Friday, 24 July 2015

An Education in Wildflowers

Earlier this year, the OUP published its latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to outcry from poets, novelists, and nature writers. According to the Guardian, the OJD's slippery slope from nature to culture began in 2007 with the disappearance of almond, blackberry, and crocus, and the elevation of analogue, block graph, and celebrity; the egregious omissions continued this year with the loss of catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, and clover, and the appearance of cut and paste, broadband, and analogue. 

Authors were horrified, and Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion joined Robert MacFarlane and Helen MacDonald in decrying the OJD's piecemeal erosion of a vocabulary for nature. For MacFarlane there's a particular poignancy: his latest book Landmarks contains a glossary of thousands of old words used to describe aspects of landscape and weather. His point is that language is not passive; it does not merely describe what is there, but enables us to see what would otherwise go unremarked, unnoticed, forgotten. Without the word bugha, who would otherwise note 'a green, bow-shaped area of moor grass formed by the winding of a stream'? Would it occur to us that such a thing was witnessed by previous generations for so long that we even gave it a name? 

When I was ten, my year at school did a wildflower project throughout the summer term. We bought wildflower guides containing mysterious names and finely-drawn illustrations of flowers both common and scarce. We had to find, pick, and press them in cork flower-presses between sheets of newspaper and kitchen towel. I still remember the wafts of rotten vegetation that might greet my nose, if unlucky, as I unscrewed the tightly-wound fasteners. Fleshier flowers like yellow flag or scabious could be perilous, losing their vibrant colours and turning a grimy green-grey between the uncompromising cork sheets, but they were specimens nonetheless, and each new acquisition was wildly exciting. We wrote them up with their Latin names, date picked, flowering season and where we found them, and submitted them in hardback volumes at the end of term for an A, a B, or a C (extra marks for good presentation). 

Yellow Rattle
Most of my friends became pretty keen on wildflowers for the summer. I was outraged to receive a mere A instead of the coveted A+ (if only my parents had contributed, as hers did, the extra illustrating watercolours that helped my former best friend carry off the Wild Flower Project Prize), but summer 1998 was just the beginning. For years I knew anything that I might discover on a walk around Oxford: the different hemps and umbellifers in the ditches, the self-heal and speedwells of grassy lawns; I visited other parts of the country with great excitement because of what I might see in a different soil. I delighted in scarlet pimpernel in sandier ground, ladies' bedstraw in Dorset, my first orchids - common spotted - in the Cotswold Wildlife Park, wood anemones under flowering larches in Devon woodland. 

Over time the names began to fade, upstaged by other terminologies - historical, psychological, anthropological - but they were waiting, seared into my ten-year-old memory, to come to life when I paid them some attention. The joy of my early wildflower education hit me with particular potency this summer, when, after an intense period of computer screens, concepts and ideas, long days and short nights, I decided that I was on holiday. I piled my books in an unkempt pile on my desk, abandoned all attempts to organise my emails and looked out into the world to see what was there. I saw wildflowers

Hawkweed at the Nuneaton Arboretum
The riverbank where I went running was a wildflower riot. After the buttercups had exploded and faded, the mallow and figwort emerged, the creamy fluff of meadowsweet, blue love-in-a-mist and yellow hawkweed, burdock and vetch, purple loosestrife, poisonous water dropwort, and Himalayan balsam - the alien nature-lovers love to hate. In my partner's garden, buttercups and corydalis lit up the nooks and crannies of stone and fence, and delicate orange poppies lurked in shady corners. So far, so expected. But the wildflowers followed me in unlikely places wherever I went. Throughout July, from dual carriageways and train tracks I've stared idly out of the window and seen an endless preponderance of mallow and mullein, St John's wort, swathes of pink rosebay willowherb, bright farmer's menace ragwort, yellow-green wild fennel with its exuberant fronds, fleabane and wild snapdragons, toadflax and yellow corydalis. In a particularly good traffic jam a lone purple orchid rose, plump and healthy, from the straggling sun-bleached grass in the verge. 

Whether stuck in traffic, delayed on a train, carsick from reading, or my iPhone's battery fading, I settled back into my seat and watched the wildflowers go by, the names popping into mind many years after I first pored over my Collins Gem wildflower book. I'm in the MacFarlane camp: language is always more than language; it's history, knowledge, and power, a force in itself, and as children forget clover and cauliflower it seems ever more likely that the co-arising phenomena of nature poverty and food poverty will seep into the next generation. I sometimes wonder whether I might have been one of the last to be sent packing into the outdoors not for teamwork or self-improvement, charity mud-runs or weight loss, but for wildflowers. 

Birds' Foot Trefoil

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
Mary Oliver