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Molly Blobs and Mother-Die. A Wildflower Walk with Roger Connard (Review)

Wildflower Walk by Roger Connard. Review by Andrea Dow

After little more than an hour spent in less than a quarter of a square mile of land there is a strange feeling of having travelled far and barely scratched the surface.

Plants hold so much, not just in terms of their visual beauty, but also in their medicinal properties, their associated stories and legends, even politics.

Of all the many things we learned on this walk, maybe the most important is that you don’t have to go far to find things that are noteworthy; that even the ‘common’, properly seen, can be beautiful, outlandish, maybe even lifesaving.

But we also learn that seeing isn’t always easy. Roger describes how his early experiences of setting out confidently to find species he ‘knew’ often ended in doubt and confusion. Many of Britain’s wild flowers are small, their variations myriad and subtle. It takes time, experience and above all patience to get to know them properly; even with the help of field guides which, though invaluable, can be overwhelming and tend to lead the amateur perplexingly (if beguilingly) astray.

Roger’s advice is to not be overly ambitious, to focus on a few species and proceed slowly, building on the knowledge you already have. Get to know your locality and always be attentive: look closely. Even a small hand- held magnifying lens can, as he says, ‘open up a whole new world.’

He’s also keen to point out that naming is secondary to looking; that flowers can and should be enjoyed for the simple fact of their beauty as much as anything else.

This is true and yet there is a sense in which naming can shine a light on what was previously hidden, seemingly invisible. Walking with someone who is highly attuned to their surroundings can sometimes feel as though they’re not so much noticing things you haven’t, as calling them into being, summoning individuals from a general sea of green: ‘Herb Robert, please step forward. Wood Sorrel and Bittercress, show yourselves.’ And they do.

The recent replacement in the Oxford Children’s Dictionary, of ‘nature words’, like bluebell, cowslip and buttercup, with what might be called ‘tech words’, such as, block graph, chatroom and broadband, is now well known, largely thanks to Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’ beautiful corrective to the omissions, The Lost Words. Macfarlane refers to the incantatory acts of naming therein as, ‘spells’, and it is the case that matching a plant to its name can feel like a key turning in a casket of hidden stories and magic lore.

On our walk we travel back to the time of Captain Cook and epic sea voyages, via a small unassuming looking white flower on the shore called scurvy grass, whose name refers to its efficacy in treating that disease due to a high vitamin C content. Near to it is the equally common and humble looking silverweed, known to the Irish as famine weed because its roots kept whole communities alive when cultivated food was scarce.

Many people know that in France a name for the dandelion, a natural diuretic, is pis- en- lit, (pee the bed), but there are many other plants named for their herbal or healing properties such as woundwort, self heal and feverfew.

Plant names can be mysterious or funny, rude, or richly poetic. Marsh marigolds are variously known as king cups, meadow bright, water dragons and molly blobs. And it’s not always the vernacular names that are most evocative. ‘Bluebell’, while perfectly apt as a description offers little to the imagination but, ‘hyacinth non scriptus’, tells an ancient, well known tale. (This title refers to the wild woodland bluebell but at one point on our walk we also encounter the Spanish variety which gives rise to a discussion about what, if anything, is truly indigenous, and the cultural and political connotations of the terms, ‘native’, ‘non-native’ or ‘invasive’.)

Some names are dark; freighted with warning. The pretty, but highly toxic, hemlock water dropwort that grows profusely along the verges has a strange parsnip-like root known as dead men’s fingers, dead tongue or horse bane. Its flower, like many similar looking plants of the umbellifer family, is sometimes referred to as mother-die. The ubiquitous bracken, in Gaelic, is ‘the lovely curse’, because of its high carcinogen content.

Plants can save or they can kill. Even the smallest flower has a voice, and people like Roger can help us to hear their stories and messages of warning, hope or healing, whispered down the years. Sometimes though, it’s absence that speaks loudest of all.

Even though it is more than sixty years since the hillside near where we are walking was cleared of the monoculture of conifer plantation; even though the land is now covered with birch, (the tree symbolising new beginnings and the first letter in the Celtic Ogham alphabet) there is a persisting and worrying lack of plant diversity here. Though most of us wouldn’t be in possession of the necessary ecological literacy to notice this: (to me, at a glance, this place looks so green, so abundantly alive.)

When asked about the decision to remove those nature referent words from the dictionary, its director stated that their choice of words best reflected the realities of modern childhood. This response, while seemingly pragmatic, echoes a more general trend in education, one that claims to prepare children for the ‘real’ world by equipping them primarily with skills required to navigate the virtual, (and exclusively human) one. Of course, children live in both worlds. We all do. And both are important but only one is essential to our survival. We need to teach children (and ourselves) not to focus disproportionally on the one, while the other slips away unnoticed, before our very eyes.

We need to give things their rightful names and to listen and look and see what’s really there. And what isn’t. For me, our walk with Roger on Sunday was a small but important step towards that.

(With thanks to everyone else on the walk who helped supply much of the plant learning and lore above, especially Gordon Stevenson and Susan McKay, also Morghan, Robin, Anna and Breagha.)