A Dorchester Walk

Mallards

Dear Readers, with the audit at work  over and my period of full-time work at an end, I was able to head west to Dorchester to visit Dad. I have been so anxious about work this past few weeks that it was a relief to get back to some sort of normality – I think that I have been so worried and upset about Mum and Dad over the past few years that the slightest stress plunges me into a state of nervous agitation. I did read somewhere that once your cortisol levels have been consistently raised it takes a  very long time for them to return to normal, and so I suppose that’s why these basically trivial concerns have loomed so large. While the rational part of me knows that no one is going to die if I’ve done something wrong in the audit preparation, my body still thinks that maybe someone is actually going to die if the salary calculations are out. And then there’s that pesky perfectionism again. What would it feel like, I wonder, to drop all pretence that I can control everything? The very thought makes me anxious and so I shelve it, for now.

I get to the nursing home, and Dad is nowhere to be seen. I go to his room and there he is, curled up on the bed like a baby, deeply asleep. He is just finishing a course of antibiotics, and they generally knock him for six.

I go to my bed and breakfast, unpack, watch an episode of ‘Escape to the Country’ for light relief, and head back. Dad is still asleep. It’s a pleasure to see him sleeping so peacefully though – for years he’s  been a very agitated sleeper, I think because he was worried about Mum, who had a habit of falling out of bed.

And so it’s back to the bed and breakfast, and more television. Strangely enough, although it’s good to rest, it doesn’t actually help with the anxiety, which is there in the background, searching for something to be anxious about. Whenever I find something it’s like an electric shock of fear – heart racing, mouth dry, sometimes even a cold sweat.

Next morning, I decide that what I need more than anything else before I pop into see Dad again is a walk, so I head down the High Street to the riverside walk that we discovered at Christmas. I want to see where it goes, and how it connects to the rest of the town. It’s freezing cold but bright and breezy after the storms of the past few days.

The white stag, a remnant of the old inn that once stood on the site, marks the spot where I turn left and onto the path.

The white stag

The water is high, and rushing along, and there is no handrail, which adds a pleasant frisson of jeopardy. After all, if I tumbled in I would have more to worry about than our procurement policy. There is a handsome gothic angel sitting on top of the wall opposite, head in hands. I wonder if I would have noticed it if my current state of mind wasn’t so peculiar.

There were a few mallards here in December, but now the breeding season is in full swing. One duck is being pursued by three drakes, and very sensibly escapes onto the bank to avoid their attentions.

Further along the stream I notice another duck swimming as hard as she can into the current, two drakes behind her. The flow of the water is dragging her back towards them, and I think that she can’t get up the momentum to fly away. I wonder what genetic accident has made the ‘courtship’ of these animals so brutal – females are often injured and sometimes even drown during what looks to me like a gang-rape. Surely this can’t be beneficial for the species as a whole?

Duck swimming into the current, hotly pursued by drake.

And then there are what I think of as the ‘smug married’ ducks, who have found a partner and are all paired up already. They are dozing peacefully in the water-plants by the side of the stream, occasionally opening one lazy eye to watch the shenanigans going on all around them,  and if that’s not a metaphor for something I don’t know what is.

I take a detour through the tiny nature reserve even though I can clearly see that the boardwalk has turned into a ‘road to nowhere’.

The boardwalk through the nature reserve

I have noticed how each local area seems to have a weedy ‘spirit’ and around here it’s definitely the cuckoo-pint. The damp woods are bursting with them, mostly the native British species (Arum maculatum) with its bright green leaves, but a few examples of the Italian species (Arum Italicum) as well. It will be interesting to pop back in the summer to see it in flower. I love that this species generates its own heat to attract insects to pollinate it. All the old scientific certainties (about what is and isn’t ‘cold-blooded’ for example) continue to fall away as we learn more and more.

Leaves of British cuckoopint (Arum maculatum)

Leaves of Italian cuckoopint (Arum italicum)

And there are the heart-shaped leaves of that spring ephemeral lesser celandine, with its yellow flowers just appearing here in the shade, though already in full bloom at Dorchester South station.

I love the reflections. It’s possible, just for a moment, to lose track of what is up and what is down, what is real and what is a mirror image.

And then it’s back onto the main path, where someone has provided some bird feeders, and the sparrows are taking full advantage.

I  follow the stream on around the back of the deserted prison, which is still waiting to be redeveloped. There is a path on the bank opposite which is no longer accessible to the public, and I see that a whole meadow of snowdrops has sprung up. It seems to me more beautiful for its isolation, and I am reminded that I was going to buy some bulbs in the green this year, having had minimal success with snowdrop bulbs planted in the autumn.

As usual, I notice that I have slowed down enough to start to use all of my senses now. I am taken with the sound of the water as it rushes past a wall and narrows into the smaller stream, and I see how the swirls of the water eddy out and around, each one similar but subtly different.

I notice the red stems of the dogwood in the scrappy woodland next to the path.

And, buried in the woodland I notice the yellow paintwork of some ancient and semi-derelict machinery, the seat torn, rust showing through. How expensive it must have been to buy, and how strange that someone would just leave it to become a pile of scrap metal.

Ahead, I see a low stone three-arched bridge, and some sluices for controlling the flow of the water from one stream to another – I have now reached a confluence of at least three streams. To my immediate right, water has been diverted from the stream running ahead.

The path continues to a junction where I can follow the river left or right,  and next time I think I might head right and see where that goes to. But today, I need to head back to the nursing home to see if Dad is mercifully awake, and so I head uphill and away from the river for today.

When I get to the nursing home, Dad is sitting in his favourite seat, next to the nurse’s station. It often takes me a second to recognise him – I think I am still expecting to see the bearded Dad with an Elvis Presley quiff who was his previous incarnation, rather than this frail, clean-shaven man with a side-parting. But he recognises me, or at least knows that I’m someone. His face brightens and that is worth everything.

We decide to go out for a coffee, and I get Dad wrapped up and pop his new hat on his head. Then we find a wheelchair, and off we go. Dorchester is a fairly hilly place, and so it’s an extremely good upper body workout. I was hoping to take Dad to the pub for lunch, but he wants to get back for lunch at the home. I suppose I should be happy that he feels so comfortable there, and wants to preserve his routine.

As we joggle across the cobbles, I notice that the hat has shifted so Dad can’t see a thing. I adjust it.

‘Thank you’, he says, ‘I thought the lights had gone out’.

We sit in the coffee shop, and Dad decides he doesn’t like the coffee. He eats a Portuguese custard tart with great enthusiasm though, and watches the usual stramash as people try to maneuver their prams through the maze of tables and chairs.

‘They could do with one less table in here’ he says, sagely.

And then it’s time for lunch, so we head back to the home. Today it’s chicken pie, and we chat with one of the other residents who has terrible arthritis in her hands but doesn’t seem to have dementia (though it can be hard to tell). Dad tells her that he’s going to have an operation on his hip. If he is, that’s the first that I’ve heard of it. He also tells us that he was in France last week. I think this unlikely, but when I have a chat with the staff nurse I discover that, no, he isn’t having any kind of surgery, but that, actually, the France thing is semi-true – the middle floor has been done up to look like a cruise ship, and every month they have a themed day for a particular country, with appropriate food and music and activities. Last week it was France, and it’s something of a bonus that Dad,who will probably never travel abroad again, thinks he’s been across the Channel.

I try to tell Dad that he isn’t going to have an operation, breaking my usual habit of meeting him where he is rather than imposing what’s ‘real’.

‘So, I’m not having the operation today’, he says.

‘You’re not having an operation at all, Dad’, I say.

He thinks for a minute.

‘Well, it’s good to know that i’m not having it today. I’m sure they’ll take me down when it’s time’.

I give up. It’s time to go and do some shopping for Dad (Polo mints and some kind of after-shave balm with no alcohol).

‘I’ll be back again later on Dad’, I say as I head off on my errands.

And he turns to the other resident and says

‘Yep, she’s going to be in to bore me to death for the next few days’.

And, strangely enough, I see something of the old Dad in this. He used to hate to be ‘crossed’ or argued with, and prided himself on the way that he would ‘get someone back’ if they upset him. I wonder if he was annoyed because I had tried to put him right about the operation?

‘Oh Dad!’ I said. I was about to say something cutting and sarcastic, but what’s the point?

‘Only joking’, he said, in a way that was also typical Dad.

Much as I loved both my parents, they weren’t saints. But with Dad, his determination not to be bested has probably been an asset when I balance everything up. And I know he loves me, because his heart is on show now in a way that he would never allow before he had dementia.

Now, I just have to think of an extremely non-boring outing for next time that I visit. Maybe sky-diving or something.

Dad in his new hat, wearing his Christmas tie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Thale Cress

Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)

Dear Readers, today I was searching for a new weed in East Finchley Station car park. I don’t know how you spend your Saturdays, but for me a plant hunt in a relentlessly urban setting, with tube trains whistling past my ear and the steady thrum of an emergency generator forming an interesting soundscape is as close to heaven as I can imagine. This is mainly because the auditors finished their work yesterday, and although they had many, many comments, none of them related directly to anything that I’d done. Hooray! Life can resume some vestige of normality, and nothing is more normal than peering at a tiny plant and realising that, humble as it is, this is one of the most scientifically important organisms of the past century.

Thale cress is a brassica (as was our hairy bittercress last week) and on the surface of it, there is nothing much to report. It is a winter annual, with a rosette of dark green, hairy leaves, and a long waxy stem bearing tiny white flowers. The ‘hairs’ on the leaves are called trichomes, and are interesting because in thale cress, each one is a single cell.

Photo One by By Heiti Paves - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29552690

Scanning electron micrograph of trichome: a leaf hair of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), an unique structure that is made of a single cell (Photo One)

However, what makes thale cress so important is that it was the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced: its small size, short life-span and relatively simple genetic structure made it perfect as a model organism in scientific research. It also has remarkably little ‘junk’ DNA.  Because it was (relatively) easy to map the genome of the plant to its appearance and behaviour, thale cress is used for experimentation in laboratories all over the world, leading to a much better understanding of flower and leaf development, light sensitivity and circadian rhythms. In spite of being self-pollinated, the plant is also surprisingly diverse, with over 750 naturally occurring varieties world-wide, and over 40 in the UK alone.This has led to a variety of commercial applications being suggested, from increasing the speed at which oranges develop to encouraging plants to produce more Omega-3 acid – this article by Peter Marren is a fascinating look at the different ways in which this humble ‘weed’ could be used.

Of the many discoveries that were made using thale cress as a model, one of the most intriguing to me is that the roots of a plant seem to channel light to their roots, where there are light sensitive cells that need illumination in order to grow.

Thale cress has also landed on the moon – the Chinese Chang’e-4 lander brought the plant in a closed environment together with silk worm caterpillars and potato seeds. In theory, the three organisms should be a microcosm, with the silk worms producing carbon dioxide for the plants, and the plant producing oxygen, provided, of course, photosynthesis can take place.

Thale cress is named after Johannes Thal, the botanist who first described the plant in 1573. Thal discovered it in the Harz Mountains in Germany, and thale cress does seem to be another of those mountain plants that does well as a weed, surviving light, infertile soil, a high degree of exposure and risk of drought.  It is a pioneer species, and I suspect that one reason that I’ve never paid it any attention before is because it is also ephemeral – with such a short lifespan it will be here one day and gone tomorrow. It is apparently sometimes used as a salad ingredient, but presumably it grows larger in less hostile environments, because you’d be a long time picking a bowl full in East Finchley station.

I found thale cress rather difficult to photograph – my camera really doesn’t like white flowers (they nearly always end up appearing overexposed) and my knees really don’t like crouching down for too long (poor old thing that I am). But for some really splendid pictures of this humble plant, have a look at the Wildflower Finder website. To whet your appetite, here is an example:

Photo Two from http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/Flowers/C/Cress(Thale)/Cress(Thale).htm

Thale cress (Photo Two)

Medicinally, thale cress has been used in Indian traditional medicine to treat mouth sores and inflammation of the throat. However, scientists looking at the bacterial communities that live on the surface of the leaves of the plant have found that some of the bacteria are producing a substance that deters the growth of other bacteria – a novel antibiotic. If this proves to also be effective against the bacteria that cause disease in humans and animals, it would be a tremendous advance in the search for new methods of combatting infection. Many of our current antibiotics are becoming less and less effective as bacteria acquire immunity to them, so we need all the help we can get.

Now, thale cress is not a particularly beautiful plant. Monet preferred water lilies for some reason, and Van Gogh turned his nose up at the thale cress and went for sunflowers and irises instead. But there are some remarkable scientific photographs of thale cress, showing the intricate beauty of its structures.

Photo Three from https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/9200579/xx8cd9g9.html

Electon microscope photo of thale cress flower (Photo Three)

Photo Four from https://phys.org/news/2012-05-cellular-secrets-fatty-acid-production.html

Thale cress flowers – the blue areas show where fatty acids are produced ( a possible source of plant-based Omega 3 oils) (Photo Four)

Photo Five by Dr Heiti Paves at Tallinn University of Technology from https://www.nikonsmallworld.com/galleries/2009-photomicrography-competition/arabidopsis-thaliana-thale-cress-1

Anther of a thale cress plant (Photo Five)

How beautiful the tiny details of this plant are when viewed close up! And this is the point at which I would normally produce a poem. However, for the first time I can report that this plant actually is a poem. In 2003, a group of geneticists from Icon Genetics managed to encode a line from Virgil’s Georgics into the DNA of the line of thale cress that they were working with. The line was ‘Nec vero terrae ferra omnes omnia possunt‘ or ‘Nor can all of the earth bring forth all fruit alike‘. However, this was not a simple artistic act, but a way of copywriting the whole genetically modified organism – if it was ‘stolen’ it could be identified by the poem encoded into each of its genes. For more on this, and on the work of poet Christian Bok, who is attempting to encode a poem into a bacteria that will change and replicate as reproduction occurs, have a look here.

Thale cress is the fruit fly or laboratory rat of the plant world. It has been analysed and reorganised to produce plastic, to glow in the dark, and to produce oil . It is certainly something of a wonder plant, but while normal selective breeding (which humans have done for millenia) has limitations imposed by the genome of the organism, we are now swapping genes from one organism to another, sometimes for good, humanitarian reasons but often just because we can. I am no Luddite, but it seems to me that our technology may be running ahead of our ability to decide on the ethical implications of our discoveries. I believe that science can save us, but I also believe that we need to think through what the results of our experimentation mean. Looking at this tiny plant, so unassuming that it has taken me over six years to notice it, I wonder what other secrets it may hold, and what they will lead to. I only hope they will be used for everyone’s benefit, rather than to make profit for a few bloated corporations, naïve as that hope may be. It is long since time to cooperate rather than compete.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Heiti Paves – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29552690

Photo Two from http://wildflowerfinder.org.uk/Flowers/C/Cress(Thale)/Cress(Thale).htm

Photo Three from https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en/record/9200579/xx8cd9g9.html

Photo Four from https://phys.org/news/2012-05-cellular-secrets-fatty-acid-production.html

Photo Five by Dr Heiti Paves at Tallinn University of Technology from https://www.nikonsmallworld.com/galleries/2009-photomicrography-competition/arabidopsis-thaliana-thale-cress-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman’s Sixth Annual Report Part One

The Order of Service from my Mum’s memorial service.

Dear Readers, it is the sixth anniversary of Bugwoman’s Adventures in London and, coincidentally, a year since Mum’s memorial service in Milborne St Andrew. What a year it’s been! My life has changed in all sorts of ways that I couldn’t have envisaged twelve months ago – I am now working, Dad is settled into his care home much better than I could ever have hoped, and I now have my TFL senior railcard so that I can commute to work for free. Of course, being sixty wasn’t logically surprising, but it was a bit of a shock to the system, particularly as I still feel about thirty. This year has been about being carried on in the flow of life even when I wanted to cling on to the bank. I feel like one of those trees that grows around a fence post – I won’t ever ‘get over’ the things that happened to my parents, but I might learn to accommodate them.

Onwards!

In February I paid a visit to the splendid Borough Gardens in Dorchester while I was visiting Dad, and was very taken by some of the trees and the immaculate grandstand. Dad often comes here when the weather is warm enough and, when I read this post, I remember how hard it was at first to come to terms with the ‘new Dad’ who had emerged since Mum died, and the dementia started to take hold.

The bandstand in Borough Gardens

I also found a new Roof Garden close to Fenchurch Street in London, where the plants were just becoming established. I must pop back in the spring to see how things have moved on.

The view from the Roof Garden

Everything really kicks off in March. The frogs get up to their usual froggie misbehaviour.

The foxes become more apparent as the days get longer…

And last year, we visited John’s Mum and Aunts in Canada. In Collingwood we spotted a beautiful trumpeter swan in amongst all the mute swans, the first time that I’d ever seen one.

Trumpeter at Wye Marsh

But when I got back to England, it was to find that I had some wildlife of my own. A heron was systematically eating all my frogs (and, as I now know, had stabbed through the lining of the pond). It was my first Mother’s Day since Mum died as well, so I was feeling in a reflective mood.

Closer to home, there was much joy to be had in East Finchley too: the community gardeners had been hard at work, and the garden centre was fully stocked.

The work of the N2 Community Gardeners at East Finchley Station

Bowles mauve perennial wallflower – in hairy pots!

And, finally, it was Mum’s interment, on a beautiful day when the air was full of the songs of robins.

Mum with her quilt

June saw a visit to Kew to see the Dale Chihuly exhibition. I had mixed feelings about some of the pieces, though I loved it overall, and it was a splendid day. It also saw Dad visited in the care home by an alpaca, which was a source of some fascination and consternation for both of them.

An Alpaca

I discovered yet another new garden, at the Crossrail station (still unopened!) at Canary Wharf. I loved that it was open to the sky so that birds and insects could get in and out.

Then, in July, it was off to Obergurgl in Austria, yet again, for our summer walking holiday. We had a very foggy walk from Hochgurgl back to the village, with sheep looming out of the mist in a most unexpected way.

Fortunately it brightened up a bit as the fortnight went on, and we had a splendid walk through the flower meadows, one of the highlights of my year.

The meadows of Obergurgl

When I got back from Austria, I went to see Dad. It was something of a bittersweet visit, as they often are, with Dad seeming calm one minute, agitated the next. But however he is, I am always so glad to see him. The way his eyes light up when he sees me, even though he doesn’t have the faintest idea who I am, melts my heart. However he is, he’s still my Dad.

Next week, we’ll have a look at the second half of the year. What a lot of ground we’ve covered!

Bugwoman and her Dad

Wednesday Weed – Hairy Bittercress Revisited

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute) (probably)

Dear Readers, what a week it’s been! Between getting the pond cleaned, and preparing for the visit of the auditors next week I have hardly had a minute to breathe. On Saturday we were helping our aged auntie to clear out her house in Somerset – she is 92 years old and moved into a care home last year, but still wants to go through her possessions herself, as is her prerogative. Nonetheless, I was delighted to find the hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) in flower on top of a wall in Muswell Hill – for me it has always been a harbinger of spring, even though it has tiny flowers only a few millimetres long. I love those globular leaves (I’m sure that’s not the correct botanical term), and the way that the plant pops up on top of walls or in the few grains of soil at the edge of the pavement. I took a few photos and headed home rejoicing.

Until, that is, that I realised that I’d already written about hairy bittercress back in 2016. Alack! I have no time to find a new weed. I could attempt to pull  the wool over your eyes and tell you that this is in fact wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa),  but to be sure I would have had to dissect the flower to see if it had 6 stamens (wavy) or 4 stamens (hairy) and I didn’t do that. So, in reprise, here are a few of the things that I love about bittercress, regardless of its hirsuteness or degree of undulation.

Firstly, like many other crucifers (for although small this is indeed a cabbage), the bittercress has seeds which can be ‘fired’ with a touch – the scientific name for this is ‘explosive dehiscence’, which delighted me in 2016 and still delights me four years later. Apparently, the seeds can be fired up to 16 feet, and bittercress has even been observed using its ballistic ability to wallop approaching caterpillars, although whether this is coincidence or intention I would not like to say. When the auditors have finally left I am going to amuse myself by giving every other bittercress that I meet a gentle flick, just in case the seeds are ripe. I suspect that this method of seed distribution helps a little annual plant to give its offspring their best start in life, away from the shade and resource requirements of the parent. I suspect that many human parents might wish that they could do the same.

Secondly, bittercress is one of the Anglo-Saxon’s Nine Herbs Charm, which was a treatment for poisoning and for infection. The charm included mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), cockspur grass (or, according to some commentators, betony), bittercress, plantain, mayweed, nettle, crab-apple, thyme and fennel. The charm is recorded in an Anglo-Saxon medical collection called the Lacnunga, and the manuscript is preserved at the British Library – you can actually see it, and turn the pages, here. What a treat! According to that source of all wisdom, Wikipedia:

At the end of the charm, prose instructions are given to take the above-mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice. Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg – both before and after the prepared salve is applied.

Further, the charm directs the reader to sing the charm three times over each of the herbs as well as the apple before they are prepared, into the mouth of the wounded, both of their ears, and over the wound itself prior to the application of the salve.

I love that our commonest ‘herbs’ were included in the charm; people were familiar with them and their properties, and their ubiquity was no obstacle to their usefulness. It gives me heart that foraging for personal use is coming back, though I fear that, where our ancestors were attuned to what was available when, and how much of a certain plant it was appropriate to take, we may not necessarily all have those skills. Still, anything that makes us take notice of the plants and animals around us, and helps us to recognise and respect them is surely a step in the right direction.

Some foragers say that bittercress can be used a salad ingredient or a pot herb but, as I mentioned in my original post, it should be gathered from an unpolluted source. Plus, the leaves are so tiny that I can’t help wondering if it’s worth all the effort. If you are forever making bittercress pesto, do let me know! I was very happy to find this poem from the Incredible Edibles Todmorden site, which makes me think that maybe there is more to bittercress as a food ingredient than I figured. For those of you who don’t know about Incredible Edibles, it is a wonderful project in Yorkshire, which started with the idea of using public space in the town to grow fruit and vegetables for everyone to use. The naysayers were convinced that a few folk would do all the growing, and a few lazy folk would do all the eating, but instead it has been an extraordinarily successful project which has brought people together, provided fresh food for folk who would not otherwise have been able to afford it, and taught a whole range of gardening and cooking courses. It is positively heartwarming. Here is a link to the project site, and here is the poem about bittercress by Judy Kendall:

seeds like a weed

tastes nearly like watercress, like rocket

nutty peppery bittercress

And finally, a poem. This is not directly about bittercress, but it sums up how I feel about ‘weeds’,their stoicism and their secret power. For ‘God’ I would put ‘hope’ or ‘nature’ or ‘spirit’, but maybe, in the best of all worlds, they all come to the same thing.

Weeds by Philip Pulfrey

I learn more about God

From weeds than from roses;

Resilience springing

Through the smallest chink of hope

In the absolute of concrete.

Small seeds secreted

Under man’s designings;

Roads and city plans,

The humourless utopias

Of arid dreams.

It seems God smiles:

A head of gold

So delicate yet strength enough

To bring temples to their knees In time.

What is left of Greece Is the work of weeds:

A humble persistence

Of unobserved beauty

The force of life enduring

The follies of men.

 

 

 

 

 

A Bit of a Palaver in the Pond

Dear Readers, in this past few weeks my boiler broke, the washing machine gave up, and the pond….well, the pond has been refusing to fill up for several months, but I have been trying to pretend that it’s just because we’ve had a hot summer, not much rain etc etc. However, a few weeks ago even I had to admit that something was wrong. A lovely young woman from Women With Waders came out for a look and shook her head sadly.

‘Have you, by any chance, been visited by a heron?’ she inquired.

And indeed I have, as you might remember.

‘Oh dear’, she says. ‘We find that they often stab right through the lining’.

That’s the trouble with a wildlife pond. The wildlife is, shall we say, wild.

Anyhow, on a cold crisp day last week the Women With Waders team turned up, armed with hoses and wheelbarrows and, most importantly, a pump and some shovels.

First step was to empty the pond water into a massive tank so that, although we’d have to top up with tap water, we at least had some of the original stuff. As the water level went down, the level of sludge became apparent. It went onto the garden, where it will weather down into some nice fertilizer over time. Fortunately, it hadn’t yet become anaerobic, because at that stage it absolutely stinks.

And as the water level went down, there they were – 5 or 6 clean stabs right through the lining. It was the heron what did it, clearly. But not just the heron. There were some tiny indentations in the liner: the larvae of caddis flies, who make a casing for themselves out of little bits of twig and stones, are fond of gnawing at the rubber, and can go right through it given enough time. We’ve patched up all the damage, but let’s see how it goes. I see a new liner in my future in a few years.

And then there were the frogs. They were unhappy at being moved, but it wasn’t for long. In the end, we counted 55 big frogs and one teeny tiny little one.

Tiny frog

A wide array of unhappy frogs

It’s not until you see a lot of frogs together that you realise how varied they are, in colour and in size. This lot vary through darkest green, olive, russet and golden. I am relieved to see that they survived the depredations of the heron, because it seemed to me that he had eaten the lot.

The plants were cut back and repotted, and we decided that the bulrushes had been a mistake, what with them taking over the pond and all, so we’ve upped the irises instead. It all looks very neat and tidy.

And I even have a geum!

The frogs were popped back into their new, cleaned up home. They sat around for a minute and then disappeared back to the bottom of the pond. It all looks a bit bare at the moment, so I might have to buy a few pondside plants to give the mating frogs a bit of cover. But it does feel as if things are gradually coming under control again – my boiler is fixed, the washing machine is chugging away downstairs, and soon, the frogs will be singing. Spring is on the way. Now, if I can just get through next week’s audit in one piece, I shall be a happy woman.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Japanese Cedar

Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica var Elegans)

Dear Readers, I spotted this plant in East Finchley Cemetery a couple of weeks ago, and, in the words of the inestimable Kylie Minogue, I just can’t get it out of my head. There was something about the colouration, the feathery foliage and the sheer presence of the shrub that intrigued me. I know that it’s relatively rare in this country, and so some of  you will not have seen it before, but I think that, as a specimen plant, it deserves a bit more attention.

Japanese cedar is a member of the Cypress family, and is related to the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) though you wouldn’t know it from the smaller cultivar shown above. As the name suggests, the plant is endemic to Japan, where it is known as ‘sugi’. At one extreme, the tree can grow to 230 feet tall, with a trunk measuring 13 feet in diameter but at the other end of the height scale, Japanese cedar is often used as a bonsai. Somewhere in the middle, the variety Elegans pictured above could result in a tree about 30 feet tall.

Photo One by By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1040911

The Japanese Cedar path to the Togakushi shrine (Photo One)

Photo Two by By Montrealais - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4358849

Japanese cedar as a bonsai (Photo Two)

Japanese cedar is the national tree of Japan, and there are many stately avenues of the plant, including the Cedar Avenue of Nikko. This was planted by a feudal lord who could not afford to donate the usual stone lantern to the shrine of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who died in 1616, and so he offered to plant an avenue of Japanese cedar instead, to protect the visiting pilgrims from the heat of the sun. The result was the longest tree-lined avenue in the world, at some 22 miles long. The project was started in 1625 and it is estimated that over 200,000 trees were planted.

Photo Three from http://www.travel-around-japan.com/k36-05-cedar-avenue.html

The Cedar Avenue at Nikko (Photo Three)

Japanese cedars can live for a very long time: there is one on Yakushima island in Japan which is somewhere between 2000 and 7200 years old. In his book ‘Remarkable Trees of the World’, Thomas Pakenham described the tree, known as the Jomon Sugi, as

“a grim titan of a tree, rising from the spongy ground more like rock than timber, his vast muscular arms extended above the tangle of young cedars and camphor trees”.

Fortunately, it’s a five-hour trek to get to see the tree, and then a platform has been raised to prevent people from getting within 49 feet of this venerable giant. This didn’t stop vandals from ripping a 4 inch square of bark from the plant in 2005, sadly. What a shame that a branch didn’t ‘accidentally’ thump them on their ignorant heads.

Photo Four by By Σ64 - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18761874

The magnificent Jomon Sugi (Photo Four)

Now, to return to ‘our’ Japanese cedar for a moment. That deliciously feathery foliage is a result of an anomaly that has been specially bred into the cultivar Elegans. Normally, this kind of foliage changes when the plant is about a year old, and becomes something closer to a ‘typical’ conifer. Elegans retains its juvenile foliage for the whole of its life.

Photo Five by By MPF at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16805061

Left: shoot with mature leaves and cone. Middle: mature shoot. Right: juvenile shoot (Photo Five)

Japanese cedar var Elegans with its juvenile foliage

I find it interesting that humans often select for juvenile characteristics in the animals that we surround ourselves with: the domesticated dog, for example, is said to demonstrate neoteny, because it retains many puppy-like characteristics into adulthood.  You only have to look at the ‘cute’ features on toys and Disney cartoons to realise that we often prefer the big eyes, huge heads and long limbs of baby creatures to the less endearing hairiness and muscles of the adult. I wonder if this sometimes also extends to plants? Certainly in the case of Japanese cedar we appear to have chosen to freeze the development of the shrub at an early stage, and you could argue that some examples of miniaturisation in plants are doing the same thing. I shall have a ponder. Generally juveniles are easier to manage than adults (though any parent of teenagers may beg to differ).

Japanese cedar has been extensively used for its fragrant, light-weight timber. It is the only wood used in the Japanese craft of magewappa, which uses steam to bend the wood into the beautiful containers shown below. Only trees over one hundred years old are suitable, and there can be no knots or discolouration in the timber. The woodworkers of Akita prefecture in Japan have long been the practitioners of the craft, and manage the forests to ensure that there is a suitable supply of the timber.

Photo Six By sota - 我が家の曲げわっぱ達, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37409041

Magewappa containers (Photo Six)

The relationship between human beings and Japanese cedar is not one of unalloyed tranquillity however. Together with the hinoki , the tree is a major cause of hay-fever in Japan, which is thought to affect up 25% of the population, with those in cities such as Tokyo suffering even higher rates. There was massive deforestation to provide timber during the Second World War, which led to landslides, soil erosion and other deleterious effects, so in the 1960’s there was a major replanting. However, it became cheaper to import foreign timber and so the native forests were left unmolested and uncut. At thirty years, they began to produce pollen. This, coupled with the pollution in cities (which seems to somehow prime people’s immune systems for hay fever) has led to unprecedented levels of the condition. I love that, in Japanese, one word for hayfever is kafunsho, which sounds to me exactly like a sneeze.

The problem is not to be underestimated, however: it affects some people so badly that they resort to laser treatment to ‘turn off’ some of the nerve endings in their noses. The hayfever drug market in Japan is booming, and some people even take ‘hayfever holidays’ to the low-pollen areas of Hokkaido and Okinawa. The government is trying to move towards growing varieties of Sugi which produce less pollen but as more timber is imported than grown in Japan, so the number of people skilled in forestry in the country has dropped dramatically. I  have personally never suffered from hay fever, but have known lots of people who have, and I know how miserable it can be. It will be interesting to see how Japan rises to the challenge.

Photo Seven by By ふうけ - ふうけ's file, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=546227

Japanese cedar ‘cones’, full of allergy-inducing pollen (Photo Seven)

And so, to some poetry. Who would have thought that some authors would have turned to the subject of hay fever for inspiration? But Shuko Hanayama (not herself a hayfever sufferer) has written several poems on the subject. I suspect that they were more resonant in the original Japanese but still, you get the idea.

People wearing dazzling white masks

 Day after day

Shedding tears due to pollen in spring 

Making me feel the pathos of things 

As they show runny noses”.

And:

“The number of miniscule pollen granules

from just one cedar tree

is as astronomical as the number of stars

in spiral galaxies”

And finally:

I see clouds of pollen from a cedar mountain drifting

as if they were plumes of smoke

from a forest fire”.

But, in writing about hayfever and Japanese cedar, Shuko Hanayama is in good company, as in 2017, Emperor Akihito composed a poem celebrating the pollen-less Japanese cedar saplings that he was planting. As he was in his eighties at the time, I wonder how much thoughts of his legacy were in his mind? Trees are so often planted as a leap of faith in the future. I hope that the disturbed balance of trees and people will come back into harmony soon.

The 68th National Arbor Day Festival
Tateyama-sugi
Non-pollen Japanese cedar
Here have I planted
Hoping no one will suffer
From pollen any longer.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1040911

Photo Two by By Montrealais – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4358849

Photo Three from http://www.travel-around-japan.com/k36-05-cedar-avenue.html

Photo Four by By Σ64 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18761874

Photo Five by By MPF at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16805061

Photo Six By sota – 我が家の曲げわっぱ達, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37409041

Photo Seven by By ふうけ – ふうけ’s file, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=546227

Bugwoman at 60

Swamp cypress at the Cleary Garden in the City of London. My favourite tree (as it’s my birthday 🙂 )

Dear Readers, on Monday I was 60 years old. Even typing those words makes me feel a bit strange, because last time I looked I was 39. Where have the past twenty years gone? My Mum used to say that, inside, she was still a fresh-faced girl of 25, hurrying off to work. Maybe we are just like Russian dolls, with all our previous selves buried but still present.

On Monday morning, at about 5 a.m., I awoke with a start. It was as if someone had bellowed into my ear. “What have you achieved?” it shouted. Well, I don’t know what I’ve achieved exactly, but here, in no particular order, are some things that I’ve learned over the past six decades.

Dundee Cyrenians, where I worked as a night shelter worker.

Firstly, my time in the night shelter at Dundee taught me that it is possible for anyone to slip through the net and into poverty, addiction and homelessness. One of the men  I knew had lost his dear wife, drowned in a lake in Scotland, and he had never been able to settle since. Some of the younger men had been turfed out of the care system when they reached 18, and were ill-equipped to deal with life outside an institution. Some men had been in the army, and were addicted to the adrenaline-buzz of being on active service. Others had aged out of the services, and their drinking, formerly under some sort of control, had become pathological. Some suffered from (lack of) Care in the Community. Wullie and Bobbie were both in their seventies but looked much older. One walked with two sticks, the other tottered along with arthritis in his feet. Both had dementia. Both were incontinent. Both were alcoholics. No care home would take them, so they slept in the shelter, when they weren’t in the police cells.

Of course, now I think about my own dad. If he hadn’t had the resources for a care home, and someone to look after his interests, where would he have ended up?

I am sure that those men that I drank tea with and  laughed with at the shelter are now dead, but I remember them  vividly. You can tell a lot about a society by who is excluded and these people were invisible then, as their counterparts are largely invisible now. The net is fragile, and often breaks, and there is no limit to how far people can fall if there is no one to catch them. So the shelter taught me to be aware that what I had was as much a result of luck as anything else: luck in my parents, in my financial situation, in the resources that were there to support me when things went wrong. It wasn’t that I was any better than the guys in the shelter. I had simply been luckier.

A young vixen in St Pancras and Islington cemetery. My favourite British wild mammal.

And then, in my thirties, I became immobilised with depression and anxiety. It crept up on me slowly, and then pounced. Everything slowed down, until it was taking me two hours to get up in the morning. The only emotions I knew were terror and despair. I was doing a very demanding job for a national drug and alcohol charity, and was managing an IT implementation, and I knew that I was failing. People would ring me up, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying – it was if they were speaking in a different language. It took me nearly six months to get back to work, but it was the most important experience of my life, because I learned that I was not invincible. And I learned that the people around me at work and at home were more than willing to help me, if I would only let them. I didn’t have to do everything on my own, and I needed to drop the perfectionism. Perfectionism is just a misplaced and ultimately flawed attempt to control the uncontrollable, a kind of strange grandiosity that does nothing but hurt the person who suffers from it. Sometimes, good enough really is good enough.

Fledgling long-tailed tits. Possibly my favourite British bird (though there is lots of competition)

In my forties, I started to write, tentatively at first, and then obsessively. Mum was always such a cheerleader for my writing – when I was clearing out the bungalow after she died, I found everything I’d ever written lovingly tucked away in a file tied up with a yellow ribbon. She wanted me to express myself through my writing, just as she had through her paintings. I still have her last sketchbook, full of watercolour sketches of cats that she’d copied from a calendar. The creative spark was so strong in her, and I know that I have it too. Writing brings me such joy, and I am learning to prioritise it, largely through the blog, but in other ways too. Because something else that I’ve learned is that, when we die, all our creative projects go with us, all those paintings unpainted, those poems unwritten. Our creativity is not only the way that we express ourselves, but the way that we reach out and connect with others. We owe it to everyone to not be shy about these things.

My mum. One of my favourite humans, then, now and for always

In my fifties, I learned about love. It isn’t, as I had previously thought, about what you feel, though it’s a wonderful emotion. Love is about what you do, especially when you aren’t feeling loving. It’s about what you do when your head aches, and your back is breaking, and your mother has fallen out of bed again. It’s about mopping up vomit and blood, and making a cup of tea, and re-making the bed for the third time in six hours. It’s about fighting down the terror when your dad announces that the bungalow that he’s been living in for the past fifteen years is somewhere that he’s never been before. It’s sitting by your mother’s bedside and hearing her breathe, and then hearing her stop. It’s about washing and dressing your dead mother in her favourite clothes and opening the window so that her spirit can finally fly free. And it’s about acknowledging that you have lost something that you will never find again, and carrying on anyway, because it’s what she would have wanted.

Dad aka Captain Tom. Another of my favourite humans.

So here I am, at sixty, squinting into the future and wondering what the next years will hold. One thing I do know is that Mum and Dad will always be a part of the life that I build, because, after all, they built me. And it seems to me that there’s much to be said for making as many connections, human, animal and plant, as possible. The most important thing that I’ve learned is that we all part of something much bigger, and that none of us can make it on our own. I am so grateful for my larger community, for the support, advice and care that I’ve been given for my first sixty years. I hope I can give some of it back in the years that remain.

Another handsome fox. Just because….