Dear Readers, I felt some trepidation before this visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset. Dad has never really gotten over the chest infection that he had before Christmas, and he has been on a combination of antibiotics and steroids on and off ever since. He has had a CT scan for his chest and abdomen, because he has also been losing weight. He is due to have an endoscopy soon, but in one of those vicious circles that have become so familiar as Mum and Dad have aged, he needs to be able to breathe sufficiently to go through the ordeal of having a tube stuffed down his throat. In addition, Mum has been in a lot of pain with the arthritis in her knee, and has become increasingly concerned about her failing memory. I was worried about the pair of them, and so it felt even more essential than usual to go for a brief walk in the beautiful Dorset countryside, just to retain a bit of perspective and to recharge my batteries. It seems a little selfish I know, but without this I end up going down a rabbit hole of worry that doesn’t benefit anyone.
My walk this time was full of surprises. I was passed by a man travelling at some speed on a pink skateboard, not something I usually see on the roads of Dorset. He passed me again when I was taking some pictures at the little stream opposite the village hall, and came to an stylish halt, flipping the skateboard onto its end and then up into his hand.
‘See anything interesting? ‘ he asked. ‘ I saw a water vole here a few weeks ago’.
Well, a fellow nature enthusiast. Turns out that Henry did a lot of work surveying and doing conservation work on Dorset and Hampshire rivers. We shot the breeze on the subject of the importance of river water crowfoot, and he told me that he had also seen a little trout in the stream. I was very happy to have an unexpected nature conversation. I sometimes feel like the Only Naturalist in the Village, but this is far from true.
I walked on, up to the most beautiful thatched cottage with roses around the door. I see that I have neglected to take a photo of this rural idyll, but was very interested in the yellow weed growing in the gutter outside. This is fairly typical of me, as you know.
I cut through a tiny footpath lined with brambles and nettles, and got a hole in my tights for my trouble. But how exquisite the hogweed is! I love every stage of it, from the tightly curled buds to the plate-sized white flowers to the green seedheads. Every hedgerow is full of them, and the hoverflies and bees and beetles are everywhere.
There are some very mighty trees around the farm and the church here, horse chestnuts and birches, oaks and limes.
One lime tree had some claw-like galls on the leaves, as if some tiny predator was trying to break through. These are lime nail gall mite, caused by an insect less than .2mm long. During the winter the mite lives in crevices in the bark of the tree, but when the plant comes into leaf the mites move out and start to suck the sap of the fresh growth. The chemicals injected by the insect cause the leaves to produce these strange claw-like outgrowths, within which the parasite grows happy and fat in his or her ‘castle’. When the autumn comes the mites leave en masse, mate, and lay their eggs in the bark, ready to repeat the whole cycle when the spring comes. The galls do not appear to harm the tree, and there is no treatment that will prevent or ‘cure’ them. Better to admire them as the thing of strange beauty that they are.
As I stood looking at the galls, I became aware of a luscious sweet smell. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but as I walked to the end of the path, I realised that it was coming in wafts from another enormous lime tree, the branches bowed down with the volume of flowers. I love the combination of citrus and almond in the scent of the lime tree, and this was so heady that I could easily have curled up under the roots and slept, further lulled by the sound of all the bees that were visiting the flowers. It gave me a great rush of peace, and I found myself thinking that, in spite of the way that the aphids that live on the leaves emit showers of sticky honeydew, the lime is a strong contender for my favourite tree.
I headed down the road, past the vicarage, and stopped to admire the impressive crop of house martin nests under the eaves of the building. The little ‘orcas’ were zipping backwards and forwards like the tireless aerial acrobats that they are. We have been sharing our homes with swifts and swallows and martins for as long as there have been houses, I suspect, and what a rush of joy they must have given our ancestors as intimations that summer was finally here. Sure, they’re messy, but so are the starlings that visit me, and I wouldn’t not have them for the world. It warms my heart when people are generous of spirit and happy to share what they have in such abundance with other creatures.
Onwards! I got talking to the lady who owns this beautiful cottage. She is originally from Dundee (and of course I have very fond memories of that town), and she described the cottage as ‘her pride and joy’. You can see this when you look at it. She described how quiet the village is at night, and how dark – I remember this from a period when I was sleeping with some of Mum and Dad’s neighbours because ‘my’ bedroom was taken over while they put in an accessible shower room. There is a kind of peace in the village that I am not yet ready for, dedicated city woman that I am, but I can definitely see the appeal.
And as I turned for home, I took a few shots of the red valerian that really is the ‘village flower’, popping up in scarlet and lipstick pink and white in every corner of Milborne St Andrew. Whenever I see it, I think of this corner of Dorset, and I keep my eyes open for Hummingbird Hawk Moths. I saw one once, and I have been waiting ever since to see another one.
Yesterday, Mum had an injection in her knee which we have high hopes will help with her pain – she has had cortisone injections with little benefit, but this is a replacement for the fluid that lubricates the joint, and doesn’t have any side effects. And today, I went, in the car, to the local shop because Dad wanted to buy a few cans of beer – Spanish of course, as he worked in Spain for many years when he was a gin distiller. On Monday, Mum and Dad go to the dentist, and then have some new reclining chairs delivered. And so, I leave Dorset in a cautiously optimistic mood. It feels so important to recognise that there are good moments, and it’s important to celebrate and make the most of them. We can’t do much about the future, but we can treasure every precious moment that we have with the people that we love.