Monthly Archives: November 2017

Bugwoman on Location – Cake-Making and Bird Spotting in Milborne St Andrew.

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Dear Readers, it has been something of an exciting week for Mum and Dad. On Sunday, they were walking up the steps to their front door (which have two very sturdy handrails) when it appears that one of them slipped, and the other one tried to save them (the story varies somewhat according to who you talk to). The end result was that they both ended up laying in the front garden, unable to get up. Fortunately Dad had his mobile in his pocket, and was able to ring a) an ambulance and b) one of their neighbours/carers who lives just down the road. Dad had hit his head, and Mum had a bad pain in her hip, but Dad managed to get himself up with some help. Mum, however, was stranded in the garden, because no one wanted her to get up if she’d potentially fractured something. The lovely neighbour wrapped Mum up in blankets and made her as comfortable as possible.

Two and a half hours and several calls to the ambulance service later, an ambulance arrived from Swanage (some distance away), and took Mum and Dad to the hospital for observation. A few hours, an X-Ray and a CT scan later, they were released and got home for a well-earned cup of tea, and a rest.

So it was no surprise that when it came to making this year’s Christmas cake, Mum wanted to supervise rather than stand up and actually make it.

‘And then you’ll know the recipe’, she said, ‘And it can pass on down to you’.

And so I creamed the sugar and butter, taking Mum’s advice and using a fork (‘Much quicker’). I added the eggs and the flour a bit at a time, taking the mixture in for Mum’s approval (‘Add a bit of milk, that looks too dense’). And then in with the fruit (‘Cut the cherries in half!’). And then, into the oven at 140 degrees (‘It’s supposed to take four hours, but it never does, so let’s check on it in two’).

Just enough time for Mum and Dad to have a nap in their reclining chairs, and for me to go out for a walk. The fog had finally lifted, and the sun streamed in through the window of the bungalow.

I felt a bit sad. All these years Mum had been making the Christmas cake, and she prides herself on being the one to bring it to the Christmas feast. It felt like a bit of a defeat, but at least we’d have a cake. I put on my walking shoes. A trot through the countryside always cheers me up.

I noticed a fine spider’s web on the doorway of their house as I went out.

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I headed down towards the church on the other side of the main road through Milborne St Andrew. I had done this walk back in September, before Mum and Dad’s party, and I wanted to see what difference six weeks had made.

The spiders’ webs were thick in the hedges, and so white that I had to check them  to make sure that they weren’t something leftover from Halloween.

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One of the houses is for sale, and very fine it is too. I loved the hanging basket holders, shaped like a wren and a robin. If anyone is looking for a house in Milborne I would definitely have a peep at this one.

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The horses were in the field, as usual.

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But there were some new inhabitants in the field opposite.

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They looked like so many clouds scattered about the hill.

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A rook called out from the top of a tree.

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Last time I did this walk, there was Himalayan Balsam and Comfrey in full flower. But today, the prevalent colour was green, from new nettles and goosegrass and feverfew.

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All the plants by the little river had been cut back, but the hedgerow was alive with wrens and flocks of tits.

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The cabbages on the field on the other side of the track were gone, but something new had already been planted.

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The last of the cabbages, missed in harvesting

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New crop. Of what, I have no idea. Maybe it will be clearer next time I visit.

At last, at the top of the field, I find a few things in flower. There is the odd dandelion and hogweed still blooming, but then there is the ivy. It’s the main nectar source at this time of year and I must have seen a dozen red admirals stopping for a quick sip and then hurrying on as I did this walk, not one of them hanging around long enough for a photo.

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A lonely dandelion

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The Sputnik-shaped flowers of ivy, with a lone honeybee

At the end of the track I stop, and look at my watch. Still an hour and a quarter before the cake needs to be looked at. I have three choices: right, diagonally right, and left. I decide to go up the hill to the right, and just see where it goes.

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The first thing I notice is how hot it is on this south-facing hedgerow – I’m sorry I’ve worn a scarf. And then I notice the sound of insects, a persistent drone every time I get close to the abundant ivy. I look around for bumblebees (and do see an enormous queen disappearing back into her hibernation burrow in the grass) but the noise is actually coming from some hoverflies.

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This is a drone fly (Eristalis pertinax), and its resemblance to a male bumblebee is supposed to give it some measure of protection from predators. It certainly sounds like a bee, although its big eyes and shiny body are much more fly-like. It loves farmland: the larva is known as a ‘long-tailed maggot’, and it thrives in nutrient-rich, polluted water, which can often be found where there is nitrate run-off. The larva breathes via a breathing tube, which is how it got its name. The adult lives on nectar and is one of the few hoverflies that can be found all year round. A tough creature, indeed.

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A drone fly on yarrow. In this photo you can just about make out the rust-coloured patches on the fly’s ‘hips’ which identify it as Eristalis pertinax

And then I look up.

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I have been waiting for years to actually get some photos of a buzzard (Buteo buteo). They are not rare in Dorset, but I still find them magnificent as they ride the thermals, searching for a rabbit to pounce on or a carcass to investigate. They are adaptable animals, able to hunt for themselves or scavenge, and they’ve even been seen marching over a ploughed field and pulling up worms.

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This one is an adult (you can tell from the mostly cream-coloured underwings). Last time I did this walk I got a distant view of three buzzards, an adult and two juveniles. Today, it was just this one bird, effortlessly soaring over the fields, changing direction with the merest twist of a tail. I wondered if it was enjoying its freedom now that the fledglings were off-hand. There certainly seemed to be a kind of joy in its flight.

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I realise that the track isn’t actually going to give me a short-cut home, and so I turn to retrace my steps. At the bottom, I decide to take a chance on another track, which seems to head back towards Milborne.

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And who is this handsome chap/pess, perched on the telephone wires?

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I wonder if it’s some kind of thrush, but it’s not until I get home that I am able to blow the photo up and identify this as my first ever meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis). How do I know? Well, the general look of the bird, but the clincher for me was the description of the bird as having a ‘long back claw’. Furthermore, the bird is described as ‘near-threatened’. I have a new spring in my step.

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I pass a derelict barn hidden  in the woods. How I would love to explore it! I bet it’s home to bats, or owls.

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The farm buildings and machinery are a playground for pied wagtails and sparrows.

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And a horse looks like he or she wants a chat. Or an apple.

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I know I’m nearly home when I see the stag on Stag House, a private dwelling that was once the house of a Mr Cole. The stag was a gift from Earl Drax, for ‘support during an election campaign’. The Drax estate is still a major land owner in these parts.

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As I reach Mum and Dad’s house, the smell of baking cake and mixed spice reminds me that I’ve had no lunch. I put my key in the door, and something catches my eye. The sunshine is low, shining through the spider’s web that I spotted on the way out. It is making rainbows.

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It reminds me that there is always more than one way to look at a situation. Looked at one way, this is a simple spider’s web. With a tilt of the head, it becomes magical, a scintillating interplay of colour and light.

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I am sad that Mum is no longer well enough to make the Christmas cake on her own, but how good it is to work together to create something. I am reminded that I don’t know everything, and that I could, if I chose, be a little less inclined to try to do everything for Mum and Dad, as if they were helpless. Instead, I could allow myself to receive the many things that they still have to offer – wisdom, experience, love.

The cake looks as if it will be delicious. We’ve pricked the top so that Mum and Dad can feed it with brandy over the next month, until I return in December, and then we’ll put on the marzipan and the icing. Together.

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Wednesday Weed – Mare’s Tail

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Mare’s tail (Equisetum arvensis)

Dear Readers, during a long-overdue walk through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery last week, I spotted some mare’s tail (Equisetum arvensis) growing on a single grave. I wonder what the conditions were to produce such a crop, but only on this one site? Truly, the ways of the plant kingdom are a mystery, although I note that mare’s tail was once said to be an indicator of underground water. The cemetery is studded with such streams, so perhaps this is an explanation

At first glance mare’s tail resembles grass or a rush, but closer inspection shows that it is actually a living fossil that has been in existence for over 100 million years. Its structure is unique to this family of plants, with a whirl of spikey ‘leaves’ around each stem. Back in the good old days of the Carboniferous period, mare’s tail could grow into a magnificent tree 30 metres tall, and the fossils from these plants can sometimes be found in coal deposits, for Equisetum species formed a large part of this fossil fuel. These days Equisetum plants are of more modest stature, but are still worth a close look, because nothing else like them still exists. The giant dragonflies that I mentioned in my post last week would have been very familiar with these plants.

Photo One by By Alex Lomas - Equisetum arvense, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44451880

The branching stems of mare’s tail (Photo One)

In German, mare’s tail is known as Zinkraut or tin-herb, because the stems contain silicate, absorbed from the soil in a way that is very unusual in plants. Mare’s tail is useful as an abrasive and cleaning-agent for metal, especially tin, and another English name is scouring-rush. A member of the Equisetum family is used in Japan in the last stage of woodworking, producing a finer finish than any sandpaper.

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron - Self shot by mobile phone, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2935195

In this micoscopic view of an Equisetum, the white dots are the silica nodules that produce the abrasive effect (Photo Two)

This is one of those plants that looks very different as the seasons pass, and this is because it produces two different kinds of growth. In spring, the fertile shoots look more like fungi than plants: in fact although I’m familiar with the summer foliage of mare’s tail, I was completely flummoxed by the buds when I visited Canada last year. These are what enable the plant to reproduce, but don’t photosynthesise.

Photo Three by By F. Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Spring mare’s tail buds (Photo Three)

As the year goes on, the plant develops photosynthetic foliage, both to survive and to create the conditions for reproduction during the following spring. Both kinds of shoot come from a complicated network of rhizomes under the soil.

Photo Four by By MPF (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Lush summer mare’s tail foliage (Photo Four)

But by autumn, all that’s left are a few of the main whorls of stems.

The plant proved to be an inspiration to the father of logarithms, John Napier. I remember using my logarithmic tables for O level Maths way back in 1976, but these days I imagine it’s all done with computers, and logarithms have gone the way of the slide rule. As you will probably remember, a logarithmic scale is a nonlinear way of describing something which has a very wide range of values. For example, the Richter Scale for measuring earthquakes is a logarithmic scale: an earthquake with a value on the Richter Scale of 6 is ten times stronger than one with a value of 5.

Napier noticed the way that the nodes on the mare’s tail got closer together as they approached the tip of the plant. That’s difficult to see on the older plants in my photos, but have a look at these fresh young greater horsetails, and you’ll see what caught his eye. I love the way that patterns in nature influence both scientists and artists.

Photo Five by By Rror (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Greater horsetail – note how the black lines (the nodes) are much further apart at the bottom of the plant than at the top (Photo Five)

Incidentally, Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) reports that in some places, mare’s tail is known as ‘Lego Plant’ because it comes apart at the nodes, and can be put back together again. It can also be used as a fungicide – mare’s tail boiled in water has been used with some success against rose mildew.

In herbal medicine only the photosynthetic summer parts of the plant are used, usually as an astringent or for the treatment of nosebleed.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that mare’s tail is sometimes considered to be a most pernicious weed. The RHS describe it as a plant that is ‘ is an invasive, deep-rooted perennial weed that will spread quickly to form a dense carpet of foliage, crowding out less vigorous plants in beds and borders’. Those rhizomes have got a lot to answer for! The RHS notes that simply pulling the plant up will just make things worse, as the plant can regenerate from the tiniest bits of root, (although if you are going to attempt this, the best time is when the fertile shoots appear in April) and suggests a range of chemical options. It also suggests battering the plant with a rake before applying the weedkiller, which could be therapeutic if nothing else. I have rather a ‘live and let live’ attitude to perennial weeds in my garden, which involves pulling them up or cutting them back if they get too enthusiastic, but tolerating them in small numbers. Life is too short for all-out war, surely.

I have been unable to find any works by the Old Masters (or indeed Old Mistresses) of mare’s tail, but here is an illustration of the Cretaceous period, featuring a most splendid equisetum on the right hand side, plus various assorted reptiles sunning themselves on the bank. I note some Gingko trees as well, which could well be another Wednesday ‘weed’ at some point in the future. You’ll note that my definition of ‘weed’ is becoming more and more expansive as I tick off the actual ‘weeds’ in my half-mile territory. Well, after almost four years I have already featured nearly 200 of the little darlings.

Evolution in the past by Knipe (Public Domain)

And for the poem? I have a humdinger this week by Anne Stevenson, who traces the path from mare’s tail through coal to the mining communities that extracted it and are now gone. As you know, I don’t cut and paste poems from living writers, because this is how they earn their crust. But please do click through here to read the poem, which is full of wonders. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Alex Lomas – Equisetum arvense, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44451880

Photo Two by By Namazu-tron – Self shot by mobile phone, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2935195

Photo Three by By F. Lamiot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by By MPF (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five by By Rror (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons