The Guardian Weekly - 2021-11-26




Powys, Wales Paul Evans

Brighter than the bygone reds in fabric shops on the high street, bright as bonfires, these are bloody, socialist reds hiding behind the church. Danger and luck, warning and blessing, feast and poison, say these paradox reds; there’s truth in the harmony of opposites. On the Welsh side of the River Teme, at the back of St Edmund’s church in Knighton, these are the red berries of celyn. A stone’s throw across the river into England, these holly trees of the Welsh Marches are some of the oldest specimens of Ilex aquifolium in Europe, perhaps thanks to superstitions that it’s bad luck to cut them down, that they ward away storms and evil spirits, and that they have a symbolic place indoors as decorations. Trees such as this one draw the redwings, fieldfares and mistle thrushes from the far north to join local birds in the feast of the Holly King who rules from midsummer to midwinter. A bright, cool November light flashes over the prickles and makes the berries glow. Perhaps this is a mast year, with a bumper crop of fruit, but a cold snap and an influx of hungry birds could see these stripped bare in no time. There is a link to something sickly in the churchyard grass. What looks like a splash of vomit is Fuligo septica, an amoeba-like, singlecelled blob. These feed on other micro-organisms, until heavy rain when they move together to form a collective organism. This then produces sporangia – yellowish, spore-bearing organs – to begin a new life cycle. These amazing creatures with a brainless mind, that can negotiate mazes and are being used to create algorithms to detect dark matter, seem stranger and more fictive than any of our superstitions.


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