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The petals are like stiff velvet against my fingers, and the entrancing colour of blood. There is something otherworldly about this parasitic species; they don’t seem to belong to the surrounding community of plants. They’re amongst the rarest flowers in Europe and yet so conspicuous, so revealing, that they’re easily distinguished by being the exhibitionists of the meadow, as though having compressed all the bright and possible vivaciousness of their entire genetic lineage into a few scattered specimens, sacrificing plenty for personality. They seem to bask in their unusual difference, catching the eye from afar.
Diphelypaea boissieri are known from only two locations in all of Europe; this meadow where in May and June I find them thinly strewn and another some hundreds of kilometres further north. That’s all there is to their European presence: a car park or two would take them forever away.
Rising on a dark stalk and without the aid of chlorophyll, a scarlet flower opens into the sun. It’s as distinguished as a Remembrance Day poppy pinned to a veteran’s lapel. And inside nearly every bloom in hot weather nuzzles a small beetle coated golden by pollen dust. No one really knows what kind of beetles they are, or whether their relationship with the plant is mutually exclusive and of necessity to each species; whether they’re as rare and unusual as each other. In fact Diphelypaea boissieri occupies a blind spot in floral knowledge; there’s no certainty as to the precise plant that it’s parasitic on, or what constitutes its life cycle and span. It is an isolated enigma, further deepened by appearing in two far-flung places.
Tethered to a single territory, endemic species suggest something whole despite their limited range, like a long-settled clan or like-minded tribe, a sustained and stoic tenure, a sense of belonging to the land. But a species that exists in two distinct localities, separated by a wide geographic gulf, reminds me of a line divided, or a forked trail you might meet in the woods, conscious that each choice carries with it the negation of the other, the path forever untaken.
Those untrodden ways become more discernible as we age, easily recognisable as our choices are increasingly compromised by dwindling time and the nature of our lives. Certain paths will never come into view again. But the mystery of not knowing how they might have unfolded, or where they might have led, lends life some of its depth – a sweet sadness intangible and shifting as mist, an awareness that, given immeasurable days, so many lives might be lived.
Mystery is a measure of our imaginations. When Venus recently passed in a poignant dark arc across the surface of the sun I was astonished by what its smallness signified for the enormity of our star. Roughly the size of the Earth, the black disc was dwarfed by the seething sphere that breathes life into our planet. Whatever knowledge we have of the universe, whatever we’ve pieced together of its form and complexity through observation and experiment, can’t diminish its raw and ineffable immensity. No calculation of distance, or explanation of orbit, could make sense of that dark, dawn trajectory for me. We are a few grains of sand amidst a startling desert.
In a letter to his brothers in 1817, in which he was critical of what he saw as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s elevation of knowledge over beauty, John Keats wrote: “I mean, Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” While I take great pleasure in fact and reason, whether from trying to understand the intricacies of bird behaviour or the elemental forces and time it took for marine creatures to be transformed into ancient limestone beds, it stirs the deepest part of me to know that in this day and age mystery still exists, that a strange flower can hang on to its secrets, that a passing celestial sphere has the capacity to raise our eyes from our labours and leisure and distractions, put us in touch, if only for a few minutes, with the vast and baffling extent of existence. Perhaps Keats knew that to clasp the two would hold us better in place.
I leave the meadow with the glow of unknowing. Wrapped up in the Diphelypaea is the wonder of what is and the mystery of what might have been. Whether these flowers are the relics of a wide dominion, ragged bands of survivors from the age of glaciation, or adapted to such nuanced peculiarities of place that only a couple of meadows across an entire continent meet its specific, parasitic needs, we have no way of knowing at present. I turn back at the last moment to see scarlet scattered like stars across the slope, a constellation of rare things brethren and beholden to a distant congregation that unknowingly makes up the night sky of their kind. And for a few seconds I long to see that other meadow, to know the sibling field that sustains this flower. But my desire soon passes like Venus before the sun, dimming as it moves out of the glare. Being in the mystery of other paths is enough.
Notes from Near and Far will be on hiatus for the next month or so as I set out with my father to walk half of the Coast to Coast path (that’s England rather than Canada for anyone whose eyes just popped!). It’s been an idea of ours for the best part of a decade, and with neither of us getting particularly younger, we’ve finally set it in motion. Beginning at the edge of the Pennine hills at Kirkby Stephen in northern England, the route will take us over moors and dales, bogs and becks, with plenty of country pubs for sustenance all the way (and to shelter out of the rain), before ending, at least theoretically, at Robin Hood’s Bay and a dip in the North Sea (well, a splash anyways…). The ten days should take us about 180 kilometres in total, but as John Muir so wonderfully put it, “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
I’ll be writing about whatever the journey reveals when I return. Until then, happy wanderings!
33 thoughts on “Being in Mysteries”
Julian, this is beautiful, entrancing and just a bit mysterious. I like the sense of not-knowing, the feeling that we are in fact ignorant and ineffectual in so many ways. Some of the themes and sub-texts here are very close to my own thinking. Thanks also for introducing me to this strange flower – does it have a common name at all?
Moving on, I hope the walk to the sea is invigorating. you’ll be starting very close to my own stomping ground – currently experiencing the wild profusion of spring. Enjoy the trip, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on it.
Thanks kindly, Ian. I like what you have to say about being ineffectual; it can be extremely affirming in so many ways, enabling us to let go of things in such a way that makes attention a creative action. I feel a similar sense of shared themes while reading your terrific work, and I look forward to seeing where it leads you. As to the flower, it doesn’t have a common name to the best of my knowledge. I recently had the privilege of spending a few hours in the company of one of Europe’s finest botanists whose work has focussed intensively on the Balkans, and he said simply: “We know so little about this lovely plant.”
Thanks for the wishes for the walk; looking forward to that wild profusion, and plenty of rain from what I’m hearing! I didn’t realise you were so close to Kirkby Stephen; we’ll be there on the 20th of June if your work happens to take you that way and you fancy a pint. Looking forward to being back in the north after many years away.
Sid, what a sublime,elegiac and beautiful piece, very dharmic if I may say so..To sometimes dwell in that freedom from the conceptual ‘known’ can show us a different way of ‘knowing’ that can be very liberating.
Thanks so much for this luminous piece..
Thanks, Sid. It always means a great deal to me when a post has reached you in this way. Much appreciated, my friend.
Julian how lucky you are to see this rare beauty! I love your account. There is definitely a place for mystery in our increasingly fact/information laden world. It is always the case that the more we know the more we realize there is that we don’t know and maybe never will.
Have a wonderful walk! I know the Kirkby Stephen part particularly from many years ago and love Whitby too. I have not been up there for a long time so am quite envious. I hope the weather improves!
Thank you, Diana. That mystery can be found in so many places and ways, and it’s one of the things that attracts me to your paintings, a sense of the unknown hovering at the edge of the world. So pleased you enjoyed this post, and thanks for the good wishes on the walk. I think we’ve accepted that it could be a rain-fest for the entire journey so I’m on the lookout for extra amphibious gear! Whitby’s another old favourite place of mine from many years ago, so it’ll be good to stop by again. Will let you know how it all goes!
world enough and time, the road less travelled – how wonderfully you tell that. Your walk halfway across England will become armchair travelling at its very best!
Armchair travelling – I like that! Thanks Diana; looking forward very much to placing one foot ahead of the other, and to seeing what arises. Will certainly be posting in some form or other on my return. Hope all is well with you, and thanks for the kind words!
Beautiful post Julian. Captures that sense of ‘a world’ being outside our grasp of knowledge and yet we are enriched because of that mystery. Enjoy your walk!.
Many thanks for the good words, and for taking the time to read. “Enriching” is great way of describing the possibilities of mystery and not-knowing. I think I’ll borrow that as the theme for the walk!
Beautiful photos & text…
Thank you, Martha. Delighted you liked them and hope you’re well…
Thoreau: ‘I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.’ I suspect you understand that art of walking, and wish you some ‘holy land’ on this beautiful endeavour!
Sharon, thanks for this lovely quote, sentiment and send-off! I’m touched by the thought and inspired by the words. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for the holy land and be sure to pass on anything I learn of it. Thank you…
You’ll probably get to enjoy a decent pint or two en route also! Have a great walk; luckily for you I’ve just headed south for a few weeks, otherwise I’d be popping down the M74 to bother you at some point on your saunter…
Great post, by the way, that’s one very red plant.
I’d like to think there might be a nice pint or three along the way! I have breakfast booked with Matthew and Claudio before heading north, which should be a good beginning to the journey.
Hope you’re well, my friend, and thanks for the kind words.
lovely writing. Have a nice walk! Penny
Many thanks, Penny! Much appreciated…
Have a good trek with your father. My dad passed over a decade ago and it’s because of his love of the wilds and unplanned adventures he invited me into, I am who I am… Always wild, extreme, and 10,000 plus feet up is Carson Pass and one of our favorite places http://youtu.be/h_kqdWaIi8Q
Thanks, Kathleen! We’ve had a wonderful, if wet, time, and I hope to post something about it soon. Great to see the video clip and I can well imagine your adventures – and I’m in complete agreement that these wanderings and explorations of the wild are so important to who we become. Many thanks for the good wishes and hope you’re well!
An absolutely beautiful piece, Julian – elegaic and engaging.
Enjoy your walk. I have not done that particular walk but I have cycled the C2C equivalent ( a little further north), which passes through some marvellous landscapes. It will a wonderful thing to experience this with your father.
Many thanks, Laurence, for the good words; delighted you enjoyed the post. Back now from a remarkable journey, having passed through a beautiful and diverse range of landscapes and met a number of amazing people. Mostly done in the rain, as your latest post (which I’m hoping to catch up with soon) seems to acknowledge has been the daily nature of the weather recently! But a small thing in comparison to what was gleaned and experienced along the way…
What a strange plant. Never heard about it, never seen anything like it. Learned something.
A strange plant indeed! It’s been great to learn a few things about it from a number of specialists over the years. Many thanks for the comment and for taking the time to read; much appreciated!
Thanks for sharing your stories and photos about this rare beauty. I hope you had a wonderful adventure with your father and look forward to hearing all about it!
Wonderful to hear from you, Cait – it’s always a pleasure and I hope all is well! Many thanks for the kind words, and for taking the time to comment. Cheers!
As always, I’m late to the party, but I’m glad I made it. This is a fascinating story of a plant I had never heard of and the greater context of the piece resonates deeply with the way I find myself looking at the world these days. I hope you’re having a wonderful adventure in England and look forward to touching base when you get back.
And I’m grateful that you made it as well, Heather. Late or early, it’s a pleasure to hear your perceptive thoughts and ideas. And like you, I tend to see the world more and more this way. So here’s to mystery! Many thanks for the kind words, my friend.
Julian, this is such a *beautiful* post… Truly wonderful. Your words and photos have taken me on an absorbing, fascinating journey of discovery!
I’ve always loved Keats’s idea of ‘Negative Capability’. Coincidentally, I mentioned it on another blog just recently – on a post about leaving breathing space for the spirit. And your wonderful post here is like that; a breathing space for thought, wonder, possibility – and a breathing space for the very beingness of that amazing plant. What an extraordinary and mysterious beauty it is!
I love the way your words weave both being and mystery – towards ‘being in mysteries’. And I love your exploration of how that resonates so profoundly through, and beyond, our lives and all that’s around us. For me too, Keats’s words chime through experience and thought more and more as time passes – ‘a sweet sadness intangible and shifting as mist’ says it perfectly. I love too your observation that ‘Perhaps Keats knew that to clasp the two would hold us better in place.’ For me, that’s exactly it. We need that balance. It’s a good place – open to so much more than the finality of the heavy, negating tip of the scales too far either way. There is so much awe in what we know – and a depth of expansion and a humility of awe in the realisation of the immense mysteries.
I so hope you and your father have had a wonderful time in England (hope you managed to find the pockets of sun hiding between all the rain!) Looking forward to reading about your discoveries and adventures!
Thanks ever so much, Melanie, for this wonderful comment full of rich thoughts, ideas, connections and poetry of its own which I’ve been intending to respond to for some days now but haven’t been able to do justice with one thing and another. Forgive me, but just so you know, your words here have been an inspiring guide to all that is mysterious about us. I love where you’re coming with the notion of a breathing space, and it’s been a joy to find the spirit in your comment while reading it over a number of times.
Oh yes, there were a few pockets of sun. But mostly a wardrobe of rain… ;)
My very best wishes,
Julian, thanks so much for this wonderful and kind reply. You’ve totally brightened my day! It’s so heart warming to know that my ramblings contained some inspirations for you! Please don’t worry about time and tides and all that – things wash to the shore when they’re ready, and life has such a habit of presenting a million things to do at once (running around in circles is my default mode!) – it’s just lovely to hear back from you whenever you get the chance.
In typical British-weather contrary fashion, the sun is now out here in Bristol. To see it seems such a magical novelty at the moment, I think it must have found its way out through the back of the wardrobe via Narnia!
Very best wishes,
Digging through hoards of emails that I have allowed to accumulate in the past months, those I couldn’t discard but still allowed to become buried like my childhood treasures, I discovered the link to this post, a delightful mystery in itself until I clicked play. How marvelous that you have discovered this rarity and photographed it for us. How surprising that science has yet to uncover the secrets of its resident beetle or host plant. How frightening that it could be so easily annihilated and not because its story has not yet been told but because it exists, and is so beautiful.
I, too am gratified that mysteries still exist and am thrilled to learn Keat’s idea of Negative Capability. I am fascinated by the whims of weather and the silent but brutal dominance of water, and am satisfied that nature holds enough secrets to self-preservation to continue to exist with or without humanity.
As for life and the mystery of what might have been, while it is fodder for the imagination in idle and self-indulgent moments, I would prefer to dwell on fantasies of future explorations.
Thank you for another rich and wonderful post, Julian. I hope we will soon hear about some of the mysteries you discovered on your English trek.