Jul 312008

One of the advantages of having a large but not very well organised filing system – and there are very few advantages – is that searching for an illusive reference can occasionally yield a pleasant surprise. This morning I stumbled on this and I think that everyone should read it at least once in their lives. The punchline comes, with some brutality, in the last paragraph.

If I have a son, he shall salute the lords and ladies who unfurl green hoods to the March rains, and shall know them afterwards by their scarlet fruit. He shall know the celandine, and the frigid, sightless flowers of the woods, spurge and spurge laurel, dogs’ mercury, wood-sorrel and queer four-leaved herb-paris fit to trim a bonnet with its purple dot. He shall see the marshes gold with flags and kingcups and find shepherd’s purse on a slag-heap. He shall know the tree-flowers, scented lime-tassels, blood-pink larch-tufts, white strands of the Spanish chestnut and tattered oak-plumes. He shall know orchids, mauve-winged bees and claret-coloured flies climbing up from mottled leaves. He shall see June red and white with ragged robin and cow parsley and the two campions. He shall tell a dandelion from sow thistle or goat’s beard. He shall know the field flowers, lady’s bedstraw and lady’s slipper, purple mallow, blue chicory and the cranesbills – dusky, bloody, and blue as heaven. In the cool summer wind he shall listen to the rattle of harebells against the whistle of a distant train, shall watch clover blush and scabious nod, pinch the ample vetches, and savour the virgin turf. He shall know grasses, timothy and wag-wanton, and dust his finger-tips in Yorkshire fog. By the river he shall know pink willow-herb and purple spikes of loosestrife, and the sweetshop smell of water-mint where the rat dives silently from its hole. He shall know the velvet leaves and yellow spike of the old dowager, mullein, recognise the whole company of thistles, and greet the relatives of the nettle, wound-wort and hore-hound, yellow rattle, betony, bugle and archangel. In autumn, he shall know the hedge lanterns, hips and haws and bryony. At Christmas he shall climb an old apple-tree for mistletoe, and know whom to kiss and how.

He shall know the butterflies that suck the brambles, common whites and marbled white, orange-tip, brimstone, and the carnivorous clouded yellows. He shall watch fritillaries, pearl-bordered and silver-washed, flit like fireballs across the sunlit rides. He shall see that family of capitalists, peacock, painted lady, red admiral and the tortoiseshells, uncurl their trunks to suck blood from bruised plums, while the purple emperor and white admiral glut themselves on the bowels of a rabbit. He shall know the jagged comma, printed with a white c, the manx-tailed iridescent hair-streaks, and the skippers demure as charwomen on Monday morning. He shall run to the glint of silver on a chalk-hill blue – glint of a breeze on water beneath an open sky – and shall follow the brown explorers, meadow brown, brown argus, speckled wood and ringlet. He shall see death and revolution in the burnet moth, black and red, crawling from a house of yellow talc tied half-way up a tall grass. He shall know more rational moths, who like the night, the gaudy tigers, cream-spot and scarlet, and the red and yellow underwings. He shall hear the humming-bird hawk moth arrive like an air-raid on the garden at dusk, and know the other hawks, pink sleek-bodied elephant, poplar, lime, and death’s head. He shall count the pinions of the plume moths, and find the large emerald waiting in the rain-dewed grass.

All these I learnt when I was a child and each recalls a place or occasion that might otherwise be lost. They were my own discoveries. They taught me to look at the world with my own eyes and with attention. They gave me a first content with the universe. Town-dwellers lack this intimate content, but my son shall have it!

These lines, written by the travel writer Robert Byron during the first half of the last century, work equally well as prose or as blank verse and cry out to be spoken aloud. They were read by Prince Charles on BBC Radio4 in 2006 as his contribution to Poetry Day.

Robert Byron and Prince Charles both had the privilege of a rural upbringing that is now denied to the vast majority of the population, but this is not just a matter of wealth or social background. According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, four fifths of the UK population now live in urban areas, and are denied the everyday intimacy with the natural world that was commonplace even half a century ago. This must necessarily have an impact on our instinctive understanding of how we relate to the natural world, and without this empathy people can easily fall prey to charlatans who claim that humans now control the climate.

In speaking of ‘content with the universe’, Byron effortlessly locates humanity within the almost infinitely vast and complex system of which we are only a very minor part. But his recollections of becoming familiar with wild flowers, moths and butterflies also tells of a process of discovery that ideally should be as much a part of our upbringing as learning to walk, and is now beyond the reach of the majority, in this country at least.

Like many climate change sceptics I am often irritated by Prince Charles’ dogmatic pronouncements about global warming; outbursts that are not helped by his hesitant and mannered speech. On this occasion he read Byron’s beautifully crafted sentences with a degree of skill and conviction that seemed to imply a profound understanding. Unfortunately, the deeper meaning of the last paragraph seems to have passed him by.

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