Natural world; Planet Earth; child-level; transitional objects
Recently, during a Golden Wedding anniversary celebration, there was a surprise impromptu version of the TV game, Mr and Mrs. (For those unfamiliar with this, the idea is to find out how well a husband and wife know each other.) On this occasion, the questions were kindly and helpful, so we both scored perfectly. The only moment of doubt came when I was asked Ruth’s favourite colour. As far as I know, she doesn’t have one, always preferring subtle tones that are set in a context of other colours, rather as Cezanne in his landscapes. But given that I had to offer a single colour, I ventured to suggest that her favourite colour was gold. She replied without hesitation: “It is today!” Perhaps fifty years together have helped us develop such shared survival mechanisms.
It so happened that a short time earlier, I had been asked a similar question by a child, which came to mind for obvious reasons when you know my reply. She asked me my favourite flower. In this case there was no doubt in my mind at all. It is the Tormentil. Yes, the lowly, diminutive cruciform shiny yellow plant that grows on the hillsides.
Its Latin name is Potentilla Erecta, which seems ironic in that it often appears at the level of the grass growing around it. None of the children or young people had heard of it, and so I explained that I would show them one on our next mountain walk.
We were on to the slopes of the nearby Moel-y- Gest, with the Snowdon Horseshoe coming into view, when I asked whether any of the group had seen one yet. No one had. So I explained that they had been walking over them and occasionally treading on them for several minutes. In fact, if we knelt down right now, we would see them under our noses. We did. And there they were. Each four-petalled flower growing seemingly by itself, though actually connected by low-lying runners. Very soon each child was looking at one. They were everywhere. And immediately they seemed to understand why I was so fond of them.
Focussing on the specimen nearest me, I told how when I was climbing mountains by myself I sometimes stopped and stooped to take in the deep shiny yellow of a Tormentil. It was a companion in the vast silence of the mountains. And I ventured that, more often than not, I was the only person who would ever see this particular plant. It made the encounter that much more significant, even poignant. How remarkable that such lavish attention to detail should have been given to something so small and so seemingly insignificant, that might never be seen or remarked by anyone else.
After a while we followed the path that led over a stile and through fern-covered rocks to the crags at the top of the mountain. We had a great time exploring various routes up some of the slabs. I thought we had left the topic of my favourite flower behind, but it cropped up in a variant form as we had a picnic while sitting on some rocks at the foot of the summit crags. We began to notice the lichens and mosses growing on them. Often overlooked, these rather strange, hybrid like species hold the key to life on land. They represent a transition between bare rock, and what will eventually become grasses, flowers and shrubs.
Stonecrop and lichen beside the direct route up Cnicht, North Wales
It is one of the great joys of our holidays in North Wales that we have the opportunities and times to notice and discuss aspects of the natural world that tend to escape the notice of most people. And that we do so in their natural habitats.
I have never been fully attracted to or persuaded by gardens, and it’s likely that a colour defect involving reds and greens doesn’t help my appreciation of complex and colourful borders and flower-beds. (I can’t see poppies in a green field for example unless they are pointed out to me.) But a little Tormentil or lichen draws me intuitively to pause and admire it, and evoke a sense of wonder, even awe.
Perhaps unconsciously I am reflecting the sort of humility, the coming down to ground level, that is integral to respecting, understanding, playing with little children. Perhaps the lichen represent childhood: that stage between the early phase of life on earth, the basis of the growth and maturity that follows.
Whether this is so or not, there were two associations stirred by reflecting on this walk on our local hill. One concerns Donald Winnicott and an incident recalled by my dear friend Simon Rodway. He told how on one occasion he observed Winnicott meeting a child for the first time for a preliminary assessment. Simon told how Winnicott took off his jacket, got down on the floor and did nothing but play with the boy, spontaneously, and at the boy’s pace. That was all he did, commented Simon. As I knelt down on the hillside with the children there was a similar dynamic. If we are ever to begin to glimpse any understanding of the mystery of childhood, surely it will involve some form of stooping or coming down, not as a gesture or procedure, but because that is the only way to get to know each other genuinely, as we interact with nature, toys or transitional objects.
The other association is the tectonic shift going on in the way children and young people understand and interact with Plant Earth. I am completing this piece during COP26 in Glasgow, and it is no coincidence that Greta Thunberg speaks for so many. They relate to the natural world differently to many of previous generations, including my own. Human existence is fragile, contingent on a careful and respectful relationship with the environment. This is not primarily about statistics and percentages. Respect for the Tormentil and lichen goes hand in hand with a strand in the new way of living that is emerging, or being re-discovered. These species have developed over seasons, years and geological eras. Had they not existed nor would we. And yet, now our shared future lies in our hands.
Can there be any excuse for seeking to “educate” children and young people, without creating a therapeutic milieu in which we take off our jackets and get down to ground level with them in wonder and awe? What are one or two of your favourites among all things, bright and beautiful, I wonder?