Often we have to carve a little bit of expedition into our daily lives when the open road has to be ignored for a little bit as we get other things done. So on Friday morning, I had one of those makeshift expeditions and it turned into a whole series of unexpected adventure: I went looking for ferns.
Well, not really. I often duck into the library on a whim just to see where my nose leads me and whenever a book pulls me in, I stop right there and that’s where the expedition goes. This time I got pulled over by Robert Grounds’ Ferns – stopping me in my tracks to remind me how much I’ve always loved these lacy little plants that conjure up forests and waterfalls and slow, fat dinosaurs with the unexplained, unspoken warmth of nodding old friends. I pulled out my notebook on the floor between the shelves of dusty books and get lost in that special feeling of long distance kinship when a writer puts one of your fondest vague loves into words:
“Ferns are indisputably the most beautiful of all the non-flowering plants. They have a grace and charm that is uniquely their own. Whether they are grown in a shaded border along with hostas, hardy terrestrial orchids and shrubs, in bottle gardens and Wardian cases, in the pampered environment of the greenhouse, or whether they are simply encountered in their native haunts in woodlands and hedgegrows, it is the delicacy of their finely finely divided fronds and their flowing habit of growth that makes them so attractive.”
“The ferns of the modern world could easily be taken at face value simply as a successful group of plants, like any other group of plants that has survived the modern age. Yet things are not so simple. Ferns are indeed one of the most successful of all groups of plants, and yet they are plants of enormous antiquity. The ferns of today are but the diminutive relatives of the great forests of tree ferns that flourished together with giant clubmosses and horsetails in the Carboniferous Age some 350,000,000 years ago. It was these giant ancestors of the modern ferns that laid down those rich seams of carbon upon which not only the Industrial Revolution, but also the structure of modern society were to be founded.”(Grounds 1974:14)
There is something to be said for old nature guide books. Some of them have lines that read like poetry. Just look at these lines from the section on cultivating ferns:“Ferns are among the easiest plants to cultivate. In the first place, they will thrive on neglect…; even so, that is not to recommend neglect as an ideal mode of cultivation.” (Grounds 1974:48) As I pulled out its neighbour, the glossy, thick Ferns of Southern Africa (Crouch et al. 2011) I keep them next to each other. The new one with its fat wads of delicious pictures and information, the one that will lift the usual suspects in the garden to celebrity status. And the old one, with its fond recounting of the story of ferns from the coalmakers to the Victorian grottoes to the fact that my hands are itching to copy all these beautiful sketches in ink. I love that there is something as splendid and alive as a brand new book with the latest information, showing that there is growth and interest. And I love that a book from 1974 can still tell me something I’ve always wanted to know – enthusiasm shining through the outdated and still pointing somewhere.
Soon I gave up the noble and uncomfortable exercise of trying to jot down field notes from these two excellent specimens and I tuck them under my arm to carry home.
Lost in the shiny pictures of the field guide, the sounds of the night are tuned out as fern after fern the surprising expedition continues. There are ferns in deserts? In arid places? In water? That look like that? But hovering over all of these questions, is still the question that halted me at the botany shelf: What is it about ferns?
The next day I set out on another expedition. Counting 5 different ferns in the yard before it starts raining again. Ek het gou agtergekom dat dit my nie regtig ‘n bloue duit skeel wat hulle name is en watter een nou die nefie of die antie is van watter een nie. Ek hou daarvan om die blare om te draai vir die spore wat wys dis varings. En om te kyk na hulle. Ek hou daarvan om na varings te kyk en meer kloes as dit sal ek nie sommer maklik kry nie. So I start taking pictures of them. And telling people about them And writing about them.
Ek en die varing en die tuin sit en kyk vir mekaar. It’ll take more expeditions to get to the bottom of this strange affinity. I like the way Grounds says it at the end of the first section of his introduction: “The more one knows about ferns the more they intrigue one, and to appreciate them fully it is well worth examining in some detail their place in the plant kingdom and their evolutionary history.” (1974:15)
Miskien is varings net mooi. Maar hoekom?