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25 April 2022

From the NS archive: Bluebells

29 April 1939: There is apparently something about the bluebell that incites human beings to special efforts of destructiveness.

By New Statesman

The anonymous author of this 1934 article asserts that there is one issue that has always divided the population: bluebells. You can either be a friend of the bluebell, like the members of the Save the Bluebell League, or an enemy – someone who is “still mentally an infant, and cannot see a beautiful thing without wanting to clutch it and make it his very own”. It is natural to want to possess the things we love, but a ravaging bluebell picker will quickly discover that a bluebell dies almost instantly when plucked. While the author is sympathetic to the enemy, they write that “there does not seem much point in destroying a landscape merely because you think it enchantingly beautiful”. This article shows a growing consciousness of the human impact on the environment. Can we prevent our love from degenerating into greed?

This is the time of year at which the English race is divided into two camps – the friends and the enemies of the bluebell. Year by year the feeling between the two parties grows more intense. The friend of the bluebell, who is usually a little high-strung and emotional, denounces the bluebell-picker as little short of a murderer. “Whole tracts of these wild wood hyacinths,” he declares, “are being massacred.” Dr Goebbels himself could not organise bitterer propaganda against an enemy than the friends of the bluebell set going every year against the bluebell-picker. Listening to them, you would gather that bluebell-picking was one of the vices of Attila. “Ravages”, “wanton destruction”, “predatory hordes” – this is the sort of language used about the seemingly innocent Sunday cyclist who comes home carrying a bunch of bluebells on his handlebar.

The enemies of the bluebell, for their part, are divided into two sections – those who do their best to exterminate the bluebell and those who defend those who do their best to exterminate the bluebell. They take as their slogan “Each man kills the thing he loves”, and at sight of a bluebell wood the temptation both to love and to kill becomes irresistible. They know – that is, if human beings learn from experience, which is doubtful – that a bluebell dies almost as soon as it is plucked, and, with this knowledge in their minds, they tear the flowers from the earth with what appears to their opponents to be the fury of bloodlust. No other flower is attacked with the same frenzy. The brilliant dandelion is left in peace by all but children, and it is unusual even to see a grown-up person gathering daisies. There is apparently something about the bluebell, as about the wild daffodil and the primrose, that incites human beings to special efforts of destructiveness. And the bluebell seems to have the worst effect on them of all.

Some people grow angry when these pickers of wildflowers are criticised. They hold that Nature can be trusted to look after herself, and that only busybodies and fools would wish to stop human beings from enjoying themselves in any way they please. If a wood is emptied of bluebells and filled with litter instead, they regard this simply as evidence that a large number of human beings have been happy. If they were logical, they would regard with equal satisfaction banana skins lying on the pavement or empty beer-bottles thrown over the hedge into their gardens.

Up to a point, I am in favour of other people being happy; but I rather agree with the members of the Save the Bluebells League that more people are made happy by the sight of bluebells growing than by the sight of bluebells dying on a bicycle handle. I can understand the bluebell-picker, however. Though grown up, he is still mentally an infant, and cannot see a beautiful thing without wanting to clutch it and make it his very own. A bird’s egg, a butterfly, a flower – it is as natural to want to possess these things as it is to love them. Apart from this, the flower-picker feels that, in taking a bunch of bluebells home with him, he is taking the country into town and so prolonging his Sunday holiday into the week. He is a dreamer, a sentimentalist – much more sentimental than any member of the Anti-Bluebell-Picking Society – and his flowers, even when faded, are a symbol of the beauty that ravished him in the wood. Who is there who has never cherished a faded flower?

I should be inclined, then, to make allowance for this symbolic aspect of flower-picking and to permit every motorist or cyclist who wanted to take a symbol of the country home with him to pluck one bluebell – perhaps, two – but, at any rate, not more than three. After all, one bluebell is as good a symbol of the country as a thousand, and love should not be allowed to degenerate into greed, whether in regard to food or in regard to flowers. But a restriction like this, it may be objected, could never be enforced without a special law and the help of the police. Well, I should be in favour of a special law and making use of the police. I should not call them police, however. I should select a number of powerful policemen and policewomen and disguise them as Flower Wardens who would ride about the country in Robin Hood and Maid Marian costumes on motor-bicycles on the lookout for cases of excessive bluebell-picking. At first, I think, it should be their function to warn rather than to punish. It would be no harm for one season for them to try the effect of going through the woods and talking to people about the beauties of Nature and handing out leaflets with such titles as There’s No Sense In It, Guard Your Bluebells, and You Are Now in the Garden of England: Why Destroy It?

The fundamental argument against excessive bluebell-picking is, indeed, that, as a result of the invention of the bicycle and the motorcar, England has in recent years become more or less everybody’s garden. In the old days, it mattered very little how many flowers people picked, for in most districts there were comparatively few people to pick them. Much the same thing was true of birds’ eggs. Nature’s abundance was still more than enough to counter man’s greed. I do not know whether there is any instance before the 19th century of the disappearance of any species of flower or bird or butterfly owing to the activities of human beings. Today, however, it can hardly be doubted that, if the collector and picker are allowed a free hand, a number of flowers, birds and butterflies are likely to be exterminated.

This has already been recognised by parliament, and a law for the protection of birds is in force. To our grandfathers this would probably have appeared sentimental nonsense. They would have resented being branded as criminals for stealing a bird’s eggs and would have regarded this as a gross interference with the liberty of the subject. While Nature is lavish, man destroys with a light heart. In America there was a time when he felt that in destroying trees he was advancing civilisation. Gamekeepers still live in the destructive spirit of earlier centuries. Later, when people came to realise the possibility that, instead of there being a superabundance of trees and flowers and birds and butterflies in the world, there might soon be a dearth of these things, public opinion swung round and began to think in terms not of destruction, but of preservation.

Today, men insist on the preservation even of wild beasts. How incredible it would once have seemed to forbid a man to shoot a lion! Yet nowadays many people dread the disappearance of the lion as though the world would never be the same without him. I have no doubt that the boa constrictor has friends who would mourn over his exit from the earthly scene. There may yet come a day when the rat, most friendless of the animals, will have a society for his protection, and the mosquito, most friendless of the insects, will be cherished like the Camberwell Beauty.

The truth is, a world populated only by human beings and domestic animals – a world in which no wild animal moved, no wild bird sang, no wildflower grew, and no insect was to be seen – would seem to most of us a horrible world and little better than a desert. Should we even like to see the wasp exterminated? I should hesitate before casting my vote. I should certainly not vote for the extinction of a single wildflower. I do not like the look or the smell of some wildflowers, but I like them to be there and to know what they are. The variety of the spectacle of the world and its living and growing things, it will be generally admitted, is the source of one of the most satisfying pleasures of life, a pleasure the loss of which would deprive us of as much happiness as would the loss of the pleasure of reading or of listening to music.

Hence, it is a good thing for the alarmists to warn us that we may lose this varied spectacle if we are not careful, and that, in order to preserve it, we must learn to behave in woods and country places as ungreedily as we behave in a London park. After all, in Hyde Park or St James’s Park, even children of six can enjoy looking at the daffodils and hyacinths and tulips without being seized by an uncontrollable instinct to pluck them. A sentimentalist, noting their pleasure, must often feel that it is a cruel world which forbids little children to stretch out their hands and fill their arms with the flowers and carry them home in rapture. The realist, however, though he approves of the kindliness of the sentimentalist’s thought, sees that, if flower-picking were allowed in the parks, the beauty of no flowerbed would last longer than a day and the public gardens of London would become a wilderness.

It would be absurd, of course, to pretend that flower-picking could cause the same devastation in the country as in a London park. At the same time, a good deal of devastation can be done in a bluebell wood on a fine Sunday, and there does not seem much point in destroying a landscape merely because you think it enchantingly beautiful. It is especially absurd because, outside the wood, the bluebells are no longer beautiful or at least not one-tenth so beautiful as they were in the wood. Sentiment says “Pluck them.” Common sense says: “Leave them alone.” In this matter I am on the side of common sense.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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