25th February 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Seen any sea beans?

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SWIMMING through milk could be the nearest experience to standing on a ridge in a Shetland summer fog. Swirls and clouds of whiteness surround you; opaque landscapes emerge through the pale curtains, become briefly distinct, then fade and vanish. In the lee, the sun’s warmth suffuses the damp air and although you can see little and then nothing, the whole sensation is wonderfully peaceful and restoring; a health spa next to the sky. If you could only lift ailing, weary folk up here for a few hours, they would surely feel infinitely better.

This same ridge over the months has been exposed to lashing rains, violent storms, bitter easterly, hail-laden gales, black, moonless nights and starry nights, shimmering with northern lights, but this day was a pearly, floating rhapsody of a day and the carpet spread below our feet was alive with colour and design. Heather flowers were pink prickles along black stem tips, ready to crackle into papery starlets; Tormentil, climbing nimbly among available branches, shone in quarters of dynamic yellow petals with slim green crosses between each one.

Heath bedstraw sprinkled far smaller crosses of minute white brightness in tiny towering stems between bolder stalks and mosses, as ever, glowed with fiery greens in every conceivable space remaining. Damp places were thronged with miniature forests of rush and sedge, each kind distinct from its neighbour. Hard rush so hard to pick that the stem nearly cuts your hand; soft rush stems stuffed fat and rounded with their inner lining of pith, used for centuries as lamp wicks.

Star sedge with emerald green stalks, their tips clustered with beautiful 3D stars of stiff bronze, spangs out like the spokes of a green bicycle wheel from a dark, cramped centre. Flea sedge, the tips here stuck with short, flea-like stubs of brown and red, exactly like blood-filled fleas on a mangy cat’s ears. Green ribbed sedge, tall and gangly, carnation sedge flowers dangling above the rosettes of blue green misty leaves. There is a wet and wonderful world of detail at your feet. But a little higher up, the world of grasses is even more spectacular.

Sunlight sparks off the tiny, shiny ripening seed heads and there are silvery seas of light across the ground, marking the different colonies. Bent, fine as smoke, too small to focus on; Crested dog’s tail, glittering braids on stiff stalks, mat grass, curved combs with ivory teeth and greatest delight of all, wavy hair grass. Tall, silver shimmers of light against dark. It is enough just to sit and watch them shifting and swaying in the light breeze, but inevitably I come home with a handful of stems which fill vases in dusty windows for months, trying to keep a corner for summer memories as winter draws closer.

It’s a real shame that so many folk think that grass is just short leaves to walk on, and that any efforts to grow longer have to be slashed instantly by lawn mower and strimmer. They will never see the full glory of their flowering heads. Yes, short grass has a place, but balance it out with some carefully sited longer areas, where the different kinds can reach their final heights. Or if not, at least plant a few of the tufts you weed out of your borders into pots and watch them grow. A row of pots of different grass species can be a truly exquisite item in your garden inventory, and it costs you not a penny.

Watch out too, during these balmy summer nights, for moths. We are coming up to the real moth season. Honeysuckle and heather flowers attract many of these night flying creatures and there are some beauties among them. A really big female ghost swift moth was found by John Henderson of Utnabreck a few days ago. It was a pregnant female and actually began to lay eggs on some moss in the tub I had put it into. The larvae eat the roots of dockens, dandelions and daisies, so they are to be much encouraged.

Summer fogs can be beautiful, but not if you are trying to fly somewhere. I set off, like so many, for Sumburgh and the plane to Stansted, but, much to our frustration, and pleasure too, Mum is back for a few more days. But the frustration was shared by hundreds of others that day. How can it be that flights unable to land in Sumburgh, can successfully land in Scatsta and deposit their passenger load, but be unable to take their onward passengers. Surely if the planes land, they can take off again with their booked travellers, bound for families and connections south, even if it’s from a different runway from the intended one? There is something far wrong here. But I’m itching to change the subject for something very different.

Climate change and global warming, shifting sea current patterns, all kinds of possible reasons for seasons and fish and bird changes are in the air just now. Combinations of some of these have been in my mind for a decade or so in relation to sea beans. There haven’t been any discoveries of these remarkable little long distance travellers for years and years. Sea beans, or “drift seeds” as they are also known, fall from their parent plants in the southern, tropical seas of the West Indies and float and drift north.
No one knows how long they take to arrive on Shetland’s shores, but in the 1980s and early 90s I reported regular findings and at last, found one of my own in Whalsay on a beach at Sandwick. Then, nothing. I must go back through my records to ferret out the last sea bean finding to check. I have assumed that sea current changes mean that these remarkable seeds are now being carried north far from our shores, but a few days ago, I struck lucky.

Skaw in Unst would be about the last of all Shetland’s beaches upon which to find a drift seed. Anyone drawing a straight line from the West Indies to Shetland would hit Fair Isle and Sumburgh first. Skaw would be the very last possible place that a small floating tropical bean could be washed ashore, yet there it was. Mum and I had been gathering tiny polished pebbles and shells from the strand line and then we wandered across to the low cliffs at the western end of the beach to examine the sand below the eroding archaeological site above.

Masonry hangs over the cliff edge and now and again, small fragments of pottery or worked stone tools have been found below where they have fallen from their slowly eroding contexts. Nothing today, so nothing to report back to the archaeologists, but it’s always worth a look. Some dried, frazzled wrack lay strewn nearby and a small black domed shape was protruding from the sand. One of the dried up “bladders”, I thought. These seaweed bladders can be as big as large grapes and when they dry, can be threaded like beads onto strings; an amusing activity for bairns on holiday perhaps, so I bent to fish it out of the sand and snap it off to take home. But it wasn’t a bladder at all.

In my hand lay a perfect sea bean. A rounded, minutely stippled, perfectly ridged, dark eyed “Horse eye” sea bean, the seed of Mucuna sloanei. The exotic name slipped instantly into my head after its long absence from the wild Shetland scene. I cradled it, still unable to believe the luck. Way up shore from the strand line, half buried, but found! The perfect icing on the perfect cake of a two day Unst indulgence. Now I had to put pen to paper and let the Great British sea bean expert know that at long last, Shetland had produced another record for his wonderful list.

Jill Slee Blackadder

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