It’s easy to become despondent when the wild places you love seem to be under attack from every angle, but the occasional cloud really does have a silver lining.
Last spring our local farmer drained, sprayed and reseeded a wet riverside field that had been left unimproved for many years, and was covered in rushes. I didn’t blame him, and I still don’t, it makes no economic sense to leave land fallow when it could be providing an income, but it still made me very sad. Although the land was unproductive in agricultural terms, it was a haven for wildlife and I liked it the way it was.
I watched the progress of the field with interest and it wasn’t long before the grass grew lush and green. A lot of the wild flowers had gone, but I saw that some of the hardier ‘agricultural weeds’, including rosettes of spear thistle, were returning.
I noticed the thistles again this June as they began to reach for the sky. They were growing in a long row along the edge of the riverside bund, almost as if they had been planted there deliberately. I hoped that they would go on to flower, and not be cut or trampled by grazing animals. Spear thistles may be thought of as weeds, but I think they are underrated. Their structural spiky forms are beautiful by the standards of even the most exacting gardener, and their pretty purple flowers are an excellent source of nectar. I was beginning to think of them as a sign that, despite our interference, nature will find a way. I was lucky, by the end of the month they were beginning to come into flower and, whether by accident or design, they survived an early hay cut.
I have spent several happy hours since then wandering along the river bank taking photographs of the visiting insects, with my Labrador at my heels looking ever so slightly bored. On one occasion I was nearly frightened out of my skin by her furious barking, and looked up to see a herd of young cattle charging along the path towards us. I had been totally oblivious to them, and to the stockman who had just let them into the field. Fortunately they were more interested in getting to the grass than they were in us, but it took a while for my pulse rate to return to normal.
The thistles are beginning to go to seed now, and the once lovely, glaucous stems and leaves are sun scorched and wilted. There are still flowers for the bees, but this morning, as I walked along the river bank, I heard a familiar tinkling sound, and a little charm of goldfinches that had been feeding on the seed heads flew across the field away from me. The changing of the guard!