Wenlock Edge, Shropshire
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.