Sunday, March 07, 2021

An episode on the Isle of Sheppey

In February and March 2021 I read The Sea View Has Me Again. Uwe Johnson in Sheerness, a large book (733 pages) by Patrick Wright that plaits the life of the eminent German writer Uwe Johnson with a description of the past and present of the Isle of Sheppey in general and Sheerness, one of its main towns, in particular.

Uwe Johnson was born in Kammin on the Baltic coast in German Pomerania, (now Kamien Pomorski and in Poland). The area has had a complex history having been fought over by Germans, Poles and Swedes. During World War II German rocket launchers were stationed on Chrząszczewska Island (formerly Insel Gristow) that lies immediately to the west of Kammin and to which it is connected by a bridge. After the war, most Germans left Kammin and were replaced by Poles. The Johnson family moved to Anklam in German West Pomerania and also close to the Baltic with its winding rivers, lagoons and seacoast. These estuarine, rather bleak landscapes and equally bleak histories are thought partly to have attracted Johnson to live in a house in Sheerness overlooking the Thames Estuary for the last ten years of his life.

Patrick Wright is an author, historian and Emeritus Professor of Literature, History and Politics at King’s College, London. Among other things, Wright’s book (which has been highly praised by many critics) describes the numerous eccentricities of the Isle of Sheppey and its people, many of which did, or would have, attracted the interest of Uwe Johnson. I would like to add a Sheppey episode of which Patrick Wright is unlikely to have heard but which, I think, may have amused Uwe Johnson.

In the early years of the current century I took up the study of mosses and joined the British Bryological Society (BBS). Shortly afterwards I learnt that the BBS were conducting a survey of the bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) of arable fields. Most of these are in decline due to changes in agricultural practices. In order to improve records of their current distribution I was invited, in 2004, to join a November field meeting to look for as many of these species as we could find in stubble fields on the Isle of Sheppey. The fields chosen were to lie fallow all winter with the bryophytes therefore undisturbed (except by visiting bryologists).

Our small party of half a dozen enthusiasts gathered on a cold but bright day in a stubble field to the south of Eastchurch in an elevated position more or less in the centre of the island. It was cold with a wind from the north east. To find and study the various bryophytes that flourish in stubble fields requires searching on hands and knees, high powered magnifying glass in one hand and maybe a handbook and/or notebook in the other. It is cold and uncomfortable work and I wondered how many people from Eastchurch or elsewhere were troubled at the sight of full-grown men and women crawling across the windswept fields in prayerful attitudes, especially as we were quite close to one of Her Majesty’s Prisons.

The day was made more exciting by the arrival of a group of researchers from the University of Lancaster who were studying people who indulged in unusual pursuits and, clipboard in hand, a young woman asked questions and took notes about my interest in almost invisible ephemeral mosses despite weather and other seemingly negative circumstances.

One of the target species for the day was Bryum klinggraeffii which I had never heard of. Nevertheless one of our party called out that he had found some and I went and inspected the moss that bore such an interesting name. And there on the bare soil were a few small tufts of green between the rows of the prickly cut ends of summer corn. After a quick dissertation on the visible and distinctive features of the tiny leaves and stems of this diminutive plant he drew my attention to the small, reddish tubers hiding in the moss and which, because of their shape and colour, had won it the English name of ‘raspberry bryum’. These tubers, only about ¼ millimetre wide, often occur only on the moss’s rhizoids below ground and have to be searched for in loose soil (sometimes known as the ‘diaspore bank’).

The specific name for this moss was coined by W P S Schimper, an Alsatian botanist, who formally described the species in Hugo von Klinggräff’s 1858 book Die höheren Cryptogamen Preussens (The higher cryptogams of Prussia). Klinggräff was a 19th century German botanist who specialised in bryology. Both Uwe Johnson and Hugo Erich Meyer von Klinggräff were born in neighbouring provinces of Pomerania with Baltic coastlines, both in places where Germans have been replaced by Poles and German by Polish. I like to imagine that Klinggräff would be pleased that people were finding ‘his’ moss in fields on the island where his celebrated fellow Pomeranian had once chosen to live. Had they met I think they would have had much to talk about and I think Uwe Johnson might even have made an entry in one of his notebooks.

A small memorial of this day’s moss hunting in the bare, winter countryside on this estuary island can be found on the National Biodiversity Network’s web page for Bryum klinggraeffii. If one zooms in to Sheppey there is a small cluster of dots marking records of the species made in 2004 in the arable fields around Eastchurch.

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