Sunday, 17 July 2016

My Daucus Downs

Daucus carota - Wild Carrot growing near Poverty Bottom, Newhaven

The sun and the growing year are each at their zenith. There are flowers blooming everywhere! The iconic downland flower, Round-headed Rampion - the Pride of Sussex - shall be spattering purple the bostal banksides for weeks to come; but my own iconic flower, long held of those summer holidays of my youth, which stretch farther back into distant memory with each passing year, is Daucus carota, the Wild Carrot. 


A blood-red floret at the umbel's hub
Wild Carrot is a quintessential summer species of rough, unimproved chalk and coastal grassland. Often a flower of edges - clifftops and field margins - it rises to prominence beneath the hot, brooding and, to my memory, often overcast July sky. Characteristic pink budding inflorescences spread unfurling fingers into wide, round, white, gently savoury umbels which, along with their billeted soldier beetles, nod in agreement with coastal breezes while Marbled White and Meadow Brown butterflies roll around in the air above. Look closely at the hub of the umbel for the blood-red floret: its purpose is to act as a bulls-eye to attract pollinating insects.  

Wild carrot is a symbol of that moment during each high summer when the world pauses and takes stock, catches its breath, ahead of the tumult of the harvest. A William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) poem, Queen Anne's Lace, epitomises with eloquence the flower and its growing habits:

Her body is not so white as
anemony petals nor so smooth—nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over—
or nothing.
William Carlos Williams, “Queen-Anne’s Lace” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I, 1909-1939, edited by Christopher MacGowan. Copyright 1938, 1944, 1945 by William Carlos Williams. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.


Today, while walking across a downland crest between South Heighton and Firle, a multitude of white and pink umbels catch my attention as I pass between fields of ripening wheat. The field to my right has no headland, yet a strip of Daucus, parallel to the path, stands upright, courageous, in a challenge to the monotony of man-made monoculture. Further inspection reveals that the whole wheat field is peppered with wild carrot. It is as though nature has reached up in wonderful, profane defiance of the regimented seed to show that humans do not hold full dominion over wildlife, despite the best efforts of some. Yes, the downland dome which rises above Seahaven and cut to the west and east by the rivers Ouse and Cuckmere is, save for a few uneconomic enclaves outside the reach of intensive agriculture, a managed world shaped and subdued by farming and in which wildlife is reduced to subculture and the periphery; but how pleasing it is to find disorder amongst order with these acts of floral and invertebratal disobedience (whoever claimed that these creatures lack a backbone?!).

Walking on, Marbled Whites and Meadow Browns tumble out of the thigh-high jumble before me. Each step is worth a handful of butterflies. Red Admirals hang around at every corner. All the time that there are flowers, butterflies will delight and dance. But the harvest gathers more than just economic fruit: today, the wildness of wild carrot endures, the downs are daucus; but soon the harvest shall render the downland fields into late-summer deserts. The change never ceases to shock me.

Daucus carota - Wild Carrot growing near Blackcap Farm, Firle

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