I have been thinking a lot lately about Robert Mcfarlane’s assertion that more children can identify a Bulbasoar from Pokémon than a badger. I find it hard to believe, even though it was based on a paper in Science, as my own children (admittedly not a scientific sample) could spot a badger from an early age – if only thanks to CBeebies’ Peter Rabbit – and I’m not sure they would know a Bulbasaur from a Beedrill. Come to think of it, their Pokémon knowledge is woeful.
What Macfarlane is getting at, I suppose, in his new “spell book” for children, The Lost Words, illustrated by the wonderful Jackie Morris, is that children don’t spend nearly as much time becoming acquainted with the natural world as they once did. At this time of year, it is particularly difficult to coax them outside. Last Friday, I dragged Littlest Weed kicking and screaming to our local green space Baxter’s Field, promising him hot chocolate and a gingerbread man if he would just spend five minutes on a nature walk. Passers-by stopped and stared to see in what horrible way I was torturing my child.
Once we had made it down the path from the entrance gate and past the slender green narcissi with their faint yellow promise of spring, he cheered up straight away and was interested to see the golden catkins dangling from the hazel trees (Corylus avellana). The word ‘catkin’ comes from the old Dutch word ‘katteken’, meaning kitten, because these dangling inflorescences look like little cats’ tails. Hazel is a very magical tree, thought by the ancients to ward off evil spirits, its branches used for dowsing and divining. The catkins are the male flowers, which are blown by the wind to pollinate the smaller red female flowers that will eventually turn into hazelnuts. According to The Woodland Trust, the Latin name for Scotland, Caledonia, comes from Cal-Dun, meaning ‘Hills of Hazel’ because the trees were so plentiful in Scotland.
We also spotted the very first buds of the blackthorn, always the first bush to flower, before the hawthorn or May, although we will still have to wait a month or two to see its white bridal veil of flowers. In Celtic myth the blackthorn was thought to be a home to fairies and like hazel, a blackthorn staff was good for warding off evil spirits.
The beech nuts which we spotted on the ground on our last visit have now all been cracked open, presumably devoured by local squirrels as winter feasts, leaving only their spiky husks behind. A solitary daisy had even opened up in the February sun.
Despite the sunshine it was bitterly cold, so it was soon time to head off to the cafe to warm up, passing some more pretty catkins on our way.