I begin 2014 with the usual 13 resolutions, and by the end of the first week I’ve broken them all, necessitating a second go. Even with this new start it’s heavy going, made more so by earache. It’s so unfamiliar that I think it’s the first time – and instantly remember being sent to bed with one of my dad’s grey woollen socks folded into a neat pad, and a hot water bottle. Or maybe that was toothache? At any rate it has me tumbling back to a 50s childhood and a trail of other unwelcome memories – syrup of figs and cod liver oil and having my wild hair crimped into neat waves, and having to BE NICE. In fact the pain subsides quickly but I’m left with a head full of meringue which makes me quite deaf in one ear and feeling somehow remote even from the delights of the real world.
Which is also not as it was, or seemed to be: the natural world, that is. In Finland, my neighbour tells me, last year ended without the snow so important for light in the winter months. Closer to home, our post-Christmas walks saw the shape of the north Norfolk coastline changed dramatically after December’s storms and tidal surges, with sea defences breached in several places, homes flooded and habitats subject to what the Environment Agency described as ‘devastating’ damage. This in turn raises questions about priorities when repairing and rebuilding defences: from a limited budget, should our first concern be homes, farm land or wildlife?
Often the blame for environmental damage lies clearly at our door. Yesterday I caught the end of a Radio 4 news item on peat bogs, my wonky ears alerted by the mention of Carlisle, my stamping ground prior to Cambridge. Peat bogs apparently store more carbon than forests, helping to lessen the threat of climate change, and huge amounts of water, helping to prevent flooding. Rich in plants and wild life, they took 10,000 years to form but, in just a few decades, 95% of the UK’s lowland peat mosses have been lost through peat extraction. So the RHS is stepping up its campaign to persuade gardeners to help stop their destruction. Alasdair Brock of Natural England described the experience of getting down on hands and knees at Wedholme Flow in Cumbria, now a nature reserve, in an area where sphagnum mosses are flourishing. ‘The beauty is in the small scale of it all,’ he said. ‘It’s not a big tree. It’s not something you can hug... but as they grow… you will get tussocks with a myriad of colours, from the oranges to the wine reds to the plums… it’s wonderful.’
This delight in the miniature chimed nicely with an article, sent to me by my good friend Tim, about Schistostega pennata, a rare moss found in caves and clefts in rock. It earns its common name ‘goblin’s gold’ for its tendency to glow in the dark like ‘pale green fire’ and not surprisingly may have had magical significance. Perhaps 2014 will be for me the Year of the Moss: the macro version surfaced in the pages of Jean Sprackland’s Strand, transporting me in spirit to the peat mosses and sands of the Fylde coast last week whilst bodily I was stuck on a string of buses. There, on the beach, the past emerges in a scattering of sea coal, in the remnants of submarine forest visible at low tide, and in the muddy outcrops, complete with human and animal footprints, which sometimes appear and disappear with the tide.
What lies beneath the surface of the garden? I often imagine its history layered in strata below the topsoil, and wonder what has appeared on the end of a spade over the years of digging. Fragments of crockery, perhaps? Remains of vegetables from the allotments? Keys? Coins? Letters? Time I investigated the mosses here, too: apparently they contribute to the garden’s recognition as a City wildlife site. For now, though, the unusually mild winter has produced plenty to keep my attention: more snowdrops than ever before for the time of year, iris & daffodil shoots, even a daisy or two opening in the sun. The warmth is reflected in the hot colours of Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, the crimson stems of the Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and the fiery tendrils of the witch hazel Hamamelis x intermedia. Delicious scents – Daphne bholua and the prettily-named winter sweet Chimonanthus praecox – follow me through the winter garden, and the lovely fragrance of winter box waits for me as I approach the Brookside gate.
[If you'd like to read Tim's interesting article in full, it's called 'Goblin's Gold' and you can find it in 'Living World' at http://storvaxt.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/goblins-gold.html]
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden