Monthly Archives: September 2019

Bugwoman on Location – Alexandra Terrace, Dorchester

Alexandra Terrace starts just below the tree….

Dear Readers, when I visited Dad in his nursing home in Dorchester this week he was in very high spirits.

‘I’m called ‘Captain Tom’ now’, he announced, to my befuddlement.

All soon became clear. There had been a group boat trip from Weymouth to Portland and back, and Dad had been in charge of the steering for most of the way. He sat in the captain’s seat, and sailed the boat on the correct course (‘to the right of the yellow buoy!’), to much applause. He was a bit put out that he wasn’t allowed to keep the captain’s hat, but I hope to be able to find a substitute somewhere on the internet. Dad was absolutely delighted with himself, and so was everybody else.

Dad always loved any means of transport. He was always fiddling with motorbikes when he was a young man, and our first transport as a family was a motorbike and side car. Later we had the cars: Thunderball the Ford Popular, Sunshine the Ford Consul. A few days before he went into the nursing home, Dad took his Toyota ‘out for a spin’. I thought about stopping him, but realised that this might be the last chance he ever had to experience the joys of a country lane, and the freedom of his own transport.

Little did I know that he’d have the chance to ‘drive’ a boat full of elderly folk with dementia.

I have a feeling that if I sat Dad down in the driving seat of a car he’d know exactly what to do, and would be safe as far as the actual steering of the vehicle went. He just wouldn’t remember where he was, or where he was going. He still sometimes asks the staff if they’ll take him out to buy a second-hand car.

I love that he had this adventure, and that he had a chance to feel useful and competent again. I have been so obsessed with what Dad has lost that I sometimes forget what he is still capable of.

And so I left the nursing home feeling strangely lifted, and decided to detour via Alexandra Terrace, one of Dorchester’s many lanes and alleyways. It passes a Grade Two listed terrace of eight mid-nineteenth century houses, but what fascinates me are the little patches of garden outside. I have no idea if they are owned by the people who live in the houses, or if they’ve just ‘arrived’.

From Trinity Road, the view is most unprepossessing.

But I do love a brick wall, and the plant and animal communities that live there. There are ferns and spiders….

Ferns and a spider and moss

There is ivy-leaved toadflax, one of my favourite wall-weeds with its three-lobed flowers

And there are even some attractive bolts to stop the whole edifice from falling apart…

There is some buddleia, and therefore there are some pollinators, mostly hoverflies.

And there is a statue of a German shepherd dog that has seen better days. It reminds me of when I was a child and used to put my toy animals in amongst the dahlias in the summer, only to find them looking gaunt and traumatised later in the year.

I was very impressed by this crimson glory vine (Vitis coignetiae), whose leaves were almost as bit as my hand. I have been watching it through the seasons, but I love the way that the colour is just beginning to change, and the way that, in the second photo, the bunched stems are holding a feather. I shall have to pop back next month to see if the plant lives up to its name.

And as usual, when I slow down and start to breathe instead of dashing about with a to-do list the size of the Domesday Book, I notice things. I can feel myself coming home to myself. Going to see Dad is always a little stressful, because I don’t know how he will be. Sometimes, like this time, he is happy and laid back. Other times he will be agitated about something, and will want me to take him home. But a slow walk, with my camera as an excuse to pay attention, always helps me to focus.

I can smell that autumn is well underway, and see it too, in the many, many spiders who have emerged, in the state of the foliage, in the dampness in the air and filming the leaves of the montbretia.

The seedheads of the opium poppy look ready to pop, but the flowers of the snowberry are just emerging. It is that tenuous time of year, the tipping point when we could be in for a burst of late summer, or the first whispers of winter.

It feels that way with Dad, too. He will be 84 this year and yet he seems healthier than he has in years: he is finally putting back some of the weight that he lost, his COPD seems stable, and even mentally he seems to have reached a plateau. If you didn’t know him you might even wonder if he had dementia, but then, as I turn to leave the nursing home, he asks me to make sure that I tell Mum (who died in December) how well he steered the boat.

‘ I will, Dad’, I say. Though I have a feeling that she already knows.

And when I visit the following morning before I head back to London, he gets up after a few sips of the ‘frothy coffee’ that I brought him, and gently tells me that he’ll see me soon, but he’s off to have his shower. And off he goes, completely at home. It’s bittersweet, after all those years of looking after him and Mum, to realise that he doesn’t need me to care for him any more. For a second it reminds me of how it must be when your child runs into school without looking back for the first time.

My days of being a carer truly are over, though I will never stop caring. Now it’s up to me to decide what to do with the rest of my life.

Wednesday Weed – Black Bindweed

Black Bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus)

Dear Readers, it always makes me happy to find a ‘proper’ weed, one that I haven’t seen before but which is extremely common. Black bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus) is not actually a bindweed, but is a member of the Polygonaceae or knotweed family, and can be told from its close relative Russian Vine by its heart-shaped leaves, and smaller, less flamboyant flowers. This one has popped up at the top of my road, and is half-heartedly climbing up the drain pipe, although its natural habit is more prostrate. One possibility for its appearance in this very urban spot is that it’s an ingredient in bird food, and has been deposited here by a passing finch.

Black bindweed is an annual, and is thought to be a Neolithic introduction to the UK – one of its vernacular names is ‘wild buckwheat’, and and the seeds have been found in Bronze Age middens. The plant was probably sown with food crops such as barley, and harvested at the same time. The last meal of Tollund Man, a 2000 year-old corpse found in Jutland in 1950 included the seeds of black bindweed, along with barley, linseed and wild pansy. The man had been hanged, it is believed as a sacrifice to the goddess of spring, and he was then thrown into a peat bog, which preserved his body. There is a great peacefulness in his face, which I hope means that he didn’t suffer, poor soul.

The head of Tollund Man (Public Domain)

Black bindweed is native to Europe, North Africa and Asia, and grows most commonly on disturbed land throughout its range. It is a most adaptable plant, and can grow up to an altitude of 3600m in the Himalayas. It is a much better behaved plant than some of its relatives, however: we have already mentioned Russian vine,  but another member of the genus is our old favourite Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Black bindweed can cause some problems, however: it is classified as an invasive weed in North America, and can cause damage to the cutters of harvesting machines if there is a heavy infestation in a field.

 

The seeds of black bindweed are a major food of the grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the UK’s native partridge. This species is on the Red List of endangered birds, largely because it is a bird of hedgerow and field margin, habitats that have been much reduced over the past fifty years. The bird has the largest egg clutch of any UK bird, with a record of 19 eggs in a single nest. Fortunately, the chicks are able to run around from birth, and grey partridge can be seen in ‘covies’, small groups of up to twenty individuals. If disturbed the birds will run rather than take to the air, which explains why the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) was introduced as game bird, it being rather more inclined to take flight. During the breeding season, the male grey partridge is said to have a call rather like a key being turned in a rusty lock.

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy - Grey partridge - Neusiedl - Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39980478

Grey partridge (Perdix perdix) (Photo One)

The plant is also the foodplant of the Bright-line Brown-eye moth (Laconobia oleracea), which is one of the most splendidly descriptive species names that I know.

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from https://butterfly-conservation.org/moths/bright-line-brown-eye

Bright-line Brown-eye moth(Lacobia oleracea) (Photo Two)

It is also the foodplant of the rare black-bindweed case-bearer micro moth (Coleophora therinella) a most intriguing insect whose larvae create tiny portable cases that they live in until they pupate. The adult moths have wingspans of only 13-16mm, so they are very easy to miss.

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from https://www.norfolkmoths.co.uk/micros.php?bf=5610

Black-bindweed case-bearer moth (Coleophora therinella) (Photo Three)

And so, I find that my ‘new’ weed has actually been intertwining its stems with our lives for thousands of years. And, while this poem is not directly about black bindweed, it is about Tollund man, and about our dark, interconnected history in these small islands. Heaney wrote an excerpt from this poem in the visitor’s book at the Aarhus museum where Tollund man was on show. The way that he interweaves this sacrifice from the Bronze Age with the deaths in the Troubles is masterly. If you want to hear him read the poem, there is a link here.

Tollund Man by Seamus Heaney

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

II

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

III

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,

Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Grey partridge – Neusiedl – Austria0002, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39980478

Photo Two by Paul Kitchener from https://butterfly-conservation.org/moths/bright-line-brown-eye

Photo Three by Dave Appleton from https://www.norfolkmoths.co.uk/micros.php?bf=5610

 

 

All Change and a Handsome Visitor

Dear Readers, those of you who follow this page regularly will know that it’s been a difficult year. My Mum died in December. My Dad’s dementia has gotten worse, and he is now in a nursing home. For the two previous years I had been travelling up and down to Dorset to look after the pair of them, and was pretty much unable to work, both because of the emotional toll and because I knew that I couldn’t be reliable – an emergency could, and did, erupt at any moment.

It took six months after Mum’s death before I could even contemplate getting myself back into the world of work, but back in July the perfect opportunity arose. An organisation that is working with 98 cities worldwide to combat the climate emergency, C40, was looking for a part time reporting accountant, using exactly the software that I’ve been teaching and working with for twenty years. And on Monday I started work. It has been a lonely couple of years, and it is good to have colleagues, and to feel part of something again.

It’s strange, but in the midst of my elation at a whole new adventure I feel a little disloyal to Mum and Dad somehow. It’s hard to explain, but I feel as if, by getting back to my own life, I’m leaving them behind. And this is the first time that I’ve made a major life change without having Mum and Dad to talk to. It’s true that they often didn’t understand the finer nuances of all the techie stuff that I was doing, but they were always 100% on my side, delighted for me if I seemed happy, angry on my behalf if I was having a rant. And now Mum is gone. But I shouldn’t underestimate Dad. He was delighted when I told him that I had a new job, even though he wasn’t quite sure who I was. And if he’s forgotten about it, hopefully he’ll be delighted all over again when I see him next week and tell him how my first week has gone.

Incidentally the Bloomberg building, where I’ll be based when not working from home, is the most sustainable office building in Europe. Well worth having a look here.

I should also add, as required by Bloomberg’s social media policy, that any views expressed on this blog are my own, and shouldn’t be taken as representing the views of Bloomberg or C40.

Anyhow, the other effect of getting the job has been to make me look around at the house and garden and shake my head in amazement. How did everything get so overgrown and grimy? I guess that’s what two years of neglect will do for you! What was most striking was that the garden was not only a jungle, but the oak steps to the shed were rotten through, with all kinds of interesting fungi. It was only a matter of time before one of us went right through the wood whilst carrying a laundry basket full of underwear, so it has to be fixed. As a result, the garden is full of piles of rotting wood, and I’m wondering where to put a woodpile.

On Thursday I got up early to open the side door so that the builders could get in, and came face to face with a very handsome dog fox. What a surprise! And what was even more delightful was that, after an initial bout of wariness, he decided to hang around for a chat.

Not sure….

He sat in next door’s garden for a while, making up his mind about my intentions.

And then he hopped back into my garden to check out the pond.

He has a little bit of an eye infection, poor thing, but is otherwise in splendid health. I suspect that he might be one of the foxes who has stolen a boot from a bag of rubbish that was put out last week, and which keeps turning up in the garden. I put it away, and the next night it’s back out again.

Fox play things

Anyhow, this chap was in no rush to go, and sat patiently while I took endless portraits. Sometimes, foxes that are this confiding have toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease which makes them bolder, but maybe he’s just learned that humans can be useful. It always feels like such a privilege to have a wild animal so close.

And then I decided to go back indoors, but as I went through the kitchen door I looked around and he was about to follow me in! Well, this was a step too far, as my poor cat would have been horrified. But I couldn’t resist him, and so I threw out a small handful of dried food for him. I might have made a rod for my own back, but we’ll see. Who could resist him?

And here is a short film of him in full-on chomping action. Goodness only knows what the background noise is, probably my fridge, though it sounds as loud as a leaf blower.

Events like this seem so magical to me. It isn’t the first time that we’ve had foxes in the garden, but to spend time with one feels such a privilege. For those few moments I’m not worrying or planning or organising, I’m just being. There are so many stories even in a suburban garden – animals going about their lives, plants growing, fungi infiltrating an oak sleeper one mycelia at a time – and they have the ability to make me forget everything else. Plus, just as I was hungry for connection at work, I feel lost if I don’t make time to get out into nature and renew my connections there. For me, it is the cure for most of what ails me.

 

Wednesday Weed – Globe Thistle

Globe Thistle (Echinops sp.)

Dear Readers, I have always loved thistles, both for the way that they attract a wide range of pollinators, and for their extraordinary flowers. I know that not all gardeners are so impressed, and I’m sure if I’d been inundated with creeping thistle I might feel the same way. However, thistles seem to having their moment in the sun in UK gardens, with everything from cardoons to melancholy thistles popping up all over the place. It’s no wonder, then, that globe thistles were much favoured in Regent’s Park this year. I can’t help thinking that the fact that the plant is currently being marketed as ‘the blue hedgehog thistle’ might also be raising its popularity, although as ‘echinops’ is Greek for ‘hedgehog’ at least it comes by the name honestly.

The flowers of the globe thistle remind me of the Dale Chihuly exhibition that I went to at Kew Gardens recently, especially his sculpture ‘Sapphire Star’.

Sapphire Star by Dale Chihuly at Kew Gardens

It isn’t until I looked at the photograph of the flowerhead closely that I could clearly see how the globe is made up of long-throated individual flowers. The plant attracts honeybees and bumblebees, butterflies and shield bugs, beetles and hoverflies. My ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ book by Adrian Thomas suggests three species that are particularly good value for insects: Echinops ritro, Echinops bannaticus (which is the one in the photographs) and Echinops sphaerocephalus, a Russian species with whitish flowers. Some gardeners do mention that they have a spot of bother with the plants self-seeding themselves all over the garden, especially as the flowerheads look so sculptural and are often left over the winter for the birds.  All globe thistles are native to Europe, Central Asia and Africa as far south as the mountains north of the tropics, and are part of the daisy family Asteraceae.

White echinops

The young leaves of the globe thistle are apparently edible, though the Plants For a Future website only gives it a 1 out of 5 for edibility. The leaves are extremely spikey so I imagine they’d have to be very young indeed to be toothsome. In Asia Echinops species have historically been used for a variety of medicinal purposes, including the treatment of skin complaints, sexual problems, issues around breast-feeding and to kill internal parasites. In Morocco it has long been considered helpful during and after childbirth: a decoction of the roots was said to aid the expulsion of the placenta.  In Egypt it is used to treat high blood pressure. In short, the different species of Echinops have been used for many of the medical problems that beset humans, and it would be interesting to know how efficacious they are.

In an interesting paper on healing and the folklore of the saints in Russia, Valeria Kolosova explains that the globe thistle Echinops sphaerocephalus is known as ‘Adam’s Head’, and that flowers placed under the pillow are said to prevent a child from having nightmares. The resemblance to a head is also thought to indicate the plant is efficacious against headaches.

As you might remember, I sometimes find that a plant is the ‘birthday flower’ for a particular day. I discovered that Echinops is the flower for the 18th August, and also, finally, where the information comes from: Thomas Ignatius Forster (1789 – 1860) was a botanist, naturalist, poet, balloonist and practical joker who spent a lot of time trying to convince the world that there had once been a monastic calendar of ‘birthday flowers’. To read the whole story (and another interesting piece about the Victorian language of flowers) have a look at this publication by the RHS here.

And now, some poetry. I read with interest that in 2000 the Chelsea Physic Garden had a poet-in-residence, Sarah Maguire, who had also been a professional gardener. Maguire didn’t just want to do a few writing workshops, but instead ‘nested’ complementary poems amongst the plants in the beds that had been planted not for their aesthetic value, but because the plants they contained were related to one another. Many of these plants had not been written about by poets, so Maguire used a process of association. Under the Echinops, for example, she placed John Clare’s poem about a hedgehog:

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge
And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge,
Or in a bush or in a hollow tree;
And many often stoop and say they see
Him roll and fill his prickles full of crabs
And creep away; and where the magpie dabs
His wing at muddy dyke, in aged root
He makes a nest and fills it full of fruit,
On the hedge bottom hunts for crabs and sloes
And whistles like a cricket as he goes.
It rolls up like a ball or shapeless hog
When gipsies hunt it with their noisy dog;
I’ve seen it in their camps — they call it sweet,
Though black and bitter and unsavoury meat.

Maguire subsequently published an anthology of poems about plants, ‘Flora Poetica – The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse’. However, the state of the world impelled her to found the Poetry Translation Centre, which aimed to;

‘..assemble small groups of linguists, poets, and impassioned readers to produce readable and enjoyable English renditions of poems written in non-English languages. The intended result was equally simple: at a time when an entire people were being demonized to suit geopolitical interests and corporate balance sheets, silence was no longer an option, and translation, Maguire believed, was the “opposite of war,” and she waged that fight just as ruthlessly as the merchants of death she so deeply detested‘. (André Naffis-Sahely from World Literature Today)

Maguire died, aged 60, in 2017, having been the first poet sent to Palestine and Yemen by the British Council, and had been the only living English-language poet with a book in print in Arabic. What a loss to us all.