Nature 2014 April

Pissed as a Newt or Intoxicated as a Poet?

Rupert Brooke is rightly regarded as one of our most revered War Poets. His poetry only really came to the wider public’s attention in 1915 following his tragic death from sepsis in a hospital at Skyros in the Aegean Sea. However, amongst his peers he had already become recognised as one of the foremost poets of the age. he broke new ground for the time with his distinctive style of romantic poetry which incorporated imagery drawn from nature.

Like many of his compatriots, in order to escape the distractions of city life, and gain inspiration it is well documented that he frequently travelled out from London to seek solitude and tranquillity in the Chiltern Hills. Setting off from Tring or Wendover he would take the Icknield Way and then wind his way up the hollow ways to walk the hills and woodlands. It is quite possible that he wandered as far as these villages. A close friend of his, John Drinkwater, is known to have stayed at the Windmill. The Pink and Lily Pub at Parslow’s Hillock above Princes Risborough was also one of his regular haunts.

… The Roman road to Wendover
By Tring and Lilley Hoo, …

In 1913, and no doubt intoxicated, if not by beer by the scenes around him, Brooke wrote a poem called The Chilterns. It serves both as a poem about unrequited love (Brooke had just learnt that his affection for a girl was not reciprocated) and undoubtedly it’s also an appreciation of the varied and ever-changing vistas he had become familiar with. Some particular lines of the poem stood out which I think could perfectly describe anyone’s experiences of the Chilterns. The one just below, is observing the view into Aylesbury Vale has a winter feel, and the second, further down, I think must be springtime, The third below describes an autumnal scene:

… White mist about the black hedgerows,
The slumbering Midland plain,
The silence where the clover grows,
And the dead leaves in the lane,…

The first few days of March brought a welcome change in the weather with a shift from the wet, if mild, winter period to warm bright and even sunny days. The signs are that Spring has been advanced a fortnight or so. It is almost as though Spring was ‘… like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start…’ as hardly had the first day of the season had passed before white-tailed bumble bees were out buzzing the newly laid carpets of resplendent celandines that are only open for business when the sun shines, and hitherto hibernating brimstones had stoked their fires and were already circumnavigating their domains.

… The splendour and the pain; The splash of sun, the shouting wind, And the brave sting of rain …

Whilst over-wintering invertebrates are programmed to awaken each year by reacting to a sudden, all-be-it modest temperature increase, typically amphibians, such as newts, wait out the worst of the Winter, in loose soil or deep leaf litter, and emerge from dormancy (not hibernation) during February, when temperatures rise above 0 °C and there is sufficient free water on the soil surface. They habitually return to the same water-source and having satisfied their voracious appetites with new found energy they are ready to participate in the courtship ritual. It is said the expression ‘p****d as a newt’ originates from the awkward lumbering behaviour of the male newt which comprises arm-waving and tail-whipping which also promotes the dispersal of pheromones as it stalks and attempts to snare a female. If two or more males are engaged in following a single female each will attempt to force the other away from the pursuit. In doing so limbs and tail will become entangled and the melee that ensues has been described as having all the hallmarks of a Greco-Roman wrestling contest. Newts need to surface to absorb oxygen through their skin. It is believed that this tussle will favour the ‘fitter newt’ capable to absorb more oxygen and therefore able to stay submerged for longer periods. Eventually one has to disengage and surface, the other having prevailed escorts the female as they leave the water. The male having deposited a packet of sperm on the ground it will entice the female to walk over it and absorb it. The female returns to the water to lay one or two eggs in the folds of the leaves of water plants. Interesting aside about some recent newt research. It has long been known that newts losing a tail or limb can re-grow them. However, it has now been found that in addition; jaws, eyes, hearts, intestines, spinal cords can also be regenerated and work is underway to isolate the genes responsible for this which might just have an application for the reconstruction of human organs one day!

… The autumn road, the mellow wind That soothes the darkening shires. And laughter, and inn-fires…

One day right at the end of May a few years back I happened to be visiting at Champneys, not for any of their ‘treatments’ I should add, and during the day while walking around the estate I crossed a hay meadow that was full of Yellow Rattle, a herb plant with yellow parrot-shaped flowers which gets its name from the seeds which can be heard to rattle inside the hardened fruit-capsules in the late summer. It was a stunning sight to see the shimmering yellow flowers, poking through the tall grasses. Where yellow rattle occurs this important plant is responsible for improving the diversity of meadow plants by parasitizing the grass species and drawing nutrients from their roots. Through ensuring the continuous impoverishment of the more rampant grasses it prevents them crowding out those annuals less able to compete. Not wanting to encourage trespassing, you understand, but if you get the chance it’s worth a visit sometime.

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