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Wild Things Diary: 25 Feb. 2013
The Wild Things in our lives
It’s a late November night and I’m wrestling with a monster in the darkness. Thrashing around in a pond of freezing cold water, I’m almost on top of my quarry when I feel an odd sensation in my neither regions. There’s nothing like a leaking wetsuit to sharpen the senses.
We’re in Liverpool for the final programme and I’m on the trail of New Zealand pigmyweed, an aquatic plant that’s so invasive and damaging it will be banned from sale, although not until in April 2014. When we first arrive at the pond it all looks fairly innocuous. A thin sward of Pigmyweed can be seen over parts of the surface but it doesn’t look too bad. This has, however, been the wettest summer on record in England of course and the pond is actually at full capacity, brimming over with water. When I get in and try to move around the water is thick with stems, a tangle so impenetrable that wading around is almost impossible.
This is my last bit of filming “in the wild”. We’re nearly at the end of a very long year making the programme. Way back in March, Danish scurvy-grass started flowering on the roadsides and the cameras began rolling. It’s been quite an experience since then, hugely enjoyable but also pretty challenging at times. The most difficult part probably followed the telephone call from Channel 4 in June. “Really?” I replied, “you want a book to accompany the series? To be ready by August?” If I’d have thought about it more carefully and realised then the amount of work needed to write a book in three months, I’d have said no. But I didn’t. To be honest, this was the book I’ve always wanted to write. Every map in the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora has a story to tell and this was an opportunity to tell some of those stories, illustrated with photographs and brought to life with an accessible and, hopefully, engaging narrative. It also allowed me to go into much more detail than we could possibly cover in the TV series; thirty minutes is just not long enough to do justice to juniper, bluebells or lady’s-slipper orchid.
I’m now actually lying down, prostrate in the pond, reclining on a deep bed of New Zealand Pigmyweed. Rolling around as if I’m pulling a quilt over me, I drag vast tangles of stems up out of the water to show the camera. I don’t have a good relationship with the drysuit I’m wearing though. Apart from being bight, fluorescent yellow, it’s a tad too big for me. Yes, my bum does look big in it and I feel like an inflated banana. Then I realise that the waterproof ankle cuffs aren’t actually waterproof. A trickle of freezing cold pond water works its way down my leg. I’m in for a long, cold night.
To be honest, developing this series has been a bit of a revelation for me. I’ve been working closely with a very talented production team at CwmniDa, the TV company based in Caernarfon. Their focus has been on finding the best plant stories we can come up with, identifying those things that will capture the imagination and appeal to the broadest possible audience. At Plantlife, we tend to engage our audiences by pulling at the heart-strings, using phrases like “declined by 98%”, “only 6 plants left”, “extinct in 12 counties”, “do you remember this used to grow everywhere?” But such tales left the TV producers cold. They’d shrug their shoulders and shake their heads. It wasn’t that they didn’t care – they most certainly did – but they knew that this sort of angle just wouldn’t engage the audience. They needed to know why these plants had declined, what had driven the changes we see in the maps and what was the science behind the changes? Did this connect in some way to changes in our own behaviour? Fascinating facts, interesting science and the part we all play in our changing countryside. That’s what engages the largest audience. I’ve come away from the series with a new perspective on how we can connect people with plants.
After my distinctly soggy night with the Pigmyweed, we reach the final day of filming. We’re in the loft of Speke Hall, a wonderful Tudor manor house just outside Liverpool. It’s a spooky place in the dark and we’re literally hunting ghosts from the past. The wattle-and-daub walls are made from hazel stems collected from around the hall hundreds of years ago. On their surface, Sally shows us the tiny lichens that once grew, now preserved in the dry atmosphere of the loft. I imagine the woodland around the hall from which the hazel and their lichens were collected, thriving in the clean air 400 years ago. It’s an odd and strangely moving feeling – a direct link to the things that once grew here. Another connection made, another example of the change in our countryside. I too have learnt a lot from making this series.
For me, there have been many highlights; working with Chris, Sally and Lottie, climbing Snowdon with a camera crew, finding passion flower in the heat of London, getting experiments to work in the back of articulated lorries and, perhaps the best of all, tea and scones with the orchid ladies and coming face to face with lady’s-slipper orchid.
I’d like to extend my personal thanks to Plantlife for all their help and support during filming for the series, and to the Botanical Society of the British Isles for the use of their maps. Most importantly, though, I’d like to pay tribute to the thousands of volunteers that spend their time scouring the country recording our wild things. Nearly 20 million individual plants, mosses, liverworts and lichens have now been recorded and verified, allowing us to map the dramatic changes in our wildlife over the last 50 years. Without them, much of this change would have gone unnoticed.
Our relationship with wild plants has also changed dramatically within a generation. Unlike our grandparents, today the average adult often can’t recognize more than five different wild species. Plants have become a bit like pretty wallpaper in our lives – a pleasant but out-of-focus background for the birds, butterflies, bees and other beasties that we cherish in the countryside. In reality, though, plants perform many roles that are central to the survival of all other wild things; it’s only plants that capture energy from sunlight to create the sugar that fuels the majority of life on earth, and only plants release oxygen into the atmosphere to allow most other wild things to breathe.
Crucially, too, plants form the basic building blocks of most habitats, playing a vital role in maintaining a healthy balance within a complex web of life. Plants help purify our water, help prevent flooding and soil erosion and soak up and store huge reserves of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Plants also provide shelter and cover for many wild things; without food plants and flowers there are no butterflies for example. For us, we rely on timber, straw, fibres and leaves for essential shelter and cover; on fruits, roots and seeds for food and drink. We also benefit from medicinal herbs, refreshing teas and reviving spices and spirits derived from various leaves, bark, roots, berries and seed. We give our loved ones flowers and remember our fallen with poppies.
Our landscape is clothed in a rich mantle of plants. We see them year after year, reliable and welcome harbingers of the turning seasons. Take away all other forms of wildlife for just a few minutes and the countryside would look pretty much the same. Take away the plants, and the landscape would be barren and desolate – just bare rock and soil. The role played by plants in our lives and landscape is incomparable.