I’d been watching the weather carefully. I needed a sunny weekend. April showers had turned to May downpours, every weekend a washout. Reports via twitter started to come through: this year’s display was the best in years. Finally, finally a weather window opened, and we were off to Teesdale.
I was on the hunt for spring gentians.
My mission was to capture these rare and special beauties, and I needed a sunny day to stand a chance. The bar was set high. Phil Gates, the eye patch-wearing Durham University biologist of Guardian Country Diaries fame, had captured some amazing images. Check out his blog Cabinet of Curiosities and his write up for Country Diaries. Could I bag an image as good as this?
We drove to Cow Green reservoir. Probably the easiest way to see gentians by car. Just as well we didn’t try to get the bus:
Even with the sun out, this is a bleak place. The vegetation was making no effort at all. While everywhere else in Teesdale was vibrant spring green, here it was determined to stay dull and brown, although a closer inspection revealed masses of tiny flowers. By contrast the water on the reservoir was an intense blue, as if trying to make up for the landscape’s poor effort.
We headed down the path towards Cauldron Snout, one of Teesdale’s Big Three waterfalls. In almost no time at all I spotted my first gentian. Result! Well, actually, it was a bit of an anti-climax. Prepared for a long hunt, we’d achieved our goal almost straight away.
We think of the pleasure of the hunt as being in the kill, but really it is in the seeking – planning, anticipating, searching… well, in the hunt. The kill (or the find) is important, but that pleasure comes after the thrill of the chase.
As a committed vegetarian, I try not to kill anything, but our hunting instincts are built deep into all of us. We just don’t always realise it.
As a child, I hunted bugs in the garden, and collected shells, leaves and feathers. Later I flirted with birdwatching, ticking off each new bird in my little ID book. After a while new ticks became harder, and I lost interest. Now I hunt images.
The spring gentian is such a special flower that last year I camped out solo for two nights so I could make a sixteen mile-round hike for a chance of spotting one. Despite only finding a handful of sorry-looking specimens, the sheer effort made the trip totally worthwhile. This year, finding the first flower after an hour’s drive and less than twenty minutes walk was somehow a lot less satisfying.
Gentian ticked, I hoped to find more. Sensitised now to the gentian blue colour – named in their honour, only the gentians produce such a bright blue – I spotted myriad pieces of blue plastic, but no more gentians. After a long barren patch we did find more. They are so small they can be very hard to pick out, but once we’d found a couple we started to see them everywhere. Sadly we had arrived at the end of the season, with many of the flowers finished, but I was starting to enjoy the hunt once again.
I swear I read somewhere recently about something called the “seeking emotion”. The idea is that we are not just motivated to hunt because we anticipate the rewards of the kill or the find. The seeking activity is pleasurable in and of itself. A search on Google has proven fruitless, but I think it makes a lot of sense.
This is the point where I should tell you all about the psychology of emotion, but the field is so vast, and with contradictory and competing theories, that I really don’t know where to begin. Let’s assume I didn’t dream up the idea of a seeking emotion. You are hungry and begin searching for food. This could be plants, grubs, or berries that need to be searched out and grabbed, or it could be mammals, lizards, birds – things that are going to run away or fight back. Either way, you are going to be spending a lot of your time looking for this food.
Enjoyment of the process of searching, rather than just the anticipation of the result, is what kept our ancestors looking for food instead of getting bored and going off for a nap. It kept us alive. It is the reason a fisherman can spend all night chasing an elusive catch, go home with nothing and come back for more. It helps if you catch something though – if the possibility of reward is low, there’s not much joy in the seeking.
We had our lunch besides the boiling waters of Cauldron Snout, where a passing border collie peed on my coat. The owner was either oblivious or indifferent, with no apology forthcoming. We walked back to the car following the same track. Walking faster now – well I was carrying a coat covered in dog wee – I still looked out for the gentians. I saw hardly any though: they really are hard to spot and require close attention.
I still wasn’t satisfied with the images I’d bagged, so I made a last attempt at finding those elusive gentians in the carpeted limestone pavement around the car park. At last, I got the shot I was looking for. It’s still not a patch on Phil’s reservoir shot. I’ll just have to try again next year…