LAST Thursday, on my way to St. Ninian’s Isle with a group of friends, I came across a most extraordinary sight: two men dedicatedly propagating dockens. There were quite a lot of them already, more than enough for an average-sized cottage industry. I’m thinking basket and tablemat making, and processing leaves to be sold as nettle sting remedies. But who knows, perhaps the men had something on a much larger scale in mind? A new industry, a new export product for Shetland.
They were busy treating them with herbicide. The dockens had just about finished flowering, and spraying them at this stage usually speeds up the seed ripening process rapidly. This is an excellent way of not only increasing them significantly in the short term, but also ensuring their survival for many generations to come.
I do realise from the feedback I receive that my readership is about 90 per cent female, but on the off chance that the men in question belong to the remaining 10 per cent, allow me to give them some advice: if you want to get rid of this overbearing plant, and it is already in flower, pull it up if you can. Failing that cut it to the ground and destroy the top growth without delay – an incinerator comes in handy. Then treat any re-growth with a suitable herbicide. You may have to spray several times to get rid of them for good.
Dockens are bad news for biodiversity, and the SIC roads department, I’m sad to say, is at times on a par with dockens in that respect. In many parts of Shetland road verges are the last refuge for many wild flowers, vital food for our declining bee and butterfly populations. A couple of weeks ago, a stretch not far from here was awash with red and white clover, a floral carpet humming with insects. Now there’s a desert.
The Shetland bumblebee is in serious decline, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the seemingly indiscriminate road verge cutting is at least partly responsible for that. The roadside flora is a vital food source, especially during July and into August. Deprived of it, they face a long gap until the ling comes into flower.
While I fully understand the need for cutting tall vegetation around bends to keep or restore visibility for motorists, and to allow pedestrians to walk unencumbered, I simply can’t see the need for this wholesale destruction of Shetland’s flora and, consequently, fauna every summer. If the verges with exclusively ground-hugging vegetation must be cut at all, why can’t this be done when the plants have completed their growing cycle? Cutting in July means any late flowering ephemerals and annuals are doomed.
To give the SIC mowing department its due, there are cases when, in mixed vegetation, it is desirable to cut down tall and rank plants, to give the lesser ones a better chance. This of course must be done early in the season – June would be the ideal month – before they start to set seed. Rather than shaving off everything at ground level, which rather defeats the purpose, could the cutter bar not be set higher to allow the lesser herbs – most of our wild flowers fall into that category – to ripen and set seed?
In many parts of the world, the importance of not only preserving but also increasing biodiversity is recognised – after all, our survival ultimately depends on it – while in Shetland the bowling green mentality prevails.
All through summer there’s the noise and petrol stink of mowers and strimmers. There are some male gardeners who have what I can best describe as a passionate love affair with their strimmers. They take them out for long walks on an almost daily basis (I never see them take out their wives on such lengthy perambulations), the abominable machines whining away like angry hornets for hours on end. But these individuals, inexplicably, seem to like the noise and the smell. There is something about men and petrol-driven engines (I’ve yet to meet a strimmer-obsessed woman).
There are times when I can’t help wondering if these men actually share their beds with their strimmers, Blaumilch style. Blaumilch (Bluemilk) is the main character in one of my favourite films, The Blaumilch Channel, by the great late humorist, writer and director Ephraim Kishon. Here’s a synopsis of the plot: Blaumilch escapes from a lunatic asylum, steals a windy pick, and proceeds to plough up the streets of Tel Aviv. Soon, its citizens start complaining about the disruption and the municipal authorities are forced to provide diversion signs, traffic lights and traffic policemen to prevent the city from falling into total chaos.
Blaumilch works tirelessly, day and night, only taking brief naps on a camp bed in a construction hut, warmed by a horse blanket; his beloved windy pick tucked up beside him. Soon all of the city looks like the Esplanade in Lerwick did a few weeks ago, and the authorities make frantic efforts to ascertain which municipal department is responsible for this. Alas, nobody is quite sure, the roads department blames the gas department, the gas department blames the water department, the water department blames the telephone department, every line of inquiry sinks into a quagmire of red tape.
As elections loom, the mayor, in order to secure a victory, wants the city restored to its former peace. He decides to speed things up, and sends in a large workforce armed with windy picks. Blaumilch is way ahead of them. He has reached the sea, and very soon, the sea reaches Tel Aviv. It takes one night to turn every street into a canal. The mayor turns a disaster into a triumph by declaring that the purpose of the whole operation, kept under close wraps, was to turn Tel Aviv into the Venice of the Middle East, long before the term “spin” was coined.
I’m sure this is exactly what happens in Shetland every summer: nobody actually knows for which SIC department or sub-contractor these men and their strimmers work, if they indeed do. My suspicion is that they are Blaumilchs, each and every one of them. While other men play football, go fishing, drink beer or do whatever men do in summer, they strim, for strim they must, they can’t help it.
My horticultural career started before the strimmer came on the scene, and while driving past Levenwick the other day, I was reminded of its humble and rather unpromising beginnings at the Knab cemetery, where I was cutting the grass and tending the war graves during the summer, and digging graves in winter.
There were four of us in all, and Harry, the boss, was a dyed-in-the-wool bowling green man. Once, while working in the old cemetery, as he was about to shave off a stand of Shetland white lilies, I protested: “But they’ve only just come up.” “And they’ll go straight back down,” said Harry.
Leonard Sinclair from Levenwick, one of the graveyard quartet, soon became my friend and ally; we also became conspirators and partners in crime. During the winter slack he patiently held my hanks of wool between outstretched hands, so I could quickly wind them into balls and get on with my Fair Isle knitting. He warmed my welly boots by balancing them feet up on the radiator before I arrived in the mornings, but best of all, he became a master at sabotaging Harry’s “going back down” policy, applied to anything that dared to flower, or even attempted to eventually reach that stage of glory.
Leonard took on the mowing of all florally sensitive areas, and when Harry asked if everything had been cut down, he gave him a mock salute, clicked his heels and shouted “Aye, aye, Sir” while winking at me. I feebly tried to repay him by sharing buns and biscuits with him; whenever I’d received another parcel from Germany, I brought him a hunk of continental sausage or cheese. His response was always the same: “There’s no need for that lass, God bless your cotton socks.”
Leonard was a kind and generous man with a wicked sense of humour. He was also a finely tuned and empathetic human being with a warm and sunny nature. He made an often grim job (winters on the Knab can be trying) not only bearable, but also decidedly pleasant with his calm and relaxed approach to everything.
We didn’t see much of each other after I left, but that bond between us remained. It was always a joy to see him come down Commercial Street, short, well rounded, red cheeked and always wearing a flat cap. I miss him.
On that Thursday morning, before I set off for St. Ninian’s Isle, I found out that he had died, and that his funeral had taken place the day before. Sorry I couldn’t be there, Leonard, God bless your cotton socks.
It’s almost 3am (during the summer I turn into a late night columnist) and there’s just one thing left to do: find a flower for Leonard. I can’t remember him having any favourites. He just loved all living things. Perhaps something rounded, sunny and joyful to remind me of him?