Solve the mysteries of the countryside, from hair ice cream and cramp balls to pillow mounds and sheep milk with a 16ft drop
Naturalist John Wright has all the answers to our most unusual countryside mysteries.
It must have been in 1956 when my grandmother announced her intention to get up early the next morning to pick mushrooms in the field near our village in Hampshire. âThey only grow overnight, so I have to be there before anyone else,â she said. Born in 1896, she was a country girl from Wiltshire, so I assumed she knew what she was talking about.
Yet it seemed strange, even to your then five-year-old correspondent. How could something have grown so fast? The whole thing worried me for decades.
This riddle was to be the first of many that have followed my country walks over the years. I was destined never to rest in front of a mysterious mass on a leaf, the center of a flower that should have been pollen yellow, but was black, strange mounds of grassy earth, endless holes in the ground for no apparent reason and the massive terraces that climb the chalk hills of southern England.
I am by no means alone in this lifelong obsession and like any obsessive I marvel at those who do not share my concern. Some people miss it all, don’t look at anything, don’t question anything, and waste their time on trivial things like earning a living and looking after children.
Just kidding, sure, but relatively few rural wanderers know what a vegetable scab is when they see one, or a rust or smut fungus, or could name or explain several or any of the types of twiggy / lumpy constructions. that they observe clinging to trees.
In February last year, I was well into the chair research needed for a new book on the British prairies when my plans for a few months and to do (literally!) Field research in various remote British locations are become impossible. My book was already late, so shame drove me to offer my ever-patient editor a âthin volumeâ in his stead – although no, it turned out, as thin as expected. It gave me the opportunity to write about the mysteries that had so caught my attention and an idea that I had thought about for a long time.
I opted for 47 (a neat prime) “confusing” characteristics, about half of which are natural – such as rust fungi, fungus rings, slimy mold, hair ice, honeycomb worms. bee, dodder and cuckoo spit – and half of human origin, such as water meadows, pillow mounds, salt flats and marls. The inclusion criteria was that the average person would be deprived of an explanation of what something was or how it worked.
Although fewer and fewer people recognize the green / brown frost sometimes seen on wet lawns and paths such as cyanobacteria Municipality of Nostoc, most will know of a water meadow when they see one. But how exactly do aquatic meadows work? Their operation is fascinatingly complex and, indeed, is only one component of the practice known as “sheep and corn farming”. Aquatic grasslands were essential for the production of corn, a much more important commodity than sheep.
One of the great joys of learning what things are is the opportunity it offers to explain them to everyone. Naturally, as I deepened my research, I learned a lot of things that were unknown to me. The balls of cramps (round, black fungi found on ash trees), which I thought I knew all about of interest, are much more complex than I had imagined. My favorite revelation, however, was another fungus, choking – and I approached the ladies at the corner store and old friends on the street or on the phone with its detailed story. My wife has now forbidden to say the word “choke” in his presence.
Choking is quite rare, obviously at least. It spends most of its time in grasses, only becoming visible when it produces its sexual system. Some species are never visible, as they only reproduce asexually by the simple technique of growing into grass seeds.
The sexual stage is first visible as a 1Â½ inch long white sheath of fungal mycelium on a grass stem, turning orange when ripe. The spores (sperm) are transferred between infected grasses (for mating) by a Botanophile fly that consumed mycelia and fungal spores.
The fly is discouraged from greedily eating too much of the fungus, which will defend itself by withdrawing its routine production of antimicrobials that generally protect the fly from endemic diseases. Wolbachia bacteria. To tolerate all of these events, the grass receives multiple rewards from the fungus, including protection from grazing (bitter taste) and more vigorous growth.
Overall, this is a stunning example of a four-way âmutualismâ where everyone wins. All organizations have such stories, but the human artifacts of the countryside are accompanied by much more personal stories.
Most villages and many towns have carried a âbookâ throughout their history. Many still exist or are recalled in local street or house names. These were places where stray animals were taken to wait for their owner or, if they had been confiscated in lieu of rent, to wait for the auction. One such auction of confiscated stocks took place in Kilmeague, Ireland, in 1826, during British rule.
Fearing trouble, the authorities brought in 500 police officers, enough soldiers to wage a small war, and the 24-pounder cannon from the nearby hills, just to be sure. This may sound like too much, but 20,000 residents have come to Kilmeague to support their compatriot. The auction was held at the impound and was imaginatively boycotted. Urged on by cries of ‘Never! No tithes! Those who could have bought the animals only bid a fraction of their value (about 4%), resulting in almost total loss for the owner to whom the tithe was owed.
Miraculously, the day passed peacefully. In a beautiful addendum, the ordinary British soldiers, undoubtedly the farming sons of one man, began chanting “Never!” No tithes! ‘ on the way back to the barracks.
An equally rural construction is in the form of the sheepfold. Although the standard sheep with a diameter of 10 feet and a depth of 5 feet, with canals and sluice gates, is the most common, a still extant ‘sheep wash’ once used in Wales. is the most fun; for the human observer, at least.
It consists of a bridge over the River Ogmore in Bridgend in Wales which has a few small rectangular holes in the parapet, through which the sheep were encouraged to come out (they were pushed). After falling about 16 feet, the possibly traumatized but clean sheep were led to the bank to have a glass of brandy and sit down. I made up the last piece.
What about these mushrooms? Mushrooms grow at a fairly steady rate. What happens is that a field will be picked up clean the day before, leaving the field seemingly empty of mushrooms. However, some of those still hidden in the grass as closed caps will expand (adding little to no dry weight) with the stem extending a bit and the cap opening. They just seem to have grown overnight because they weren’t visible the day before.
However, Grandma Stacey was still right on one point. The “other mushroom hunters” are a race to which a particularly virulent and instinctive hatred is always reserved. Getting there first is an essential strategy.
John Wright’s latest book, “A Spotter’s Guide to Countryside Mysteries: From Piddocks and Lynchets to Witch’s Broom”, is published by Profile Books (Â£ 14.99)
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