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Archive for the ‘Natural History’ Category

The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

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Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans and Their Threads, Eleanor Morgan (Strange Attractor Press 2016)

Spiders are special. Like cats among the mammals, there’s a magic and a mystery to them that make them unique among the arthropods or the arachnids. Scorpions are simply sinister: spiders are simultaneously sinister and special.

Why so? It’s their webs and their waiting. Spiders that don’t spin webs still have something special about them, but that’s partly because of their web-spinning cousins. The web is the key. And Eleanor Morgan begins this book as she will go on: writing about the key to the web:

In the late summer of 2004 I began to collect the silk of spiders. These are the gossamer days, the time of year when every bush, railing, gap and crevice seems to sparkle with threads of spider web. (Introduction, pg. xv)

She’s an “artist and writer”, not a biologist, and in 2013 she completed a “PhD on the human uses of spider silk at the Slade School of Fine Art and the Department of Anthropology, University College London”. That was not a good sign, but this isn’t a pretentious, verbose or po-mo-polluted book. The first epigraph is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and there’s no ugly jargon from cultural theory. Instead, she tells interesting stories from around the world about spiders and the human beings who have collected their silk and tried to create things with it.

It has amazing properties after all, and although silk-worms have proved much easier to harvest, some garments have been made from spider-silk. And so have some gun-sights: spider-silk was once used for cross-hairs:

At the Vickers’ optical instruments factory in York, boys were still being sent out in the 1960s to look for spiders. They searched early in the morning, while the dew was still on the ground and on the spider webs, so that they were easier to spot. Each spider was placed in a separate pillbox to avoid them eating each other. […] After the silk had been collected, the spiders were returned to the common and new ones collected next morning. (pg. 44)

That’s from chapter 2, “Lining”, which has an epigraph from Euclid: “A line is a length without breadth.” Spider-silk was once the closest approach to that abstract ideal, combining extreme fineness with great strength. And great elasticity too: in chapter 5, “Vibrating”, Morgan looks at spider-silk as a form of telegraph, alerting spiders to edible captures in their webs. There are also legends about spiders being attracted by other kinds of vibration: music and singing. But did they really and regularly descend from the ceiling to hear the singing at a girls’ school in Victorian London? It doesn’t seem so, but it’s a good story and another example of the threads that human weave about spiders.

Other chapters including “Weaving”, “Transforming”, “Lining” and “Layering”. In “Layering”, Morgan writes about visiting the Science Museum in London and viewing a sinister “smothering hood” fashioned from spider-silk on the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The hood was used to “suffocate widows immediately after the deaths of their husbands, so that they might continue their ‘wifely ministrations’ in the next world.” (pg. 85) Or so old records at the Museum say. In fact, the smothering hood she looks at is nothing of the kind: it’s really “a spider web headdress worn in male initiation ceremonies” (pg. 88). Spiders often appear in magic, myth and religion, and here’s an unusual example. Were the male initiates pretending to be spiders? Again, it doesn’t seem so, but wearing the headdress was a way of smothering oneself in the specialness of spiders.

Metaphorically speaking, so is this book. It has many more strange and interesting stories and ideas, plus some strange and interesting drawings and photographs. The biggest flaw is the lack of an index. And it’s a bigger flaw than usual here. After all, an index is rather like a spider at the centre of a web, registering the vibrations in its threads. Without an index, you don’t know what’s caught in the text-web. And I would have liked more images of real spiders and their webs: the beautiful pencil-sketch of Araneus diadematus on page 4 seemed to promise more, but more didn’t come.

I assume the sketch was by Eleanor Morgan herself. If so, she draws as she writes: clearly and compellingly. Gossamer Days is a special book about special creatures. But it should be read in conjunction with a more scientific text, because spiders and their silk have more secrets and specialness than Morgan has room to describe here.

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The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne 1989)

Is Beatrix Potter the greatest of all children’s writers? No, I don’t think so. But she might be the greatest of all children’s authors. She didn’t simply write: she wrote and drew, creating very clever and funny stories that almost have the quality of folk-tales or myths. C.S. Lewis said that Squirrel Nutkin (1902) “troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.” It was his “second experience” of the bittersweet longing that he described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955).

The other Potter books, although he “loved them all”, he found “merely entertaining”. Squirrel Nutkin is one of my favourites too, but I don’t find the rest “merely entertaining”. There is something epic, on a miniature scale, about Peter Rabbit’s adventures in Mr. McGregor’s garden. Those are in the book that began everything, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902). I was disturbed by the fate of Peter’s father – “put into a pie by Mrs. McGregor” – and by the cat staring at the goldfish when I was young, so I’m almost glad that I never read The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) until I was grown-up. It’s the darkest and deathliest of Potter’s stories and I wonder if she had the German word Tod in mind when she named the eponym, as Evelyn Waugh did when he created a character called Mr. Todd for A Handful of Dust (1934).

The story was certainly meant as something new, as the opening two lines make clear:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

Tommy Brock, a “short bristly fat waddling person with a grin”, is a badger and Mr. Tod, “of a wandering habit” and detectable by odour “half a mile off”, is a fox. Mr. Tod wanders through the story too: it’s Tommy Brock who’s on stage more often. His affability and his joke about “not hav[ing] a square meal for a fortnight” disarm a rabbit grandfather called Old Mr. Bouncer, who is looking after his “rabbit-baby” grandchildren while his daughter Flopsy and son-in-law Benjamin are out. Mr. Bouncer invites Tommy into the family rabbit-hole “to taste a slice of seedcake” and a glass of his “daughter Flopsy’s cowslip wine”. But he falls asleep as Tommy smokes a “cabbage leaf” cigar, only to wake and discover that both Tommy and his grandchildren have disappeared.

Tommy has carried them off in a sack. When his daughter gets back: “He was in disgrace; Flopsy wrung her ears, and slapped him.” Benjamin sets off to track Tommy, helped by the deepness of his footprints under the weight of the sack. It turns out that Tommy has carried the babies off to one of Mr. Tod’s many residences: “something between a cave, a prison, and a tumble-down pig-stye” that stands in the middle of a wood. Benjamin and his cousin Cottontail see how the “setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame”. When Benjamin peeps through a window, he sees “preparations upon the kitchen table that made him shudder”: “an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper”, plus “a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard” – “in short, preparations for one person’s supper.”

But that one person, Tommy Brock, has gone to bed in Mr. Tod’s bed “in his boots”, leaving the rabbit-babies still alive, but “shut in the oven!” There’s a sinister atmosphere in this story and it’s as close as Potter got to the Brothers Grimm. But the sinister atmosphere is part of the black humour, which gets even stronger when Mr. Tod turns up, not at all pleased to discover that Tommy has, yet again, taken over one of his homes. He decides to take revenge on the loudly snoring – and apparently deeply asleep – Tommy, but his cunning plan backfires. That’s why Benjamin is able to get his children back. He, like Flopsy and Cottontail, had appeared before in a Potter story: she created a world, not just individual stories.

Black humour had appeared before in her stories too, particularly in “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or the Roly-Poly Pudding”. It’s about Tom Kitten, who has a narrow escape when he goes exploring the old house he lives in:

All at once he fell head over heels in the dark, down a hole, and landed on a heap of very dirty rags.

When Tom Kitten picked himself up and looked about him – he found himself in a place that he had never seen before, although he had lived all his life in the house.

It was a very small stuffy fusty room, with boards, and rafters, and cobwebs, and lath and plaster.

Opposite to him – as far away as he could sit – was an enormous rat.

“What do you mean by tumbling into my bed all covered with smuts?” said the rat, chattering his teeth.

“Please sir, the chimney wants sweeping,” said poor Tom Kitten.

“Anna Maria! Anna Maria!” squeaked the rat. There was a pattering noise and an old woman rat poked her head round a rafter.

All in a minute she rushed upon Tom Kitten, and before he knew what was happening–

He’s trussed in string and the enormous rat, Samuel Whiskers, is telling Anna Maria “to make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner”. The text goes perfectly with the drawings and I can read that single line – “‘Anna Maria! Anna Maria!’ squeaked the rat.” – again and again, because it’s so simple and so funny. Tom Kitten, like the rabbit-babies in The Tale of Mr. Tod, escapes his impending doom, but he gets nearer to it than they did: he’s been rolled in dough, with only his head and tail sticking out, when the terrier John Joiner, called in by his mother to find her missing son, manages to interrupt proceedings by sawing through the floorboards under which the two rats are living.

The rats flee, although Samuel Whiskers has first remarked to Anna Maria that he doubts the pudding would have been good: “I am persuaded that the knots would have proved indigestible, whatever you may urge to the contrary.” That’s funny and formal English, not funny and simple: Potter has the same variety and delicacy of touch in her writing as she has in her drawing. There’s another good example of a funny line in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910), when the toad Mr. Jackson encounters another of Mrs. Tittlemouse’s uninvited guests:

He met Babbity round a corner, and snapped her up, and put her down again.

“I do not like bumble bees. They are all over bristles,” said Mr. Jackson, wiping his mouth with his coat-sleeve.

“Get out, you nasty old toad!” shrieked Babbitty Bumble.

Again the line is perfectly set up and very funny. Potter’s animals are antagonistic as well as amicable. Her stories might sometimes be simply written, but they’re not saccharine or soppy. Even in the first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), there’s comi-tragedy: remember that Peter’s father was “put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor”. Potter had a sad story herself, as the biographical notes and introductions to each story describe: her parents educated her at home and kept her away from other children. She found consolation in art and animals, then the two brought her success and fame through her books.

Then they seemed to bring her a husband too: her publisher Frederick Warne proposed marriage; she accepted; and they became engaged. But he died only a few weeks later of “pernicious anaemia” and although she did eventually marry, she never had children of her own. Instead, she became perhaps the greatest of children’s authors, combining life and death, sunshine and sadness, in stories that have delighted millions of children for over a century. This collection brings all of those stories together, from the famous to the obscure, from the ones that display literary genius to the ones that aren’t so successful.

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