Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Bright red berries and a literary curse

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The Independent Online

Three years ago, in 2008, human history passed a significant milestone: the proportion of the world's population living in towns and cities, rather than the countryside, exceeded 50 per cent for the first time. So now the human animal is a predominantly urban one.

Urbanisation is one of the key events in the story of people, beginning in the Middle East 10,000 years ago and picking up irresistible speed with the Industrial Revolution. For some, urban life and civilisation are interchangeable concepts, so for all its horrible glitches, the process must inherently be good.

Yet it is also possible to see the move away from the countryside as one of substantial loss – loss, for example, of the knowledge of the natural world, such as the knowledge of trees and plants and their properties and folklore, which was universal when we lived close by them. The corpus of this knowledge was enormous, although at the moment I have in mind a single piece of it: that concerning the rowan tree, or mountain ash.

I imagine most people nowadays have no idea what a rowan looks like (although it's planted in quite a few urban streets) still less any conception of what it represented in the past. But in a number of European cultures, the Scottish Gaelic culture above all, the rowan was the most venerated of all trees, as its properties were magical.

The rowan was said to be apotropaic, that splendid word meaning "able to ward off evil". It could protect you from witches and sorcery and ill-fortune, so many a Highland cottage has to this day a rowan tree growing protectively close by. But it was also dangerous to mess with, and its power, if disrespected, was potentially malignant.

You may think this is all stuff from the Middle Ages, but the rowan figures in a modern curse, involving two well-known literary figures from the mid-20th-century. One was Gavin Maxwell, who 50 years ago shot to international fame with Ring of Bright Water, his captivating account of living with pet otters in his cottage, Camusfearna, on the coast of the Western Highlands; the other was Kathleen Raine, the poet, mystic and scholar of William Blake who was his sometime lover (she died as recently as 2003).

In the mid-1950s there was a bitter falling-out between the two and Kathleen Raine fled from Camusfearna in rage and fury, but returned secretly at night – as Maxwell, much later, learned to his consternation from her autobiography – and put her hand on the Camusfearna rowan and "cursed him with all the strength of her spirit", saying "Let Gavin suffer in this place as I am suffering now." (You can find the story in Maxwell's final book, Raven Seek Thy Brother, although Raine is not named there).

Maxwell's succeeding years indeed contained plenty of suffering: he lost his otters, he lost a marriage, he lost Camusfearna itself (burned down in a disastrous fire) and in the end he lost his life to cancer at only 55. Whether or not he attributed any or all of this to Kathleen Raine's rowan curse is uncertain, although she herself undoubtedly did, with great subsequent regret.

Call it nonsense; call it scary; call it anything you like. I have no opinion on that; what draws me to the story is simply the reminder it constitutes, that the rowan tree is more than branches, leaves and berries – it has an age-old, powerful human resonance, one in danger of being forgotten as we leave our knowledge of the natural world ever more behind.

A first intimation of autumn

I was put in mind of the Kathleen Raine story last weekend when, in a Dorset garden, I looked upwards and saw red. It was a very brash red, brighter than scarlet, heading straight towards orange – the red of rowan berries. Although the ash-like sprays of its leaves are delicately distinctive, it is the brilliant berries of the rowan which are its unmistakable visual glory, one of the brightest sights of the autumn, and in catching sight of them I knew instantly, although there were 10 days of August still left, that summer was over.

White and yellow vs red and blue

Ever wondered why red is so much the colour of autumn berries? (Never mind the rowan, think of haws, rose hips, holly berries...) It's probably because they evolved to attract birds, which would eat them and spread the seeds far and wide. For the colour scheme of wild fruits is substantially different from the colour scheme of wild flowers, which evolved to attract insects, which would pollinate them.

If you take the British flora, their colours, as totted up by the Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, are preponderantly yellow or white, as opposed to red or blue (Out of 1,143 plants, Wallace calculated 753 flowers were yellow/white as opposed to only 290 which were red/blue), But in fruits the position is reversed: Wallace calculated that 113 out of 134 were red/blue, with only 21 being yellow/white. The conclusion: honey bees and song thrushes see the world through very different prisms.;