Shepherd’s Purse

Image

Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is flowering now in the cracks between paving stones and alongside garden walls in my suburbia. It’s the little seed pods though, not the flowers, that have endeared them to me since childhood in more rural Buckinghamshire. A little plant with dozens of hearts on stalks. But the plant gets its Latin and common English name from the resemblance of these seed pods to the purses that hung from the belts of peasants in the Middle Ages. The French name is Bourse-à-pasteur, which also means a shepherd’s purse. And when the pod is ripe, it splits open and little seeds spill out, like coins. The Dutch painter, Pieter Breugel, included one in his The Peasant Dance, painted around 1567.

Image

In his inspiring book, Weeds, Richard Mabey points out that the seeds are covered with a kind of gum, which, when moist, helps them to stick to the feet of birds, increasing their chances of dispersal. Also, according to Mabey, the resemblance of the seed pods to bladders meant that they were once thought to be an effective cure for urinary disorders – following the theory of plant ‘signatures’ put forward by the 17th-century Oxford botanist, William Coles.

In Flitting, written in 1832, the poet John Clare declares his love for the “poor persecuted weeds”  which, he points out, will still remain “where old marble cities stood.”  He composed the poem shortly after he, his wife and seven children moved to the village of Northborough (“this strange spot”). Although not far from his birthplace in the village of Helpston (“that old hut now left), he felt increasingly alienated, with bouts of severe depression. In the poem, simple weeds around his new home remind him of his beloved Helpston.

A farm worker himself, he wrote of shepherd’s purse:

E’en here my simple feelings nurse
A love for every simple weed
And e’en this little shepherd’s purse
Grieves me to cut it up – Indeed
I feel at times a love and joy
For every weed and every thing
A feeling kindred from a boy
A feeling brought with every spring.

And why – this ‘shepherd’s purse’ that grows
In this strange spot in days gone bye
Grew in the little garden rows
Of that old hut now left – and I
Feel what I never felt before
This weed an ancient neighbour here
And though I own the spot no more
Its every trifle makes it dear.

 

 

Green mist

Image

That time of Spring has come, when the bare Winter bones of twigs and branches in the woods are clothed in a thin green mist, as buds open into the most fragile and greenest-of-green new leaves. In a month the whole woodland will have changed and it will no longer be possible to see far.

Magnolia

kenwood and fitter magnolias_blogpost (1 of 1)

It’s odd that the blossoming of a tree that is native to the Himalayan mountains should herald Spring in suburban London, but that is what the magnolia does. And this one on the slope on the south side of Kenwood House is particularly splendid. It is now in full flower, on 16 March. In 2009 it was at the same state of blossom on 24 March and last year, 2012, it did not bloom  until after 2 April, according to the newsletter of the Friends of Kenwood.

The tree was probably planted in 1925, or shortly after, when the house was bought by Edward Cecil Guinness, First Earl of Iveagh. Arthur Oxford was appointed first head gardener that year. When  Guinness died in 1927, he bequeathed the house to the nation.

In March 2009, shortly after the birth of my second son, I went up to the south terrace of Kenwood almost every day to photograph the tree in full bloom. For several days I went home without a picture because the flowers weren’t completely out yet.

In 1945 the famous bird photographer, Eric Hosking, had taken a photograph of the magnolia at almost exactly the same time of year, for R.S.R. Fitter’s endlessly interesting book, London: A Natural History, published in 1947. What’s interesting in Hosking’s photograph is the oak tree to the left of the magnolia, with a bench around it, on which sit   visitors to the grounds. The tree is no longer there.

Hosking, who famously had an eye pecked out by an owl as he climbed into a hide to retrieve his camera, was the anonymous photographer of the swan that was used for the drawing n the Swan Vestas matchbox.

swan vestas

Sixth Greenwich Annuale

Percheron dray horses with a girl from the Perche region of France (i.e. a Percheronne)
Percheronne with Percherons

The London Independent Photography (LIP) Greenwich group is holding its Sixth Annuale exhibition from 8 – 22 August at The Greenwich Gallery , Linear House, Peyton Place, London SE10 8RS. The private view is tonight from 6.20 pm – 8.30 pm and is open to all. I will be exhibiting my photo ‘Percheronne’.  It was taken in the Perche region of France (Basse Normandie, or Lower Normandy) where I spent a year in a cottage in Eperrais, a tiny village between Mortagne and Belleme.

Le Perche

Percherons are magnificent dray or cart horses and were once used as war horses. A Percheronne would be a female Percheron, but also a girl or woman from the Perche region.

The Perche region is famous for its mushrooms and also its salami sausages (saucisse sèche). There’s wonderful cider and organic cider vinegar to be had, too. The forests have wild deer and mostly maiden (i.e. straight, not coppiced or pollarded) trees (oak and beech). One oak, the Chêne de l’Ecole, is 42 metres high and is nearly 350 years old.  Most oaks of this age in Britain are pollards, with their gnarled fat trunks, so it was a surprise to me to see a very old but slim tree.

Chêne de l'Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak
Chêne de l’Ecole, 350 year-old maiden oak

The forests and woodland in this part of France are managed very much as they used to be in Britain 200 or more years ago.  The forests are used for hunting game,  for mushrooms and for long, straight timber.  Elsewhere there are private coppice woods used to produce small lengths of wood for fencing, broom handles, firewood, etc.

Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche
Pinhole photograph of coppice wood with standard trees at Clinchamps in the Perche

In most coppice woods in Britain, like parts of Epping Forest, the trees haven’t been cut back (coppiced) for over a hundred years, so the ‘poles’, which would have been harvested every 15 years or so have grown into mature trees, sometimes in a circle around what used to be the stump of the original tree (see post on the Hornbeam in Highgate Wood).

When I came across the coppice wood in a little village called Clinchamps, with coppice stools mixed with maiden trees, I felt I was seeing a textbook version of the traditional coppice woodland described by Oliver Rackham in his book, Woodlands, but mostly disappeared from Britain.

Hibiscus

HIbiscus siriacus
HIbiscus syriacus

Hibiscus syriacus doesn’t originally come from Syria, but eastern Asia, probably China and Korea.  It’s been in bloom in our garden and others around here in northwest London  for the past few days. So popular with gardeners it might better be called Hibiscus suburbus. But I love it when our bush flowers as it goes from green leaves and pregnant buds to a mass of white and pink-tinged flowers almost overnight. And at last the bush is taking on a more natural form after the downstairs neighbour,  in love with his power tools and a  rectilinear decking aesthetic,  took a chain saw to it two years ago and made it into a box of twigs on a stalk. LIke a square lollipop. Since they left, I’ve been able to prune it and shape it by hand using secateurs and an eye for shape rather than any real knowledge of what I am doing.

Hornbeam

Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood
Old Hornbeam coppice, Highgate Wood – this is one tree, the ‘trunks’ growing from a now buried stump

Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, also known as iron wood, or yoke elm because the wood is so hard it can’t be worked easily. It was mainly used for ox yokes, cogs and cartwheels. The grown-out coppice stools like this one in Highgate wood would also have been used for firewood or charcoal, as it burns slowly and brightly ‘like a candle’.  It was used for the tall, dense hedges of the original maze in Hampton Court, although these have since been replaced.

The poet John Clare was fond of hornbeam, which is one of the principal trees in Epping Forest, where he spent four years in the High Beach asylum, from 1837-1841, suffering from severe depression. He was allowed considerable freedom to walk in the forest and, indeed, in July 1841  walked out of the asylum and followed the Great York Road  until he reached his home in Northborough, 80 miles away, four days later. That year, while at High Beach, he wrote  Child Harold, mentioning the hornbeam:

How beautiful this hill of fern swells on.
So beautiful the chapel peeps between
The hornbeams with its simple bell – alone
I wander here, hid in a palace green.

20130805-_1040383_hornbeam_small

Seeing the hornbeams, I was reminded of a three-trunked hornbeam in the Bois de Vincennes, just east of Paris, in whose shade for seven years, every Saturday morning, I learned tai chi with my friend and teacher Li Gui Sheng and fellow student and friend Claude.

9911-2-06

Every Saturday that is, until, in a few hours after midnight on 26 December 1999, a hurricane blew down the forest. Miraculously ‘our’ tree was spared, though it took us several hours to find it amid the tangled mess of fallen trunks. About a year later we cleared a space beneath the tree again, now sporting a mass of side shoots from its trunk in an all-out fight for survival. But it wasn’t the same. The squirrels had gone, replaced by pheasants, now the forest was more like heathland or scrub. And the dog walker who had shouted after “Whisky” and “Frisky”, as we fought invisible opponents in slow motion, had found another route.

0504cercledenergie

They’re back!

“Look! They’re back! Look!” wrote Ted Hughes in his poem “Swifts”. It was a 15 May.  While “walking the dog” over the past years, I’ve been noting when the swifts return from Africa to the streets around where I  live, in northwest London. And how many there are. It was, with surprising synchrony, on 15 May that I first heard them screeching overhead this year. And, even three weeks later, there are still just four of them. There were nine last year. Seventeen the year before. Which end of their migration is to blame? Disappearing nesting sites, here? Insecticides in Africa?

And, the elms he mentions are long gone, too, apart from a few in Brighton and here and there.  Maybe, one day, we’ll be able to say “Look! They’re back!” about them, too.

Swifts

by Ted Hughes

Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. The swifts
Materialise at the tip of a long scream
Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ And they’re gone
On a steep

Controlled scream of skid
Round the house-end and away under the cherries. Gone.
Suddenly flickering in sky summit, three or four together,
Gnat-whisp frail, and hover-searching, and listening

For air-chills – are they too early? With a bowing
Power-thrust to left, then to right, then a flicker they
Tilt into a slide, a tremble for balance,
Then a lashing down disappearance

Behind elms.
They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come —
And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones
Shrapnel-scatter terror. Frog-gapers,
Speedway goggles, international mobsters —

A bolas of three or four wire screams
Jockeying across each other
On their switchback wheel of death.
They swat past, hard-fletched

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again. Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades

Sparkle out into blue —
Not ours any more.
Rats ransacked their nests so now they shun us.
Round luckier houses now
They crowd their evening dirt-track meetings,

Racing their discords, screaming as if speed-burned,
Head-height, clipping the doorway
With their leaden velocity and their butterfly lightness,
Their too much power, their arrow-thwack into the eaves.

Every year a first-fling, nearly flying
Misfit flopped in our yard,
Groggily somersaulting to get airborne.
He bat-crawled on his tiny useless feet, tangling his flails

Like a broken toy, and shrieking thinly
Till I tossed him up — then suddenly he flowed away under
His bowed shoulders of enormous swimming power,
Slid away along levels wobbling

On the fine wire they have reduced life to,
And crashed among the raspberries.
Then followed fiery hospital hours
In a kitchen. The moustached goblin savage

Nested in a scarf. The bright blank
Blind, like an angel, to my meat-crumbs and flies.
Then eyelids resting.
Wasted clingers curled.
The inevitable balsa death.
Finally burial
For the husk
Of my little Apollo —

The charred scream
Folded in its huge power.

Trees