My last post was rushed out before a frantic but delightful weekend, when our son’s family and 6 grandchildren descended, overlapping with a pre-planned NGS pop-up weekend. This was promoted as part of a BBC Radio 2 event, “The Big Bee Challenge Weekend” to highlight bee friendly gardens, and we were interested to see that only 13 gardens out of the NGS portfolio of about 3,700 took part, with 4 of these in Wales. Given the ongoing Covid issues, we weren’t sure we’d have many visitors, but the last minute NGS social media campaign worked wonders, and phone and email brought several, late on the day, bookings.
It almost felt like old times – a house and garden full of visitors, young and old, benign summery weather, and plenty of time for both of us to interact with everyone. Although our lovely garden visitors seemed to enjoy themselves and put up with my over enthusiasm on the subject of bees, insects, and appropriate plants to grow to support them, it was even more lovely to see how many were interested in what we’ve done with our wildflower hay meadows restoration.
Several were provided with carrier bags and encouraged to wander into the field and pull up some of the seed replete Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor, and Eyebright, Euphrasia nemorosa, to take home to their own patch to begin their own journey of enrichment. Of pasture, and lives.
So, having now had the necessary time to sit down and do a speedy edit, and convert the scenes from AVCHD into MP4 format so that they can be uploaded, here’s a compilation video montage of what they might have seen a fortnight earlier, but still got an insight into, on July 31st. For those of you who looked at my earlier mid-June scenes, you’ll see how things have progressed through the season.
This video clip was always going to be the centre piece of this post, but recent events have, as always, brought other thoughts into play, and expanded the brief(?) of what I’d like to cover.
I’ve long thought that to stand in a meadow like this, in weather like we enjoyed this July, is such a special experience, which so few in today’s Britain are ever fortunate enough to be able to experience. When the sun shines, the wind plays the flowers and seed heads, butterflies and bees dance. The culmination of 8 years of patient, and yes, hard work.
But then with a masochism unrivalled in any other form of gardening I can think of – and I do view the meadow as an aesthetic extension of the garden here – when it’s near its visual and auditory peak, you savagely cut much of it down, to create the hay, to feed the sheep, which are a key element and co-workers in its very creation and management.
But how can I take myself there when I’m old and grey? How can I share these delights with others who are rarely here at such special times? How can I get anyone who sees the meadow in the early spring, or depths of winter when there’s not a flower in sight to grasp what excites me so much? How can we persuade the next stewards of this place to value and nurture this jewel in its crown?
Can I do it with just words? Can I do it with still images? Can anyone? Or is video better? Or even an attempt to marry all 3?
And why even bother?
This is really just a small vignette at the core of what I’ve been trying to achieve with this blog over many years, and I’m still struggling. As we pointed out, and reflected on in our recent Garden Masterclass talk, we think we’re both great Jack/Jill’s of all trades, but very definitely masters of none. So I’m always on the look out for how others approach this type of dilemma.
Which is why, I guess, I was intrigued by a recent notification of a collection of letters bundled together as a job lot and sold at auction – 2 weeks ago. They’d been assembled by a London based photography student in the 1980’s hoping to create, for a final year project, her own compilation of poems, to which she’d add her own photographs.
Rather cleverly, I thought, she wrote to the National Poetry Society asking for suggestions of poets who’d already produced such a work, successfully. Having asked the auctioneer to provide me with more details than the typically brief description which the above link provides, I was intrigued that one of the letters was the typed response from the then Director and General Secretary of the Poetry Society. Suggestions of contacts were made, including the then Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes (although with the surprising aside that it would be unlikely that a letter to him would actually generate a reply!)
(Addendum: For anyone unfamiliar with the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage’s recent radio show interviews, I’d suggest you listen here for 2 more Yorkshire men conversing, reminiscing and reflecting in the most interesting and at times moving piece of radio I’ve heard in a long time).
However the reason for the sale of such a rag bag of letters, and its surprisingly high estimate, was that the student’s subsequent letter to Hughes did indeed generate a 4 page hand written reply from him, with a fascinating insight into his thoughts on whether a creative marriage of words and photography ever works, and its limitations. Some of his response can be gleaned from the auctioneer’s listing. I’ve spent a fair bit of time reflecting on this, since my own blog, an attempt to capture something of our own slow, immaterial rhapsody of life here in recent times, relies on trying to create just such a marriage, made more complex now with the addition of video.
I’d actually take issue with some of Hughes’ interesting and perceptive analysis, made before the advent of digital photography, and internet communications. Although my disagreement is probably also influenced by my desire to incorporate a bit of science into my efforts from time to time, with this scientist’s perceived need for images to back up what I’m talking about.
Many of Hughes’ published works are in fact accompanied by some sort of significant illustrative content, most usually creative collaborative artistic endeavours, rather than photographic imagery, though his collections “River” and “The Remains of Elmet” do include photographs.
Are the other artistic illustrations distractions from his writing, and if so why did he take this route of collaborative art? In some cases poems were penned after he was presented with the artworks, so were to a degree inspired by them. However it does illustrate the problems for a mere photographer, in raising their work and efforts into the realm of valued creativity, rather than mere physical record. Many of those who were selected for the finalist lists of the latest IGPOTY competition, some of whose pictures we were fortunate to see at Dyffryn gardens, Cardiff last weekend, certainly achieved huge creativity, and captured moments stunningly with their carefully crafted images.
In my case I’ve also always seen a role for a permanent record of what is here, how it’s changing now, and has changed over time. Simply because the most significant creativity we ever manage is really the experiences of influencing and managing the evolving scenes here. This desire to record was heightened this week after hearing of the latest sale of farm land, locally, to a London based investment fund manager, which plans to plant up the “idyllic 1,000 acres of upland hill and valley scenery” described in the selling agent’s glowing terms here, with commercial forestry.
The investment firm, Foresight group, describes its burgeoning forestry portfolio aims here, as being “an inheritance tax solution”, aimed at mitigating this tax for “retail clients” by investing in assets which qualify for tax relief after being held for 2 years. Contrast this with the thoughts of John Thomas, the previous and now retired owner of one of the sold local farms, Frongoch, in the upper Cothi valley, and movingly expressed on Farming Today this week.
Should our landscape be controlled by distant land owners for purely commercial ends? Perhaps there’s really nothing new in this evolving commercial land grab, and I’ve read that the largest owner of arable land in the UK now is Sir James Dyson, of vacuum fame. ‘Twas ever thus? But I hope that Foresight and its investors have factored into their financial return projections the possibility of higher temperatures, drier summers and the risks of the sort of fires that have devastated parts of the Greek islands and California this week. Or at least bear it mind when selecting the type of forestry trees to plant. Or their planned and valued investment might literally go up in smoke, before it ever gets harvested.
On a more local Ievel, I was really pleased to be able to record, early in the month, the previous owner of Gelli Uchaf, Glyn Evans, (who is also still our wonderful neighbour and has lived in the valley for 77 years), in a roughly half hour audio and video session sitting outside in the yard. Just chatting about some of his memories of this place, and the changes he’s seen in all this time.
Is part of the problem with today’s world that we generally fail to heed Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh’s wisdom that:
“To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.”
We were even more delighted to be able to provide several big bags of green hay to work its magic on a small local field belonging to another couple, who shared their own fascinating histories of local places and times. Isn’t this the way our world, and land should be valued, and worked with and on, rather than being seen as a short term tax wheeze?
With the hay largely cut and removed, save for uncut strips delayed for invertebrate benefits, the meadow’s other huge, and largely hidden life form is stirring. The first edible field mushrooms, Agaricus campestris, emerged in the first week of August, and have been followed by 2 more waves, in a handful of different locations. The last year that this species fruited was in the late summer of 2018. A year with another very hot and dry spell in July followed by a sudden drop in temperatures and the return of rain.
The speed at which such mushrooms emerge and swell is amazing. As indeed is the speed with which slugs can hollow them out, if you’re not quick to locate them. In this regard, my annual efforts in hand collecting, and then scattering, select seed across the meadow, ideally involves walking field crossing paths at dusk, with my trusty Jakoti shears tucked into my armpit. This procedure kills 2 slugs with one snip – reducing both seedling and early mushroom damage, as well as distributing the seed.
There’s an excellent review of field mushrooms, their ecology, features and similarities to the commonly available supermarket button mushrooms, on the Hiker’s blog here.
But trying to find anything contemporary and detailed on mushroom fruiting body (sporocarp) formation, and the factors affecting it on-line, nearly defeated me. My best effort was an Msc. dissertation/thesis from 1969 by Stephen Walner at South Dakota University, titled ” Agaricus campestris and sporocarp initiation”. This reflects the (until very recently) paucity of contemporary research into fungi, relative to other disciplines. But Walner does discuss how, at least in his experiments, a key factor in mushroom initiation was the level of humidity.
In our meadows, a key component is certainly the sublayer of soil covering moss, which not only raises temperatures, but also ensures a really high humidity close to the soil surface, once the rains returned. Walner’s thesis also introduced me to a new word – Saltation – which in biological systems is used to describe a sudden and large mutational shift in the behaviour and/or structure of an organism. Apparently this occurs quite commonly in fungi studied in laboratories, which can then impact on their ability to produce mushrooms.
Any readers wanting to learn more about the amazing role of fungi as critical life support organisms throughout our planet, can at least now acquire Merlin Sheldrake’s excellent recent book – “Entangled Life – How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures”.
I read it from cover to cover in a couple of days, I was so gripped. Sheldrake has a very readable style, and his frequently included questions and discussions are challenging and mind expanding. And you don’t even need to have eaten a psilocybin mushroom, or sat in a Japanese decomposing wood chip bath to appreciate this!
To tempt you in, here’s a quote from the start of his first chapter, “What is it like to be a fungus?” and why he loves the ancient Persian poet Hafiz’s (1315-1390) line, translated by Daniel Ladinsky:
“There are moments in moist love where heaven is jealous of what we on earth can do.”
And this is what Sheldrake takes from it…
“This poem reminds me to be startled, enthralled, amazed, and curious about the planet on which we live and the life forms that have evolved to inhabit this planet.”
But pick any page from his book, and you’ll probably be hit between the eyes with a fact, or idea, or quote, which makes you stop and think. And want to re-read the line. If you’re a bit more intrigued, you could listen to the sometimes very erudite science, semantics and philosophy strewn interview with him, below in the You Tube, or more concisely this audioclip introduction from his book, read by him.
He has a Phd from Cambridge in tropical ecology, but has a breadth of knowledge and insight way beyond his field of research, and his oral responses to some challenging questions in the interview below, show he’s more than capable of elucidating ideas succinctly, and largely in layman’s terms, a feature of his book’s prose which I really liked.
So I hope you’re intrigued and order your copy soon.
And start to think about our world, our fields, our forests, our gardens, and even our own bodies, in a different, and more entangled, beautiful and complex way. And who else but Merlin would have thought of stealing apples from both Newton’s and Darwin’s apple trees to craft their own home fermented ciders, named “Gravity” and “Evolution” respectively? Or even more impressively inoculating a copy of their first book with Oyster mushroom spawn, and a couple of years later, literally eating their own words, as the fungus eagerly devours it.
For any interested readers, after the success of our bee weekend pop up opening, we’re planning a similar event as part of the NGS Great British Garden party. We’ll have a maximum of 5 visitor car slots available for both the morning and afternoon of the first weekend of September (4th and 5th). Arriving at either 10.30 a.m. or 2.30 pm.
You’ll need to pre-book with us, and let us know if you’d like tea/coffee and cakes as well. Visit this page for more garden visiting and contact details.
This week saw the annual Perseid meteor shower peak. Last year, the event coincided with a rare tropical night and storm. There was, once more, no chance of me taking a decent still image this year, though yet again I wasted a little time trying. Or indeed a video clip. My eyes are clearly still far more competent at processing these nocturnal vistas than my electronic gadgetry. However, after last year’s attempt at prose to bring a little of the occasion to readers, this year, I’m trying a more distilled approach.
How have others been inspired by this, the greatest of the meteor showers in Northern hemispheres, most years? Several of the poems I read here, (James Harpur) and here, (Isabel Rogers) and here (various authors) did indeed transport me to novel spaces, and places, in their own special time. I felt that same buzz of excitement which we always have on these nights, in a way that no streaked white line on a page or screen, however lovely, can convey.
So perhaps, after all, Hughes in his inky scribblings, was right.
Images and Words
The photograph I tried to take, but failed,
Hangs, lifeless, on the spare room wall.
Exploding, orange, mushroom clouds. A blurry scene
As I reach up and draw the pink-backed, gilded
Stars and planets back. The night, now passed.
Sometimes I stand and stare, and am transported
There. And then. Sometimes, I only see the caught reflections.
The close cropped thinning hair, the turkey neck, the peering glasses
Doubled down and there repeated in the silver,
Speckled, aging mirror placed beneath.
I hesitated long, before the print was bought.
Could this strange distanced scene transport –
The passion shared; the tropical experience; stood naked, near, in
Silence; dripping, on the hill above the house –
Reprise, beyond mere key bored words?
A year has passed. The comet’s destined, mapped
Ellipse has moved it ever further from our earthly base.
Yet on a night suffused with such fond memories of
Intersecting orbits shared, that printed image, prompts.
The forecast’s scanned. The time’s been set.
The night is, rarely, almost duplicate. The cloud’s dispersed
To leave the darkened sky devoid of moon, and wind, a glittering panoply.
Horizons stretched to awe, and wonder. Focus fails, once more taken.
The chilly air this year a thin familiar atmosphere for mortal thoughts to flee
This time. This space, alone, for heaven’s dreams.
Patient, waiting, while the single tawny tests the
Valley’s silent spell. The sunken mist now chilled and pooled,
Beyond the beached, long silhouette; the ship-long house soon floats
High up, the dust and ice cloud burns. The stars shoot radiant, light up dark
Hades’ gifted helm, now visible. Clear fleeting shafts from other worlds.
Illumination. Dimensions grow. And so enlightened, minds marry.
Words and images, fused. To hang. Or read. Or hear.
Beyond the fuggy flux of daily toil. Delight in this,
Then plan the date, the time, the place,
Next Perseid time of year.