It’s a miracle I’m here to bring you this post. I’ll tell you what happened. I was out as usual, with my camera, looking for new things coming into bloom. I was lucky – or I thought I was, hah! – to see some beautiful purple poppies at the side of a narrow country road near my village, on a bank above a stream. So I was snapping away…
Papaver somniferum – opium poppy
…thinking that these were probably Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. I was wondering how they got there, inching forward, leaning over and I slipped, my head went down…and I don’t remember much after. Then I must have woken up, wet, my feet still in the stream, looking above me at a dark tangle of spiny branches, thankful I was still clutching my camera to my chest.
‘Who’re you, and what the hell are you doing there?’ A voice came from above. I scrambled up the steep side of the stream through the thorns, replying ‘It’s OK, I’m just a bit muddy, that’s all’.
‘You may be in the mud, but we’re all in the shit here, so you’re lucky’
‘What do you mean?’ I looked up. The man was wearing what looked like usual gardening gear, but instead of a spade or a garden basket he was carrying a large billhook in one hand and a knife in the other. ‘You’re expecting trouble?’ I tried to joke. ‘The usual’, he shrugged.
I looked at the ground around – I was sure – I knew – that when I fell the ground was verdant, the luxuriant growth of a warm wet spring. Now I saw dry earth from which emerged sprigs of blasted brown twigs. No colour, but here and there a small pale plant with pale flowers, in the nearest of which I saw a pale spider lurking.
‘What’s that?’ – a stupid question, the only form I could give to my puzzlement. And stupid because I pointed at it. As soon as I did, a shoot whipped out from the brush above the stream and a tendril began to wind round my finger.
‘Don’t move!’ The man leapt towards me and slashed violently with his billhook. ‘We should get out of here while we can – the greens are all against us now, aren’t they?’ As I looked, the pale flowers were shrinking, and the shoot telescoped in on itself.
The man shoved me in the back. ‘Come this way, I’ve got a garden over there, we should be OK for a bit. But watch out for the cucumbers’
‘What?’ I’ve been nervous of many things, but never of that vegetable.
‘The squirting cucumbers. They’ve got so they’re that strong, the seeds can rip you to shreds if you brush against them.’ I looked at the ground again as we walked away and as I’d expect in a dampish place there were lots of that low-growing plant, whose fruits I knew developed a huge pressure to squirt out and distribute their seeds.
Ecballium elaterium – squirting cucumber
Bang! One went off, and I saw holes appear in my new friend’s trousers. ‘Be a bit more careful, won’t you’ he shouted over his shoulder. We reached a stone wall, and he unhooked a gate and waved me to get in, quick.
‘Here I can keep the jungle at bay for a spell’ he waved his blades and looked around.
‘What do you mean? What the hell’s going on with Mother Nature?’
‘Mother Nature my arse! Evil Witch Nature more like. Look, if you’ve been asleep for years or something, I’ll explain. We never knew we were so lucky, and now it’s all begun going backwards. You used to cut a plant – now they cut you. We used to eat plants, now they’re all going poisonous. ‘ He pointed at a patch of green, and I saw Euphorbia exigua, toxic like all spurges, growing through.
Euphorbia exigua in thyme and pimpernel
‘They’re getting everywhere. And you plant a lettuce, and what do you get?’ He pointed at a row which started as normal-looking salads, but ended in tall spiky plants. ’Would you eat that?’ He thrust a leaf at me – it had spines round the edges and a fearsome array along the vein.
An offensive salad, a lettuce with armour. It was Lactuca serriola, the supposed ancestor of cultivated salads. ‘They’re all turning back to what they were, they’ve had enough of us, we’ll be hunter-gatherers next year, I tell you. Look, I’d better get you back to my house, the wind’ll get up tonight and then the wind-blown seeds’ll flay you alive.’
He opened the gate and peered around. ‘Follow me!’
I was still getting my head round the fact that Nature, which I’d always believed was healthy, beneficent, reliable, could turn so nasty.
‘Watch out! Get over here quick!’ I should have leapt to him, but I turned round. Out of the compost bin a dead brown surge was lifting the lid, falling, turning green and coming my way.
It twined round me, I could feel it gripping, tightening, rooting me down, I couldn’t move. I flailed with my arms, my only free parts.
‘Hold still or you’ll get cut!’ He was hacking with the billhook, slicing expertly with the knife and I concentrated on staying still till a limb was freed. ‘I told you it’s all going backwards- the dead stuff comes alive and grows all over you – then it’ll shrink and squeeze you till it’s the size of a seedling – and what’ll be left of you then?’ He pushed me to the gate.
It was like being in the world of antimatter – full of anti-Nature, stuffed with antiplants with antigrowth. I’d lost my bearings. I’d have to trust my new guide.
We left the garden and began to trot down a path. I followed his hunched, zig-zag gait, as if he were running under enemy fire. The wind was getting up, carrying dust, and spiky dry leaves and bits of twig which stung my face and hands. My guide pointed to his right. ’Watch out for them – they’ve got a hundred times bigger, and if they get you it’s like being hit by a nail-studded baseball bat.’
I looked across and saw great round spiny balls, like the heads of the ‘rolling thistle’ Eryngium campestre, careering past us in the gathering storm. We ran faster, but the ground seemed sticky and greasy – some gummy plant I suppose – and a colossal ball of spikes hit my friend and bowled him over. I was sure he was injured and skidded over to help him up. ‘I’m OK – bullet-proof vest under the shirt. But you’ll have had it if one hits you’.
Killer seeds in the air!
Running on the path was like running on treacle. My friend was stumbling. It was getting darker. The wind was rising and the saw-toothed seeds were about to blast our skins off. We were passing a bank of pointy little blooms as red as blood.
Hopeless. If Mother Nature wasn’t there, who was? I thought of Flora, the Roman goddess whose devotees threw lupins, vetches and chickpeas at the crowds at her festival, the Floralia. The blood-red flowers! Purple clover! As good as a vetch or a lupin, surely! I grabbed handfuls and flung them in the face of the wind, yelling ‘Flora! Flora!’ The wind increased and seemed to lift me up, and either inside or outside my head I heard the motto of the goddess resound: ‘Use life’s beauty as it blooms!’.
I was back on the country road by the poppies – but it was night. Yes, I know that this story reads like a dream, a nightmare you wake up from. And here I am back in my usual world, not in antiplant world. But just tell me, would you: if it was just a dream, how did those pictures get onto my camera?
If this story has even mildly entertained you, have a look at what the professionals can do in the video below. I declare an interest – it’s the project of my brilliant son-in-law, Si Stratton.
Click HERE to go to see this video.
Do spread the word – link to this blog post. Link to Si’s Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sistratton/banshee-the-game-and-feature-film). Sponsor the project – there are some great rewards on offer, including original artwork.
Good luck, Si!
Coming up soon: back to those peas – you never know when you might need them….