Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Graveyard Chronicles: Cemetery Suicide Tour or Tasting the Forbidden Fruit

“No hard hats required on this tour ladies and gentlemen but – for health and safety reasons– I am obliged to warn you about the danger of … falling acorns – a pause here is filled by hearty laughter from a small crowd gathered around the speaker- so, having fulfilled my obligations according to the law, let’s begin our tour.”
It is early September and I am in Southampton Old Cemetery. The warm still air nurtures a faint smell of manure and bees hum indolently at a nearby thicket where wild honeysuckle blossoms have broken the surface of a sea of deep green foliage. Half a dozen swallows are skimming the long grass behind me and, beyond them, woodpigeons coo from a copse of oak trees. It’s an idyllic Sunday afternoon, dreamlike in its tranquility, perfect for a cemetery tour. Around twenty of us are here, a number of whom have come equipped with cameras and notebooks. My good friend and colleague, Aidan, is among them. 
Our guide is Bob, an expert on wildflowers and butterflies, and he rhymes off a selection of the examples we can expect to see this afternoon: Ribwort Plantain, Corn Copper, Cranesbill, Thyme leaf, Yarrow, Rough Hawk’s Beard, Smooth Hawk, Bittersweet, Fat Hen, Robin’s Pincushion, Harebell, Holly Blue, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, and Speckled Wood. The earthiness of these words, surely common parlance in another era, resonates with me. Hearing them I sense nostalgia for that era, for an era I have never known.
Having completed his introductory talk, our guide sets off in the direction of an extensive patch of long grass, where he halts. Once the group has shuffled around him, Bob explains that mowing in the cemetery is scheduled in deference to the various times at which the wild flowers come into bloom. This is the first of a number of stops we make on our tour and the cameras come out to snap Corncopper, Cranesbill and Flowering Nutmeg, also known as Himalayan Honeysuckle,. Bob picks a sample of each and passes them to the group to inspect. When Cranesbill comes to me I realise that I’ve seen these deep lilac petals before, glanced at them momentarily; I’ve never really looked long enough to appreciate the intricacy of their beauty. A few steps further on Bob picks a Hare Bell, a common wildflower, and hands it to me. I cradle the blossom in my palm and silently wonder at my own blindness.

Further on, the pink-lilac blossom which catches our eye is Fat Hen and Bob points out that it belongs to a unique class of wild flower, one which needs no insects for its reproduction, it is wind-pollinated. Someone behind me remarks that not much pollination is happening this afternoon, since no breeze at all is stirring. An older lady replies that in these conditions we may have a better chance of seeing more butterflies.
Indeed we do, Bob guides us over to a particularly overgrown patch where the tall stems of grass obscure many of the gravestones, but not the blossoms of a myriad of wildflowers thriving therein: pink, blue, yellow and white give sparkle to the parched extension of wheat grass. In the centre there is a purple hillock of ling, which, we are told, is also known as Lucky Heather. A lady in front of me is the first to spot a duo of Holly Blues cavorting over the ling. Shouts go up “Holly Blues”; a handful of dawdlers quicken their pace and hasten over towards us, cameras poised. Several people exchange the scraps of information they have about Holly Blues with Bob’s deeper knowledge of the species. Later we see Meadow Browns, Small Coppers, Speckled Woods and Gatekeepers; with each sighting the excitement increases, as does the number of snapshots taken.
While the butterflies are clearly the stars of our afternoon in the graveyard, several of the trees that Bob pauses by are worthy of the attention of our cameras, particularly the more exotic ones. A long slender pod of an Indian Bean tree, from the southern regions of the U.S., is snapped open but the fruit is not yet mature. Under the Atlas Cedar, from the mountains of Algeria and Morocco, I reflect on the life that this tree might have led had it been rooted in its native terrain. Monkeys? Snakes? Eagles? But the most spectacular tree in the cemetery turns out to be a native species: the Weeping Beech. Instead of reaching upwards, its branches cascade dramatically to the ground, creating an earthy-scented penumbra which we all crowd into. In here, Bob reveals that careful grafting techniques are the secret of the tree’s unusual beauty.

Like most graveyards, this one is populated by yew trees. Bob halts by one to explain that yews can live up to 500 years, or more. This one, he explains, has possibly been here for three centuries. All parts of the tree are poisonous and cuttings have to be disposed of carefully. Fearful that another Health and Safety announcement is on its way, I commence browsing absentmindedly through the afternoon’s photos on my camera.
Aidan hands me a couple of small red berries, “Try them, they’re yew tree berries; apparently they’re delicious.” I nibble tentatively at one, removing enough of the bright red flesh to expose the chocolate brown pip (not unlike rabbit poo in its appearance). No worm peeps out; reassured, I nibble more boldly at the berry and it is astonishingly sweet and tasty. Unconcerned about worms now, I enthusiastically pop another into my mouth to check that the previous one wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t. Both berries are equally mouth-watering. I’m tempted to pick a few more to snack on along the way when our guide shouts, “Don’t forget to spit out the pips, folks. Let’s go.” Reluctantly I move on, puzzled as to why this delicious fruit has not been harvested and marketed.
Bob reaches one of several patches of vivid yellow flowers and waits for us to catch up. He eyes the group, “I think we’re missing a few. Surely there were more people than this when we started out?” An elderly gentleman with a bouquet in the breast pocket of his shirt - created from the myriad of wildflowers our guide has picked - ventures that the slow coaches are probably still lingering by the yew. Bob rolls his eyes in mock admonition and proceeds to point out that we are looking at Rough Hawk, a species which only flowers where there is limestone. “In this particular area, there is no limestone, so how do we explain that?” Silence, and then the gentleman with the bouquet pipes up, “The graves are made from limestone”. “Well done, sir.” We all smile and, since a degree of camaraderie seems to have sprung up among us, applause breaks out at the swiftness of the answer.
Two and a half hours have slipped by while we’ve been on the cemetery tour. Our final stop is by a walnut tree, where Bob cracks open a nut but it is not yet ripe. My appetite has been opened by the yew berries, so I suggest to Aidan that we go and get something to eat. The last we see of Bob, he is handing a Michaelmas daisy to the elderly gentleman to complete his bouquet. 

         That evening I am reviewing the afternoon’s photos on my computer when Aidan knocks on my door. He looks stricken. A few minutes ago he phoned his brother, a keen naturalist, to tell him about the tour. He gasps, “When I mentioned we’d been eating yew berries there was a horrible silence. He was in shock; they’re poisonous, just three or four would be highly toxic to the point of causing death.”
Neither of us swallowed the pips. But neither of us had taken Bob’s second health and safety announcement seriously. We wondered about the “slow coaches” in our tour group, whether those lingering by the yew tree had been equally casual in their attitude to Bob’s warning… we hoped not.