The nature of things
THOMAS HARDY (1840–1928), being a close observer of Dorset heaths, knew a thing or two about the character of bracken and its dramatic potential. To send a heroine out onto the heath on a dark and stormy night (with baby clasped to her chest) is bad enough, but his readers’ anxiety is heightened when the bracken thickets ‘enclose her like a pool’. Struggling through, she must lift the baby high above her head ‘out of reach of their drenching fronds’.
Likewise, Hardy’s contemporary, the naturalist Richard Jefferies (1848–1887), could build up suspense merely on a country ramble, when confronted by a thick wall of vegetation. ‘To push a way through the ever-thickening bracken becomes more and more laborious,’ he wrote. ‘The precise sense of direction is quickly lost… The bracken is now as high as the shoulders, and the eye cannot penetrate many yards on either side… On again, with more tall bracken, thorn thickets, and maple bushes, and noting now the strange absence of living things… there are places haunted and places deserted, save by occasional passing visitors.’
Due to its ability to spread far and wide by spores and also stolons, toxic and carcinogenic Pteridium aquilinum is the devil to eradicate. Though its ferns turn to rust and die with winter’s approach, fresh croziers bounce back with the spring to continue their onward march. KBH
Illustration by Bill Donohoe