Where Wild Orchids Grow
Updated: Jan 5
Nature poetry & the environment
Writing poetry about the British countryside has long been an obsession and staple of English poetry. Well, I say ‘long’ obsession but in fact it goes no further back than the later eighteenth century and the beginnings of the industrial revolution.
The curiosity of Gilbert White, the admirable vicar of Selborne in Hampshire, whose observations became the first popular ‘natural history’ was followed by the celebratory passions of William Wordsworth and his ‘nature’ poems. Wordsworth wrote about violets, celandines and, famously, wild daffodils, but not simply for their local beauties.
For him it was a way of putting forward ideas about the restorative powers of nature, in health terms, as well as putting the overlooked centre stage, an idea that linked to the radicalism of his friends.
What we focus on as poets is half the message. Wordsworth celebrated nature and the ‘natural’ in opposition to the growing ‘unnatural’ horrors of the (urban) industrial revolution as did Blake in London. This is one of the reasons for the critical hostility to his earlier work. In today’s terms he was a bit of a radical, an anti-capitalist, though the pressures of family life soon changed his public stance.
So, writing about nature and flowers, in particular, is not a simple thing. I’ve been obsessed myself over the last few years with the wild orchids that grow in the meadows and worked-out quarries in the Oswestry Hills. Most of them were familiar to me only from illustrated floras as I’ve never lived where orchids grew in any numbers before. But when one sees a group of early purple orchids scattered in a wood among wild garlic and bluebells it’s quite a sight.
So how does one go about writing of such natural wonders? There isn’t much by way of precedence. Edward Thomas mentions them in one of his sonnets and Michael Longley named a collection The Ghost Orchid, in 1995, though it contains just two short lyrics that capture glimpses of orchids including this touching image:
That wind into their spirals of white flowers
Cowrie shells for decorating your sandy hair?
As metaphor one is struggling with this, partly because of the unfamiliarity. They simply aren’t common any more as many of their habitats have been turned over to farming,
drained or built over. There’s not much point, it seems, referring to wild plants that most people have only seen in botanical collections or books.
But, perhaps, that’s my point. We should not run away from writing about the endangered and unfamiliar when it’s our familiar. What’s close to home is often the most powerful thing we can write about whether it’s coltsfoot in the pavements, a mountain ash in a Welsh lane or a pyramidal orchid in a Shropshire meadow.
Over the last few years I’ve started to get my work into some of the more environmentally-aware magazines such as Dawntreader, Orbis and Southlight and I’m delighted that it’s been recognised with a commendation in the Michael Marks Environmental Poet of the Year Award for 2022. Colleagues at Offa’s Press have persuaded me it’s time to publish some of these ‘nature’ poems in the coming months.
They focus on the nature and condition of the local hills and abandoned quarries and show us what we’re doing to the countryside and the wider world, but also highlight the specific beauties that, unless we’re more considerate in future, we might just lose. It would do us all a lot of good if we lived in places where all sorts of wild flowers common in the past, like wild orchids, grow.