Invisible from the motorway

ENGLAND, like a great many other countries, is veined with motor-ways along which thunder a bewildering variety of vehicles ranging from, in the slow lane, vast eight-wheelers carrying frozen cod to supermarkets and small cars taking aunts for an outing, via, in the middle lane, responsible drivers such as oneself only slightly exceeding the speed limit, up to a frenzy of Jehus accelerating into the horizon in the fast lanes. At quite frequent intervals these mo-torways go through pretty country, agricultural land that is being farmed by the best modern, chemicalized, insecticided methods. Plows can be seen, and harvesters, and cows and sheep chewing away, and fields of cabbages and wheat and potatoes. All very well ordered and organized.

What are not seen, however, as they are invisible from the road, are the narrow strips that lie below the edges of the motorways; between them and the fenced edges of the farmlands. It would seem that these narrow bands of good English earth, untrodden by human foot (it is forbidden to walk on a motorway) have been taken over by nature in a big way, indeed with an ebullience unmatched since the invention of phosphates.

A short television film was recently made showing what is going on one inch away from the whirling wheels. Cleverly diminishing their sound, though the wheels were still visible, the film plunged us into a deep sea of wildflowers, all the darling old-fashioned ones such as ox-eye daisies, corn cockles, mallows, mulleins, and rattles that are now an endangered species elsewhere in the land. Here, nestling in a bed of gently waving grasses was the now-rare bee orchis; here was loosestrife and the gillyflower.

One motorway was banded by scarlet poppies on either side; another, photographed in spring, was rimmed with a wide ribbon of cowslips. All was a proliferation of lushness, a poignant reminder of what the English countryside used to look like before the age of planned farming.

These long thin nurseries for wildflowers also, of course, give asylum to small animals and insects, and the film showed us little mice making nests in discarded food cartons and, alas, getting lethally stuck in milk bottles, while honeybees, courting death from zooming wind-screens, flew across the racketing roads to feast on the clover and the campion.

The sight of all this teeming life going on amid elements that must be deafening, dirty, and destructive, the sight of hedgehogs pottering about on the edge of the tarmac, apparently happily inhaling petrol fumes and oblivious to the dangers one foot away from their noses is extremely reassuring. It is said you cannot keep a good man down. Well, neither can you keep a good vole down, it would seem. Nor a saxifrage. Nor a butterfly. Life springs eternal. Give it the smallest encouragement and it flourishes. Unloved, unobserved, unadmired, un-anythinged, life cannot help rioting around in splendid profusion, and in England, at any rate, cocking a beautiful snook at the combustion engine.

Except for predatory kestrels hovering above, we would be totally unaware of these mini nature reserves, so near to us and yet so far, and the sad yet marvelously glad thing is that we are not allowed to stop and look at them. One little documentary film and that's it.

Although I suppose one might arrange a puncture?

Virginia Graham

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