I’ve been reflecting on the nature of memory lately. The basic themes may set the tone but the small details are what bring thoughts alive. That holds true with the outside world, too.
Take Dorset, for example. I barely knew the county before last month, but it is easy to describe in broad brushstrokes: an erratic quilt of heath, farmland and trees, heaped up high into grassy hills, threaded with tiny lanes and dotted with quaint villages. To the south it is underscored by vivid white: mighty chalk cliffs guarding the channel, crumbling cradle of a thousand dinosaur bones.
The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site, of course. Even away from it, the countryside is refreshingly free from motorway noise.
Zoom in a little, and exploring is flavoured by small details. Sundews are not unique to the south-west, but are intriguing little things. They are carnivorous plants that eat insects.
Another heathland predator is very seldom glimpsed. This is the shed skin of a smooth snake Coronella austriaca, Britain’s rarest reptile.
I have only ever seen one, and that was in western Surrey last year.
Back in Dorset, the flowers are shining.
…or not. The twayblade is one of the green orchids and easily overlooked.
Quiet and reclusive perhaps, but it is just as important ecologically as any of its brighter peers.
Keep looking. Keep remembering.
I know a meadow where every step makes the air sweet with crushed thyme.
This is not Surrey, although it greatly resembles it. We do have some precious fragments of untarnished wildflower meadows in the North Downs, and I’m fighting to protect them. One of the things that gives me energy in that battle is the memory of another, wilder meadow, one where I was privileged to spend eight weeks last year, tracking wildcats and bears through fields that have never known a tractor’s fumes.
This is Romania – to be exact, Transylvania, the horseshoe of farmland ringed by the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. It is almost the last place in Europe where farming is still genuinely environmentally sustainable. Tiny, family-owned farms grow a few vegetables, and there’s still time to take cattle for a walk.
Harvest needs a horse.
At Transylvania’s heart are the 12th century Saxon villages, built by the kings of Hungary with fortified churches to hold back the Ottomans and Tatar invaders. During the project, I stayed in seven of them, learning the landscape while collecting data on carnivores who leave fieldsign as blatant as this:
The scratches are the handiwork of a brown bear, Europe’s largest carnivoran south of the Arctic. Transylvania has a widespread bear population, and although I don’t trust Romania’s official figures for wildlife, bears are certainly doing far better in these orchid-rich meadows than in the rest of lowland Europe combined.
So, I’ll recount my stories from all seven of the Saxon villages over the next few days. Travel back in time to a world where horses outnumber cars and wildcats drink from unnamed streams…