Spurges, orchids and the Reliant Robin Effect

You can see, but then not really see. There’s nothing much wrong with my eyesight, but this spring I find I see things differently from this time last year when I hadn’t yet started this blog.  For example, all this winter I’ve been noticing clumps of tall spurges which are bent over at their tips, like this:

Spurges - photo from 2nd January

Spurges – photo from 2nd January

I had my suspicions about what they were, strengthened by this next stage:

Same plant,next stage

Same plant,next stage

And another sighting recently confirmed it: Mediterranean spurge ((Euphorbia characias)

E. characias in March

E. characias in March

Note the characteristic violet-brown nectar glands.  Now last year I hadn’t even registered that all these clumps of this spurge existed, even though I must have ‘seen’ them.

And here’s another puzzling example:

Orchis purpurea

Orchid – but which one? (photo: CL)

An orchid I first thought was the Lady orchid (Orchis purpurea).  Although it’s not exactly like the one I blogged last year here, the species does seem quite variable (the reliable site FloreAlpes has a very varied photogallery here). Eventually I found a better identification – Himantoglossum robertianum (see next post).   Now as of today I’ve seen dozens of these this year on the roadsides near my village, solitary like this and in clumps, but note the date on last year’s blog: May 21st. Again, what was I looking at during last March and April?

Now this is partly due to what I call the Reliant Robin Effect: I used to have one of those peculiar three-wheeled cars because I could drive it on my motorbike licence, and I suddenly noticed for the first time how many of them there were on the road. I also used to teach psychology, and I know this is called salience: we pay most attention to things most relevant (salient) to us, but I think there’s a bit more to it.  Plants have more meaning to me now: they remind me of comments and conversations and are a part of the things I want to do. Sightings also link in to some of my other ideas, about ecology, evolution and environmentalism for example. And you have to be curious, to want to understand better – just wanting to collect plants isn’t enough.

There’s a worrying side to all this too, of course: if I’m paying more attention to plants, what are all the other things I could be noticing, which aren’t yet salient to me? And what has all this botany replaced – what have I stopped seeing?

These lines of thought fitted well with a book I read this week which made a big impression on me – I’ll review it next time.

I never need much of an excuse to play a song by Billie Holiday, and this seemed, well, salient: I’ll be seeing you.

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10 Comments

Filed under Euphorbia, Orchis

10 responses to “Spurges, orchids and the Reliant Robin Effect

  1. I am fascinated by the Reliant Robin effect. Salience. I only knew the name Reliant Robin as the name of a Blipper, http://www.blipfoto.com/ReliantRobin and until now I thought her Blip name was just a statement of how reliant SHE is; I didn’t know she’d named herself for a car! Had never heard that name before. Now I understand much more, and I certainly have observed “salience” or the Reliant Robin effect in my own life. Photography has greatly increased what I “see,” but I often ask myself what I am missing, what I don’t see because of what I do see. Your posts have made me notice plants much more than I ever did before, and I am grateful for that!

    • Always glad to spread awareness of old fibreglass cars – the Reliants were odd in almost every respect. CL had to teach me how to drive it when I bought it from the garage, because I’d never driven a car before. I had also been thinking of another term for noticing: mindfulness. You could probably tell me if that’s an appropriate use of the word or not.

      • Salience and mindfulness are different, if I’m understanding what salience is. To be salient is to make comparisons and judgments of a thing as it compares with other things you’ve seen and thought about. To be mindful means to SEE the thing, to be aware of it, but not to think about what it is called or what group it belongs to. To be mindful is to be aware (with all the senses, including but not exclusively seeing), aware of what is around you in this moment; but to be detached from it at the same time. To let it go. Not cling to it or think about it. Not compare it to others you have seen in the past, not expect that you might see more over the next ridge, not wonder if you got the name right, not think “I must record this one, I will take a picture of it, I will write it down, I will blog about it.” Mindfulness is bare but fully-developed sensual awareness without thinking. Mindfulness involves experiencing a thing as fully as possible in its whole context (the air around it, the sky, the ground beneath it, your own body in that moment, the fragrance, the taste in your mouth)–but letting go of thoughts and words that arise. The practice of mindfulness is at core about letting go. I think salience is about holding on, if I’ve got that right.

      • Wonderful. Many thanks.

  2. Ceridwen

    An excellent post! This is something I am very aware of in myself, how my propensity to notice things developed immensely after I started taking photographs for Geograph. And of course salience is the reason why women who become pregnant (or want to be, or fail to be) notice pregnant women, and babies, everywhere, willy nilly. As for me I am aware that when I see a tree I know immediately what species it is, but a car is just a car – the only way I can describe a car is by its size and colour never the species/make – apart from a Reliant Robin which I know has 3 wheels!

    • Your comment and Kendall’s are bringing to the fore some things I’ve become aware of since having a decent camera:the differences between what I see, what’s there, and what comes out in the photograph. Increasingly, plants seem to me to be shy things, reluctant to let their personalities be captured. And I’m quite slow to notice things – I need to take more time before raising the camera to my eye.

  3. Great Post! I think the key words are “paying attention”. When we pay attention, the world changes (or we see different aspects/layers). I did a drawing class a couple of years ago and the first exercises we did were to make us realize that what we thought we saw, was not actually the case. When we pay attention to plants “life” gets really interesting……..

  4. The only thing that I know about Robin Reliant’s are that Delboy from “Only Fools and Horses” drove one and that Mr Bean HATES them ;). I loved this post. Before Steve and I started studying horticulture we could have cared less about gardening, plants etc. We knew the difference between trees and shrubs (by obvious size variance) BUT they were always in the peripheral unless they actively donated something to our sphere of influence. Cheers for giving me my word for the week…”salience” the reason why I see plants now and why I am able to find seeds, fruit, nuts, cuttings etc. all OVER the place where they weren’t there only 5 years ago ;). As salient as I now am, I doubt that I am going to be seeing many Robin Reliant’s on our local Tasmanian roads any day soon! ;). Excellent blog and so glad to be along for the ride now 🙂

    • Sorry for the delay in replying but we’ve been away on a trip. Only just getting to read your lively blog too, so you’ll hear from me over there as well.

      • I hope you had a wonderful trip away :). I found you through comments that you make on Spencers blog “Anthropogen” and your blog is wonderful :).

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