John Helmer: Nature Study

July 7, 2017

 “Look at the Astrantia… and those Valerian..! I bought some Aquilegia here last year and they’re still going strong…”

I’m at the Florence Road Farmer’s Market with my florist wife Kate and our friend Jo, who badly wants to be in this column (I can’t imagine why: I’m in it every month and all it’s got me is pitying looks in the street). The talk is of Alliums, and Dicentra, and Alchemilla Mollis. “I’m completely ignorant about nature,” I complain to Jo, who takes it on herself as we walk home to school me a little: “Do you know what a hardy perennial is?”

I snigger.

“See that pink flower?” she persists, pointing to something growing in a hedge “...that’s a Dog Rose. Every single rose in the world was bred from that rose. Beautiful. Simple.”

“Now you’re making me hate the overbred roses.”

Jo is a talented sculptor, who carves stone into naturally inspired forms. I’m similarly in awe of Kate’s skill with flowers, and the things she does with food: just watching her shop for vegetables makes me feel deeply stupid. She can even identify birds from their calls.

Since it seems to be National Educate-John-About-Nature Day, I am later despatched to an art installation in Hollingbury Wood on the subject of birdsong (Kate saw it a few nights earlier, and
has talked about nothing else since).


The night is dark, the forecast ominous. At 11.30pm I get a coach from outside Asda with a bunch of drunk people to the mystery location, which Kate has spoilered for me and is therefore not much of a mystery.

We walk along paths through the wood strung with lights. There are low sounds, and mysterious lights through the trees. Magical, atmospheric (it says in the brochure). At spots along the way there are Heath-Robinsonesque machines that produce bird-calls. The first sounds more like The Clangers to me. The next simulates the only bird-call I can identify, that of the Cuckoo (the clue’s in the name). One thing lacking, I notice, is actual birds – they all fled, presumably, when the machinery turned up.

Then just as I’m warming to the whole enterprise, lightning strikes in the wood and we have to leave.
“It’s not safe with all these electrics around,” says an attendant in hi-vis. She leads us round a back
way and I notice a large generator chugging away. I am seized with a random urge to unplug it.

Soon we’re standing on a bare patch of hillside, overlooking the lights of Bevendean, while the
storm puts on a show of primordial shock and awe more spectacular than anything the subsidised
arts could ever provide: sheet lightning, forked lightning and – a first for me – horizontal ball lightning streaking across the Downs like something out of a Paul Nash war painting.

And then the rain comes down in sheets and I am drenched to the bone.

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