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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Old Whatsisname

I will confess to you now, I did once use the latin name of an animal in a conversation but, and I wish to make this absolutely clear, I didn’t inhale.

It’s true, that in scientific names lies a kind of poetry but, like bardic Welsh, it has a meter and a scheme that only a few people can truly unlock. And if they choose to try and do so, its carefully constructed rhythms stand at risk of being butchered. If that happens with the beautiful and primal Welsh language you get covered in phlegm. If it happens with scientific names one can come across as, to use a technical phrase, a bit of a tool.

It’s also true that in those names lies an originality, something vestigial and primitive; these were names granted before some scientific truths were uncovered and as a result they can be wonderfully evocative of their time. Take the Tawny Owl for instance: Stryx aluco. I’ve heard tell that this means Brown Witch. And to spend time in the dark of a woodland listening to their screeching and tumbling calls is to be reminded why nature may have appeared so unsettling to the people who first thought to call them witches.

But on the whole, it’s the common names of things that hold the real power because they hold a more personal place in a recognisable language: The cloaked minor, the vestal, ingrailed clay, the uncertain, white satin, pale prominent or oak lutestring. Poems all. These are the names which the pastoral moth collecters of previous centuries have left with us, the use of the word ‘the’ as part of the name lending the moth a familiar but imperious air. So which would you rather have, The Gothic or Naenia typica?

The botanists and ornithologists were prose poets too. I want to stumble across ploughman’s spikenard, touch the stem of the rue-leaved saxifrage and be repulsed by stinking iris. I could also wax lyrical about the churring call and soft-as-breath dusk flight of Caprimulgus vociferus or Caprimulgus carolinensis but (while in the USA at least) I’d rather talk about the beauty of the onomatopoeic Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will's-widow, just two of that country’s enigmatic nightjars.

The odd thing is, I envy my scientific colleagues that can catalogue latin names in their mind as easily as they can the names of their children. And, before I appear too hard on them, for the majority of named species it’s absolutely necessary given their tiny size and vast family trees. But I will probably always reach for the accessible, the familiar. After all, it’s the same name that was called out in identification by the people who stood in the same spot a hundred years ago and that’s a powerful continuum.

Friday, 8 July 2011

NEWS: Latest on-line publication

A short piece based on my latest post below is now one of the featured posts at Orion Magazine:

The Writing is on the Wall

Could you deconstruct and describe the sensual ingredients that make up why being outdoors makes us feel a sense of wellbeing? I’m not sure. Probably not.

But on a particular part of the Wash there is a wall. It is the sea wall. It is a barricade, there for your protection. It’s here you can go no further. You have to stop the car, climb the bank by grabbing the tussocks of grass and look out over the marsh. And most of the year it is a marsh, covered only by the sea at the spring and neap tides.

And that’s what we called it: The Marsh. In the village where I grew up this place is what is meant by The Marsh. It certainly isn’t The Seaside. The Seaside is amusement arcades and ice creams and promenades. It isn’t The Coast, either. The Coast is cliffs, spits and crashing waves. This is The Marsh; unnamed and unnameable. On one side of the sea wall are the fields and on the other side is The Marsh. And only now (having lived away for so long) I wonder why this is. I also wonder whether all of the villages around the wash call their section of creeks and wind The Marsh.

But what a place. It was here that I saw my first marsh harrier. Here that I swam in the salty cuts and picked up salty gashes. Here is where we collected samphire and here that every ingredient of the sheer experience of being out of doors is driven home by a sensual assault.

The salt marsh provides a gluttonous visual diet of greens and huge pulsating bundles of waders and geese rolling their way across the mudflats. Your nose can take in the salt of the mud and under your feet and hands you can feel either the sharp edges of coastal grasses or the slippery but unforgiving marsh mud with its black core and brown skin. This is big sky country and the utter flatness creates indescribably vast and distant cathedrals of cloud. The sorrowing curlew calls. In your ears roars a wind arriving, almost without interruption, from the steppes. Any stunted hawthorns lean landwards and you know what Sylvia Plath meant when she wrote that “the wind Pours by like destiny / bending Everything in one direction.”

It’s a place like this that teaches you what to be aware of. Everything here is so immediate and definite. Everything here is without compromise, softened and blunted by nothing. It magnifies all your senses. Makes you realise they’re there and what they’re for. It forces you to count each wave of experience. And instinctively we assimilate them to create a feeling for which, frustratingly but joyously, we can count and name the components but cannot begin to describe. And it probably doesn’t matter that we can’t. Because for me it’s the sea wall, for you it will be somewhere different. All that matters is that the place exists for everyone. Go back there and enjoy the indescribable.