From June until September the narrow road which passed our house and skirted around the lake almost disappeared. Through the middle of the road long grass was hardly bothered by passing cars, and out from the bottom of the fields, under and over the barbed wire and rotting fence posts, banks of green growth fell out in excess. These wild hedges were grasses mostly, dock and nettles, the stunted trees, whitethorn, hawthorn and hazel and the bright colours of a great many wild flowers which were of no interest to me. I remember them for the many frustrated walks and cycles with my sisters, stopping every five minutes to add more flowers to their wilting handfuls. All through the summer these damp offerings were spread around the house in little vases, and cups when the vases ran out, and forgotten about so the water turned brown and slimy and the flowers rotted where they sat.
When I was quite a lot older I went to stay with a friend in Dorset, in England. Walking around the picturesque cliffs on a particularly hot summer’s day we stopped above the small town of Eype for a picnic. Looking down over the byways and fields I noticed a large number of middle aged people who appeared to stop every so often and peer into the hedgerows, as they call them there. My friend told me they were flower enthusiasts. Dorset, and the whole south coast, she said, is a haven for such people who come every spring and summer to identify the many different wild flowers. On the way back down to the town I picked a few flowers and carried them home in the tinfoil from my sandwich. At the house there was a two volume Readers Digest guide to the wild flowers of Britain and Ireland. With my six or seven flowers laid out in front of me I searched patiently through the big, glossy pages until I was satisfied I had them all named. Herb Robert, purple tufted vetch, germander speedwell, bird’s foot trefoil, harebell, dog rose. As I flicked back and forth, holding up my flowers at different angles, I found, impressed on the pages, relics of previous flower hunters, desiccated real life versions of the beautiful pictures which showed the flowers at their height, in vibrant colours and light.
For the next few days of my stay I walked up and down the hills collecting as many flowers as I could. The only one I couldn’t bring myself to pick was the bee orchid, a sensational purple and yellow flower out of place in the cow field I found it in, and quite rare. All these flowers went straight into the Readers Digest volumes, under a large Atlas and a solid brass ash tray, necessary weight to press the flowers thoroughly. Just as when I was ten, first learning French, repeating over and over ‘Je m’appelle Patrick’ in case I forgot, I went around in a kind of crazed mantra repeating the names of the three dozen flowers I had discovered. Cursing when I couldn’t remember the name I returned to the Readers Digest book to revise my knowledge. My friend was relieved to see the back of me, and my flowers, which I took deposited between various pages of the three novels I had brought to read but never opened.
I bought the new edition of that Readers Digest double volume as soon as I was home but not long after in a second hand book shop I picked up another double volume with an inscription on the fly leaf, ‘Mabel Francis, July 25th, 1914’. The momentousness of the date and the antiqueness of the name persuaded me to buy it. Published in 1905 it must have been one of the first books to have plates, ninety-six of them, printed in colour. That it was ‘by Ann Pratt’ struck me as interesting. My Readers Digest was not written by anyone, it was edited and compiled. But this was nothing like the Reader’s Digest. Included in the first volume was a separate and complete contents page hand-written in beautiful italic script. Some names I recognised, others not.
Names populate the two books, circulating, recurring, drawing out lyrics and stories in their wonderful clarity. Rest harrow whose tiny, crimson flowers stem from powerful roots ‘arresting the work of the plough in spring’, but whose same sweet roots gave succour to the miners; wild straw-berry collected and woven onto cords of straw to sell to traveller’s on the road; fleabane, the smoke of the yellow flowers driving away gnats and flies; St John’s Wort, burned in fires and hung in windows to mark St John’s feast day, but earlier again known plainly as Balm of the Warrior’s Wound for its healing properties; knotted fig-wort known in France as Herbe de Siege after soldiers relied on the root for survival when Cardinal Richelieu laid siege to the town of Rochelle in 1628; hedge woundwort which Gerarde once used to bound a man’s arm n Kent after he nearly severed it with a scythe, the downy hairs of which are collected by a certain type of bee to fleece its cells, leading an eighteenth century observer to write “this bee may be said to exercise the trade of a clothier.”
From the first entry, wild hyacinth, blue bell to us, the writer compels you to remember. The scene is from childhood ‘wandering in the woods in April and May, the ground strewn with blue flowers, winter is over, the turtle is heard again in the land.’ She draws from all over the British isles and Ireland the fragments of local history, of personal experience which make meaningful the many flowers, makes them resonate. No better example is her description of the scent of the Ransom, broad-leafed wild garlic: “In the Isle of man it is very abundant, and the graveyard of the church of Kirk Braddon is so full of it, that often when the Sabbath bells are chiming, its odour is borne afar upon the breeze, as the feet of those who are going up to the house of god have trodden upon it.”
I began to collect old flower books and herbals, books written at a time when it would have been unthinkable to list flowers without including their uses, powers and stories. Some are specific to a region, driven only by that clear and intense love for a countryside which fills a life and a memory, others are compilations, written by people who wanted to record stories which vary from place to place. These stories are now enveloped with my own. Bee orchids are preserved in a rough field in Dorset; sorrel always grows by a ruined castle in Cork; hawthorn blossom is only ever seen through the window of a train heading west. When a paper thin poppy floats out from the pages of a forgotten book and settles on the floor there is “some brief delight, some memory that had taken flight, some chime of fancy, wrong or right, or stray invention”. I have forgotten all those names I once learnt so religiously in the south of England. But associations and stories remain, making a spring walk something like re-visiting old friends.
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