Municipal-planting-rowan jelly

There’s a rowan tree planted beside the bus stop on Grecian Way, and this autumn it’s laden with bright red berries.

In the spirit of my wamble with forager Mark Lane, I nipped out on Thursday to cut a few sprays of berries. There’s something about suburbia that makes me feel slightly guilty whenever I do anything more exotic in public than mowing my front lawn or walking or cycling to get somewhere. Certainly, the dog-walker gave me strange looks as I jumped to grab branches and snipped away with my secateurs. But it’s not in anyone’s garden, I was taking a very small fraction of the berries, and the rest will only fall down and make a mess on the pavement. So it’s probable I should feel eccentric*, but why feel guilty?

Anyway, way back in the time, my uncle gave me a book on Wild Food, which includes recipes for rowan wine and rowan jelly. The jelly offers more instant rewards, and a chance for a case-control study of the impact on taste and clarity of the addition of apple.

First things first, the interweb-thingy suggested ‘denaturing’ the berries by freezing them. So I did, even though boiling them to a mush might be thought to have enough of an effect. Here they are, just out of the freezer; only 300g, but it took me not much more than a minute to pick them, and there’s enough for my experiment.


And here are the finished products. I started off with the same total weights of fruit and volume of water, so it’s odd that I got more than twice as much from the rowan-apple mix. I tipped the rowan-apple mush on top of the rowan mush in the jelly bag, so a bit more wouldn’t have been a surprise, but twice as much? I think the rowan-solo is slightly clearer, but the taste is pretty astringent, and adding the apple makes a milder jelly. I think I’ll try them both with plain scones and clotted cream, and with lamb.

One further note. It would be better to take berries from trees that are not by the side of a road. The concern is that run-off from the road – oil and general toxic yuk – gets taken up by the roots and concentrated in the fruit. Grecian Way isn’t very busy, but there are a few buses. So if I ever make any more, I’ll pick the berries on Dartmoor.

* On the other hand, is it possible to feel eccentric, given that I’m at the centre of my zone of perception, or can I only be eccentric from others’ perspectives?


Autumn audit

In honour of Silent Spring, I spent two hours wandering around my neighbourhood and listening. Listening not just for birds, but for everything, including all those sounds we usually tune out. But yes, especially for birds, even though I could identify only a few and was reduced to trying to describe their calls.

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd writes: “Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.” I was attempting, albeit only for a short time, to live in my hearing.

2.35 – I left the house and turned right along Grecian Way

Cars. Wind in the trees. Carpentry. Wind pressure on my ear-drums. Chirping. One crow on a roof-crest and one caw. My boots on the pavement. The zip tag on my hoodie. A distant mew of a gull. School sports (St Peter’s).

Left into Quarry Lane

Chirping. Leaf blown along the pavement. Peeping. Traffic (omnipresent). Churr/caw.

Left into Quarry Park Road

Chitter chirrup. Chirp. Dogs barking. Lawn mower. Peep. Beep-beep.

Right into Woodwater Lane

D and H buses. Peep. Peep-peep-peep. Churr/caw. School playground (Walter Daw). Three-wheeler buggy. Moped nipping past.

Right into Heath Road

Water feature. Chirping. Building. Humming from a BT box by the pavement.

Left into Rifford Road

Digger. Cars, vans, buses, traffic, traffic. Bicycle’s tyres. Light aircraft. Wonford Brook. Loud humming from another telecoms (?) box. Squeal of brakes. Acceleration. Go slow strip. Baby chuntering and two women talking. Music from iPhone earphones. Prolonged chirping. Gull mewing.

Left into Ludwell Lane

Buzz of insect. Reeds in the wind. Water feature. Mewing. Car door and couple laughing.

Right into Wonford Playing Fields

Cheeping. Prolonged mewing. Car fob. Trees in wind. Some crunching of leaves. Churr/caw. Light aircraft. Buzzard’s keen. Glissandeek. Chip chip. Dogs barking. Horns. Herring gulls on the field, mewing in full view. Boots on the grass. Jogger’s tread. Commercial aircraft. Dog. Wings beating as doves start up from bushes. Insect chirping. Baby laugh turning to cry. Scolding mother. Building. Churr/caw. Chirp. Wonford Brook. Boots on gravel. Weir. Falling acorn. Twittering. Shouting children. Insects. Ford. High caw. Squeaky gate. Muddy steps.

By 3.15pm I’m in Ludwell Valley Park

… where I put my notebook away. I found it a struggle to focus on just listening, and not to observe with my eyes or retreat into my head, and I constantly had to retune my attention. And most of what I was attending to was the grating urban noise that I usually and automatically tuned out.

I began to feel very weary as I walked round the perimeter of the Park, so I took it into my head to try out another trick of Nan Shepherd’s: “the senses must be trained and disciplined… I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence. No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains.”

I lay down on the nearest bench, warm in the sun, a couple walking their dog on a distant slope but otherwise in solitude. I wedged my right arm between the backrest and the seat, clasped my fingers, crossed right ankle over left, and shut my eyes. I didn’t actually fall asleep, but in my snoozing found that it was my sense of touch that was sharpened – the warmth of the sun, and the cool as it went behind a cloud, the wind as it rose and fell, the warmth of the bench, my clasped hands and crossed ankles. As Shepherd wrote, “Touch is the most intimate sense of all”, and I truly found that lying down in green pastures restored my soul.

As for my auditory audit, other than prolonged mewing of gulls, birdsong was occasional at best, even in the playing fields and park. It was a rarity that the traffic on Rifford Road parted for long enough to hear background noise, let alone birds. Granted that it was the wrong time of year and the wrong time of day, but I find it sad that there is so little song, and so much drowning out the call to rise above the mundane.


Silent Spring

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In its honour, I am spending a couple of hours walking around my neighbourhood listening for bird song. In the meantime, here are three short posts I wrote a year and a half ago, reflecting on the book:

White to Carson

I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading of a diptych of eco classics; today I finished Gilbert White’s “Natural History of Selborne, and started Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”.

White’s book is in the form of letters, and he often hopes they “may not be unacceptable” to his two correspondents! He was a meticulous observer of birds, weather and other phenomena, and went some way to interpreting and understanding his observations, for example in the wonderful passage on house martins cited in the introduction. His methods were at times questionable, involving shooting many of his subjects! And his theories did not always fit the facts, for example why clear nights are colder, or whether swallows migrated or hibernated. But science is a process of developing theories and collecting evidence to test and accept/reject/refine the theories, or developing new methods of collecting evidence which may lead to radical new theories. Hence White is not content with just observations, but continues to seek understanding and applications: “The standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge… The botanist… should be by no means content with a list of names; he [sic] should study plants philosophically, should investigate the laws of vegetation, should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation; and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on the phytologist.”

Carson I suspect is just as meticulous. So far, she has been describing the pesticides and herbicides – DDT, malathion, dieldrin, etc. It’s incredible (now at least) to think that some of these chemicals used on food crops were closely allied in structure to the nerve gases developed by Germany and used during the war.

Silent springboard

After a bit of a hiatus, I have finished reading “Silent Spring”. After her early description of the pesticides and herbicides, Carson goes on to describe their effects on ground water, soil and insect life, plants, birds, other wildlife and domestic animals, rivers and inshore waters, human organs and cell-level processes; the brutality of various spraying programmes in the US and their horrendous results; the common availability of chemicals and the build-up of small-scale exposures; the negative effect on the ecological balance and the build-up of resistance in the pests; and finally, alternative pest control methods. All is beautifully written and meticulously references the latest scientific findings.

Predictably, the chemical industry and scientific establishment (funded by the chemical industry) responded ‘robustly’, as described in an afterword to my edition of the book. Carson was attacked for being a hysterical woman, unqualified to write such a book, and for writing for the public, “a calling the scientific establishment consistently denigrated.”

But the attacks only increased the PR for Carson’s book, and it changed the world. While reading, I caught myself thinking more than once: “I hope someone does something about this”. Which of course they did. President Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson’s claims, which led to an immediate strengthening of the regulation of chemical pesticides, arguably a more significant action than the launch of the Apollo programme. And the book is widely credited with helping to get the environmental movement going.

Now in the 21st century, “Silent Spring” is again being criticised by writers who claim that “environmental regulation unnecessarily restricts economic freedom”. Others say that this is “a cynical ‘better living through chemistry’ campaign, intended to discredit the environmental health movement”. And I would ask how much economic freedom do we have, living as we do on one planet and bound by a web of relationships?

Observing boiling frogs

Two more thoughts on Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”…

The book was first published in 1962, and the science and understanding of cell-level processes has moved on hugely in the last 50 years. But Carson’s description of e.g. the specialised roles of enzymes in mitochondria, and small facts like bone marrow producing 10 million red blood cells per second (the current estimate is 2.4 million) highlight again for me how “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14; NRSV).

And a quote: “Responsible public health officials have pointed out that the biological effects of chemicals are cumulative over long periods of time, and that the hazard to the individual may depend on the sum of the exposures received throughout his [sic] lifetime. For these reasons the danger is easily ignored. It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” As with chemicals, so with climate change. Are we in danger of becoming the proverbial frog that, when placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated, doesn’t realise its peril and is boiled alive? Or do we observe nature carefully, and learn that real frogs would probably jump out of the pot… and so could we?


Richard Long woz ‘ere

Today was the first time ever, at least for years, that I’ve seen another deliberate blackberrier in Ludwell Valley Park: a man in a pale blue shirt, of indeterminate age and build, wielding a plastic bag as he toiled around the bushes on the steepest slope of the amphitheatre.

Other blackberriers, deliberate or opportunistic, unknown and unseen, have made “physical interventions within the landscape” as they move along the bramble-line. Yet they are a relatively rare breed, and their paths are almost indistinct to the camera.

Dog-walker path

Richard Long “A Line Made by Walking”

Blackberrier path


Hanging out in Ludwell

It was late afternoon when I walked down to the dog-walking field to pick blackberries. I’d just started, around a kink in the hedge and mostly hidden from the gate, when I heard lads’ voices. Curious, I thought, for so many to walk through here. They must be on their way to some gathering, to play football, although I don’t know where, as the fields have more of a slope than Oxford United’s old Manor Ground.

The voices passed me, and grew fainter until they seemed to be some way off… until I wambled up a slope and found the group lounging, smoking and cheering on two of their number, boasting rowanberry-red boxing gloves, in gladiatorial battle.

The group was still there as I walked back in the gloaming, and I felt slightly intimidated, as is right and proper for a member of the middle class to feel around groups of youths. I also felt a mite of outrage at this invasion of ‘my’ slice of quiet countryside, and wondered whether this was a usual haunt on a Monday afternoon.

I often see kids up above the Wonford Playing Field, hunkered down below the bushes, hidden by the distance and gradient. Did this group want even more privacy? Was their activity in some small way nefarious? Or are they just a bit more local, and they just wanted to try out some new boxing gloves?

It would be great if they could take up what Exeter City Council says the Valley Parks have to offer: “ample opportunities to experience wildlife and natural open spaces“. Maybe boxing in Ludwell on an evening in the tail of summer will be a seed sown.


Blue, the colour of home

Solnit, Rebecca (2006) A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

I was lying on my back in the garden. It was thirty years ago, so my memory is hazy. But I remember it being 10pm and still light, so it must have been close to midsummer. The sky was a deep blue, cloudless; no distance to focus on, to measure. I lay on my back and stared up towards the sky, and lost myself. My eyeballs were engulfed, squeezed in their sockets. My brain reeled with vertigo as my body floated bluewards.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes of the blue of distance: “For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

She writes powerfully of desire, as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance, of cherishing the desire and loving the distance. She quotes Simone Weil: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”

And she writes of the history of blue in art, which prompted me to catch up with the recent BBC programme A History of Art in Three Colours, Blue.

The programme takes a tour of the arrival of lapis lazuli rocks in Venice, fragments of sky used to produce the pigment ultramarine, literally ‘over the sea’; of Giotto, the first to use blue to portray heaven in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua in c.1305; of the masters that followed Giotto and applied blue only to heaven or the Virgin Mary; of Titian, who liberated blue from the “shackles of religion”; of Picasso’s blue period.

The key theme is that of Solnit’s: blue is all around us in the sea, sky and horizon, and we are beguiled, because the “great blue beyond” is unattainable. In Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which had a strong influence on German Romanticism, the blue flower symbolises inspiration, love, desire, and the striving for the infinite and unattainable. Yves Klein wanted his patented colour International Klein Blue IKB79 to be a means of escape from materialism, to be deep, rich, open and liberating. Engaging with his paintings is less a search for meaning, more a way of experiencing and enjoying freedom.

But the programme ends with Earthrise, the photograph taken by Bill Anders as Apollo 8 orbited the moon for the fourth time. Blue is now no longer the colour of other worlds. It is the colour of our own planet. Here is the irony: that blue is used to portray the divine, the infinite, and the unattainable wide blue beyond, while it is in fact the colour of home.

Solnit is saying that even when we reach that point which had been the horizon, or those remote mountain ranges, they are blue no longer. As I write, I look out of my window, and see blue only in the sky. There is little natural blue as I walk around my suburbs or in Ludwell Valley Park. So my questions are whether the blue of distance can, like a Klein bottle, curve round on itself and lead me home; whether my intellectual blue skies pondering can lead me to a deeper present; and whether I can learn to love the distance, because it reveals my desires.

Some 15 years after I lay in that garden, I pointed my camera at the cloudless blue dome above the island of Iona and took a photo. The print shop didn’t print it, and I didn’t notice until it was too late to ask why. Perhaps the staff took it upon themselves to quality control it, or perhaps the print machine couldn’t focus to resolve the colour, or perhaps it couldn’t compute blue skies in Scotland in April. But in that ‘thin place’, the sky was present to me and I to the sky. And so I want my home to become a thin place, and I want always to see with the blue-tinted contact lenses that I put in my eyes each morning.


Woodwater plants

The house martins were gathering and sporting on the wing, prior to departure for warmer climes, and Mark Lane from Wilderness Guide kindly popped over to retrace my June footsteps in Woodwater Lane, and see what plants we could find in September.

Mark also gave me some tips on triangulation, or plant identification through three pieces of evidence from: smell, leaf, flower, season, family (shared characteristics) and habitat. And here are a couple of helpful websites:

Fifty Findings

  1. Darwin’s barberry – small purple fruits can be made into jam, end-July
  2. Quinces – won’t go soft; showing signs of turning red; wait til November to pick
  3. Ash
  4. Field maple
  5. Willow – non-native, by look of bark
  6. Nipplewort – lobed leaves, spring greens; so named as cure for cracked nipples, though uncertain re how to prepare and apply
  7. Garlic mustard or Jack in the hedge – spring greens
  8. Has characteristics of euphorbia
  9. Umbellifer – currently plant is too small to distinguish between cow parsley or chervil
  10. Mint family, possibly red dead nettle – square stem, edible but pungent
  11. Possibly same again, although flower purple not red

Mark lives, works and teaches tracking and foraging. They require different ways of looking. Foraging entails focusing on small areas, and alertness to details of particular plants. The wide view is lost. Tracking requires an alertness to the wide view, to the edges of perception, to divergences from normal. I asked Mark about a birdsong – is that a hedge sparrow? But he listens not to identify, but for signs of alarm, and the ‘sparrow’ song was more a demarcation of territory.

  1. Elm – leaf rough like cat’s tongue, lobes of different size; wood doesn’t rot, difficult to split; crossed strains are more resilient to dutch elm disease, and there are huge specimens at County Hall
  2. Oak – particular tree has a few galls and fewer acorns (try Dunsford Gardens instead); acorns are nutritious, and can be made into e.g. coffee and bread flour, though the tannins need leaching
  3. Holly – pig fodder, or tea; dense wood, good for carving; partners oak – ‘king oak’ victorious at summer solstice but then declines and ‘king holly’ victorious at winter solstice; bad luck to cut tree down
  4. Ribwort plantain – named for ribs in leaves; also broad-leaf variety; edible in spring, becomes fibrous; high tannin, anti-histamine (better for nettle stings than dock), anti-inflammatory so good for wounds; seeds can be ground and used as thickener
  5. Hazel – roofing spars, bow drills, charcoal; milk from early nuts
  6. Beech – third best firewood after oak and ash; mast edible and source of oil
  7. Hawthorn – good firewood but also bad luck to cut down; berries used to make fruit leather or Turkish delight; lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular function
  8. Willow herb
  9. Field maple again
  10. Wych elm, 80 years or more – bigger leaves than elm, fluff in leaf joins; more resilient to dutch elm disease
  11. Bird cherry, not wild – weird Latin
  12. Dogwood – distinctive veins in leaves, which produce latex; straight stems used for skewers and arrows; good artists’ charcoal
  13. Spindle – smooth wood so no splinters and good for spindles, hence name; also known as ‘snake wood’ for the bark; wood good for artists’ charcoal; fruit is bright orange and poisonous
  14. Groundsel or ragwort – poisonous
  15. Pink? Pimpernel? – looks like scarlet pimpernel
  16. Hawkbit or catsear – similar to dandelion
  17. Cinque foil – not edible
  18. Yarrow – tea, medicines, wounds; contains beta thujone, ‘active ingredient’ in wormwood, absinthe
  19. Prunus – garden escapee; damsons in wild will degenerate and become smaller and more bitter
  20. Ash – keys are edible, e.g. pickle; buit as I’m allergic, probably best not…
  21. Privet – poisonous
  22. Wood avens or Herb bennet – roots can be used instead of cloves; roots and leaves for tea; leaves have 3+2 lobes; small yellow flower + burrs
  23. Laurel – crushed leaves smell of almond, i.e. cyanide; wood has nice creamy and red grain, used for bowls
  24. Is this privet?
  25. Or is that privet?

Mark’s immense knowledge of wild plants and their uses was giving out as we encountered suburbia!

  1. Cotoneaster family
  2. Box, variegated garden variety – used to make boxes; compare with privet, leaves are smaller, glossier and 3D-er
  3. Garlic mustard seed pods
  4. Honeysuckle – simple leaves (compare clematis); flower edible and good for sore throats
  5. Herb robert – red stem; neither herb nor edible
  6. Sloes
  7. Viburnum – looks like bay from a distance
  8. Black bindweed – seeds black, three-lobed and edible; at first glance looked like Russian vine to me
  9. Compass plant – in lettuce family, lactates and produces latex, hence Lactuca; leaf has spiny central vein
  10. Snow berry – inedible, ornamental
  11. Yellow fumitory
  12. Pendulous sedge – edible heads; plus lots of other grasses we didn’t really look at
  13. Vetch
  14. Orange hawkbit in my garden

And photos of most of them. Not very good ones, as they were mainly taken in a hurry as aide memoires. Here’s spindle…

Green Lanes

Green lanes typically follow a ridge, have deep banks, and are typically rich in biodiversity with established hedgerows and old trees. The part of Woodwater Lane we explored has the feel of times of yore, almost enclosed in greenery.

Apart from the occasional meander, probably around a property like Ludwell Lane around Mushroom Farm, the green lanes in this part of town tend to run parallel to the river. Mark told me of a mysterious green lane, supposedly starting at a gate on Barrack Road next to the Territorial Army, and running to County Hall. From the Google Maps satellite view, the eastern half is marked by a line of trees and runs next to Gras Lawn, but it’s not easy to make out the western half, and none of it appears on the 1801 OS map of Exeter.