I have been doing a lot of teaching recently, catching up with the backlog of cancelled Covid workshops. One of the topics of conversation that often comes up as we are exploring our surroundings and making work in response to it, is the issue of how to see. The writer, Robert Macfarlane, points out that you don’t see what you can’t name, and I find this to be so true.
On the Exploring Place workshops, we take a walk every day to pay attention to and document our surroundings. Last week, as we walked in the burgeoning Hampshire lanes, we were lucky enough to have a student who was able to give a name, both formal and colloquial, to the plants and weeds growing in the hedgerows. I know the names of some plants, but when you have someone with knowledge at your side, the seeing and understanding becomes so much richer.
Sticky willy, Old man’s toenails, Eggs and bacon, Jack by the hedge are just a few of the plants we saw and named. It became a bit of a joke as the week went on as Jack by the hedge suddenly seemed to pop up everywhere.
When you can name it, you see it, and the natural extension to seeing something is to find out more. When we got back to the studio we looked up the plants, and for the record Jack by the hedge, or Alliaria petiolate, comes from the brassica family and is also known as Hedge garlic. The leaves smell of garlic when crushed and taste of mustard.
If knowing is to see, then curiosity is an imperative to seeing. To go and look up something you don’t understand gives greater insight, but also plants that awareness in your mind so that you will recognise, notice and comprehend in future.
In Scotland a couple of weeks ago I was greatly taken by the lichens hanging from the trees. The green spring landscape was made even more verdant by the pendulous growth on the branches of firs, birches and other deciduous trees.
I brought home a couple of samples to look up – I’m not an expert on lichens!
As far as I can tell the hairier of the two is Beard Lichen, Usnea subfloridana, and the one with wider fronds is Oak Moss, Evernia Prunastri. I probably won’t remember the Latin names, but I will remember their common name.
My Observer book of Lichens (do you have some of these on your bookshelves?) tells me that there are about 30 species of Beard Lichen in the UK and that Oak Moss is a very common lichen where the thallus (the plant body) is attached at the base.
So, the moral of this story is, be curious, look things up, and you will see more.