Bugwoman on Location – The Hardest Week

Dear Readers, last week I described how we had found a nursing home for Mum and Dad. This week, things moved at an extraordinary pace. Mum was rapidly deteriorating – as I travelled down from London, I got a call from the District Nurse who had been visiting Mum regularly to dress her pressure sore.

‘ I think something has changed in your Mum’, she said. ‘I think that her poor body is worn out, and that maybe she doesn’t have the energy to go on for much longer. She might rally, but she might not. There’s nothing medically wrong with her that she doesn’t normally have, but I just wanted to warn you’.

And when I arrived, Mum was wrapped up in blankets in bed, refusing to eat, refusing to take her medication. She was always cold, and her hands shook whenever she tried to hold anything. She had to be helped in and out of the bed to the commode a few steps away.

On Tuesday, the people from the nursing home arrived to do an assessment of Mum and Dad’s medical needs. They asked Dad how he felt about moving in.

‘I’m looking forward to it’, he said, and they were flabbergasted and delighted.

Mum was in no condition to answer anything. When they popped in to see her, she just looked at them with those huge green eyes and went back to sleep.

The admission date was set for Thursday.

‘The sooner the better’, said Dad.

I had a chat with him afterwards.

‘You seem very excited about going into the nursing home’, I said.

‘Well’, he said, ‘it’s for your Mum. I want her to be properly looked after. I wouldn’t be going for anyone else’.

The next few days were a flurry of packing. What do you need for a nursing home? If you’re Dad, you need a couple of blazers, your best shoes and your aftershave. He will be the smartest man in the place. He also brought his beard trimmers. Mum was largely in denial, but she rallied to make her feelings known.

‘I don’t want to go’, she said. ‘I  love it here. I love the house. I love the garden. I love Milborne St Andrew. ‘

‘Mum’, I said, ‘I know you do. But you need more care than we give you in the house now.’

‘Me and your Dad have looked after ourselves for 83 years’, said Mum. She is laying on the sofa, and I have adjusted her pillow position half a dozen times because she isn’t comfortable and can’t do it herself. ‘We’ll be alright’.

And then we have a row, and I tell her that the only reason she’s still in the house is because I’ve been up and down from London like a yoyo, and when I’m in London I’ve been organising everything, liaising with carers, sorting out medical appointments, making online food orders.

She blinks. ‘Well, what else would you be doing?’ she asks.

And that, I think, is it in a nutshell. Mum’s world has shrunk until there is nothing in it but her and her needs. Pain and fear have made her self-centred.

Anyhow,  there is more argy-bargy and I promise that if she hates the place I’ll do something about it, and she promises that she’ll give it a good go.

The morning of the move seems to last forever. We are all packed and ready to go and waiting for our lift. Every so often, Mum tells us that she doesn’t want to go, but she is asleep for most of the time. I wonder for the thousandth time if this is the right thing to do, but we have pretty much run out of options. The clock  ticks, and we sit around and avoid meeting one another’s gaze.

Our lovely neighbours come to give us a run to the nursing home with our suitcases. Dad has his beer and gin packed. We have photos and toiletries and the zimmer frame. Mum sits next to me in the car with her head on my shoulder, holding my hand. I know that she is absolutely terrified. Over the past few days she has developed a horrible infection in one arm, which started as a couple of blisters and turned into a mass of medieval sores. This has been bandaged from top to bottom to try to protect it for the journey. Every so often she winces.

The journey is only about twenty minutes, but it’s the longest ride I’ve ever taken.

And then we get there, and Mum and Dad are shown their rooms. At the moment they’re on different floors, but as soon as a room becomes available Mum will be moved  up. The rooms are purposely small to encourage the residents to use the communal areas, but Dad has special dispensation to sleep in the reclining chair in Mum’s room. One of the reasons that I liked this home was that it was very flexible and treated people as individuals. They know how important it is that Dad and Mum can be together.

On the other hand, Dad is very independent. He’s already reconnoitered the place.

‘There’s a fish tank on my floor, they were cleaning it out this morning’, he said, as we went for an exploratory walk, ‘And there’s music and dancing!’.

I could see him eyeing up the proceedings. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he joined in next time.

Someone asked him if he wanted to be part of the Christmas talent show. To my surprise he didn’t turn it down because of course they wouldn’t be there at Christmas, but merely out of modesty.

‘I can’t do anything’, he said. ‘I haven’t got any talents’.

Mum, on the other hand, is resolutely unconvinced.

‘ I don’t like it here’, she said to me after she’d been in the home for thirty minutes. ‘It’s got Bad Vibes’.

I left them at 6 o’clock, Dad in his pyjamas in the reclining chair with a can of San Miguel in his hand. I went to the guest flat where they were staying and plonked on to the sofa with a mix of emotions. Should I just have left Mum where she was and employed nurses to look  after her in her last days, if indeed this is what they were? Should I have found a different nursing home?

I went out for a curry and a beer, fell into bed at ten o’clock and slept like a log for the first time in six months.

The morning was bright and clear. The staff told me that ten o’clock was a good time to go in, as all the medical stuff would have been done by then. I wandered about in the grounds taking the photos for this piece. I was struck by what I thought at first was a magnificent holm oak,  but then realised that it was two trees growing next to one another, one tree leaning backwards as if they were dancing the tango.

I walked into Mum’s bedroom, expecting a litany of complaints. But Dad had had a good night, and Mum was sitting up. She took all of her tablets. She ate some porridge. She ate half a piece of toast and jam. She looked tired and frail, but not at death’s door, at least not this morning.

‘I don’t like it’ she said. ‘I want to go home’.

I reminded Mum that she’d said that she’d give it a proper try, and that 18 hours was hardly enough time to decide.

‘Alright’, she said, ‘But I still don’t like it’.

‘But there are alpacas coming for a visit this afternoon’ said Dad. The home is visited by therapy alpacas. Who knew there was such a thing?

Mum gave him a look. She is clearly not impressed by the alpacas.

And so we go on. This has been such a quick transition and most people don’t like change, especially as they get older. Mum will need time to get used to the idea of being looked after permanently, and to mourn the loss of her independence and her home.Mum tells me that I don’t understand what those losses mean, and she’s right. What I do know is that this is the best chance that Mum and Dad have to stay healthy, together and out of hospital for the time that remains to them. Whether that will compensate for the loss of autonomy that goes with it, I don’t know.

In a way, so much of Mum and Dad’s ability to make decisions for themselves has already gone. In an ideal world, we would have decided on the future together, and would have gone to visit lots of nursing homes to decide on the right one. Instead, when the crisis came it was an emergency, with the GP saying that they were no longer safe in the house because of Mum’s medical and mobility issues. What Mum did say to me a long time ago was that it was more important that they were together than that they were at home, and that she trusted me to find them somewhere good to live out their days. I hope that at some point, she remembers that conversation. In the meantime I will have to bear the fact that she doesn’t like where she is and that she thinks I’m a terrible daughter. I shall have to harden my heart and rest in the knowledge that I’ve done the very best I can. For now, that will have to do. At least they are safe, warm, comfortable and well-looked after.






Wednesday Weed – Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Dear Readers, for the longest time I wondered why people planted staghorn sumac – it’s a small elegant tree, to be sure, but for most of the year the only interest are those fuzzy fruits. But come autumn, they take on some of the most brilliant autumn colour that you can see around the County Roads in East Finchley, and all becomes clear. These trees are the belles of the ball when October comes around and on a cold, blustery, rainy day like today they stand out like traffic lights.

Although all the photos today come from ‘domesticated’ sumacs, you don’t have to look far to see them growing ‘in the wild’. There is a fine stand of them along the railway embankment on the way into Waterloo for example, and they often pop up on wasteground. In ‘Alien Plants’, Clive Stace describes it as ‘a favourite plant that all too soon becomes oppressive, at which point it gets thrown over the garden fence’. He believes that its location alongside railways is probably because these can be difficult spots to eradicate, though the vigorous use of weed killer as I zoom through Wimbledon and Clapham Junction makes me think that Transport for London has redoubled its efforts just lately. For the third week in succession I am featuring a plant that is on the RHS’s list of ‘thugs’ – staghorn sumac largely spreads from a rhizome, but can throw up suckers a fair way from the parent plant, and go grow into dense thickets, crowding out other plants.

Sumacs are native to the eastern side of North America – I saw them growing wild in Collingwood, Ontario for example. The name’ staghorn sumac’ refers to the hairy stems and and the forking branches of the tree, which resemble a stag’s antlers. They are members of the cashew nut family, of all things, the Anacardiaceae, which also includes mangoes and the marula tree. Marula is  an African fruit which is much loved by elephants, but which makes them drunk if the fruit has begun to  ferment. I remember a rather lovely cream liqueur called Amarula which was all the rage when I was a student and knew no better.

Photo  One By Laurentius - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71227883

A glass of Amarula (Photo One). You’re welcome.

In North America, the leaves and berries of the tree were dried and smoked, on their own or mixed with tobacco. The stems could also be used as pipes, making the plant a handy source of all things smoking-related. The grain of the wood is exquisite.

Photo Two by Shihmei Barger at https://www.flickr.com/photos/beautifulcataya/8735837935

Sumac wood (Photo Two)

The strange velvety fruits can be used to make pink lemonade, known as ‘sumac-ade’ and considered both refreshing and health-giving – for a recipe, have a look here.Sumac is a spice much used in North Africa and the Middle East, but this comes from a closely related shrub, Rhus coriaria.

Photo Three By Oneconscious at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35737301

The fruit of Rhus coriaria, the source of sumac spice (Photo Three)

All parts of the plant can be used to make a dye for cloth, and it is rich in natural tannins – this may have led to the plant’s French and German common name, the vinegar tree. You can read a bit more about using staghorn sumac as a dye in the last part of Jenny Dean’s blog here. On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland records that

‘…several tribes used the plant to obtain various dyes. Menominee Indians used the root for a
yellow dye, the Cherokee made a red dye with the fruit, an orange dye was achieved by some of the Chippewa by using the inner bark and stem pith with other ingredients, and the fruit also yielded a black dye for the Cherokee tribe.’
In short, choose what colour you fancy, and which part of the plant, and off you go! I am sometimes tempted to have a go at using natural dyes (one of these days when I have a bit more time), do let me know if it’s something that you’ve ever experimented with.

Staghorn sumac is a powerful antioxidant, and the fruits were used by Native Americans for everything from treating sore throats to helping to alleviate diarrhoea. It was a veritable medicine chest, with different tribes using it for different purposes. It was believed to cure venereal disease and tuberculosis, to aid childbirth, to treat stomach upsets and as a general tonic.

Some North American tribes believed that staghorn sumac could foretell the weather, although try as I might I cannot work out how. On the Plant Lore website, gardeners in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire seem to believe that planting staghorn sumac in a garden will bring marital strife (though in no other region is this a belief). This is a change from the usual litany of disasters that will occur when a plant is brought into the house, but still. It’s a wonder that anyone plants anything, such are the predictions of disaster for almost everything that you might want to grow.

And here, for our poem and to celebrate the season, is a deceptively simple poem by William Wilfred Campbell (1861 – 1918), a Canadian poet who had no doubt seen plenty of staghorn sumacs in his day. I say ‘deceptively simple’ because each line of this poem conjures up an  photographic image of a Canadian autumn in the mind’s eye, and because of the air of wistfulness that flavours it. You may think you could knock this up in an hour, but I suspect it ain’t so easy. Anyhoo, see what you think!

Indian Summer

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.Now by the brook the maple leans
With all his glory spread,
And all the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.

Now by great marshes wrapt in mist,
Or past some river’s mouth,
Throughout the long, still autumn day
Wild birds are flying south.

Photo Credits
Photo One By Laurentius – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71227883
Photo Three By Oneconscious at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35737301

Bugwoman on Location – A Glimmer of Hope

Dear Readers, my Dad has always grown roses. They seemed to love the heavy clay soil of London, and all that was needed was some pruning and a bucket of horse manure, and off they went. It has been a little more difficult in the light soil of Dorset, but there are fifteen varieties in flower around Mum and Dad’s bungalow. There is the heavy-headed ivory-pink  rose that Mum could see from the kitchen window, when she was able to stand long enough to do the washing up. There are the standard roses, one cerise, one velvet-red, that Dad’s sisters bought for their diamond wedding anniversary. There are blue-grey roses and yellow roses, and an apricot one that doesn’t have many flowers, but makes up for it in the perfection of those petals.

Hidden in the garden are fairies and fawns and meerkats, all peeking up through the undergrowth. There is a model of St Francis of Assisi who often has a live robin perched on his head. The twelve-foot high beech hedge is a-twitter with sparrows, and a blackbird nests there.

This week I went gathering roses in the rain. I found some blooms on the ivory rose that weren’t yet speckled pink from the rain. The red rose was bowed down, the edges of some of the petals dry and crinkled like the pages of an old book. A yellow rose disintegrated as soon as I touched it. I cut the loveliest blooms in the garden, arranged them in a rose bowl and took them into the living room. I put them on the table next to Mum’s reclining chair.

‘Pretty’, she said, ‘But they smell too much, can you put them over there?

Mum has been smelling things that aren’t there – fish, burning, faeces. It’s strange how she never imagines honeysuckle or jasmine or freesia. And normal everyday smells, like a bunch of roses or a roasting chicken, are overwhelming to her. She came out of hospital, after seven weeks, a shadow of the woman who went in, and with a worsened pressure sore, a lot of physical weakness and much increased confusion. Hospital has had a bad effect on both Mum and Dad – after a two week stay, Dad’s dementia symptoms skyrocketed.

So much has been going on, but the general trend is downwards. Take last night, for example. Dad had a doctor’s appointment on Friday, and he was anxious about it, so he popped into my bedroom at 11 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 4 o’clock to ask me if it was time to go yet. Then at four o’clock Mum woke up and was extremely agitated. She wants to get out of bed, then she wants to get back in. She no longer remembers the layout of the house. She no longer remembers how to operate her reclining chair. Sometimes, she doesn’t quite remember where parts of her body were. I managed to hurt my back moving her over in the bed, and when she was solicitous of my pain I had to walk outside for a quick weep and to pull myself back together.

And this morning, dad’s chest is bad (he has COPD) and so he didn’t get to the doctor anyway. As I write this, he is back on the antibiotics and the steroids, and we’re praying that he doesn’t end up back in hospital.

And it is to counteract scenarios like this that I finally talked to the doctor, who advised that finding a nursing home for Mum and Dad was now the best option. In a nursing home they could keep Mum and Dad together, and endeavour to reduce the amount and duration of hospital visits that they required. Plus, they would be looked after properly, 24 hours a day.

I was sceptical at first. I visited one nursing home that had an artificial beach and a dedicated cinema room, and still didn’t feel that it was right for Mum and Dad. I ruled out many on the grounds of their CQC reports. It’s hard to find a home that will look after both people with dementia and who are physically frail, (though this could be a red herring since Mum has been less coherent since she came out of hospital). And then I visited a home in the centre of Dorchester, and as soon as I walked through the door I got the feeling that this was an open, friendly, person-centred place. I talked to the manager, and we clicked straight away. And, unusually, she had two rooms available.

Do you sometimes get a feeling that something is fate?

The reason that I was going to this home was because Mum and Dad’s GP had had a relative stay there until she died, and he had visited it frequently. It soon seemed that everyone had a good word to say for it – one of our lovely carers had worked there, the taxi driver’s partner still worked there, the district nurse had worked there. All of them reported back to Mum and Dad that it was a good place.

Dad went from ‘I don’t want to try that’ to ‘I don’t want to sell the bungalow for less than £300k’ in 24 hours. I’m not sure that Mum really understands what’s going on a lot of the time. But I honestly think that this is the best chance they have for a fourth act in their lives, a chance to have a wider circle of people to talk to and things to do. They have both agreed to give the home a go, and so we have an assessment happening next Tuesday. I hope and pray that it goes well, and that Mum and Dad are prepared to try it, because we are running out of choices.

Certainly I can’t go on the way I am at the moment. I had terrible chest pains that turned out to be nothing when investigated, but which scared me at the time. I am exhausted, and stressed, and not, I fear, the good and patient nursemaid that I was when all this started several years ago. Not enough is written about how caring for people long-term changes the whole nature of the relationship. To me, for much of the time,  Mum and Dad are not primarily my parents, but have become patients, a project to be managed. I  don’t have time to sit down and actually talk to them because I’m sorting out medications, doctors’ visits, transport to the hospital, the online grocery order, the army of carers and agencies. I would like to be able to spend some real time with Mum and Dad, to listen to them, to hear their stories while there is still time. I want to know them as people again, and I have gradually lost that in the slowly rising flood of other responsibilities.

I am travelling down again next week for the assessment meeting on Tuesday and if all goes well, Mum and Dad could possibly be ensconced by the end of the week. It’s all happening so quickly that I’m struggling to keep up but if something feels right, it seems appropriate to go with the flow. We won’t do anything hasty with the bungalow until we’re absolutely sure that Mum and Dad are happy (in spite of Dad’s encouragement to do otherwise). I recognise that it will be a big transition for Mum and Dad, and that there will be bumps along the way, but it feels like the right thing to do.

And I also have to deal with my own grief that things are changing. A way of life could be coming to an end for me, too. As I cut the roses and bury my face in those soft, fragrant petals, I realise that this might be the last time that I am able to fill a bowl with them. Mum and Dad have loved this bungalow, and especially the garden, and so have I. But if things work out, this garden will soon be someone else’s delight, and that’s as it should be. And I will have to let go of my role as primary carer and organiser, and to let someone else manage all that, and that will be hard too. But everything changes, in nature and in our lives, and so much suffering is caused by grimly hanging on when we could be letting go. There will be much sorrow during the next few weeks, I’m sure, but in my heart I feel the tentative growth of hope.

Still life with medications

Wednesday Weed – Passionflower

Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea)

Dear Readers, I have always been fascinated by the flowers of this plant. What on earth is going on? Away from those waxy white petals there are those blue spikey things, which always remind me a little of porcupine quills, and then that strange arrangement of five boat-shaped things and three kidney-shaped things in the middle. Humans being humans, we have attached all kinds of symbolism to the flower.

In Christian iconography, the blooms are said to contain all the instruments of the Passion – the three stigma are thought to represent the three nails that held Christ to the cross, the tendrils of the plant are the whips that were used to scourge Him, and the 5 anthers are the five wounds. However, in Japan, Israel and Greece that plant is called ‘Clockflower’ because the there are twelve petals, the tendrils reminded people of the inner workings of a clock, and there’s something that looks like the winding mechanism in the middle.

In India blue passionflower is known as Krishnakamala, with the centre representing Krishna, and the radiating blue filaments representing his aura.

In short, it’s hard to look at the flower without attaching some symbolism to it.

Passionflower bud

Blue passionflower (Passiflora caerulea), the commonest cultivated species in the UK, is a vigorous vine that often looks a little tatty at this time of year. It comes originally from South America, and later in the year will be hung with bright orange fruits that look most appetising, but taste very insipid.The wrinkly brown fruits that you can buy in the greengrocer come from a related species, Passiflora edulis, and are among my very favourite things to eat.

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Taka assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=360496

Fruit of the blue passionflower (Photo One)

Passiflora edulis, which produces ‘proper’ passionfruit (Public Domain)

A tea can be made from the flowers of the blue passionflower, which is said to aid sleep – the word ‘passion’ is all about the Passion of Christ rather than anything romantic, and the plant is said to calm you down rather than get you going. The leaves contain cyanide, so I  wouldn’t be nibbling on these if I was you.

Blue passionflower is listed as one of the RHS ‘thugs’ (much like the Japanese Anemones that I talked about last week) and has naturalised in several countries, including Spain, though it is not such a problem in the UK, especially not when compared to Russian Vine

The flowers of the Passiflora tend to be pollinated by very specific groups of animals. ‘Our’ passionflower is cross-pollinated by bumblebees. Some species, however, are linked together even more closely: the sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) is the sole pollinator of 37 separate species of Andean passionflower, especially Passiflora mixta.This is the only bird which has a beak longer than its body, and the plant has an especially long corolla which only this species can exploit. This is a splendid example of co-evolution, and also an illustration of the risks of this as a biological strategy: if the plant becomes extinct, so will the bird.

Photo Two by By Michael Woodruff from Spokane, Washington, USA - Sword-billed Hummingbird, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5165020

Sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) with Passiflora mixta bloom (Photo Two)

There are several cultivated varieties of blue passionflower, including a pure white one called ‘Constance Elliott’. I’m not sure how it is an improvement over the blue one, but then I always did have extravagant tastes.

Photo Three by By Kelly Cookson from Lafayette, USA - Various Views...Uploaded by uleli, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22953221

White passionflower ‘Constance Elliott’ (Photo Three)

For our poem this week, I would like to present to you that hoary old chestnut ‘Come Into the Garden, Maud’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson. This is a poem that rewards close attention for, far from being romantic there is something deeply sinister about it. The poet is waiting in the garden for Maud to return – she has been at a dance, to which he has not been invited. He seems to think that he is the only one in the world for her, and his thoughts have all the obsessive monomania of a stalker. I find the mention of her ‘little head, sunning over with curls’ rather troubling. And then, he mentions the passionflower, with which has dropped a ‘splendid tear’ for the death of Christ, and seems to think that his plight is comparable. Run away, Maud! Or at least keep your pepper spray handy.

from Maud (Part I)

A Monodrama
Come into the garden, Maud,
      For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
      I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
      And the musk of the rose is blown.
   For a breeze of morning moves,
      And the planet of Love is on high,
Beginning to faint in the light that she loves
      In a bed of daffodil sky,
To faint in the light of the sun she loves,
      To faint in his light, and to die.
   All night have the roses heard
      The flute, violin, bassoon;
All night has the casement jessamine stirr’d
      To the dancers dancing in tune;
Till a silence fell with the waking bird,
      And a hush with the setting moon.
   I said to the lily, “There is but one
      With whom she has heart to be gay.
When will the dancers leave her alone?
      She is weary of dance and play.”
Now half to the setting moon are gone,
      And half to the rising day;
Low on the sand and loud on the stone
      The last wheel echoes away.
   I said to the rose, “The brief night goes
      In babble and revel and wine.
O young lord-lover, what sighs are those,
      For one that will never be thine?
But mine, but mine,” so I sware to the rose,
      “For ever and ever, mine.”
   And the soul of the rose went into my blood,
      As the music clash’d in the hall;
And long by the garden lake I stood,
      For I heard your rivulet fall
From the lake to the meadow and on to the wood,
      Our wood, that is dearer than all;
   From the meadow your walks have left so sweet
      That whenever a March-wind sighs
He sets the jewel-print of your feet
      In violets blue as your eyes,
To the woody hollows in which we meet
      And the valleys of Paradise.
   The slender acacia would not shake
      One long milk-bloom on the tree;
The white lake-blossom fell into the lake
      As the pimpernel dozed on the lea;
But the rose was awake all night for your sake,
      Knowing your promise to me;
The lilies and roses were all awake,
      They sigh’d for the dawn and thee.
   Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
      Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
      Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
      To the flowers, and be their sun.
   There has fallen a splendid tear
      From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
      She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”
      And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”
The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”
      And the lily whispers, “I wait.”
   She is coming, my own, my sweet;
      Were it ever so airy a tread,
My heart would hear her and beat,
      Were it earth in an earthy bed;
My dust would hear her and beat,
      Had I lain for a century dead,
Would start and tremble under her feet,
      And blossom in purple and red.


Photo Credits

Photo One by By No machine-readable author provided. Taka assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=360496

Photo Two by By Michael Woodruff from Spokane, Washington, USA – Sword-billed Hummingbird, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5165020

Photo Three by By Kelly Cookson from Lafayette, USA – Various Views…Uploaded by uleli, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22953221

The Golden Hour

Dear Readers, it has been a difficult few weeks. Mum was in hospital until yesterday (Wednesday) but has been weeping because she wants to come home for at least a fortnight. At one point I honestly thought that Dad would ‘spring her’ from the hospital and drive her home, in spite of his dementia. Now she is home, and I am trying to make sure that we have the correct care at the correct time. My worry is that whatever we plan it still won’t be enough. Mum is intermittently confused, extremely weak, and seems to have forgotten many of the things that she was able to do just a few short months ago. Getting off the toilet is a problem, for example, not because Mum is too weak to do it, but because she has forgotten the sequence of physical actions necessary to make it happen. I hope that the muscle memory will come back, but in the meantime it is a worry for all of us.

Meantime, Dad has been ringing me up more or less every night in the wee small hours, asking me where Mum is, where the carers are, when the cab is coming to take him to hospital. At least now that Mum is home I might get a little bit of a break from all that, though it’s possible that all that will happen is that the questions will change.

The situation is evolving faster than we can respond. I am up and down to Dorset visiting nursing homes ‘just in case’. It is very hard to find somewhere where Mum and Dad can be together with their different needs, but I shall keep trying. As much as anything else, I want to be prepared for the next emergency. So far in the last few months they’ve spent 9 weeks apart because one or the other has been in hospital. At least in a nursing home they wouldn’t have such frequent admissions, and would be released more quickly.

In short I am at my tether’s end, and beyond.

However, outside my rapidly shrinking world of care rotas and supermarket orders and medical appointments, the world goes on.Between 17.30 and 18.30 on a fine day in October, the light has a quality that is unlike that at any other time. Photographers call it ‘the golden hour’, that short window when the sun’s rays are low and diffuse, and everything is lit up as if from within. On Wednesday my husband came home early, and more or less dragged me out of the door, onto the County Roads in East Finchley and down to Coldfall Wood.

I hadn’t noticed that the trees had started to redden, but it must have been going on for ages. And look at the berries! My heart lifts at the thought of redwings and waxwings and blackbirds having something sweet(ish) and natural to fatten them before winter comes.

I hear the chuckle of jackdaws overhead, and it puts me in mind of Dorset, where they are commonplace. Here in North London, a pair moved in a few years ago, and this year I was visited by a family of five. The crows are still more commonplace though, perched on the television aerials and surveying the scene for a feeding opportunity.

And then into the woods. By the main entrance the colours are subdued and muted, shadowy and understated, but as we walk west, everything is touched with the setting sun. The leaves of the twisted hornbeams catch the last rays and shimmer.

The sun hits some trees like a searchlight, illuminating every detail of bark, revealing the corrugations, the crisscross stems of ivy, the spikes of holly.

A single leaf dangles from a strand of spider silk, and is transformed.

And when I look back, I see that the sun has painted a long pathway into the woods that seems to open for a few short moments before the sun sinks too low, and it’s gone.

I have been so busy, moving quickly because I think that I can outrun what’s coming for me, and for Mum and Dad. The last thing I want to do is meander through the trees and let myself be caught. But here in the woods there’s the sense of life proceeding on a scale that is far greater and older than our human span. The sun goes down whether I want it to or not, and sometimes all there is to do is to drink in both the poignancy and the beauty of that  moment.




Wednesday Weed – Japanese Anemone

Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis)

Dear Readers, many of the gardens in East Finchley, including my own, are in the final stages of the flowering year. I have spent the afternoon cutting back the greater willowherb (and getting covered in the fluffy seeds in the process), and next week the buddleia will finally get its demi-annual pruning. But one plant that is absolutely busting out all over East Finchley is the Japanese anemone. Its big single flowers are a final source of pollen for pollinators, and the plant looks delicate and graceful. I have a great fondness for the white varieties, but the plant comes in all shades of pink as well. It doesn’t mind poor soil and, like many other members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), it will tolerate dappled shade.

Japanese Anemone comes originally from China, but has been naturalised in Japan for many years. Indeed, it belies its sylph-like elegance with the belligerent nature of a heavyweight boxer, and, once established, can spread by a proliferation of suckers. The RHS list it as one of their ‘thugs’, meaning a plant that will require judicious management if it is not to take over.

The plant was first described in Carl Thunberg’s Flora Japonica in 1784. It was introduced to the UK from China in 1844 by the plant hunter Robert Fortune, who spotted it popping up between the gravestones in a cemetery in Shanghai. I can imagine that this ethereal plant brought a touch of late-autumn beauty, and looked exquisite against the reddening foliage.

Photo One by By Abraham Jacobus Wendel - book by H. Witte and A J Wendel: Flora: afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van boomen, heesters, éénjarige planten, enz. voorkomende in de Nederlandsche tuinen, Groningen: Wolters, [1868]., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53895628

A painting of Japanese Anemones by Abraham Jacobus Wendel, 1868 (Photo One)

Whilst the Chinese Anemone (Pulsatilla chinensis) is one of the Fifty Essential Herbs of Chinese Traditional Medicine, I can find no mention of Japanese Anemone being used medicinally. Nor can I find anyone who has tried to eat them – the plant has a reputation for being poisonous, but most sites that I’ve looked at suggest that it is merely unpalatable rather than being positively toxic. Maybe this is one of those plants that can be loved for its beauty alone.

And for my poem this week, here’s an excerpt from ‘Sentenced to Life’ by the Australian writer Clive James. James has leukaemia and COPD, and has been writing valedictory poetry for the past few years. An experimental drug treatment has bought him some extra time, and he has been extraordinarily prolific, writing everything from a translation of Dante to book reviews, and this latest collection. I won’t quote the whole poem (in line with my preference for not taking bread from the mouths of living poets), but in this verse he gets to the heart of things.

“Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known

The name for Japanese anemones,

So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone

Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees

Without my seeing them. I count the bees.”

Photo Two by By Schnobby - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19091330

Japanese Anemone seeds (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Abraham Jacobus Wendel – book by H. Witte and A J Wendel: Flora: afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van boomen, heesters, éénjarige planten, enz. voorkomende in de Nederlandsche tuinen, Groningen: Wolters, [1868]., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53895628

Photo Two by By Schnobby – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19091330



Bugwoman on Location – That Condor Moment

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Dear Readers, although my recent trip to Monterey was mainly about the hunt for cetaceans, we would have been remiss not to take time out to  look for the largest land bird in North America, the California Condor. Its wingspan is just a shade under ten feet, it weighs in at 26lbs, and there are just 463 individuals left. This is, however, something of an improvement on its condition in 1987 when there were just 27 birds alive, due to a combination of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction.  In an extraordinary conservation effort, these last remaining wild birds were captured and a breeding programme was started at San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo. The first individuals from this attempt to reestablish the species were released in 1991, and you can now see this extraordinary bird soaring above the coastal areas of California, the Baja California peninsula and some of the desert areas of Arizona and Utah.

California condors are, in effect (whisper it!) giant vultures. Their larger Andean cousins occasionally kill things, but the California condor is a cleaner-upper, an invaluable part of the ecosystem but not a bird of prey. Close up it looks almost primeval, with its midnight-black plumage and bald face, but it is unquestionably magnificent.

Photo One by CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3189483Hoto

The face of a California Condor (Photo One)

Their role as scavenger hasn’t stopped them the California condor from featuring as both a creator and a destroyer in the legends of Native American peoples: the Yokut people believed that the bird sometimes ate the moon, causing lunar eclipses, whereas the Wiyot tribe of California believed that the condor recreated the human race after it was wiped out in a flood. Many peoples use condor feathers in their headdresses and ceremonial costumes, and the bones of the birds have been discovered in tombs. In many cultures, birds that fly so close to the sun are believed to have an affinity with the gods, and with returning the souls of the dead back to their ‘home’ in the sky.

Back to our trip to Monterey. We had spotted several birds in the distance, but were completely unprepared when we turned a corner to see a condor, in its characteristic legs-down posture, flying not twenty feet above a lay-by. We screeched to a halt in a tangle of cameras and binoculars, just in time to see the bird swooping low into a stand of trees. The guy repairing the overhead cables nearby  shook his head. I suspect he sees a lot of tourists nearly doing themselves a damage on their first close encounter with this extraordinary bird.

All the released birds wear a number tag, which enables them to be identified. The bird pictured at the start of this piece has the id number ‘ red twenty-six’, and has the name ‘Beak Boy’. He was hatched in Los Angeles Zoo in 1997, and was fostered by a pair of Andean Condors. These birds accidentally damaged his beak while feeding him, and although the beak has now healed it has a characteristic ‘lump’ on it.

In 2006 he paired with ‘Solo’ (#208) who was also reared in Los Angeles Zoo. This bird preferred the isolated areas of Monterey County, which are also hunting country. This exposed the bird to the risk of lead poisoning from shot left in the carcasses that the birds feed upon. In 2005 she was spotted in severe distress, and was taken into Los Angeles Zoo for treatment. Fortunately she survived, and was released. In 2008 an act was passed in California which bans the use of lead shot in condor territory, but this doesn’t protect the birds when they fly into other areas. Even the US military doesn’t use lead ammunition, and lead shot for anglers has been banned in the UK for many years. Come on American hunters, get with the programme! It isn’t just condors that are affected but all kinds of birds, from swans and loons to bald eagles.

In 2007, Beak Boy and Solo laid the first fertile condor egg in the wild in Monterey for over a century. Scientists were worried about this first egg, and so it was hatched in captivity. When the bird fledged she was released and joined her parents, no doubt learning all about what it means to be a condor. Beak Boy and Solo have hatched another five eggs since.

All this gives you an idea of the amount of micro-management involved in bringing a species back from the brink. Condors live for a long time (they can reach sixty years old) and breed slowly, not attaining sexual maturity until they are six, and only laying one egg every other year. However, if an egg or youngster goes missing, the birds will lay another egg: this was used by the conservationists as a way of doubling the ‘production’, with the original egg being raised in captivity by humans or condor foster parents, and the parents raising the second egg.

The birds are taught to avoid humans and overhead cables during the rearing process, which has increased their chance of survival in the wild. One of the measures involves feeding the nestlings via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to prevent them associating humans with food. The less these birds come into contact with humans, who have caused them so much harm, the better.

Nestling condor being fed via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to avoid habituation/imprinting on humans (Public Domain)

Let’s have a look at the story of another bird.

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is blue 52 or ‘Ferdinand’. He was hatched in 2012 but is already a large and impressive bird, though apparently with a sweet nature, hence his being named after the gentle bull ‘Ferdinand’ in the cartoon. Apparently when he was released, instead of flying off, he walked up the hill to where the other condors were feeding and joined in without any bickering or argument. He already weighs in at 23lbs and this is not surprising – his father, condor #1 or ‘Topa Topa’ to his friends, was the first condor to be taken into captivity in 1967 and is the largest captive condor ever recorded, at almost 26ibs.

And one last story…

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is green 11, or ‘Big Gulp’. He is a very young bird, hatched in 2015, and was named for his entertaining way of eating, which involved bolting down great chunks of semi-frozen meat. Since his release he has paired up with a much older, more established male #566, or ‘Mike’s Bird’, named for a conservationist who was killed the day after the bird was released. Mike’s Bird is the dominant bird in the area, but has been alone since the death of his mate a few years ago. Condors pair for life, and so maybe in his loneliness he is enjoying palling around with ‘Big Gulp’. The two birds apparently sit together and preen one another. It seems to me that California condors are generally most accommodating and tolerant birds, gentle giants.

The California condor preservation effort is probably the most expensive in US history, costing over $35m since the Second World War, and about $2m per year. I am not sure what price you can put on the sight of these birds soaring above the hills around Big Sur, but for me they are capable of inducing true awe, a sense of the sublime. They are ugly-beautiful, maybe the closest thing that we have to the great pterodactyls of old, in size if not in actual genetic proximity. Preservation of their habitat will protect a whole raft of other, less spectacular but nonetheless vital creatures and plants. The return of the California condor is a story about what humans can achieve when they put their minds to it. When we live in an age of such destruction, it’s important to celebrate our successes as well as bewail our failures.

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3189483Hoto

You can see the biographies of all the Californian birds at the Condorspotter website