Wednesday 27 July 2011

On heiding thistles

The symbols we choose tell us something about how we see ourselves, and, perhaps, a little of how we really are. Only in Scotland would we seek to extirpate our national flower. Only in Scotland would we celebrate a poem which speaks of doing so. Only in Scotland would we be utterly confident that we will never succeed.

The thistle is a hardy creature. It will grow anywhere, on the poorest soils, in the harshest conditions. It defends itself fiercely with many sharp weapons. It cheerfully travels great distances to find a new home. And wherever it grows, it throws up its gay plumes of flowers, each armed with a potent hand-grenade of seed...

The thistle endures harshness and poverty and creates beauty; it spreads widely. But it's prickly, over-aggressive, defensive, leary of the world, and offers little freely to anyone else - except the bees. It's little wonder than one of Scotland's best-loved history books is called 'The Field of Thistles'.

I write this after a day heiding the thistles in my fields. This farm is organic; we use no poisons. That means that to control weeds, we need to stop them seeding. In meadow or pasture the thistle is a weed, unpalatable to most grazing animals. So we must seek to control it, to cut down each flower before its little hand grenade can explode into a puff of silky down. A little thistle down goes (literally) a long way, so in a sense in heiding my thistles I'm benefitting my neighbours as much or more than myself. And it's sad, because they are things of beauty, besides being a good food source for bees.

But I need not fear to lack thistles next year. Every thistle my neighbours miss will contribute a drifting orb of down to bring that army with its bold, cocky purple plumes back to my fields next year. Not even the Scots can extirpate thistles.

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed, 
The trembling earth resounds his tread. 
Clap in his walie nieve a blade, 
He'll mak it whissle; 
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned, 
Like taps o' thrissle. 

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License