Coun­try diary

Wen­lock Edge, Shrop­shire

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

It is not yet dawn and the net­tles are frosted. The moon, high among bruised clouds, is bright even with al­most half sliced off; “a joy­less eye,” Shel­ley wrote, “that finds no ob­ject worth its con­stancy” (To the Moon). Although it drains the blood of au­tumn colours from the trees, moon­light re­veals their darker char­ac­ter; they whis­per with a sound like driz­zle and wak­ing wings. De­spite its pal­lor, moon­light sparkles in frost; it adds an­other di­men­sion to the net­tle leaves, a time that changes leaf form to in­clude ice crys­tals and the light re­flect­ing and re­fract­ing in them. The leaves look like moun­tain ranges cut by river val­leys seen from an aero­plane, maps of a for­eign land that ex­ists all around us but is only vis­i­ble in the moon’s in­con­stancy.

Trig­gered by short­en­ing au­tumn days, these net­tle leaves have ac­cu­mu­lated the kinds of sug­ars and amino acids that act as an­tifreeze, low­er­ing the freez­ing point of flu­ids in­side their cells; as the num­ber of cold days in­creases, so does the abil­ity of cells to with­stand freez­ing. Net­tle, from the Old English

may orig­i­nate from the In­doEuro­pean to twist, re­fer­ring to the plant’s his­tory as an an­cient tex­tile for rope-mak­ing and cloth. We ex­ploit net­tles and in re­turn they twist our dis­tur­bance of soils and ap­pli­ca­tion of fer­tilis­ers to their own ad­van­tage, grow­ing lush and wan­ton. The com­mon sting­ing net­tle, , is a tough old weed. Net­tle tri­chomes, hair-like hy­po­der­mic nee­dles when bro­ken, de­liver a com­plex chem­i­cal con­tain­ing his­tamines, acetyl­choline, sero­tonin and formic acid that stings mam­mals but pro­tects cater­pil­lars of many species of but­ter­flies and moths. It may be a sym­bol of ir­ri­tabil­ity, in­tol­er­ance and anger, with a hun­dred uses from medic­i­nal teas to self-flag­el­la­tion, but it is also a sanc­tu­ary for life.

The day de­frosts; there is a halfwhis­pered ex­cite­ment over­head as a coven of field­fares re­turns from the north to perch in high beeches, all fac­ing the di­rec­tion the moon set in, maybe a hun­dred birds. Below them on the verge, the net­tles re­turn to an anony­mous green, un­til tonight’s moon, “wan­der­ing com­pan­ion­less”, says Shel­ley, “ever chang­ing”, bring­ing Jack Frost with her.

Paul Evans

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