A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

An EnviroSpin short story.....

The orchid


The old German road ran straight through the pine trees to the sea. It ended, buried in a great mound of sand, the last dune before the shore.

To reach the beach, you had to climb a thorny path between grey sea-buckthorn, until the wind was fresh on the face, and you could watch the low waves coursing in from the west. It was a lonely place, despite the flotsam of life washed ashore from the shadow ships that sailed the distant horizon. Few people ever came then to la Nouvelle Pointe; the road was private, and the bent iron gates were locked and hidden by dense bushes, crowded beneath the shade of taller ash trees.

To the north, the coast presented a long, clean line, punctuated at intervals by small ephemeral hoiday resorts, where the front doors of the wind-beaten, coloured-concrete houses faced the land, their exposed back doors blocked by blown sand. To the south, the shore curved to the east, where it merged imperceptibly into sheep-grazed salt marshes that fringed the silted estuary of the wide river. Here tides governed the pattern of life, and slender wading birds strutted and stalked the pale mud. In winter, all was wild - resort, beach, or bay - and western rains lashed la Pointe, a lighthouse on its twin across the estuary flashing danger through the night. Yet, in high summer, behind the dunes, the land was warm, full of balm and gentle flowers, with the song of a quieter sea caught in the tops of tall waving pines and groves of birch, where red squirrels played.

The old road was now broken and pitted, patched with green moss and yellow lichen, its hard edges softened by a carpet of needles and cones. In dips, water and leaves collected to form black soil, rarely wholly dry, even in the hottest summer. To find the hidden gate, you had to take a rough track, which came, roundabout by ditch and dyke, from la Grande Patûre to the village of St Quentin. A large loop in the track ate into the forest edge, and it was here that the road to la Nouvelle Pointe began, although few knew of its existence, or sought the closed gates beneath the old ash tree that lay beyond the drainage channel which marked the end of Le Champ Neuf.


The young boy had come, however. He was now riding furiously along the old road, avoiding the humps and holes, but revelling in the 'big-dipper' hollows, into which he rushed with whoops, his legs flailing wide of the pedals of his small bicycle. Eventually, however, he turned right through a thin corridor of pines into the open sun of a grassy plain, which spread wide between the seaward marram of the dunes and the darker edge of the inland woods. Soon the bicycle slowed in the softer ground, and he jumped off, running instead to the highest dune, where he scrabbled eagerly to the overhanging top, then leapt with abandon down the slithering slope, tumbling unhurt into the sand below. Picking himself up, he looked around, and he noticed a small pool of water in the heart of the sandy hollow; it shimmered green in the bright daylight, a miniature lake, an oasis in an otherwise dry land of sun and sand. He walked over to the edge of the pool, where he bent low to rinse his hands in the water.

It was then that he saw the orchid.

Just below his eye-level, a slender stem rose tall from narrow, rich-green, fleshy leaves, bearing a spike of loose flowers, deep red-purple, each like a strange tropical bird on the wing. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and to him, a small boy, the plant seemed so big - a giant among flowers. He moved closer; the leaves were covered with tiny purple spots (like measles, he thought) and he marvelled at the dark crimson markings on the lobes of each flower. He touched the plant carefully, and it rocked slowly on its ripe, round stem. He had no temptation to pick it; instinctively he knew that it was a secret plant of a secret place, and he simply wondered what it was.


But then they had come. At first, they had just teased him, surrounding him in a circle. Did the little boy like pretty flowers? Hadn't maman done his hair ever so nicely? Did he have any money? He hadn't, so they pushed him over into the pool. Sorry, of course, it was an accident. Weren't they clumsy? Maman will have to wash his nice clean clothes. He had tried to get up, but somebody must have put a heavy boot on his back, while another had rubbed his face in the sandy water. "Mustn't have a dirty face, boy!" "Get up, boy!" Then, they threw him over again, laughing. "I think he wants a drink. Does baby boy want a drink, then?" They dragged his head back by the hair, and from a scooped hand they forced him to swallow the gritty water. He coughed and spluttered, but at that moment they turned their attention to the orchid.

"Is this his pretty flower, then?" "I think he wants to eat it, don't you?" "Do you want to eat it?" "Are you hungry, boy?" Ripping up the orchid, they forced open his mouth, and stuffed the flower into his face, so that sweet sticky juice oozed round his lips and down his chin. They laughed again, and pushed him back into the water. Then, suddenly bored, they were gone, as unexpectedly as they had come, leaving a broken flower and a crying child in the warm hollow of a dune by the old German road near la Nouvelle Pointe, while the sea sang softly in the high pines and adders curled unawares in the mid-day sun.

Beyond the dune, there was a small bicycle with a bent frame and no wheels, lying in the grass.


Some forty years later, I returned to my home village. I had never forgotten the old road, the orchid, and my secret ordeal in the warm dunes by a lonely sea. Since then I had travelled the world, but no flower had ever seemed quite so big and quite so beautiful as that, my first, and I had often dreamed of it in lonelier hotel rooms following busy days. But I wish I hadn't returned. The bunkers of the old German road and the lost domain had been replaced by progress, by the noisy conviviality of 'La Nouvelle Pointe Camping' (Four****), with bar and barbecue, toilets and showers, and places for caravans and cars, all set in a land of scattered pines and trampled grass. My boyhood beating had been nothing compared to this.

Now you may choose the ending of the story, (a) or (b) or (c) or (d):

(a) Yet, among the debris that had fallen out of a litter bin by a dark pool, I refound a specimen of the orchid. It had survived everything, war, bullies, and progress; but now it was small, much diminished in my mind, and I turned away saddened.

(b) Yet, among the debris that had fallen out of a litter bin by a dark pool, I refound a specimen of the orchid. It had survived everything, war, bullies, and progress; but now it was small, much diminished in my mind, and I squelched it under my foot to save it further humiliation.

(c) And, of course, the orchid had vanished. It had survived the war and the bullies, but le camping had proved too much for it; anyway, a new development is always offset by an extinction. It is The Law of Nature. Yet, the orchid will remain forever in my mind, as large and beautiful as the day I first saw it in a lost land by a sighing sea.

(d) Your own ending to the story.

[This short story, here slightly adapted, was first published in: Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters, Vol.1(1), January 1991, pp. 5 - 6. © Blackwell Science 1991 and © Philip Stott 2004.]

Philip, in further retrospective reveries. Now deconstruct the language?

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