Friday, 24 February 2012

Outside in

'Your mother...would always bring something home with her to brighten the caravan. In summer it was wild flowers or grasses. When the grass was in seed she could make it look absolutely beautiful in a jug of water... In the autumn she would pick branches of leaves, and in winter it was berries or old man's beard.'
from Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

About a month ago I noticed that the one horse chestnut tree in the field by the railway was tipped with toffee-coloured sticky buds. It was too tempting to resist. I snapped off a short branch (asking the tree first of course), brought it home and stuck it in a milk bottle on the kitchen windowsill.

For weeks it sat, unchanging. Buds still sticky but tightly closed, branch pale and speckled, with those eponymous horseshoe leaf scars along its length. Then quite suddenly the buds exploded into life. It was like watching one of those time-lapse film clips so beloved of 70s documentaries. Within a few days sharp green leaves unfolded at the end of slender, stretching stalks, following the light from the kitchen window in a slow, daily arc. I was inordinately pleased with myself for thinking to bring this tiny piece of life into the house.

I realise it's something I do right through the year without really thinking about it - something loads of people do. Today it's hazel catkins, the greeny-yellow male flowers hanging down like lambs' tails, the tiny ruby tufts of the female flowers just visible if you look hard. The way the hazel arranges its flowers all makes sense if you do. The catkins hang down so that the wind can catch all those tiny grains of pollen and whisk them off to the beautiful, but understated female flowers, which sit accommodatingly upright on the branch. No need to be showy like those blousy insect-pollinated flowers - hazels wear the Chanel of plant couture. That's one of the benefits of bringing things in, of course. The chance to really look closely at plants that we usually only glance at as we walk past.

As the seasons move on it will probably be pussy willow, hawthorn blossom, buttercups - you can guess how it goes. It seems to me that people, deep down, still have that atavistic urge to bring the outdoors in, to keep a connection with the real world. It's why children always want to pick wild flowers. I'm glad some of us never grow up.

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