Pain of frost is a surprise for an Ethiopian


“MY FEET hurt” said Abdi, who was from Ethiopia. “Also my fingers hurt. I have never felt this pain before.” We were at the top of Kingley Vale, on the Downs near Chichester. We were planting juniper seeds in an attempt to re-establish this emblem of the Downs but which is now dying out.

Abdi was on secondment from Addis Ababa University to study ecology. It was hoped that his country could set up similar arrangements for nature conservation as exist in Britain.

Like all his race he was tall, thin, deeply brown and fine-tuned to the climate of the south. He had never experienced frost.

He was charming, very well-mannered, intelligent and always worked hard. In the six weeks he was with me learning some of the trade I never failed to find his company interesting. He loved the downs and the vast views to all points of the compass.

But the wind blew like liquid glass from the east, and his feet hurt.

We set to work and he was soon his cheerful old self. He knew about juniper, that it grew in the mountains of North Africa, the Himalayas, North California and Pennsylvania. His father had once told him it was “the ladies’ friend”. His father had been a herbalist but had been killed in the civil war, together with nine of his relatives. Abdi was lucky to be alive.

Apparently the shrub, used not only to flavour gin had also been used since Medieval times as an abortifacient.

Berries collected across France and the Dolomites from all those limestone outcrops, were used to make “Mothers’ Ruin”, curing both pregnancy and unhappiness but then leading to addiction.

North Country mothers centuries ago were said to have their babies under “the savin tree”. Savarin is the name of the oil extracted from juniper berries.

I remember carters on our Norfolk farm in the war, putting occasional juniper berries into the feed, and calling it horse saving, presumably a corruption of Savarin.

Like white bryony root, used instead of mandrake, it livened animals up at show time.

Today the best stands of juniper are on Porton Down and Teesdale in Britain.

When crossing the Hind Kush in Afghanistan I saw whole forests of them. But in Sussex they are becoming rare with a few on Harting Hill and Levin down among other places.

None of the seeds we planted on that frosty day ever survived, and hardly any germinated although we did all the things that were needed such as protecting the chalk scree from grazing animals as after-care.

I have not heard from Abdi for many years now and can only fear the worst from that war-torn country. He deserved the best from life, but as with all deserving causes that is often not the outcome.