June 01, 2014

Leaves of grass

June 1st and the grass is tall and thronged with seed-heads – in my garden, in the city parks around my street, and in meadows all over the country.

Haymaking began a couple of weeks ago in some parts of the UK; grass is at its most nutritious just before it fully sets seed. Some will be dried for hay, some wrapped in plastic to make silage, and fed to livestock over the winter.

Crouching to photograph it, I think of Dürer's painting 'The Great Piece of Turf' (Das Große Rasenstück, 1503). It was a milestone: the first wholly naturalistic representation of common plants in the Western canon. His plants aren't depicted symbolically, or chosen for their beauty or healing power: it's just a piece of turf, looked at closely and painted with exacting realism. It's startlingly modern, and was utterly revolutionary.

Five hundred and eleven years later and the humble meadow plants depicted in Dürer's masterpiece are just the same as those I see in South London's parks and verges every day: cock's-foot, creeping bent, smooth meadow grass, common daisy, dandelion, germander speedwell, plantain, yarrow, their lovely names a roll-call of old species for which I can, unlike so many others, still answer: 'here'.