Border Crossings:

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Words by Fo Orbell

photographs by Oliver Gaiger


Borders seem to crop up a lot at the moment.  Generally they’re there to keep things in and keep things out.  And carve up the land into neat segments so we know who owns it: I used to like colouring in their shapes with pretty pinks and blues in geography lessons at school.  These photographs of agricultural fences, walls and hedges symbolise division, but they also show us that however hard humans try to demarcate the land, the land will eventually reclaim itself. 


Can borders protect or isolate us?  One photograph here shows white woolly tufts hovering in the air like a white flag of surrender on a border crossing.  (Since World War I barbed wire will always conjure up images of trench warfare).  Here in Wales borders are there to separate the sheep from the goats, the ram from the ewes.  But sheep use cunning and agility to find where the grass is greener.  In spring and summer lactating ewes become increasingly determined to find the lushest pasture and will squeeze through the smallest aperture to satisfy their hunger.  Lines can be rubbed out.

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Ash and beech trees will grow over and around dry stone walls and metal fences to create a union of vegetable and mineral.  Matter merges.  Barbed wire is enveloped by thick layers of bark and eventually embedded in the tree’s trunk: fence becomes tree; tree becomes fence.  And borders can be easy to circumnavigate for some wildlife: foxes will jump or dig under a fence to find the chicken; swallows will cross continents to avoid Britain’s cold, insect poor winters.   But there’s always danger when lines are crossed or rubbed out.  A tree can bleed sap; a fox can be trapped; a swallow can die of exhaustion.    It takes courage, perserverance and sheer determination to challenge a boundary.

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Nevertheless, these border images illustrate both nature’s ingenuity and human imagination.  A stone curved like a boomerang hangs between wires: a natural found object in use as a tensioner on the stock fence.  Somebody can increase or decrease the tension by a simple twist of the stone.  Orange or blue bailer twine knits web-like patterns between fence posts, wire and tree.  Here there is tension but also an interconnectedness between the human and nature. A policy of divide and rule can never last.  Borders are always temporary.



Finding Fiddleheads

Words by Fo Orbell

photographs by Oliver Gaiger


They’re like large green hairy caterpillars coiled in defense of a predator.   Or the curly tails of some fantastic underground beast.  Every spring they surprise us with their magical reappearance in the walls and flowerbeds of our garden.  Fiddleheads are the furled fronds of a fern. (Try saying that ten times without tripping over your words.)  And the fern is a beautiful and fascinating thing.   Every year I’m in awe at their reemergence, unraveling from their roots to produce thick luxuriant fronds of up to two metres.


Ferns go in and out of fashion. The Victorians were crazy about ferns, and not just for growing in gardens.  ‘Pteridomania’ (fern fever) took over the decorative arts in 19th Century Britain; their flat shape was perfect for use as a stencil or for printing patterns on paper, ceramic or glass.  While in the 21st Century scientists have discovered that they can be used to decontaminate our soil by removing pollutants such as arsenic.

Plus, many fiddleheads are edible: Native Americans have eaten the ostrich and cinnamon fern for centuries.  A rich source of iron, fibre, omega-3 and omega-6, as well as having antioxidant properties, perhaps ferns will be celebrated as the next superfood?  (Similar to asparagus in flavour, if you fancy trying fiddleheads sautéed with garlic just make sure you steer clear of bracken which can be carcinogenic).

So if you’ve got a soggy, dank space where nothing else will grow, try planting a fern.  Chances are it’ll thrive.




The Darling Buds of May

Words by Fo Orbell

Photographs By Oliver Gaiger


‘If the oak before the ash
Then we’ll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak
Then we’ll surely have a soak!’


I remember my Dad, a Suffolk farmer, teaching me this old rhyme as we walked up the cart-track in spring, studying the buds on the hedges in the hope that this year we would be in for just a splash rather than a full soaking.   I also remember wondering why there wasn’t a rhyme to predict sunshine – it could involve pine I thought.  Now I’m all too aware of the stark realism of these lines, especially living in mid Wales.  I can appreciate the clear-sightedness in foretelling rain during a British summer, only leaving the quantity open to speculation.  

This old rhyme is all the more poignant in the 21st century as we face the effects of global warming and ash dieback.  In spring we study the black velvety buds of our graceful and lofty ash tree standing at the end of our garden with some trepidation.  But our ash tree has just flushed, mid May, and the toothy leaflets are a beautiful emerald green.  All is well – for now.  With warmer springs it’s very rare to see the ash before the oak: in the 18th century they were used to much colder spring weather and buds on the ash would often open first.  Oak tree leaves are more sensitive to warmth and the Woodland Trust reports that their buds are opening two weeks earlier, on average, than 30 years ago.  Research also shows that the ash tree is more responsive to the day’s length, rather than temperature change (hopefully the world will keep spinning around the sun much the same).

Notably, the non-native sycamore tree isn’t present in British folklore because it was only introduced to our islands in the 17th Century.  It’s classified as a ‘weed’ by some gardeners due to its rapid growth and hardiness: you’ll find their seedlings growing not just all over your garden but also in gutters, walls and chimneys.  However, the buds are exquisitely beautiful: they begin rhubarb pink, slowly swelling and lengthening until they open out into five-lobed maple leaves, eventually turning a deep green.  They say that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

Whether we’re in for a splash or a soak this year, it’s worth remembering that it’s the rain which makes our gardens so vividly green and verdant.  And every year the translucent pinks and greens of the unfolding buds are sublime – even without sunshine.