COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
THIS weekend, weather permitting, our parish oxlips will be opening their first blooms. They are exquisite flowers, like pale, bell-shaped primroses, hung in a tight posy on top of long stalks. I take an immoderate pleasure in them, partly because I was lucky enough to discover them, but chiefly because they shouldn't be here at all. Oxlips are continental plants, supposedly confined in Britain to an area of boulder-clay in East Anglia. Our local colonies, in four adjacent woods, are 50 miles off course. They may have been cut off from the main populations for centuries, and I like to think they may have developed their own genetic idiosyncrasies, a touch of flint in their scent, maybe.

Biodiversity, today's big ecological concept, begins at neighbourhood level. We have Chiltern gentians too, a species which doesn't crop up again until you are over the Channel, and a famous parish apple, Lane's Prince Albert, now sadly rare. We also have more exotic specialities, the edible dormice and catfish which escaped from the Rothschild family's collections at Tring at the turn of the century. They are looked on askance by ecological nationalists, because of the competition they pose for indigenous species. But diversity and local peculiarity can't always be expected to suit us humans. This patch of the Chilterns is also, inexplicably, one of the country's tetanus hot-spots.

I thought of these paradoxes as I was being shown round the excavations of a 13th-century monastic hospital at Soutra in East Lothian a few weeks ago. It was the highest Augustine settlement in Britain, on a windswept hilltop east of Edinburgh, and in the numbing north-east wind, it seemed an impossible site to eke out any kind of living. Yet those aristocratic Norman monks ran a sophisticated health service here, doing operations on soldiers from the warring Scots and English armies, growing hemp and opium (native to the middle-east) as anaesthetics, and treating new diseases swooping in from the south. In the hospital blood-pits, from whose debris this history is being pieced together, there is evidence of TB, plague and, yes, tetanus. There are also anthrax spores still viable after 600 years, 10 times longer than the Ministry of Defence assumes possible.

This milling and melding of organisms - people and pests, crops and cures - drives both natural survival and catastrophe, and the abundant remains of the Soutra monastery seemed a salutary warning against judging species purely on whether or not they are alien. So perhaps I should add a footnote about our oxlips. There is a remote possibility, according to ancient local gossip, that they might have been deliberately planted here by an eccentric and botanically evangelical vicar in the 1940s, and so not be truly native to the parish. Such a pedantic consideration, needless to say, does not diminish by one jot the pleasure of their appearance, as one of the first wild harbingers of spring. !

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