Stephen Colton's Take On Nature: Out of chaos can come beauty

Cow parsley has long been associated with ‘breaking your mother’s heart’ as its tiny white flowers drop so quickly when brought indoors
Stephen Colton

THE recent spell of exceptionally warm weather and occasional heavy downpours has helped nourish the natural world into overdrive. The insect-rich skies are full of feeding birds. Thickened hedges hide many nests and harbour many secrets.

Our roadside verges and woodland margins are bursting with growth, full of colour with brilliant yellow buttercups, the soft lilac of herb Robert and delicate blue tones of speedwell and forget-me-not. Various shades of green from different grasses, along with the dominant umbrella-like clusters of white, frothy cow parsley all compete for precious light.

Known also as devil's parsley, probably because of its close resemblance to the highly poisonous hemlock, cow parsley has long been associated with ‘breaking your mother's heart' as its tiny white flowers drop so quickly when brought indoors.

In the days before vacuum cleaners this would have been an obvious annoyance for mothers.

It's thought that over 700 plant species grow on our road verges which is almost 50 per cent of our total flora (The Wildlife Trusts).

These untidy, chaotic places are of immense value to small mammals, such as wood mice, shrews and hedgehogs as well as the many invertebrates which hide and feed in the deep foliage. Such lush corridors act as important arteries of connectivity to other safe wild places, allowing species to move and spread. Looking at these areas of wildness is a reminder of the beauty which can come from untidiness and apparent chaos.

So many aspects of our lives, especially our working lives, are dominated and stifled by the need of others, intentionally or otherwise, to control, regulate and impose upon us process, procedure and policy. Constrained now by so much in human society, there seems little room any more for creativity or spontaneity of thought and there is certainly no tolerance of divergence and human error.

These thoughts brought me back some years ago to a visit to Edinburgh and to a book I bought from a bookshop in the old part of the city. The shop was an old-style bookshop where the smell of book covers and their pages of yet undiscovered words drifted from the dusty shelves to greet you.

Looking through rows of books, I came across a signed copy of a book entitled, Beyond Order (2001), by Swedish photographer and writer Jan Töve. He describes his book as "a personal interpretation of nature's geometry, chaos and order", using both photographs and words to share his views and thoughts on how nature around us "is constantly in motion".

Taking the reader all over the world, he displays through his photographs the chaos, disorder and beauty to be found in the natural world from waterfalls, the patterns in a tree trunk to moving clouds across the sky and to the linear designs of flat coastline rocks. He also stresses how similar wild arrangements can be found in our own localities along boggy marshes, shorelines, meadows and forests.

In the opening pages of the book Töve invokes the words of American author and science historian James Gleick, who says: "The essence of the earth's beauty lies in disorder, a peculiarly patterned disorder, from the fierce tumult of rushing water to the tangled filigrees of unbridled vegetation."

Back to our roadside verges where "the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn hedge" (Dante Gabriel Rossetti). In the coming weeks, strimming machines will be out to cut down, manage and control these unkempt places. For now, I'll continue to enjoy their rich diversity of colour and purpose. In time they will re-establish their presence as nature always finds a way to go beyond order.

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