February 29, 2024

Tits highlands are a place where culture and nature are intertwined. Everywhere we looked on this sun-drenched morning were the irregular, if repeated, shards and corresponding hollows that are the hallmarks of old mine shafts.

Derbyshire workmen once followed lead seams across Bonsall and as they dug they left piles of spoil behind. They are still so contaminated with heavy metals that the livestock can die of lead poisoning and grazing pressure remains light. Bird-planted hawthorns have filled many shaft hollows and now Bonsall is more covered with thornbush than almost any other part of this country. Wild boars swallowed their berries and above the heavens were freckles with thrush thrushes.

As we walked, suddenly a very different story of culturally infected nature came out of one dell. It was a fungus – a strange velvety, brown-purple shell-like beauty that loves elder and was once known as “Jew’s Ear”. This edible fungus has since been purged of its antisemitic name and is now commonly referred to as “jelly ear“. It is a reflection of a process that was recently carried out by the American Ornithological Societywhich stripped 120 birds of their mostly male-dominated patronymics such as Audubon’s shearwater and Wilson’s snipe.

I understand the rationale. We need new names. Fungi, for example, of which there are around 12,000 British species, are sometimes trapped behind a perimeter wall of scientific nomenclature. Common names – memorable names – are part of the protocol of personal diplomacy. We shake hands, we learn names. Names are the necessary preliminary to acquaintance, affection, even love.

We also need old names, if only to remind ourselves of our past, including its wrongness. There are two names, however, I should like to know, for my Bonsall companions have Charles Foster, the author of Humanitywho tested what it might feel like to live in this very place in the Upper Paleolithic.

He lived for weeks on what he could eat, and we remembered that his chosen community would have eaten fruit-filled venison and jelly ears. What names did they have then, I wonder?

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