This is a story about an art project concerned with our native wildflowers, run by me, Emma Biggs. I am an artist and environmental activist. Every day for an entire year, or 365 days (sometimes it is too windy to do it safely) I hang a different sign outside my studio, on the high street in Northwold. On one side is a painting of a native plant, on the other side is its name. I gave this art project the title ‘Shepherd’s Purse’ because it refers to the little heart shaped seed-heads of a common weed that is most happy in stony and infertile ground. It grows in the dry cobbles on the road outside my house. It is a metaphor for the aims of the project, which I hope will spread widely, like seeds blowing in the wind, to germinate and grow elsewhere.
Our native plants are under threat – they are dying out at an accelerating rate. Ninety seven percent of all wildflower meadows have gone since the end of the Second World War. There are a number of reasons why it’s happening. Partly it’s the way agricultural land is treated, the use of pesticides and insecticides, but it’s also soil ‘improvement’ from fertilisers. Too much nitrogen and phosphorous from manure and fertilisers doesn’t really ‘improve’ soil, it causes it to die. These compounds get into groundwater, and act as pollutants. They are not just bad for the diversity of the flora, they are also bad for human health.
Where there is too much nitrogen and phosphorous, water can’t hold enough oxygen to sustain the diversity of life in the water. This ‘hypoxia’ (lack of oxygen) is a problem for us, in rivers around Norfolk when water gets unusually warm, as it has for the last couple of summers. It is a side-effect of our changing climate. But it also occurs in the sea, at the mouths of rivers that flow through richly fertilised farmland. One of the biggest ‘dead zones’ – a place where the water is too rich to hold oxygen — is at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the USA, but there is one closer to us, in the Baltic Sea. Using too much fertiliser is like living on an unending diet of fat, salt and carbs, it’s great for a bit, tempting and a quick fix, and then everything starts going wrong.
It might seem contradictory but there are different kinds of soil fertility. If you use too much nitrogen, for example the synthetic kind, or the kind that comes from animal slurry, microbes in the soil are over stimulated and a sort of treadmill effect gets underway. Plants grow bigger. They take carbon dioxide out of the air. Surely that’s good — we all want less CO2 floating around don’t we? After all, it’s a greenhouse gas, and reducing it is part of the fight against climate change. But it doesn’t take long for the organic matter in the soil to get used up by the stimulated microbes, and as that happens, the soil becomes less and less able to store organic nitrogen. Instead, it runs off into the water supply. Without organic matter, the soil gets compacted and erodes more easily. Then it starts to be less effective at holding water. It floods quickly at wet times of the year, and in the summer, dries out faster.
We have seen that happen around us here. A number of our local farmers have been hit twice over, with crops of sugar beet dying in the intense summer heat. They had to replant them, and now some are unable to get the beet out of the ground before the processing factory closes for the season. It has been too wet to lift them. Farmers are not the enemy here. Mostly they are doing as good a job as they possibly can, and are affected by these problems at first hand. Probably more farmers than the general population know that in the last ‘State of Nature’ report in 2019, Britain was found to be one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.
So what can we do about it? New governmental approaches to subsidies might be one thing, but education is another. A robin’s pin cushion, an oak apple, the skin of a grass snake, a stickleback in a jar, frog spawn, sweet briar rose, a moss-lined wren’s nest built in a rusty can, a vase of milkmaids, bluebells, stitchwort, bladder campion or ragged robin, a plant frothy with cuckoo spit: these were all familiar sights on the nature table when I was at primary school. Everyone knew what these objects were, where you might find them, and at what time of year. If they didn’t, they soon learned. Children know less about the natural world than they did and that’s a double-edged sword. If you don’t know what you’ve got around you in the first place, it is
hard to notice that it’s disappearing.
Education is part of the aim of ‘Shepherd’s Purse’. The paintings I create and hang outside of my studio each day are of the everyday weeds, grasses and flowers you can see on the roadside. I choose not to use the Latin names, but the common names, given by people who really knew the natural world. They often refer to characteristics of the plants themselves, to make it easier to identify them. The name cowslip, for example, may have come from the old English for cow dung, as they grow in fertile pasture. Or it may refer to the damp and slippery ground that the plant prefers; either way, it paints a picture that relates to the plant and its environment. Some plants are named after stories in the Bible; like Aaron’s Rod, Star of Bethlehem, or Solomon’s Seal. The tall, yellow mullein, Aaron’s Rod, grows along the verge as you come into our village. This is a bible story that would once have been familiar to all Northwold’s parishioners: the budding and fruiting overnight of a rod (like a shepherd’s crook) that was left at the tabernacle (a kind of shrine). The miracles associated with it, and the co-existing fruit and flowers were believed by Christians to foretell the coming of Christ.
Plant names tell us something about our relationship with the natural world. They create a picture of past people whose concerns included religion, sexuality (some of the plant names are comically suggestive) and knowledge about animals, labour, fashion and activities in the countryside. They also refer to potential medicinal properties the plants were thought to have: the comfrey that grows so abundantly around us, is also known as ‘knitbone’ for its healing properties.
Over the coming months, I plan to run a series of workshops, looking at local plants, and involving our community in making further signs to hang in the village. I am hoping to do some sessions in local schools. There has already been interest from All Saints Academy. I would be happy to run sessions elsewhere. Feel free to get in touch. Artists from overseas have contributed too, we have had signs made by artists in France, Germany, the USA, and even another artist from Northwold.
We all need to understand that our flora and natural environment are not simply of historical importance, but are critical in sustaining life right here and now. If you would like to find out more or take part in the project, either to make a sign, or book a session contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org