In the Just William stories the hero was once asked to empty his pockets to see if there was incriminating evidence of some misdemeanour in them. He turned them out but all they contained were conkers and a bit of string. Good for him. I’ve been happily filling my pockets with conkers on recent walks, too. I love the bright mahogany colour and polished surfaces and the gentle ‘ping’ they make if one drops onto a hard surface; but above all I love their tactile qualities – the heft of them in the hand and the soft, slippery feel when you jiggle a few of them round together. Deeply therapeutic, and a reminder that touch is the first of the senses we acquire in exploring our world, and also the last to go as the others fade. It’s also the only one of the five senses that isn’t based on just one sense-organ but gives us an all-round bodily awareness. I must confess to being a bit of a tree-hugger for the same reasons. Don’t think I’m promiscuous, mind you – I have my standards. I’m especially attracted to trees with heavily corrugated barks like oak, sweet chestnut and black poplar. If you run your hands over one of those you can almost feel the life running through it and share something of its ancient strength and endurance.
Oaks, of course, also give us acorns, another sensory delight, with that satisfying spherical shape, topped off with a rough warty cap. I also collect acorns in my pockets at this time of year and add them to the conkers to dress a bowl with autumn’s finest fruits. There is a tiny perfection about them, which was celebrated in a wonderful image by Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century visionary (and author of the first book in English by a woman). She held an acorn in the palm of her hand and declared it a symbol of the whole, living world.
Conkers used to be a common children’s game (hence William’s piece of string, I expect), before well-meaning authorities decided that it posed an insurance risk. We paraded our best conkers in competition, trying to convert a oncer into a twicer, or even a champion tenner. This led to all manner of underhand tactics like baking or pickling them to improve their concussive powers, but it did at least give children direct some contact with nature. We learned some years ago that the Oxford Junior Dictionary was dropping words like Acorn, Bluebell and Conker in favour of the new children’s ABC of Attachment, Blog and Chatroom. A terrible warning: lose the experience and you lose the language too.
13 Aug 2023
Lovely display of toadflax on the beach side of the Coastguards Cottages. Best we've seen for years.
21 Jul 2023
Musk thistles, also known as nodding thistles – you'll see why from the image – are in flower by the roadside near the tennis court.
09 Jul 2023
We're living in a blaze of yellow at present: gorse, broom, drifts fo ladies bedstraw, and the mulleins marching like soldiers across the grasslands.
Village Voices Nature Note: Who Belongs Here?
Immigration is an emotive subject. In the natural world, that is, never mind the human one. People are rightly very keen to protect what remains of our natural heritage of native plants and animals – we’ve lost so much in the last 75 years or so, most of it through our own doing. But that has also made us suspicious of foreign competition, particularly when it seems to threaten some favourite native species. It’s true that historically there have been some disastrous introductions of invasive species: whether accidental, in the case of the beetles in imported timber that gave us the Dutch elm disease which changed our landscapes for ever; or deliberate, in the case of North American grey squirrels that were released at Woburn Abbey in the nineteenth century and have since been displacing our native red squirrels (and hence get blamed, like the American wartime GIs, for being oversized, oversexed and over here).
It gets historically and emotionally complicated, however, when we start to challenge the origins of anything we regard as a pest or a public nuisance. Take the case of Alexanders, the wild parsley with the glossy green leaves and yellowish heads we see flourishing now on roadside verges in coastal districts. I’ve heard the most xenophobic descriptions of it as a ‘foreign’ or even, on an ascending scale of hostility, an ‘alien’ plant, to be eradicated before it overwhelms all our hard-pressed natives. And there are regular patriotic campaigns to decapitate all these unwelcome invaders.
Hang on, though. The Alexanders came here with the Romans some two thousand years ago, valued as an all-purpose spring vegetable. The leaves were used in salads, the roots roasted like parsnips and the black seeds ground as spice. The monks used to cultivate Alexanders in their herb gardens in the medieval period. And the name itself has nothing to do with Alexander the Great’s all-conquering invasions but is an English corruption of the Latin name Olus Ater (‘Black Herb’). If you’re going to say Alexanders are non-natives that don’t belong here, how about our much-loved Brown Hares that arrived about the same time? How about our glorious Horse Chestnut trees, which came from Turkey in the sixteenth century; or the cute Little Owls, introduced only in the late nineteenth century? What about buddleia for that matter– imported from China in the 1890s – which nature-lovers actively plant to support our native butterflies? It’s hard to be consistent.
In deep history, the most invasive species of all has of course been Homo sapiens, populating the whole globe and continuing to displace its wildlife everywhere. Who is the real menace?
Jeremy Mynott 6 June 2023
18 Jun 2023
The Viper's bugloss is flowering everywhere now. Such an intense blue. It's sometimes treated as a weed because it will grow in poor soil but I think of its as one of our most beautiful summer wild flowers here. 'Bugloss' means 'Ox tongue' because of its coarse-feeling leaves.
11 Jun 2023
Not sure if this is a wildlife item but a giant Mediterranean fennel has shot up like Jack's beanstalk in our garden, already about 12 foot tall and growing ...
25 May 2023
Wonderful May blossom this year.
Just wish there were more butterflies to pollinate it. Their numbers seem sharply down.
Village Voices Nature Note: Trees of Character
Birdwatchers often talk of identifying a bird at a distance just by its ‘jizz’, its characteristic outline and behaviour. We can all do this with people, too – you can recognise a friend or family member a long way off, just by their profile and the way they walk. Most trees have a very distinctive outline as well. When I was a child my parents tried to distract me on what then seemed to me interminable car journeys by playing a game of counting the different trees we could identify on the way. Once you got your eye in it was easier than you might think and we’d usually get quite a good tally in the ten miles or so before I asked, ‘Are we nearly there yet?’. Try it next time you drive children to Woodbridge or Ipswich, as a green alternative to electronic toys.
Anyway, once you know the common trees any strangers start to stand out and I’ve seen some unusual tree species this month. One was in a scruffy churchyard with some Yews and Ash and it flummoxed me at first. But when I got close I could see some of last year’s leaves and shrivelled brown fruits on the ground and I noticed the smooth trunk was peeling away in chequered plates. Ah, Chequers, the old country name for a fine but now rare native British tree, the Wild Service.
We also visited the Gainsborough Gallery in Sudbury last month, which has a charming little garden at the back, once a herb garden or a domestic orchard, I guess. They have a trio there of ancient trees of great distinction – a large spreading Mulberry, propping itself up with twisted limbs bent down to the ground like elbows; a quince, famous in classical times for its ‘golden apples’, which make superb quince jelly (perfect with cheeses); and thirdly a Medlar, the fruit that famously goes rotten almost before it is ripe, but is delicious if you can catch it just right. None of these three is native to Britain, but they are now long-established residents and add great character to our treescapes.
My final encounter was the best, though. I unexpectedly came across a magnificent tree standing almost alone in a field near Butley. And this time I did recognise it straightaway. It had a very characteristic tilt to it and deep corrugations in the corky bark. A Black Poplar, once common in East Anglia and a familiar sight in Constable’s paintings, but now endangered following the drainage of our water meadows for ‘development’. I couldn’t resist it. I gave it a hug.
Jeremy Mynott 4 March 2023
10 Aug 2022
Some lovely clumps of golden samphire in flower in the marsh near the end of the spit.