Thoughts on Oaks

Dear Readers, ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ by Archie Miles  was apparently made into a television series in 2006 and I can see why – it’s full to bursting with interesting facts about our native trees. I’m sorry I missed the programmes, but there’s something rather nice about reading at your own pace without being overwhelmed by images or (increasingly) overblown background music. There is a new TV series featuring David Attenborough called ‘The Mating Game’, where the music is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to concentrate. How I hate it when the music is designed to tell you what to feel – I blame Steven Spielberg meself.

But I digress, as usual.

I will be reading this book for a while, so today here are a few facts about that most English of trees, the Oak. Except that there are two species, the Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea). Now, one of these species has short stems on the leaves and long stems on the acorns, and the other species has long stems on the leaves and short stems on the acorns. And do you think I can remember which is which? Well, now I will, because a peduncle is a long stem, and sessile comes from the Latin sessilis, meaning ‘low of sitting’, which is not too far from ‘no stem’ in my mind. All I need to remember now is that both terms relate to the acorns and I’ll be in business for once.

Then, Miles discusses Lammas growth, which I had never heard of. Apparently, oaks often throw a new flush of growth around 1st August (Lammas Day), to replace the leaves that were lost to insect infestations earlier in the year. As Miles puts it:

During this time the tree will bear two distinct sets of leaves, the older foliage having matured to a dark green, contrasting with the bright green (or in some cases slightly reddish) colour of the new.”

Has anyone else noticed this? Something to look out for in years to come, I think.

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Lammas growth on a Pedunculate Oak (Photo One)

Miles also talks about ‘stag-headed oaks’, where the canopy on older trees has receded, leaving dead branches sticking out through the live growth. I’ve always thought of this as a bad sign, but Miles points out that it’s a way for the tree to preserve its strength – a smaller canopy needs a much smaller root system, so it’s less ‘expensive’ for the tree to maintain. I suspect that it also reduces the tree’s exposure to the extremes of wind and weather that younger trees are maybe more able to resist.

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Stag-headed Oak in Croxton Park (Photo Two)

In his section on ‘The Useful Oak’, Miles talks about the role of the oak in shipbuilding. Until the second half of the nineteenth century when iron hulls were introduced, wood and especially oak was the principle material used for the creation of ships. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, took the timber of 6000 trees, 90% of which was oak, with elm for the keel and fir, pine and spruce for the masts and yards. The ship cost £63,176 to build, the equivalent of building an aircraft carrier today.

Interestingly, though, Miles points out that the most valuable commodity ever extracted from oakwoods was not the timber, but the bark. Huge quantities were used in the tanning industry from 1780 to the mid nineteenth century, with coppiced oakwoods being managed on rotation to satisfy the demand for the commodity. Miles describes the process:

“In the spring, when the sap was rising, great gangs of men and women would head into the woods, the men to cut and carry, the women to strip the bark with distinctive spoon-bladed knives called barking irons or peeling irons”.

There is a fascinating article here about the Dartmoor ‘rippers’, the people who stripped the bark in the oakwoods of the area. This was a massive industry: an average tannery could get through a ton of bark in a week. Who knew? Not me, for sure.

And finally, Miles considers the myths and legends that surround the oak tree. Oaks that bore mistletoe were sacred to the Druids, and the mistletoe retained its mystical healing powers provided it was never dropped – its magic came from its never having touched the ground. Felling a mistletoe oak was considered a terrible deed, one that would bring disaster to all those involved. It’s a great shame that we haven’t retained such a sense of the importance of trees.

Many churches contain carvings of oak leaves and acorns, and as with so many things, these symbols provide a link to the pagan past. Acorns were thought to provide protection against lightning strikes, which is why you’ll often find them carved on stair banisters or as toggles for pulling blinds. People used to carry acorns in their pockets, not just to prevent themselves from being electrified unexpectedly but also because the acorn was thought to confer good health and fertility. It’s probably no wonder that the Green Man, another pagan figure who sometimes crops up as a sculpture in old churches, is often crowned with oak leaves.

Photo Three from https://curiousrambler.com/the-mysterious-green-men-in-medieval-churches/

Green man in Westminster Abbey (Photo Three)

And so I learned a lot about oaks from this wonderful book. The next chapter is on Ash, so let’s see what comes out of my study of that fine tree.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Photo Three from https://curiousrambler.com/the-mysterious-green-men-in-medieval-churches/

A Charm Blown in by the Wind

Dear Readers, the garden was brightened up by the arrival of a  charm of goldfinches today, after heavy rain and blustery winds last night. I have noticed a few of these pretty birds on the feeders during the past few weeks, but the flocks seem to be getting bigger. However, a quick visit to the British Trust for Ornithology website shows that goldfinches are generally migrating in the opposite direction in the autumn: ringed birds have been found in Morocco, Malta and Ceuta. A number have been recovered migrating over the narrow straits between Spain and Morocco over the Bay of Biscay, I’ve always wanted to watch the migrations here – in addition to the small birds, thousands of birds of prey ‘queue up’ waiting for favourable winds to carry them southwards. Most land birds will resist migrating over water as much as they possibly can. Those that do often end up huddled on the decks of cruise ships or perching on the railings of lighthouses to try to regain their strength. These frail little creatures sometimes fly the most extraordinary distances in very inclement weather, not to mention the hunting of songbirds that still goes on in some places. I’m glad that these goldfinches are relatively safe in the garden.

I always thought that goldfinches sometimes arrived in the UK from Scandinavia but it seems that I was wrong, though some birds actually migrate north: goldfinches have been found in the UK that originated in the Netherlands, Germany and France.

However, increasingly goldfinches are staying put: the populations of the bird have been increasingly steadily in all parts of the UK, partly as a result of all those lovely people spending their children’s inheritance on birdfood and partly due to the unfortunate catastrophic drop in greenfinch numbers. There is a school of thought that suggests that, although everyone rushed out and bought nyjer seed for their goldfinches, the birds much prefer sunflower seeds. Greenfinches are much more dominant at the bird feeders, however, and would bully the goldfinches because they prefer sunflower seeds, too. However, once the number of greenfinches had plummeted due to a disease called trichomonosis, the goldfinches were able to feed on what they preferred in peace. However, I did spot this little guy in the cemetery in April, so maybe the greenfinches are on their way back.

Greenfinch

Wednesday Weed – Common Figwort

© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Flowers of Common Figwort (Scrophularia nodosa) (Photo One – credit below)

Dear Readers, what a quiet and inoffensive plant Figwort is! I have it growing in my pond, but I first spotted it at East Finchley Station, growing alongside a drainage ditch where there was also lots of horsetail. It certainly attracts the bees, even when not in full bloom – the flowers seem perfectly bumblebee adapted.

Herbalists thought that the plants  resembled a human throat, and so they were used medicinally for tonsillitis and all kinds of ailments related to this part of the body. In particular the plant was used to treat scrofula, a form of tuberculosis that led to enlargement of the neck (hence the plant’s genus name). Long term readers might remember the Doctrine of Signatures, a belief that a plant would indicate what it was useful for by its shape, colour or scent, as if a ‘clue’ had been planted by God when the Garden of Eden was created.

Figwort is in the same family as the Buddleia and Great Mullein (the Scrophulariaceae), though you’d be hard put to notice any obvious similarities. If we’re looking at just the figworts there are over 200 species spread across the Northern Hemisphere, and telling them apart can be somewhat challenging. Are the plants in my pond Common Figwort or Water Figwort (Scrofularia auriculata) for example? I hope the latter, because otherwise I’ve been drenching my plants rather more than they’d like.

Rose chafer on young common/water figwort

Figworts are eaten by the caterpillars of the Mullein moth, and I would be very delighted to see one.

Photo Two by By Bobr267 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61678532

Caterpillar of the Mullein Moth (Curcullia verbasci) (Photo Two)

The caterpillars of the Six-striped Rustic moth (Xestia sexstrigata) also feed on figworts. The adult is subtly beautiful.

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Six-striped Rustic (Photo Three)

The jury is out concerning the plant’s edibility by humans, however. It’s said to have a foetid smell (I haven’t noticed any such problems with my plants), but in addition to the medicinal uses mentioned above, the plant has been used as an antihelmentic, which means that it’s poisonous to intestinal worms at the very least. In Mrs Grieves ‘A Modern Herbal’, she mentions that the root was used to feed the populace during  the 13 month Siege of Rochelle, but that the taste is so appalling that it would only ever be considered a famine food.

Mrs Grieve also mentions that Common Figwort was considered a lucky herb in both Ireland and Wales (where it was known as Deilen Ddu (‘good leaf’). The Medieval herbalist Gerard says that people used to wear the plant around their necks to keep themselves in good health. Furthermore, the plant was a treatment for rabies (hydrophobia), the patient being required to take:

every morning while fasting a slice of bread and butter on which the powdered knots of the roots had been spread and eating it up with two tumblers of fresh spring water. Then let the patient be well clad in woollen garments and made to take a long, fast walk until in a profuse perspiration, the treatment being continued for seven days.’

And finally, a poem. This is by John Lindley, who was the poet laureate for Cheshire in 2004, and it’s inspired by the Sandstone Ridge in that county. It is about a very specific place, but it is so full of hope that I thought I’d share today. We could all do with some inspiration, I’m sure.

Stone by Stepping Stone (John Lindley)

From ‘landfill’ to ‘lapwing’
requires more than a dip in the alphabet,
more than just a leap of faith
yet it begins
and it begins not letter by letter
but hedge by fattening hedge.

It begins as small as a bird table
and grows as wide as a field, as long as a ridge.
It begins amongst foxgloves and figwort,
in a morning of meadowsweet
and though no wild boar witness it
it is noted by hairstreak and peregrine,
by badger and owl.

It begins stone by stepping stone
and who would have thought such stones
could be engineered and sown?
Who would have thought
they could be dreamt, mapped and moulded
into more than fancy, more than symbol?

Still, it begins. From Frodsham to Bulkeley Hill.
From corridor to green corridor
a land found and refashioned
reclaims itself and swells until each corridor
is no longer measured by the wing span of a hawk
but by the circumference of its flight.

Born of a glacial shift –
a sandstone ridge,
red raw with promise,
skirts hill fort and castle.
A raven hunches like age
against the gathering mist.

Put an ear to the earth,
hear a seed splitting with new life.
Cast an eye to the hills,
see elms able again to stretch and touch fingers.
Woodland and heathland –
all are a heartland
and it is a heart that beats from Beacon Hill
to Bickerton and beyond.

It is a heart thought still,
jumpstarted by other hearts:
by landlord and farmer,
by owner and tenant,
by craftsman and labourer,
by the you and me we call a community.

It is a heart that drums
in the small frame of newt,
the slick casing of otter,
the sensual hide of deer
and grows louder,
like the echo of those lost skylarks
who went with the grassland
but now sing of recovery, sing of return.

Photo Credits

Photo One © Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Two by By Bobr267 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61678532

Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Open University – Ice Cubes and Igneous Rocks

Dear Readers, as I mentioned last week I have just started my second year at the Open University, and for this module we actually get to do some science stuff. This week we are looking at different kinds of rocks, and, believe it or not, you can simulate what happens when volcanoes throw out lava and igneous rocks are created simply by looking at the effects of cooling on different solutions.

Another aspect of our work this year has been that we will be collaborating with one another on our results, so we all got different experiments to do. I fear that I might have drawn the short straw this time, because I had different solutions of bicarbonate of soda to work with, and I fear that they don’t do anything interesting at the temperature of a household freezer. Alas, if only I’d had the kind of freezer that we used to have when I was a student, with an icebox – these have an average temperature of -12 degrees Centigrade, and I suspect that this would have produced some more interesting results. My freezer runs at -18 degrees Centigrade and what I ended up with was three ‘ice’ cubes that looked identical, in spite of the different concentrations, plus one standard ice cube as a control.

The ‘ice’ cubes containing bicarbonate of soda were all interesting in one way, however. They had all gone white (the solutions were clear when they went in), and they were all extremely fragile, breaking into shards when I extracted them, so clearly something has happened. Alas, in the groups who used sugar and salt solutions, I imagine there might have been some crystals – when the molten rock is thrown out of a volcano it can cool to produce all sorts of effects, depending on the speed at which it cools. For example, two different samples of magma that cool at different rates can produce two very different rocks. Granite is normally the result of magma that has cooled slowly deep within the earth, allowing lots of different kinds of crystals to grow to a perceptible size. No wonder it’s so popular for kitchen work surfaces.

Photo One by By I, Friman, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2421115

Granite with lots of different mineral crystals that have developed as the magma cooled slowly (Photo One)

 

This is a sample with exactly the same mineral composition, but where the lava cooled so quickly that crystals didn’t have a chance to form – not surprisingly, this kind of rock is created where the magma is exposed suddenly to air or to water, lowering its temperature swiftly. Those who watched Game of Thrones might recognise this as obsidian, and it is completely clear, with no visible crystals at all.

Photo Two by By Ji-ElleIt feels nice and warmIt feels like a ________ - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15527635

Obsidian (Photo Two)

And so, in our experiment we wanted to see what would happen to our mineral solutions when they were cooled to a set temperature, just as would happen if some volcano shot out some magma (not likely in East Finchley but you can never tell!) Later, we will pool our results, and I’m sure that some people would have had more interesting results. Maybe I’ll cheekily have a go at one of the other experiments later on in the week just to see what happens. Until then, I’m off to find out about metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.

What I find extremely interesting, even at this early stage, is how the earth is continually recycling itself – rocks come to the surface, are eroded, deposited and in the fullness of time become other kinds of rocks. I never realised how fascinating geology was! So let me hear your geology stories if you have any – I feel as if I’m entering a whole new world, and am already excited about how rocks, and the things that come from them such as soil and sand, impact on the entire ecosystem.

Photo Credits

Photo One By I, Friman, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2421115

Photo Two by By Ji-ElleI Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15527635

At the British Museum

Dear Readers, I was at the Emperor Nero exhibition at the British Museum yesterday, and rather than overwhelm you with all the artifacts, I thought I’d just choose two that appealed to me. The exhibition tries very hard to point out that Nero wasn’t just the chap who ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, and shows many examples of Nero’s civic-mindedness, ability to cope with natural disasters and general sense of responsibility. However, there is no doubt that Nero was something of a show-off, and in particular he loved to perform in front of an audience, either playing a musical instrument or appearing in theatrical performances, particularly tragedies. So I loved this little ivory, showing a tragic actor peering out from behind his mask. This is just the kind of costume that Nero would have worn, right down to the snazzy platform shoes.

It really is the most exquisitely-carved piece, dating back to the First Century AD and found in Rome. The lighting in the exhibition is low, so it’s difficult to get all the details, but the actor is peering out from behind his mask. Sadly, I can imagine all the senators sitting watching Nero cavorting about with rictus grins on their faces, while they plan how to get rid of him. He was eventually ‘given the opportunity’ to commit suicide, and his cremation was arranged by his wet nurse, Claudia Ecloge,  and his first love, Claudia Acte, a freedwoman (the relationship was nixed by Nero’s mother Agrippina).

Here’s the second piece that caught my eye. This was recovered from a house in Pompeii, and depicts the earthquake of AD62 which occurred during Nero’s reign. Look at the way that the buildings are toppling and things are falling over! I like the anxious-looking farmer with his ox on the right, and on the left of the top photo the mounted rider on a statue appears to be on the verge of falling off.  And is that a dog hiding under the altar?

 

I love both these pieces because they make me feel closer to the people who actually lived in the Roman Empire, what with their gadding about to the theatre, and the sudden natural disasters that happened to them. Perhaps most of all, I love the sense of humour in the earthquake piece. Am I just projecting if I sense that whoever made it actually had fun in the process? It wouldn’t be true that the sculptors of the time couldn’t produce remarkably life-like sculpture if they wanted to, as the actor piece demonstrates. Let me know what you think, Readers.

The Nero exhibition finishes this Saturday (24th October), but it’s well worth catching if you have the time.

Sunday Quiz – Famous Animals

Whistlejacket, the Marquess of Rockingham’s race horse, as painted by George Stubbs (Public Domain)

Dear Readers, below we have some famous animals. Can you answer the questions below each photo? Let’s hope this is a little bit easier than the leaf shapes from last week 🙂

There are ten animals, and two questions to be answered on each one, giving a total mark out of twenty (though there are a couple of opportunities for extra marks as you’ll see :-))

Answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Friday 22nd October please. The answers will be posted on Saturday 23rd October. As usual, I will disappear all the answers that I see so that they don’t influence those who come afterwards, but if you are easily swayed by the brilliance of others, write your answers down old-school on a piece of paper first.

Onwards!

Photo One by By Stefan Schäfer, Lich - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19744828

1)

a) What’s the name of the horse (and for an extra point, what does the name mean?)

b) Who is the man who is trying to tame the horse?

2)

a) Who is this chimp?

b) What was special about her?

3)

a) What’s the name of this dog?

b) She was the first animal to do what?

4)

a) What’s the name of this magnificent beast, and what was he named after?

b) Who was his rider?

5)

a) What’s the name of this pigeon?

b) What did he do to deserve a Croix de Guerre medal for bravery?

6)

a) Who is this (and for an extra point, who was she named after?)

b) Why did she make the headlines in February 1997?

7)

a) Who and what is this?

b) Why did this bird make the headlines in 1965?

8)

a) Who is this rather startled horse, and who is his owner?

b) What is being proposed as the horse’s new career?

9)

 

a) What’s the name of this Irish Wolfhound?b) What was his reward for saving this child?

And last but not least…..

10)

a) This is Magawa. What species is he?

b) Why was he given a medal?

Sunday Quiz – Leaf Shapes – The Answers!

Dearest Readers, this was an absolute stinker, and I promise never to do it again. However, even so we had two great results: I awarded one mark for the correct leaf shape, and one mark for the correct plant. So, Claire got a very respectable 14 out of 20, but just pipping her to the post was FEARN with 16 out of 20.

Don’t blame me, by the way, blame the Royal Horticultural Society gardening school. Goodness knows how any one ever passes their exams 🙂

1)C) Elliptic (shaped like an ellipse) (leaf is twice as long as broad, with the broadest bit in the middle) Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

Photo Two by Mehmet Karatay, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

2) D) Lanceolate ( shaped like a spear head) – Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

3) E) Perfoliate (a leaf with a base that appears to be pierced by the stem) Spring Beauty/Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)

4) G) Linear ( long and narrow) Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)

Photo Five by No machine-readable author provided. Lorenzarius assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

5) A) Flabellate (resembling a fan) – Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Photo Six by Dcrjsr, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

6) B) Ovate (egg-like with the broader part at the base) – Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

Photo Seven by By Casliber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15212665

7)H) Falcate (sickle-shaped, like the beak of a falcon) Sickle Wattle (Acacia falcata)

Photo Eight by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1079274

8)F) Spathulate (spoon-shaped) – Water Oak (Quercus nigra)

Photo Nine by Emőke Dénes, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

9) L) Oval (similar to elliptical but ‘fatter’ – the width is more than half the length, widest in the middle) – Alder Buckthorn (Frangula alnus)

Photo Ten by Σ64, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

10) J) Obovate (shaped like an upside-down egg, with the broader part at the top) – Big-leaved Magnolia (Magnolia obvata)

Photo Eleven by Matt Lavin from https://www.flickr.com/photos/plant_diversity/6124894886

11) I) Oblanceolate (shaped like an upside-down spear head) – Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

Photo Credits

Photo Two by Mehmet Karatay, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by No machine-readable author provided. Lorenzarius assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six by Dcrjsr, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Seven by By Casliber – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15212665

Photo Nine by Emőke Dénes, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Ten by Σ64, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Eleven by Matt Lavin from https://www.flickr.com/photos/plant_diversity/6124894886

All other photos public domain or author’s own.

The War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Photo by Mark Hillary fromhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/markhillary/347877537

Dear Readers,  in his book ‘Where Poppies Blow’ (reviewed yesterday), John Lewis-Stempel tells the story of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), a most revolutionary response to the slaughter of the First World War, but led by a most surprising rebel. Sir Fabian Ware was a Tory who, at the age of forty-five, was too old to fight in the war, but instead became the commander of the Mobile Ambulance Unit of the Red Cross. Ware’s unit did more than transport the dead, though: it also searched for the graves of those who had been killed, largely at his urging.

The army had little time to deal with their dead, and fallen soldiers often ended up in hastily-dug, shallow graves, often dug by their comrades, with nothing but a cross whittled from branches and maybe a few scrawled words. Marking these graves with a proper wooden cross and a metal identification plate soon became the sole job of Ware’s unit, which was renamed the ‘Graves Registration Commission’.

However, this wasn’t enough for Ware, who had not only a vision of how the fallen should be commemorated, but the connections to make it a reality. In 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded, with Ware as vice-chair and Lord Derby as figurehead.

But it was how they decided to memorialise the dead that was truly radical. Get this.

The IWGC determined that all war graves should be uniform, because ‘private initiative’ would lead to the well-to-do erecting ‘costly monuments’ which would ‘contrast unkindly with those humbler ones which would be all the poorer folk could afford’. Some families, notably that of the former prime minister Gladstone, had already disinterred the bodies of relatives and repatriated them. Ware stopped the practice because it smacked of privilege. Soldiers were to be buried in the foreign fields where they fell’ (pg 311 ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel)

Ware insisted that the cemeteries and memorials were constructed of the finest available materials, and that they were designed by the greatest architects of the day, including Sir Edwin Lutyens. By 1927 the IWGC had overseen the construction of more than 500 permanent cemeteries, with over 400 headstones, and had also built memorials to the missing close to the sites of some of the fiercest World War One battles, such as Thiepval and the Ypres Salient (commemorated by the memorial at the Menin Gate). The Menin Gate memorial holds the names of 54,000 of the missing, but a further 34,000 who died at Ypres had to be commemorated on a separate monument at Tyne Cot, close to Passchendael in Belgium.

The Menin Gate memorial, photo by Johan Bakker

Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing (Photo by Gary Blakeley)

Right from the start, the War Graves cemeteries and memorials were thought to be gardens of remembrance rather than just ‘depositories for the deceased’. I always find the simplicity of the designs, the egalitarian nature of those rows of stones very moving: however hierarchical the army was, men and officers lay here together, as they did when they died. And there’s something about the lawns and the flowers that seems like a quintessential English garden of a certain era to me. They are certainly peaceful places, full of bird song and the buzzing of bees. I’m reminded of the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney, ‘God’s Garden’. I find this verse strangely moving, even as a non-Christian. After so much bloodshed and suffering, I can only hope that there is peace.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.

The War Graves in East Finchley Cemetery

 

Book Review – ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel

Dear Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book as much as I have this one. Lewis-Stempel ranges across everything from the way that the British love of nature inspired so many of the soldiers involved in World War I to the origins of the word ‘chat’ (of which more later) to the uses and abuses of animals , both wild and domesticated, during this conflict. I learned so many things that I didn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there’s something to make even the most ardent military historian wrinkle their forehead.

I started to read the book thinking that it would surely have been the officers from the shires and the soldiers from the villages who would be most enamoured of the fields and woods of home, but interestingly it seems that even Tommies from the cities felt a deep nostalgia for the countryside – Lewis-Stempel quotes many of them, and points out that the city dwellers of this generation often spent their holidays picking fruit or hops. There seems to have been a more or less universal longing for the fields of home which was wrapped up in the terrible home-sickness and trauma that many of these young men experienced. And when they were on the Western Front, the croaking of frogs from the shell-holes, the larks who ascended as soon as the guns fell silent, the song of a nightingale all assumed a kind of spiritual importance, a reminder of what was being fought for. It also seemed to jolt men out of their anxiety and trepidation, if just for a moment. Private Stephen Graham recalled:

I had been sent to a neighbouring headquarters with a message, and at noon I sat for a while beside a high hawthorn on a daisy-covered bank. The war ceased to exist; only beauty was infinitely high and broad above and infinitely deep within. Birds again sang in the heavens and in the heart after a long sad silence, as it seemed”

However, it wasn’t just the wild animals that gave solace during World War I, but the domesticated ones too. Cages of canaries were placed in ambulances, to lift the spirits of the wounded, although as these little birds were more susceptible to gas-poisoning than humans they often didn’t last for very long.  Stempel-Lewis has a whole chapter on the horses that were requisitioned for the war, and the relationships that were formed between them and the men who looked after them. Some men would risk their lives to be with their animals, as in the excerpt below:

I was riding when one of the troop’s horses was badly hit by MG (machine gun) fire. Horse and rider crashed down in front of me. The horse lay on its side and the trooper, unhurt, had rolled clear. Kicking one foot off the stirrups I ordered the trooper to mount behind me. Instead, he crawled towards his horse which raised its head and was looking at him. He reached the horse, gently lifted its head on to his knee, and stayed put. I again ordered him to mount and drew my pistol, saying I would shoot the animal. He said nothing, just looked up at me, then down to the horse and continued to stroke its head. From the look in the horse’s eyes, I think it knew it was the end, and I also think it understood that its master was trying to give it what comfort he could. I didn’t shoot. Bullets were still smacking around me, and the squadron was almost out of sight. I said something to the effect of ‘Well, it’s your funeral’ and trotted to regain my place. The trooper caught up with the squadron later; he had stayed with the horse until it died. By all laws of averages, he should have stopped one too.

But not all animals were as well-loved. The trenches were running with vermin, in particular rats, flies and body lice. The latter were known as ‘chats’, derived either from chattel (something carried about) or from the Hindi word ‘chatt’, meaning a parasite. Men would spend hours between battles picking the lice off of one another’s bodies, and this came to be known as ‘chatting’, something to remember next time you meet a neighbour for a ‘chat’.

Lewis-Stempel also describes how gardens were made in the grounds of abandoned houses, in prisoner of war camps and even in the trenches themselves, with spent Howitzer shells being used as flower pots and celery being grown in the dark spots at the very bottom. At the Ruhleben Interment Camp in Germany, the British prisoners asked for (and got) affiliation with the Royal Horticultural Society in England, and were able to hold their own fruit and produce shows. When the blockade of Germany started to really hit food availability, the prisoners dug out a vegetable garden which eventually grew 33,000 lettuces and 18,000 bunches of radishes. Lewis-Stempel remarks that ‘the diet inside the perimeter fence was in all respects superior to that outside it’. Seeds had been provided following an RHS appeal to British nurseries, and the seeds were forwarded inside Red Cross parcels. It seems that, whatever the circumstances, gardening was both a solace and a way of keeping body and soul together.

Perhaps the part of the book that gave me most pause, though, was Lewis-Stempel’s point that although the trenches and the destruction of the First World War were eventually largely healed by nature’s propensity to grow back (though you might want to be careful digging up a field on the Western Front even now – farmers regularly uncover live munitions), the country that was so beloved by those who fought was already in the process of despoliation that has continued to this day. 450,000 acres of woodland were destroyed to provide timber for the war effort. Ancient pastureland and water meadows were ploughed up to provide land for growing crops – by 1917, the U Boat campaign had reduced the country’s food stores to less than 6 weeks. After the war, the lack of manpower for agricultural labour led to increased mechanisation. The National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England were both formed after the war, on the basis that this ‘fair land’ was what the soldiers had been fighting for. And certainly, for many of those who had suffered during the First World War, there was a sense of gratitude towards nature. Here is a final quote, from Captain Carlos Paton Blacker, who wrote a memoir of his wartime experiences called ‘Have you Forgotten Yet?’

I became aware of a sense of awe and gratitude to the trees, to the forest, but above all to the rooks. The feeling of gratitude to the rooks has often come back since. Indeed it comes back every time I hear these birds contentedly calling to each other round their rookeries in spring. It comes back now as I type these lines“.

I highly recommend this book, as you might have guessed.

https://www.nhbs.com/where-poppies-blow-book

 

Open University Year 2

Dear Readers, it’s that time of year when thoughts turn to things academic, and this year’s Open University course looks like a doozy. We have one module per week, on subjects varying from plate tectonics to ecological interactions, from the quantum realm to DNA. This week, we are all getting our heads around picometres (which is ten to the power of minus twelve for those of you with a mathematical bent) and nanometres and giga-this and micro-that, plus orders of magnitude and scientific notation.

Next week we are freezing various solutions of bicarbonate of soda in our freezers and recording how long they take to freeze. My new tutor has invited us to take photos of the resultant ‘mush’, which I think bodes well for the sense of humour quotient for the course.

So, this is by way of saying that although I intend to keep blogging daily, my posts might be (a) more frivolous, (b) more varied and most importantly  (c) shorter. Bear with me, folks! This degree ain’t gonna earn itself.