31 May 2012

Dead Bee On Peg

dead honey bee

Putting the washing out the other morning I found this poor dead bee with his leg apparently trapped by the spring of the peg. I can’t imagine what he thought he was doing playing with the spring in the first place.

Anyway, being a dedicated nature blogger I tried to identify him, but couldn’t see a type of solitary bee that fitted his description, so I went to ISpot and very quickly two people said he was a honey bee – and therefore a she.

ISpot identification of bee

  So now I feel guilty for three reasons:-

  1. Inadvertently killing a bee
  2. Killing a honey bee
  3. For being part of the patriarchal society that automatically assumes everything is masculine

BTW I'm pretty certain that cat is a she, too.

dead honey bee

29 May 2012

Daisies Dancing In The Sun

Warning: nothing much happens - think of it as a short meditation.

Music is Hayden. Adagio from 2nd Movement of Symphony No. 24

28 May 2012

Pond Update - Bronson Lives On!

Heron Landing on The Grand Canal, Dublin

Yes, Charles Bronson survived the massacre! A couple of days ago I saw his gnarled form swimming with his younger, orange-ier friends. What a relief.

Unfortunately the level of water continues its slow descent. The last time I posted on this I was wondering how a heron (the most likely culprit) could pierce the strong butyl liner with its beak, but my friend, Carole, made the point that herons have sharp claws, which I hadn’t considered.

Btw, have you seen the size of a heron's foot? Monster claws. Wouldn't discount an errant talon poking a hole in the pond liner.

And as evidence she supplied these amazing photographs:

heron's foot

Carole lives in a lovely part of Dublin near The Grand Canal (think Didsbury with an Edinburgh twist), where she befriends ducks, rescues swans, and eyeballs herons.

26 May 2012

Soapy Aphids

The year 2012 in Garden 65 seems to be the year of the aphid. They have colonised the euphorbias and have set up outlier camps on the rose buds. Meanwhile the ladybirds are contenting themselves with looking pretty in a less war torn part of the garden. It almost makes you welcome the army of harlequin ladybirds that is apparently marching its way up the country.

This morning, fed up with jeering taunts from farmer ants, I resorted to the old ‘washing up liquid in a spray bottle’ manoeuvre and gave them a good dousing.

How successful this technique will be is debateable. Perhaps the same effect could be achieved by spraying with water alone, but there is one advantage to using soap – rubbing the greenfly off soft leaves with soapy fingers is quite a sensuous experience. Gives a whole new light to those old gardeners like Mr McGregor.

As an aside: the aphid on my middle finger seems to have been caught giving birth to one her nymphs.

24 May 2012

Ahead Of The Game

Goodness I’m good at this nature blogging lark. Two articles in today’s newspapers touch on topics I’ve already written about. They have, however, expressed them far more eloquently than I, but still, it’s nice to be part of the zeitgeist.

Today in The Independent Michael McCartney reveals his passion for butterflies but worries these days this may be seen as a little ‘soft’.

“For a start, professing such an enthusiasm runs counter to the prevailing tone of our age, which is subversive. We like statements to be wry, knowing or ironic, we like them to be cool, so something as pathetically simplistic as an open admiration of natural beauty is just asking to be shot down”

Yesterday I said,

“I wonder if it is because their [ie. butterflies] beauty lends them an aura of femininity, which encourages uneasiness in reporters and campaigners.”

It is certainly interesting that a high profile reporter of the natural world is feeling the same thing. He goes on,

“Further, I think that admiring beauty has become itself suspect. Beauty is regarded as elitist: why bear it such tribute when so much more of the world demands our attention?”

Again I agree. For some time I have been wondering why the public are being urged to grow vegetables in their gardens. Yes, it’s a fun thing to do, and veg. grown in your own garden tastes far superior to that bought from a supermarket, but what is wrong with spending your efforts on creating beauty and peace in your own garden? It is as if we must atone for having the good fortune in having a garden by making it useful; making it pay its way. Valuing normal suburban gardens in terms of functionality alone is a dangerous path to travel.

My other insight involves teabags. We may not be able to save the world by growing vegetables but we can by putting our teabags in the green bin.

The Guardian reports that Unilever, who make PG Tips, have teamed up with the recycling organisation Wrap to promote a campaign in Chelmsford and Brentwood Councils to encourage people to compost their teabags or put them in the recycling bin instead of chucking them in the general bin which goes to landfill.

If you recall from my post on food waste (I know you pay close attention to every missive) I did find teabags were the major occupier of my little kitchen top box. They take up the greatest volume and weight of any other food item thrown away.

Of course I’m now feeling smug because I do the ‘right’ thing with my teabags, but let’s face it, redirecting teabags is a much easier than growing veg.

23 May 2012

A Pokemon in the Garden

My son would have loved a Pokémon like this.

This week is Save Our Butterflies week as championed by Butterfly Conservation.

This magical creature visited Garden 65 on the 3rd of May. Everything about him is so beautiful he could have been designed: the amazing blue of his wings, the white furry body, striped antennae, and those big eyes. He is like a little gift from The Great Clockmaker.

Butterflies tend to be visible in this garden later in the year when they are attracted to the Buddleia, so this butterfly was a surprise, but that is only because I don’t know anything about butterflies ... he turns out to be a Holly Blue who emerges in early spring before many other butterflies. It is gratifying in terms of nature working like clockwork that there is indeed a huge holly tree in my next door neighbour’s garden. On the other hand he is the only one I have seen so far.

Currently bee conservation is drawing a lot of media attention, and hysteria from the eco-people. My Twitter timeline is full of people warning of the apocalyptic consequences of bee population collapse, and urging me to sign petitions. The advantage bees have is that, apart from looking like flying teddy bears, they are vitally important to our own survival in that we need pollinated plants to eat. Consequently the scientific and political realms are spending money and effort in exploring the issue of bees both wild and domestic.

Butterflies, however, seem to receive less attention, comparatively speaking at least. Their presence in the landscape is an important indicator of the health of the environment. They are like the canaries in the mine. We may not directly be reliant on them, but if they cannot flourish around us then our world must be in decline in some way. But, although I see people growing butterfly friendly plants, butterflies appear less in the national media. I wonder if it is because their beauty lends them an aura of femininity, which encourages uneasiness in reporters and campaigners. Of course much vital work is being done by Butterfly Conservation, UK Butterflies, and the like. I am not criticising these groups. The point I am trying to make is does an animal or even a whole landscape need to have a masculine character to receive attention and funding? For example, compare the visibility of The Woodland Trust to that of The Grassland Trust who champions more fragile environments. Are people more likely to worry about a grass or an oak?

22 May 2012

Coffee On The Lawn

Today the essential morning coffee was taken in the flower meadow under the silver birch by the pond.

Of course the ‘meadow’ is really a patch of unmown lawn with some daffs growing in it, and the pond is still traumatised, but if you squint it was almost like a scene from a Merchant Ivory film. I am so grateful to have a garden in which I can sit for a moment and feel some peace.

The water level of the pond has fallen a great deal but it is still a mystery where the tear in the liner is or what caused it. The fish have come out of hiding now the weather is warmer. There are 6 of them when last year there were 8 orange ones (shubunkins I think) and one grizzled orfe that I nicknamed Charles Bronson. Unfortunately it looks like he and 2 of his flashy mates have been eaten, by cat or heron I don’t know. It is difficult to work out how either managed to put a hole in the pond liner. I can’t imagine a cat’s claw being strong enough to rip that strong plastic. And would the attack by a heron be so violent it could result in its beak stabbing through? Maybe the reason is just an ordinary area of decay in a fold or something fell in and ripped a hole. Come to think of it I did rescue a bird feeder that somehow had gotten to the bottom of the pond. But then how did that happen? Curiouser and curiouser.

At the moment the plan is to let the level drop as far as it will go. The course of action after that is open to debate ... and a lot of procrastination.

The deep end of the pond has a stack of bricks acting as a platform for the frogs to get out. Now the water level has fallen I took the top stone off to make it easy for them to climb up. This revealed some nasties – leeches and water slaters (or water sows) and some other things I can’t identify. Since I’ve started this blog I’ve enjoyed learning about the wasps and bees and grubs that appear, but crawly things in water don’t have the same appeal.

I’ll leave you with the photos. You can go google them if you want. I don’t think I want to know the results.

21 May 2012

Aspirational Birthday Treat

Because it is my birthday today I thought I'd treat myself.

I wished for one of these (I bet he knows what to do with a pair of secateurs):

but since my finances, and let's be honest, physical attributes, wouldn't stretch that far I got myself a couple of these:

Ceanothus and Buddleia

which actually are quite similar, given that both human and plant attract floaty things but are bit of a bully really.

(In my case 'Aspirations' would be more accurate than 'Inspirations')

20 May 2012

The Reality of Urban Wildlife

Yesterday The Guardian (I live in Didsbury, of course I read The Guardian!) published a little supplement called ‘A Spotter’s Guide to Urban Wildlife’, when however I’d finished reading it I wasn’t sure why they had produced it. The Introduction declared,

“we aim to prove that wildlife doesn’t simply survive in urban areas, it thrives.”

The author Stephen Moss explained how Britain’s population became predominantly urban with the industrial revolution, claiming our agricultural labouring ancestors, ‘ certainly had little time for the appreciation of nature we take for granted today’, but now the farming landscape is ‘a green desert’ and cities contain many species of wildlife ‘we and the wildlife are together again.’

Then an artist told us insects are all around us, even if we live in the city. We were also encouraged to look for grass snakes, Atlantic salmon, otters and stag beetles.

Two articles did stand out for me as engaging with the realities of urban nature. The ‘urban birder’ David Lindo works in cities and has made a study of the birds on Wormwood Scrubs. His advice is to simply look up – even while watching football at Old Trafford he has seen cormorants fly over. Chris Baines made a good point, I thought, in that the richest part of an ecosystem is ‘on the edge’, and that suburban gardens are by definition ‘edges’ of hedges, fences and boundary trees.

I am uncertain about this supplement because it seems to be an exercise in naming animals (note there is no mention of plants – weeds not interesting enough?) and a little light self-congratulation in that ‘we now care more about our natural neighbours than at any other time in our history’. Is the existence of foxes and parakeets in city centres really proof of a thriving wildlife population?

To seriously examine urban wildlife the first step would surely be to define ‘urban’. The word covers Georgian/Victorian city centres including retail and business centres, twentieth century suburban housing sprawl, industrial brownfield sites, canals, railways, parks, and according to this supplement, the river estuaries where commercial shipping still happens. These are all different habitats in which different animals can exist. It is a more complex issue than simply urban versus countryside.

A genuinely useful guide to spotting wildlife in these environments would then consider where people would be likely to come across animals. My dad used to work in a grain mill; he saw giant rats and hundreds of pigeons. I’m sure my mum saw her fair share of silverfish in the stockrooms of the shops she worked in, and I’ve never seen spiders as giant as those living in the heat behind computers.

And here I’m finally getting to my point: the day to day reality for the majority of people when considering wildlife is not hedgehogs at the bottom of the garden or newts in the pond, it’s mallard ducks on the park pond, mice in the cornflakes, slugs on the garden path, and dead moths in their light fittings.

I would like to see a publication that explains these creatures to me. Many environmentalists, including the saintly David Attenborough, say they started their interest in the natural world by looking at the small things in their immediate surroundings. Perhaps this would be a better place to start if the younger generation, and us more advanced in years, are to be encouraged to care about ‘our natural neighbours’.

Trouble is, it’s not something I’d want to read over my Saturday morning cappuccino and Marks and Spencer chocolate biscuit.

19 May 2012

My Lady's Lace

Feeding The Soil

Back to tilling the soil today. Luckily didn’t encounter any of those piratical cut-throat – I mean cutworm – caterpillars.

Taking a belts and braces approach to improving the soil left by the leylandii I’ve sown some green manure seed. I love this idea that nutrients are added from the whole plant rather than concentrated fertiliser produced in a factory. It’s like us eating our 5 a day, and not relying on vitamin supplements for our health. Individual nutrients can be isolated and taken to top up levels but to thrive we must eat whole foods, and as natural as possible. Scientists are still learning how vitamins work, for example the recent fuss about vitamin D. Are plants simpler, in that it’s merely a matter of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or perhaps like humans they too need these elements within a complex matrix of others? Maybe I’m being romantic but it feels right to feed the soil with vegetable matter; to put back what came out. Synergy, people, synergy!

The seed, a general mix, came from a web based company greenmanure. They’ve obviously spent money on marketing. Their Google ranking is high (put in the term ‘green manure’ and see what happens), the design of the website and packaging has a modern Waitrose-like vibe, and the seeds came in a brown paper bag with its organic, Abel and Cole, anti-capitalism, fingers up to The Man associations . Even though I know I am being manipulated I bought from them – you’ve got to keep your standards up haven’t you?

According to greenmanure the 50g of seed would be enough for 17 square metres, which is 3g per square metre. I obediently weighed this out, but it produced so few seeds that I ignored that advice and threw on the amount that looked right. Surely everyone else does this if they were honest. I bet even Monty does.

So, we shall see what happens in a few weeks’ time. I’m quite excited.

18 May 2012

Mint Tea

An appreciated sacrifice.

Growing veg is tricky.  Picking leaves is much easier.

17 May 2012

A Creature of the Earth

moth caterpillar

This weekend I was a woman of the soil, a veritable earth goddess (but let’s avoid ‘pig in muck’ epithets shall we?).

I’ve decided the bare earth revealed by the demise of the leylandii needs improving before it is planted up. Admittedly this is also a delaying tactic while dithering over what to do with it – but don’t tell the garden design enthusiasts, who I’m sure would know exactly what to plant, in what season and in what location.

So with the vigour of the weekend gardener I hurled manure about, wielded a fork, and turned some sods. Yes, I did do my back in, but I bear it as a badge of honour.

The trouble however with messing about in dirt is you tend to come across things you’d rather not. Luckily it’s not the spider season, and all the sensible insects have scarpered to darker reaches of the garden, but this fat chap put in an appearance. Such is the state of my horticultural ignorance I never know if insect discoveries should be squished or not. Are they going to eat my plants or the pests of the plants? After poking him with a stick I covered him up again. Whatever he is, he is part of the ecosystem.

Today, after much Googling I found out not only his name but what he is – the caterpillar of the Lesser Yellow Underwing moth, which is an owlet moth, and quite pretty. Unfortunately, he is also a ‘cutworm’, who feed on seedlings and apparently do great damage to crops. There are no crops in Garden 65 so we’ll let him live.

Strange to think next time I see him he might be bashing himself against a lightbulb; a creature of the air rather than the earth.


Image of Lesser Yellow Underwing Moth from UKMoths

15 May 2012

Botanical Confusion

Oh, there is so much to learn ...

"The similarity in jizz may cause confusion between Helictotrichon species and Arrhenatherum elatius."

Hoverfly Buried Under Taxa

Humans have an innate desire to name things, to put them in their proper place. The world seems a safer place if you know what is in front you.

It is a basic animal instinct to categorise. Some animals may only need to know what is edible or not. Others have to distinguish between the thing that wants to eat me and the thing that wants to mate with me.

But humans have language. For us it is not enough to simple ‘know’, to have a visceral instinctive knowledge, we have to put words onto objects. A named object is then pinned down. We can now ask questions of it and judge and compare it to other similarly labelled objects. Our ‘superiority’ as an animal species lies on our ability to confer meaning onto something and then exploit it for our benefit.

Eastern philosophies however consider naming a dangerous activity. It not only traps the phenomena, but us, the labellers. The result is a fixed world where once something has been recognised and reduced to its name it is filed away with all similar things deep inside our subconscious.

“That is a daffodil. It is yellow.”

“That is a weed. It is ugly.”

“That is a slug. All slugs are slimy.”

But in so quickly dismissing the object in front of us we do not experience it as a unique and complex entity. We do not truly see it. Our whole world view is then in danger of becoming impoverished. Ask any artist, or person who spends time quietly meditating, what they gain from looking and looking again - a different world opens up, and yet it is same one that existed before we made the effort to take away the label.

And yet, although I believe this, and occasionally remember to take a better look, I can’t resist my humanity and have to find out from a book or Google (those palaces of words) the exact identification of whatever this thing is before me.

Thus I present today’s “What’s that?!”

It is a hover fly. I took this picture a few days (weeks?!) ago when it was sunny (remember then?). This guy was one of many flying insects sipping nectar (or eating pollen?) from the lime green Euphorbia. There were wasps, bees, flies, ladybirds, and a few of these lithe and stripy chaps.

Scrutinising a ‘All About Hover Flies' site I’m guessing my hoverfly is a Parasyrphus punctulatus (don’t quote me on it) ... what a long and esoteric classification ... wonder what that means ...

..... this tiny delicate hover fly is burdened with 22 labels!

Humans, in their anxiety to pin him down, have created 22 taxa (taxonomic units), which I’ve tried to delineate in the table below, to completely describe him.

Would he be the same without them? Is my world better for knowing them?

*faint whisper from far corner of psyche ...“ ’yis ”*

hoverfly taxa

14 May 2012

Internal Weeding Dialogue

Most common thoughts while weeding:

  • Oh no you don’t
  • What’s that?
  • Did I plant that last year?
  • You can stay there for one more year then you’re out
  • Bloody hell!
  • Oh bugger, not that one
  • What the hell are you?
  • I should really have gloves on
  • Back again eh?
  • What’s that? Oh it’s you.
  • That’s a bit better
  • Ouch
  • You’re pretty
  • That’s a shame
  • I remember you from last year

13 May 2012

Bluebell Intrigue

Us gardening types know our native bluebells are threatened by imported Spanish bluebells.

(Do we have any native wildlife NOT under threat, for heaven’s sake? Red squirrels, ladybirds, crayfish ...)

But what is the difference between a native and a Johnny foreigner bluebell? The National History Museum has a detailed set of pages that describe each type. It appears that as far as size is concerned there is little difference between the two. For example, the leaves of a native can be 20-45cm long, and those of a Spanish bluebell, 20-50cm. Given the variance of size amongst a large population covering a woodland floor I doubt that extra 5cm would be obvious.

I do like to pin things down with numbers though, so I did a little investigation of my own by measuring 10 bluebells in my garden, which I assume are Spanish straight from the garden centre, and 10 from Styal Woods in Cheshire, where natives thrive. Yes, average leaf lengths were indeed the same at 21.5cm and 21.75cm respectively. Leaf width did vary, with the bluebells from the garden being wider than natives, which reflects the official expectation. However, the conclusion that has to be made from this little unscientific exercise is that you don’t need to go wielding a ruler into the woods, because bluebells of whatever nationality are more or less similar in size.

Given the romance of these beautiful flowers it is fitting that it is by eye and nose rather than ruler that species is found. The differences are more discernible in the shape of the flowers themselves. Native flowers are more droopy (why am I not surprised?) with petals that roll back, compared to cultivated ones that have widely spreading petals. And this does seem to be demonstrated in the photos I took in each location. The flowers on the left are native and do seem to be longer and more curled.

The final distinction however is perhaps the best reason we should be trying to secure the existence of our bluebell woods: native flowers are strongly and sweetly scented. It is not simply because they are ours; it is because they are wonderful in their own right.

Now, here is something I bet you didn’t know about bluebells. The latin name for British bluebells is Hyacinthoides non-scripta. ‘Hyacinthoides’ is the plant’s genus, i.e. all bluebells are of this taxa, and means ‘like a hyacinth’. The ‘non-scripta’ species name is intriguing. It refers to the Greek myth surrounding the beautiful young Spartan prince, Hyacinthus, lover of the god Apollo. One day they were happily (search for the pun I didn’t use here) throwing a discus to each other. Hyacinth ran to catch it to impress Apollo, but was tragically struck by the discus and died. Distraught, Apollo made a flower, the hyacinth, from his spilled blood and wrote (or marked with his tears) ‘alas’ on the petal as a sign of his sorrow. ‘Non-inscripta’ means ‘unwritten’ – it was not written on by Apollo. It is as if the taxonomist who named the flower was saying bluebells are like Hyacinths, ‘but not that one.’

To add to the intrigue earlier taxonomists called British bluebells ‘Endymion non-scripta’. Once again there is the association with a beautiful Greek boy.

11 May 2012

What's In The Bin?

Were you aware it is National Compost Awareness Week?

It ends tomorrow, so don’t worry you can return to blissful unawareness next week.

For me however this is eerily fortuitous since now there is a patch of bare earth at the back of Garden 65 there is room for a compost bin. I had a shuffle round the internet on the subject of composting which led organically (geddit?) on to looking more closely at the food we throw out.

There is an organisation supported by Defra called ‘Wrap’ which is involved with researching and educating people on reducing waste and ‘minimising resource use’. They are interested in the whole spectrum of recycling from plastic bottles to textiles, and speak to industry as well as the general public. I am impressed with the thoroughness they take the issue.

We are used to politicians, assorted eco-people, and self-righteous friends preaching about saving the planet by reducing our carbon footprint, not putting old clothes in the bin, and well ... composting, but these messages come heavy with an emotive and moral undertone – or so it seems to me. The implication is that ‘good’ people recycle and that is the only reason you need to do these actions. I consider myself a generally ‘good’ person; I care very much for unspoilt nature, and the fact there are ever decreasing resources for an ever increasing population. So I comply with the recycle message and diligently put milk cartons in the blue bin and milk bottles in the brown bin (think that’s the right way round). How much of the motive for my good deeds, then, is really the human need to feel as if I am doing the right thing; that I’m on the winning side? It is primarily, I have to admit, an emotional decision barely based on any firm scientific facts. And I would suggest many people, of varied political persuasions, are doing just the same.

Which brings me back to compost awareness week, and Wrap. Amongst the research they have done is a fascinating (no, really!) 95 page report on ‘Household Food and Drink Waste’ which reveals the type of food we throw away, why we do, and by what route (1.8 million tonnes is chucked down the sink). I’m a good girl so I scrape peelings and leftovers into the neat kitchen top bin that then goes in the green bin that then gets emptied into the big lorry that then ... I don’t know what happens next but I trust the council do something wise with it. But what about the beginning of that cycle – what about the food waste itself? Without a twinge of regret or guilt unwanted food gets thrown away.

Reading this report made me think about the food wasted in Kitchen 65. According to the report over 60% of food and drink waste is avoidable. By this they mean that which is no longer wanted or has been allowed to go past its best, but was once edible. Non avoidable, always inedible, food takes up less than 20% of the total weight thrown. Just for the fun and geekiness of it I took a snap shot of the food in the little bin on the kitchen top to see if these figures were reflected in my world.


End of lettuce
Banana skin
Carrot peelings
Tea bags
End of cucumber
Bread crusts
End of loaf
Tomato stalk
Coffee grounds

This weighed 526g in all. Half a kilo even before the main evening meal had appeared!

The unavoidable items were the banana skin, tea bags, tomato stalk and coffee grounds. These added up to 240g. I’m no mathematician but that’s about 50% unavoidable, or half avoidable – roughly the national average. I suppose you could make bread and butter pudding with the end of the loaf and the crusts, but I’m not sure what creative thing you could do with the pointy bit of a cucumber (one of those healthy green smoothies?).

Obviously this is just a bit of fun and not properly representative, but it was an interesting exercise to look closely at my actions as I live this privileged Western life.

Like the majority of people I don’t know for certain how I could help ‘save the planet’. What are the numbers? Where are the undisputed facts? As a normal invisible suburban person all I want to do is tread lightly on this earth (as the Buddhists advice). That is enough motivation for me.

As for the compost bin ... seems bit of a faff.

10 May 2012

Stupid Cat!

That cat - again! 

I don’t know his name, or what house he comes from, and our relationship isn’t even at the level of intimacy where I can give a definitive answer to which sex he is, but is bound to be a ‘he’, given the trouble he is causing.

He’s eaten my tadpoles and the meal worm meant for the poor birds, frightened my fish, crapped on my lawn and now uses the newly bare earth for similar nefarious purposes, and his very presence in the garden stops me putting out food for the birds.  

Having said this, he is very friendly, unusually so. Practically every time you go into the garden he pipes us with a high pitched meow and keeps ‘talking’ as long as you are there.  This makes his disapproval of my presence during the dawn chorus even more comical.

Can’t say it’s a ‘love / hate’ relationship, more a ‘exasperation / exasperation’ relationship.

So the other evening when he climbed to the very tips of an outreaching branch of a tree that bends right over a pond there were mixed emotions. 

Starlings have built a nest under the eaves of the next door neighbour’s house. It’s a focused area of activity, with the adults coming and going and the sound of the chicks audible. Even though the cat is still a kitten itself – this is the first spring outside he has experienced – his primitive hunting instinct must have reacted to the commotion and urged him to climb the tree to get as near as possible.  Yet the nest is metres away.  The only way a cat could get to it would be if he was some version of a comic book superhero – Supercat or Spidercat.

Of course this killer instinct was worrying to see in action, but the skill with which the cat climbed the tree was impressive.  I didn’t know he could. And I don’t think he did either until he attempted it.

Which is all well and good but what would have happened if he wasn’t as sure-footed as he supposed? The pond was directly underneath him.  It was amazing to see nature red in tooth and claw in action, but I couldn’t help having visions of knocking on people’s houses with a wet or drowned cat in my arms, asking “Is this yours? Sorry but he fell in the pond.  By the way he uses my garden as a toilet!”

In the end he didn’t, he just turned and gave this adolescent glare, “Stop fussing!”

8 May 2012

The Siren Call of Cake

How was your bank holiday? Did you visit friends, or buy some furniture; or something more adventurous – a trip to the seaside perhaps? I spent mine reading a book in bed.

We did try to go out. A garden centre seemed a dull but potentially fruitful outing given the patch of bare earth currently in the garden. Not being interested in gardening the two male members of the party were looking forward to the bacon butties in the café. A win/win situation you would think. Foolishly however, we hadn’t taken into account the British bank holiday factor.

The garden centre was full of people ambling about very slowly, and maliciously (or so it seemed) occupying every seat in the café. I sensed the holiday spirit draining from Hubby. We sat outside in the cold at a table ignored by the milling crowd, and waited for some service. Hubby grew ominously quiet and Son’s lips turned blue. When we got to the point of discussing Plan B Hubby could only come up with ‘going home and having cheese on toast’. So we left sharpish before the onset of a stress induced heart attack.

Today then, with normality returned and everyone gone back to their respective workplaces I had a little bank holiday of my own. I’ve just been to a local National Trust Park (Styal) and had a pleasant people-free amble.

It was beautiful, full of birds, and delicate flowers and strange buzzing creatures. Compared to my garden it was an Eden of richness. But it wasn’t just for pleasure, I’m planning a post about bluebells so I scouted out some what I think were native bluebells and sat down on the damp earth to take photos and measure flower stalk lengths and generally be weird. It was great; such a release from yesterday’s enforced domesticity.

I moved on, finally perching on a fallen tree overlooking a river. There was a nuthatch and two jays, a very yellow butterfly, a friendly beetle, light reflected off the water onto tree trunks making patterns like smoke and there was a strange mewing sound which I have a sneaking suspicion was made by an owl chick. Peace and beauty were everywhere.

And then I heard the siren call of cake.

When do you leave the countryside? How long do you spend in it before you have to go?

This visit was just that – a visit. Before I even set out I made a deal with myself that I’d get back home in time not to worry or inconvenience anyone else in the family. To spend some time in the countryside during a working day is unusual. It’s an indulgence. There is an unspoken rule that it’s not really acceptable, if others have to work when given the choice they wouldn’t. My own burden of guilt is another matter, but I think I am not the only one who has an unarticulated feeling that being outside, with its related sense of freedom, is an experience that has a time limit. And this is normally, particularly when visiting a National Trust property, measured by the cake in the café (or the bacon butty if you are a man) at the end of the visit.

To leave a NT park without purchasing anything is not normal. Is it enough to go home with just lowered blood pressure? I have to confess, while I sat on the tree trunk glorying in nature there was a part of me clammering for cake. It’s awful to say, but true, there was a thought that it wouldn’t have been a fulfilling visit if I hadn’t had the sugar and coffee rush associated with a day out. Terrible.

And yet on holiday in The Lakes we walk up hill and back to the car park without buying anything or having the urge to do so. We eat our food, which generally doesn’t include a Victorian Sponge, on the mountain without any complaint. The difference between the two experiences may be because one is a sanctioned and shared holiday, the other a stolen moment of solitary pleasure. Or is it because the park I was in today is only 20 minutes from home and some part of my psyche hadn’t fully disengaged from the comfort eating created by home?

Tussling with the cake demon I wondered how long I would have been able to stay in the park if I had no obligations to others and I was allowed as much time as I wanted, and needed. All day, two days? The book I read yesterday was Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines. One essay is about her two weeks spent on the far island of Rona.

“After a mere fortnight I felt lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes.”

I can just about imagine how that must feel; that lightness; no desire for the cake in the café. Just Being. Would it take two weeks of uninterrupted immersion in nature before a true sense of freedom is created?

It never happens does it, though? Everyone’s experience of nature is mediated by the need ‘to get back’.

So did I have that cake in the end?

No, but only because there was a group of school kids in there. I most definitely would have if they hadn’t been there!

6 May 2012

International Dawn Chorus Day

This morning I played at being a proper naturalist.

Wearing heavy winter coat and quirky Peruvian hat I ventured out with notebook and sound recorder to take part in International Dawn Chorus Day. While others around the world walked through woods or reed beds, perhaps even tropical jungle, I chose to sit on the bench in my garden. Deliberately so, not only because my interest is in the urban environment but also because it meant I didn’t have to get up real early to travel to a nature reserve. Ten minutes fumbling with thermals and I was out in the wild.

The sun officially rose at 5.24 am this morning. Expert birding people say the dawn chorus happens an hour before sunrise, so I figured I’d catch the last half hour and get up quarter to 5. Stepping outside was a magical moment. Inside the house I couldn’t hear many birds, and was worried this would be a waste of precious sleep time, but opening the back door revealed a different world of busy chirping, although the birds weren’t loud; it was a soft gentle sound. The experts were right though, after a few minutes the chorus as a whole died down leaving a lone blackbird to sing his song. It was almost as if the birds stopped singing as soon as the sun rose, at 5.24 on the dot.


  • My garden and those of surrounding neighbours are empty of birds. During the day all sorts zoom through but at dawn – no one. Of course this could be because I was there, but I don’t think so.
  • The dominant bird was a blackbird that used a nearby TV aerial as its main perch. Other birds sat on aerials. Would they sit on the chimneys if the aerials weren’t there? What is going to happen now we all have satellite TV and the aerials come down? Do birds suffer if there are no high places to sing in the morning?
  • To my ears the blackbird’s song was different to the evening one I know. It seemed to have a whistle in it.
  • Here is the blackbird singing early on: Here he is an hour later. Quieter?:
  • The local cats were out in force – unfortunately. Surprisingly, and rather comically, they didn’t come over to talk to me like they usually do. They were very wary and one cat was so shocked to see a human out this early he turned round and ran away.
  • Sparrows, wood pigeons, magpies, starlings and geese were the other bird species that featured.
  • Smaller, more tuneful, birds could be heard in the front of the house, but none came near this area of gardens.
  • Seagulls flew silently overhead in a north-westerly direction, perhaps making their way to the Manchester Ship Canal. But where were they coming from?
  • The starlings appeared after the main chorus. Their ‘song’ didn’t sound any different from the normal racket, and I think they just got on with feeding their chicks. Don’t male starlings need to defend their territory?

Overall, I am glad I made the effort. It was fun. I’ll have another go in warmer weather; perhaps the little birds will come nearer. The local park would also be a good place to go, if the gates are open. But I am a little disappointed that the kind of birds you really want in your garden weren’t there. And goodness, I wish those cats would go away. I’m almost tempted to abandon the idea of a wildlife friendly garden and turn it into a neat and tidy Japanese style plot. The blackbird could sit on top of the pagoda, and the cats would love the gravel ... see, no difference at all!

And here are some geese flying over just as the sun rose.

Dawn Chorus Notes

5 May 2012

And Lo, There Was Light

I used to hang my head in shame, try not to mention it, and deflect accusations of responsibility with elaborate tales of previous owners and loud drumming.

For I have to confess my garden once sustained a line of leylandii trees. Gasp! I know, I know. Inconsiderate unneighbourliness and all that.

But no longer! Last week a nice man with a chainsaw and tight trousers came and cut them all down.

And now, strangely, I feel like I am in mourning. Not for the trees themselves; they were dark, imposing, bird-less monstrosities. It’s the secret wild little world that existed underneath them that is gone, and I’m sad for its disappearance.

Because it was a dry desert under the canopy I planted ferns and trained interesting types of ivy to climb up the trunks. It was where I flung bits of pruned shrubs and all the canadian weed and drowned snails swooped from the pond got dumped. Dead pigeons were buried there. Elaborate tunnel systems were set up for the frogs to have safe passage from the pond to hiding places under brick and lumps of concrete. Fairies lived there too. The sort you find in garden centres, but hidden in the ivy with spiders spinning round them they took on a look of Victorian Gothic. Or so I thought. Oh god, I’ve just remembered the astrantia. Its white ghostly form was beautiful in the darkness. All gone.

The tree surgeons did a very good job. They spent a lot of time and sweat digging the roots up. The ground is now completely bare and ready for replanting. The story is a positive one ... but at the expense of some magic.

4 May 2012

Dandelions - They're All Around

Have you noticed the dandelions?

Here they are in my local park. I’ve never seen so many.

Do you too harbour the suspicion there are a lot of them this year? And massive?

Then let me reassure you, you are right. Apparently they have stolen a march on other weeds by sucking up all the recent rain before the others could get their roots and stems sorted out. Now they outnumber them to the point they may be endangering those less opportunist wild flowers.

According to a Telegraph article the overall population of dandelions has also been increasing year on year due to nitrogen pollution caused by car exhaust fumes.
"Whereas other plants don't like nitrate, dandelions will gorge on it until they become so abundant that other neighbouring species start to be pushed aside and disappear.

"We are seeing a rise in dandelions at road junctions and roundabouts where they get a direct hit of nitrates from the constant exhaust fumes.”

Next time you’re on an A road with green verges take a quick glance – there really are a lot of dandelions.

This only adds to my suspicion the increase in cars over the last 40 odd years has caused the fall in insect numbers. See the post: Mason Bee House

3 May 2012

Another Short Story

This was written last week during a rainy afternoon. It should have been posted then because now it's all sunny and we can't remember the deluge. But then again I don't think the rain has entirely left us yet.

The other prompt for this story was a post I did about the bureaucracy of an organisation I found that is trying to improve the conditions of upland peat bogs. I think that is what it does. It is hard to tell from their website. Have a quick shufty of the post to get the drift: My Tweetathon with Sir Humphrey

Again, apologies for the high school standard of writing.

(Image of upland (minus Witchy) from a lovely blog about hill walking called My Pennines. Don't tell him - he might not understand)

In Which Witchy Get Caught in the Uplands

2 May 2012


The year ...


But I was going to say something alliterative ...

Ssh. 'Wordless', remember?

And waste an opportunity for some easy alliteration?

Go on then. Quick. While no one is looking.

The year unfurls further.

Metaphoric use of unfurling fern. Got it.