Thursday, 22 March 2012

Waste not, want not...

Around here the dog's mercury is just coming into flower on the railway embankment and by the streamsides. It obviously hasn't read the textbooks that describe it as a woodland flower - a plant of shady places. Perhaps there used to be trees where it grows - it can be an indicator of ancient woodland. Whatever. It persists in pushing its sharp-green stems and spiky leaves through last year's bleached grass stalks, oblivious of the incongruity. Tassels of tiny green flowers catch the spring sunshine as the shimmy in the breeze, tempting the pollinators to pay a visit. They provide another vital early food source for the pollen-eaters, despite their name.

Because 'Dog's' usually means 'useless' when given to a plant. 'Dog' violet, for example, lacks the strong scent of its sweet cousin. In the case of dog's mercury it's useless because you can't eat it - in fact it's extremely poisonous. That must have been very frustrating for folk living before the age of the all-year-round supermarket salad bag. Dog's mercury is one of the earliest leafy plants to emerge after the winter, when people would have been desperate for green stuff. Who knows how many died agonising deaths trying to consume their five-a-day before the plant was given its warning name?

Nowadays, in this country at least, foraging for food is something we do for fun - nettle soup, elderflower cordial, blackberry jam et al. But not that many generations ago gathering food from the wild could make the difference between life and death, health and sickness, for many people. Knowing what was good - and bad - to eat would have been vital. It's ironic that I'm now reading a book called Waste, by Tristram Stuart, which points out that in the UK we now throw away almost a third of the food we buy without eating it. Most people have become so detached from the process of foraging, growing, harvesting, and even cooking food that it's not surprising that it has completely lost its value - and that people don't know what's good, and bad, to eat without being told. This waste is hastening the destruction of habitats, wildlife and other people's livelihoods worldwide, as well as costing consumers millions of pounds.

Is it me, or does this phenomenon sound remarkably similar to the lack of value that people now invest in the natural world as a whole. Get people to reconnect with reality, and maybe we could make the world a richer place for everyone.

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