip of the stem, as with all other plants, but from the base or even below ground level. You can see that if you look carefully at the tips of the grass you cut last time in your lawn. And that’s why grasslands are able to support such huge herds of grazing animals – when one crop of leaves are sheared off from above new ones spring up quickly from below and there is a fresh meal available for the next herd that passes by. So, it’s an ever-renewing resource and the more you harvest it the more it provides. Which is a roundabout way of answering the question with which I began, if you are looking for excuses to cut the grass a little less often!
20 October 2002
A good working-definition of a weed, I suppose, is a plant that grows easily. Which of course is why gardening is such an absorbing and perhaps perverse occupation, since it seems to nurture only those plants which grow with difficulty. All gardeners must have spent years of their lives rooting out likeable flowers which happen to be called weeds, especially those in the large family of compositae (so called because they pack many tiny flowers into one composite seed head) which includes all those yellow flowers like dandelion, groundsel, tansy, yarrow, fleabane, mayweed, hawkweed and sow-thistle. There’s one more member of the family which has been especially rampant this year and which has some rather nasty habits. That’s ragwort – a very common plant of wayside and pasture which you can see flowering all over the countryside from June to November but which is very poisonous to most grazing animals, in particular horses (though not sheep for some reason). Of course, horses generally know that and avoid it, but if they ingest it by accident in their fodder it can cause irreversible liver poisoning and farmers tend to wage war on it. Ragwort is also very successful and hard to eradicate. Each plant can produce something like 150,000 little seeds which then blow far and wide and can remain dormant in the soil for over 20 years. The official Weeds Act of 1959 (did you know we had one of those?) solemnly declares ragwort an ‘injurious weed’ and the Min. of Ag. even refers to it as the ‘yellow peril’, which seems both racist and hysterical. But its unpopularity goes much further back than that in myth and history. It is associated with witches and warlocks who were supposed to have used the stalks like broomsticks. And the old local names are rather unflattering: the Scots called it ‘stinking Willie’ and in Shropshire they were even more precise and called it ‘mare’s fart’.
But in nature everything is appreciated by something. If you’ve looked at a patch of ragwort in July or August you’ll probably have seen it smothered in little caterpillars with orange and black stripes. These are the caterpillars of the cinnabar moth which relies on ragwort as its main food-plant. The caterpillars are able to store the alkaloid poisons from the plant in their bodies without any harm to themselves and when they become moths their bright red and black colouring sends out a warning to birds to leave them alone. And that explains why the moths seem so tame and unafraid as they flutter from plant to plant.
A field of ragwort can look quite brilliantly yellow and John Clare, the poet, praised the beauty of this ‘summer gold’ thus:
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold
In the Isle of Man ragwort is called ‘cushag’ and they have even made it their national flower. So, one person’s weed can be another one’s flower.
19 September 2002
You’ll probably know the mnemonic ROYGBIV (‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ – or if you prefer something livelier ‘Rinse Out Your Granny’s Boots In Vinegar’) to help us remember the colours in the spectrum from Red to Violet. The odd thing is that the commonest colour we see all around us doesn’t figure at all in this sequence. Where’s brown? An artist tells me that you have to create brown by mixing the three primary colours in suitable proportions, but the original creator, whether God or Evolution, clearly got there more directly. Brown is the colour of Earth.
And if green is the colour of spring, brown is certainly the colour of autumn. Or rather ‘browns’ are. Think how many of the shades of brown come from the natural world: chestnut, hazel, clay, umber, walnut, mahogany, bay, cinnamon, fawn and brown-as-a-berry. I’d add the drab-brown of the golden plovers now settling on the arable fields for the winter, but so hard to pick out against the ground; also the dusty orange-brown of the small tortoiseshell butterfly I’ve just found hibernating in our shed, looking for all the world like a crumpled dead leaf. And as for the autumn leaves themselves, our trees and hedgerows are now blazing in a hectic collage of every kind of brown from red through to yellow. We think of the leaves turning brown, but what actually happens is that the chlorophyll which gives the leaves their spring and summer shades of green is re-absorbed back into the tree, thus revealing the other pigments that were masked by the chlorophyll. So you could say, a little paradoxically, that the real leaf colour is brown rather than green. This annual leaf display tends to be at its best when we have bright, warm days and chilly nights, which is why the east coast of America regularly boasts such spectacular autumn effects. Except that they call autumn the ‘fall’, which is accurate as a description and is in fact a good old Anglo-Saxon word we used here up to the sixteenth century. The Pilgrim fathers took it with them to America on the Mayflower and I think I still prefer it as an expression to our Latin-derived ‘autumn’.
In cultural terms, ‘brown’ has good connotations of warmth, strength, stability and physical well-being (a nice healthy ‘tan’). Think how simple and natural a brown paper bag is, and how much better for the planet than the plastic ones. Designers like to exploit these positive vibes too, with their own, more artificial confections. Farrow and Ball, for example, offer us: Hot Mocha, Pelt, Mouse’s Back and (improbably) Broccoli Brown for our interior decorations. I’ll stick to the outside ones, thanks.
11 November 2020