Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows

So many wonderful weeds; so little time.

Today began for me at Cley, where my life as a naturalist began some twenty-five years ago. I was, again, sharing ideas with Beth of Discovery Quest who is charged with delivering the DQ wildlife workbook to clients. Having caught up with many friends and colleagues in the visitor centre (Dave and Pat: how many avocets fledged on the reserve this year? Pat: how are the flashy goldfish? Laura: how are the guinea pig girls? Jonathan: what news of the visitor centre? Barry: how the devil are you?) Beth and I walked the four boundaries of the reserve. There was an element of cunning to this plan as our aim was to explore a range of Norfolk coast landforms and habitats and discuss their formation, their cultural importance, their wildlife and their conservation. Across the south of the reserve we talked reed-bed and grazing marsh (attractively grazed by happy-looking toffee and black cows); down the west side of the reserve we talked saltmarsh (violet with common sea lavender, that happy hue that like no other says July in North Norfolk); along the north of the reserve we talked shingle ridge and longshore drift (here yellow horned poppies and common cat's-ear turned the whole beach yellow); and down the east bank we talked landscape-scale conservation and listened to bearded tits in the reeds.

There were marsh harriers: a male, a female and two impeccable juveniles. There were wading birds already migrating south: scrapy-voiced dunlin, black-masked turnstones with chestnut backs, and sanderling. There were Sandwich terns, scrapier voiced still and still carrying silver sand-eels to their chicks. And there were many thoughts, ideas and words, on wildlife and on how best to share it with DQ's clientele.

From here we went west to one of my favourite places, a perfect picnic spot, were it not for the carpet of impossibly prickly carline thistles. DTH first took me to Warham Camp when I was a boy of fourteen and he my school biology master. I lost my heart at once to chalk grassland plants, to squinancywort, to rockrose, to pyramidal orchid, to greater wild thyme and to salad burnet. All these we saw today, at this wild, forgotten Iceni fort, plus blousy blooms of dropwort, delicate umbels of burnet saxifrage, tiny bright-eyed flowers of fairy flax and shoots of autumn gentian, the promise of flowers to come on another visit in September.

North again then, to Warham Greens, to walk into the saltmarsh, eyes blinded almost by the haze of sea lavender, noses flaring to the sharp smell of sea wormwood, ears quickening to the throaty trills of whimbrel. How soon the year turns and the birds head south. In grassland here, above the saltmarsh limits marked by sea beet and by shrubby seablite, we talked weed identification. Square stems and opposite leaves; opposite pairs of untoothed leaves; composite inflorescences; and four petals arranged in a cross. There is much joy to be had in weeds.

And then, of course, it rained again. Hard. But we went home happy with our weeds all the same.

Act Two, scene i, Oberon:
I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.

William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream

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