Vienna, 25 August 2018

I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog. Maybe it’s because I’m British – well, half British. When I was young, it used to be said that fighting for the underdog was a distinctively British trait, the prime example always given being the UK indignantly declaring war on Germany in 1914 to protect poor little Belgium. Given our history as the biggest colonialist power of all time, I find this claim a little hard to swallow. Still, I offer it as a possible explanation. Or maybe it’s because of all the years I spent working in the UN – its main job seems to be to stand up for the downtrodden of this world, as typified by the main slogan of its new Sustainable Development Goals: “No-one left behind”. Of course, there are those who would point out the rather large gap between the UN’s rhetoric and its actions … Or perhaps working for more years than I care to remember in the environmental field has made me intensely aware of the wholesale destruction that our species is raining down on every other hapless species that co-exists on this planet of ours.

Whatever the reason, I am, as I said, a sucker for the underdog. This tendency of mine to root for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” (to cite the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty) extends to the biological world. Simply put, I have a soft spot for really old species which once flourished on our planet but which for various reasons have been overtaken by other species and often thrust into small niches where they eke out a continued precarious existence. I was recently reading with sadness and indignation about the coelacanth, a fish older than the dinosaurs, which has managed to hang on 400 million years but whose last known representatives in waters off South Africa are now threatened by oil and gas drilling.

I have written in the past in these posts about the ginkgo. 150 million years or so ago, it was a thriving family of some eleven species but is now represented by only one, the ginkgo biloba, which has managed to hang on, simply because of the kindness of Buddhist monks it would seem.

I have also written about dragonflies, which first appeared in the fossil record some 325 million years ago. To be fair, they seem to be in quite a healthy state, represented as they are still by some 3,000 species. But there was a time when very large dragonflies with wingspans of 70 centimeters buzzed around – shrinkage seems to be the fate of species under attack.

The walks which my wife and I have been taking this summer in the Vienna woods (training for a long walk we will be undertaking in Japan in November) have brought me face to face with another such biological relic, the marsh horsetail.

Immediately I saw it, I sensed that I was in front of something very ancient. And indeed I was. Ancestors of the marsh horsetail and its brethren (there are some fifteen species still in existence) once dominated the understory of the forests in the late Paleozoic period some 300-350 million years ago, the time when many of our coal beds were being laid down – no doubt many a kilo of coal owes its existence to horsetail ancestors ringing down the curtain in those steamy Paleozoic forests. Here is the ghost of one such ancestor, caught in the fossil record.

And I show here an artist’s illustration of what these forests might have looked like.

Sic transit gloria mundi, “Thus passes the glory of the world”, I am fond of muttering at such moments, while my wife rolls her eyes at the oft repeated phrase.

Another name, at least in English, for the marsh horse tail is bottle-brush. I think readers will agree that it does indeed have a passing resemblance to a bottle brush. I throw in a picture here of such a brush for confirmation.

There was a time when I was very familiar with the shrunken version of the bottle brush, the test-tube cleaner. That was during the years when I spent a lot of time in chemistry labs, thinking that chemistry was the life for me. But it was not to be.

While the marsh horsetail could never actually be used to clean bottles, until quite recently one of its cousins, the shaving-rush horsetail, was used as sandpaper.

As my wife and I have noticed, this particular horsetail currently is becoming popular as a plant in public spaces, along house boundaries, used almost as a fence.

But since the plant contains high levels of crystalline silica, which is what coats sandpaper, our more practical ancestors used it to sand down furniture. Given our recent museum-soaked trip to the Netherlands, where we saw numerous paintings of homely scenes hanging on various walls, I was moved to find a painting from the Dutch Golden Age of a cabinet maker at work. This is the best I could find, a painting of a still life of musical instruments on a piece of furniture, all of which would have required fine sanding in their making. The painter is Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten.
Well, as temperatures have soared this summer in Europe, generating much anguished comment that finally we are faced with the evidence of climate change when it is too late to really do anything about it, perhaps the marsh horsetail and its brethren are cheering us stupid humans on. I’m sure that a world where average global temperatures are 2oC and more higher will be very agreeable to them and once again they will be able to flourish and kick out the upstarts, including us, which shoved them aside: he who laughs last laughs longest, as they say.


ancient dragonfly:
marsh horsetails: my photos
horsetail fossil:
Paleozoic forest:
Scouring rush:
Scouring rush in public places:
Still life of musical instruments: