A multicoloured rock stop …

Our route to Cassop Pond is rural but certainly not natural.   That’s the way with much of County Durham’s landscapes: the economic history of the area is based around extractive industries and those parts that were not mined for coal were most likely quarried. That’s particularly the case in the immediate vicinity of our house, overlooked by the scarp face of the Permian limestone.  There is a large working quarry beside the footpath we follow but, even when we have left that behind, it took some time to realise that another path we followed, overhung by trees on both sides to form a natural tunnel, was an ancient, long-abandoned wagonway.  This leads to the edge of Cassop Vale, where there are also signs of quarrying but, en route, passes through what is either another abandoned quarry or a man-made cutting for the wagonway.  Or both.  Why not get a return from the back-breaking endeavours of flattening out the route that rock-laden wagons will have to take?  

Splashes of colour on the exposed rock in the cutting also drew our attention.  Some of this was the orange-yellow of the alga Trentepohlia aurea that I have written about before (see “Fake Tans in the Yorkshire Dales”).  However, there were also patches with a brick-red colour that, under the microscope resolved into a different species, Trentepohlia umbrina (see “Cassop Vale, Febrary 2021”).   Above there are blackish patches of Gloeocapsa alpina (see “The mysteries of Clapham Junction …”) and, if you look closely, you’ll see some green patches too (see “Little round green things …”).  That’s at least four different terrestrial algae within about a metre of one another.

The quarry / cutting bordering the wagonway near Cassop Vale (NZ 3369 3820).   The image on the right shows a close-up of the exposed limestone.   a. orange patches of Trentepohlia aurea; b. brick-red patches of T. umbrina; c. black patches of Gloeocapsa alpina.

I confess to having walked along this footpath several times without ever really noticing what was right in front of my eyes.  That brings to mind a quotation from Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”.   Seeing is a process that is as much to do with the brain as it is to do with patterns of light falling on the retina.   And, at the same time as I notice that there are four species of algae on this outcrop, I have to acknowledge that there is so much more to this narrow track than I have realised.  I am aware of the rich diversity of limestone plants, largely because Heather points them out.   We notice several of the birds, either by sight or by their song and she is getting better at spotting and naming butterflies.  Then there are the fungi: the larger ones on trees we notice but we read Merlin Sheldrake’s Enchanted Lives recently and this made us conscious of the rich diversity of this group – and their many important roles in ecosystems.  

Gloeocapsa alpina from the rock face near Cassop Vale.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 100th of a millimetre).  

Our local countryside, in other words, offers us both a sense of stability, via nature’s predictable rhythms, but also the opportunity to encounter the unexpected.   The unexpected arises from two directions.   The first is an intrinsic capacity for nature to change and surprise us – for a species of plant or bird to disappear or another to appear at a location for the first time.  But there is also a capacity that lies more with us, as observers, than with the habitat itself.  That is for us to notice details that had been there all along but which we had overlooked, perhaps because we were rushing along, perhaps because we lacked the awareness that allowed the patterns that fell on our retinas to make the necessary connections in our brain.   Noticing that we’ve noticed something that we should have noticed before is doubly important, especially when this happens in our own backyards, because it makes us realise how little we know, even about the habitats we think we know best.

Wrote this whilst listening to: various live sets on YouTube by P.J. Harvey.

Cultural highlights:   Brilliant new film, Munari, about a Korean family’s attempts to farm in a remote corner of Arkansas.   Little House on the Prairie, but with Asian, rather than European settlers.  

Currently reading:  Lila, by Marilynne Robinson.  

Culinary highlight: homemade samosas, eaten al fresco on Stannage Edge, Derbyshire with daughter and partner: our first face-to-face meeting this year.

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