Sunday, 10 August 2014

Rock Samphire

2nd August 2014

A warm, boisterous wind is pushing me around today on Bigbury beach, south Devon. I am here with family enjoying the wide expanse of sand and sparkling sea. Rough, slaty cliffs make a backdrop to the beach, and their rocky outcrops provide a choice of sheltered places for setting out a picnic.

The rocks and pebbles are a galaxy of subtle pinks, greens and grey slates of Lower Devonian age, classified by geologists as belonging to the Meadfoot Beds. They have been polished smooth in the zone below the tideline, but remain sharp and pitted by salt spray weathering above it. The bedding of the rock is almost vertical, being evidence of severe folding after it was deposited. Up in the cliff, the bedding has been further distorted in places by frost action during the Ice Age, shattering and remobilising it into interesting patterns.

The sea is working a further transformation on the slates, steadily recycling them into pink, green and grey sand. This will, in turn, feed the formation of other rocks - on multi million-year timescales.

Up on the cliff, tiny roots are also doing their part in breaking up the slate. Pale green patches of Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) are growing in any places where their roots can penetrate. They have sought out joint planes in the rock, where rainwater is concentrated and a rudimentary soil has formed. The result is a pattern of hanging gardens scaling the rock face, with neat rows planted by nature.

Rock Samphire gives me a pang of nostalgia for southern skies. It looks as though it belongs - as it essentially does - to the Mediterranean world; it is found along warm coasts from the Black Sea to Atlantic Europe. It has a pleasant, aniseedy smell which reminds me of fennel and the holiday aroma of ouzo and pastis; they call it 'sea fennel' in Latin countries [1]. Its fleshy, drought-resistant leaves look good to eat, but reportedly taste like 'a mixture of celery and kerosene' [2]. I suspect this may be an effect of the phenolic and tannic phytochemicals it contains [3].

Rock Samphire has evolved to exploit this rocky niche; I can't see any other plants competing to occupy this bit of uncomfortable, salt-blasted, sun-baked habitat. It is triumphantly doing what it is best at. 
Every plant expresses the special will of its species, and says something that cannot be expressed in any other language. [4]
Schopenhauer's thought leads me to new insights. Living things may be seen as verbal forms as well as nouns. They are dynamic doers and effectors. Crithmum maritimum does what it does - says what it says - according to the deployment of its genetic programming. It 'crithmums' at the genus level, and 'maritimums' at the species level. We can see it as a kind of selfhood - deploying life-seeking information specific to its own kind, existing and acting in the service of maintaining and reproducing itself. If Rock Samphire tastes like ‘celery and kerosene’ that is because it needs phytochemicals to defend itself from being eaten where it stands.

Here, I find Crithmum maritimum growing in rocky clefts. As a species, it is bound to its particular ecological niche, and as individuals these plants are bound to their clefts. They are constrained to make the best of their circumstances, and as individual plants fixed to the soil in which they are rooted (for better or worse) they can only transcend them through effective reproduction strategies. I reckon plants are absolute, blind optimists: they must wait for their environment to bring them what they need. By contrast, animals can move around and seek better circumstances, mate with whomsoever they will, but as a consequence they are naturally prey to the ceaseless, questing dissatisfaction which Schopenhauer identifies as their existential condition of all living things, and which the most conscious beings experience most acutely [5]. Psychologically, I reckon the more conscious an animal is the more capacity it has for pessimism as well as pleasure. Animals in zoos may mope or go mad [6].  

I am an example of the most mentally complex species present on Bigbury beach today - a human being. As an animal, I can exercise existential freedoms that are denied to Rock Samphire. I am able to make choices about where to lay my towel down on the beach or what food to eat. Like a dog I can choose where to dig a hole in the sand, or like a herring gull I can think how best to tackle a picnic hamper.

The onshore breeze is strengthening as the afternoon wears on. As an animal I am free to decide many things for myself - I can change my circumstances.

I think it's time to put on a pullover and fetch an ice cream from a café a few hundred yards away.

My innate pessimism tells me the café is sure to be closed by the time I get there.



[1] - Crithmum maritimum L. Gardening in mediterranean climates worldwide. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[2] - Crithmum maritimum L. Plants for a Future. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[3] - Houta, O, Akrout A & Amri, H (2011): Phenolic amounts, antioxidant and antimicrobial potential of Crithmum maritimum cultivated in Tunisian arid zones; Planta Medica 77. Online at: [accessed August 2014]
[4] - Schopenhauer, A (1969): The World as Will & Representation; Book 1, chap.28. Dover Books. 
[5] - Schopenhauer, ibid; chap.56.
[6] - Masson, G  (1996): When Elephants Weep: The emotional lives of animals; Vintage Books.


Jenny said...

If I could design my own Good Beach guide it would have exactly this kind of information. The Rock Samphire and the Meadfoot Beds rock are so well captured and so specific to that place it makes me ach. The photos are glorious.

Tim Holt-Wilson said...

That's an encouraging thought. A Good Beach Guide needs to be about more than just bathing potential and local services. Why not about ravens and winkles as well as ice cream?