I had an erotic dream about Chris Packham the other night. You know it's Springwatch time when you dream of Chris Packham. Not that in my waking hours I particularly yearn for the man. To be honest I'm probably past such things.
I am currently reading his autobiography, so I think what happened was my dreaming mind simply worked its chthonic evil on the nearest male who came to mind. Thank goodness I'm not reading anything by Jeremy Clarkson.
Also Packham's book is an extremely immersive read. His descriptions of his relationship with nature when he was a child are very detailed, and yes, even sensuous. I'm sure you've already heard about the tadpole eating. What is striking a cord with me is that his story plays out in the 1970s in a city suburb. My childhood was more protected than his so I didn't go looking for foxes in the middle of the night by myself, or anything adventurous like that, but I remember my encounters with nature being confined to parks and pet shops, and day trips to the nearest forest only when my parents were feeling happy enough to make the effort.
The theme of finding nature in an urban environment is one I'm trying to explore in this blog. So, inspired by my object of affection I've written a description of one of my walks in my local area. What I'm trying to do is to show how a person (like me) engages with, in this case, plants, set within the context of city life. It is about the inner dialogue that accompanies such encounters.
I've also recently finished a book called 'If Women Rose Rooted'. A good title that in my opinion didn't deliver. It is about eco-feminism, a subject I'll lap up, but the author irritated me. She wrote a lot of words about her cottage in rural Ireland, then her croft on some remote island in Scotland, threw in bland retellings of Celtic myths, and finally declared if all women lived like this and knew these stories the world would be saved. Erm. I absolutely agree, as I've said before, its the artists who will stop environmental destruction, but stories about princesses on white horses retold by women with money enough to live where the majority of people can't isn't the answer.
So this following bit of writing also looks at the possibility of finding magic and imagination in the natural world of a suburb.
I went to a café, with ideas of writing. The coffee there is weak, and the teacakes cloying, but I like the look of the place. It is dark, peopled with old brown furniture, is bare floored, and one wall is Costa red, a comforting colour. Buying a tepid cup of coffee-flavoured milk is the rent I’m willing to pay to sit for a while in a space that matches my inner imaginative world. The fit, however is as thin as the froth on the cappuccino. I should be wearing something vintage bought on EBay, or at least a cardigan I had knit myself. Instead my costume includes walking boots and sweat-wicking nylon tops. The plan was to go for a walk after this creative interlude.
An inspirational location is not enough though. The words didn’t flow. Dissatisfaction hammered away at the fragile belief in my writing abilities, so I abandoned the attempt, angry.
It was raining, so I walked under an umbrella. The aim was to walk for a couple of hours; just to walk really. There was a route and a destination – a particular Elder tree by the Mersey – but with a day to fill and an ageing body to maintain it wasn’t an expedition more than an attempt to impart meaning and purpose to an otherwise empty day.
The river was flowing fast, left to right, brown, looking like a better coffee than the one I’d just had. Hogweed and cow parsley were flowering tall on its banks. Sparkling raindrops caught in their umbels like diamonds. They were beautiful. This is my element. I may have aspirations of cultural fluency, but the reality is probably less glamorous (or lucrative). I’m at home amongst plants, under the sky, with mud under my fingernails. It’s a shame: I live in a city.
The work began. Like a hunter I paced along the river bank focussing hard on the mass of plants on either side of the footpath. What hadn’t I seen before? What can I take from them? The instinct of the natural-dyer kicked in. Those hogweed seeds looked like they could produce a colour. I don’t know why I thought that. None of the natural-dye handbooks say they would. This is what happens when I’m with the plants. I don’t want to say they talk to me. Of course not. Perhaps there are well-worn pathways between particular neurons in my brain that like to connect stuff I’ve read and forgotten with the plant I see. Yes, that’s it. There is a simple neurological explanation to my fixation. Not a spiritual one at all.
While I was twisting off the wide hogweed seed heads and stuffing them in a 5p plastic bag a young man came along with his dog. All sense of joyful freedom vanished. How embarrassing. A middle-aged woman doing something weird. I live in a city. I know this is abnormal behaviour. It is not noble. I feel grubby. In my head I rehearse the story I’m going to give him when he asks what I’m doing. I’ve learnt saying I’m a school teacher collecting material for a school project is the most acceptable answer. I prepare the reassuring smile. He has seen me. He talks to his dog, covering up the awkward encounter. And decides to walk in the opposite direction. What a relief.
I carried on plundering the river banks. There is a large area of bistort, spikes of pale pink flowers, long heart-shaped leaves. They too go into the plastic bag. I later find out they produce absolutely no colour, and are so astringent the cloth is bleached almost white. Curious. The books say there is dye in plantain, so I harvest some leaves, including a couple of unusually big plantago major leaves.
Don’t get the idea I know what all the plants are that I come across. The combination of a terrible memory and a casual approach to learning means I haven’t a clue what most of them are. I annoy myself. While I walk there is a constant chatter of ‘what’s that?’. A rummage round my fuzzy brain usually comes up with ‘dunno’ as an answer. This year I’m going to remedy that. It’s the Year of Botany.
My inner plant hunter spotted a delicate yellow flower. It’s a vetch, member of the pea family, but which one? Crouching down I took some pictures of it with my phone. They won’t be in focus and I don’t know what morphological features are used to identify plants, so it’s a matter of getting the little machine as close to the flowers and leaves as it will go and pressing the onscreen circle with the hope something useful gets captured. I’m ill prepared as usual. A proper botanist would use a proper camera and make field notes and take samples for her herbarium. It seems I’m not fully committed to this learning. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I’m aware I should be in an office working, earning enough to pay taxes, to pay for my membership of society. If I do things half-heartedly it signals my guilt at having all this free time. I’m an adult who doesn’t work. I don’t have a right to spend all the hours of a weekday doing what I want to do, if it doesn’t bring in money.
Walking closely along the bank of plants my trousers got wetter and wetter from the rain laden sprays of leaves hanging over the path. The plastic bag was now full of limp specimens. Tiny insects escaped out from the bag and crawled over my hand. My white hair was wet because I kept putting the umbrella down to take more photos. I thought my socks were wet too. Kneeling in front of a small crucifer I sensed people nearby. I got cross again and embarrassed at being seen. When I got up I realised they were a Chinese couple having a hard time restraining a huge dog. I don’t know if it was me they were frightened of or their dog.
|A small crucifer|
Eventually I got nearer the Elder tree. I knew she was just round the next bend in the river. I first met her when I was walking from the opposite direction on another similar day. She is half broken. Her main trunk is high on a bank but it has split and a large branch now leans over the footpath. When I saw her the familiar plant instinct kicked in. I remembered there is a lot of superstition around the elder tree. Judas was apparently hanged from an elder. But, on a lighter theme, in Harry Potter a powerful wand was made from elder wood. I snapped off some dead twigs and took them back home. Just felt it was the right thing to do. Later Googling revealed an ancient Germanic goddess called Holda was said to live in the tree. During Yule she leads the Wild Hunt on a wagon drawn by animals of the forest (squirrels?!). She is the Elder Mother, the goddess of housewives. That’s why I was going back to visit her. To say hello to some sympathetic magic.
A handful of old trees are sharing the bank she grows from. As per, I don’t know what they are, maybe beech because their trunks are smooth. They are so tall and wide I wonder how long they have been there. Were they part of a field boundary? No one sees them now. No authorities that might protect them. I spotted a faint animal-wide path up the bank to the foot of one of them. I checked no one was about to see me then scrambled up. I still gripped the plastic bag, and I was worried about falling back, so it was an ungainly climb. Standing, squished next to the tree I looked up the length of the trunk. There is a whole world in tree canopies that is totally unknown by humans. Tentatively I put a hand on the trunk to feel the life of the tree. Once again looking around to make sure I was unseen I self-consciously gave the tree a hug. There was no great revelation. I can’t say I communed with any divine spirit, or whatever is supposed to happen when you hug a tree. I did, though, have the sense that this monolithic grey mass was a living being. It wasn’t the same as hugging an inanimate stone. There must be some meaning in that.
A woman runner appeared below us. I hid behind the tree to protect her. I didn’t want her to have a fright on seeing a white-haired woman looking down at her with her arms round a tree and an apologetic grin on her face. On then wondering how I was going to get down I noticed behind me, on the other side of the bank, was an overgrown field. Getting to it would involve the same wobbly effort at climbing but there was a place I hadn’t been to before so I had to do it.
The field was like entering a long lost world, a scene from a spooky film. There were two rusting football goals, and the grasses were about five foot tall. I had to work my way through them without seeing where I was heading. When I did emerge I saw a large mass of silverweed growing near the farthest goalpost. I have never seen as much. Normally there are one or two small individuals eking out a living on a footpath, but this was a whole field of luxuriant silvery leaves. They would have been a perfect flooring for a scene in a fairy tale. The avaricious plant hunter in me noted this then got down to stuffing the bag with silverweed and taking wonky photos.
|Carpet of Silverweed|
Yet alongside the feelings of amazement and excitement where thoughts of caution. The area was surrounded by dark woodland. One side was the high bank I had come from. Another was a graffiti covered shed. This wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. This was an urban brownfield site. People must be nearby. While I picked the silverweed I was rehearsing in my head how I’d defend myself if anyone appeared and said I shouldn’t be taking them. A bit further in I discovered two deserted tennis courts. Weeds were growing from cracks in the asphalt. I went in through the creaking metal gates to look for weld which likes to grow in rocky places. I was nervous because I realised I was in a dangerous position. It wasn’t beyond the realms of likelihood that I could be attacked. I was a lone woman. No one would see my dead body, or think to look for me here if I was missing. I didn’t know where I was. A constant thought for women walking alone, anywhere, is ‘can I see a man?’, ‘does he look dangerous?’.
Judging I’d pushed my luck, and feeling spooked, I thought it best to leave. I didn’t want to attempt the bank again, so took a thin muddy path through the woodland on the edge of the tennis courts. It emerged out into civilisation: the end of a cul-de-sac of prosperous houses. How strange that such order should be backed by wildness. The plant hunter had to stand down now, to be replaced by more appropriately urban orientation skills. Using clues like the width of the road and the absence of wheelie bins I navigated out of the housing estate until a familiar road appeared. Then I began the trudge home.
I was conscious of my wet trousers, clumping walking boots, flattened hair, and bag full of leaves and scarpering insects. The look wasn’t street smart. It was only a minor concern though. I was thinking so much about the unexpected discovery of the magical hidden place, and what I’d do with the plants I’d found, that I walked in a daze, not really looking both ways when crossing the road.
I hope the Elder Mother didn’t mind I didn’t get to say hello, but then maybe she sent me, just before I got to her, into the silver field. The whole encounter was a potent mix of history and nature. I am driven to react to them, to fall down a long path of questions. I don’t know why I do it. How has my life turned out this way? I don’t understand.