Monthly Archives: January 2020

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….

 

Wednesday Weed -Schizostylis (River Lily)

River Lily (Hesperantha coccinea) – also known as Schizostylis

Dear Readers, just when I think I’ve run out of spring flowers to write about, another new one pops up. I was so glad to spot this little beauty in a garden in Muswell Hill, North London, on my way back from brunch this morning. River lily (Hesperantha coccinea) is native to South Africa and Zimbabwe, but its delicate flowers have made it popular with florists in many countries. I had no idea that it flowered so early, but we have had a very mild winter here in the UK so far, and I note that it was flowering in December according to this post from the gardeners at Sissinghurst Castle. This morning was the first time that the pond has been frozen during this season, and everything was dusted with frost, so let’s hope that most early/late flowering plants hereabouts are at least a little hardy.

I always knew this plant as Schizostylis, which was certainly a mouthful. It was believed that because the plant grew from a rhizome, not a corm, and because it had red flowers (unlike the rest of the plants in the Hesperantha genus, who were pink or white), it deserved a genus all of its own, the tongue-twisting Schizostylis. However, DNA proved that the plant was extremely closely related to the others in the Hesperantha genus, and that the superficial differences were a result of the plant adapting to its habitat (rhizomes are more efficient in waterlogged soils) and its pollinator’s preference for red flowers. It just goes to show that we should never judge a book by its cover.

The elephant in the room with this flower is that some people here in the UK probably know this plant as ‘kaffir lily’ (the name is also sometimes applied to Clivia, a bright orange pot plant). However, it has been widely recognised that ‘kaffir’ is a deeply offensive term. It probably originated with the Arabic word for ‘non-believer’, but acquired a heavily racial tone during the apartheid era (and probably before), and has been actionable as hate speech since at least 1976. So, we shall draw a line under the name here, and refer to it a river lily going forward. Many people in the UK would have had no idea that the word was offensive, but when we know better, we do better.

Moving on! River lily reminds me of nothing so much as freesia, and so it comes as no surprise that it is related: It is part of the iris family (Iridaceae) but specifically the crocus subfamily, which includes freesias and gladioli. The Latin genus name ‘Hesperantha‘ means ‘evening flower’, and the species name coccinea means red (think ‘cochineal’). Clearly our plant isn’t red, but the wild plant is, and very pretty it is too. I think that our plant is the cultivar ‘Jennifer’ (or possibly ‘Pink Princess’), but the website ‘PlantZAfrica‘ mentions that white and pink varieties of the flower occur in the wild too.

Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7861171

Wild river lily (Hesperantha coccinea) (Photo One)

In its native range, river lily grows in wet areas, such as riverbanks, marshes, and anywhere where its roots can be kept constantly damp. I can imagine how lovely it looks growing in profusion, and there is the added bonus that its chief pollinator is the Table Mountain beauty butterfly(Aeropetes tulbaghia), a most spectacular insect with a strong preference for the colour red. The butterfly is also the sole pollinator of the red disa orchid (Disa uniflora), which grows alongside streams in the Fynbos in South Africa.  How intricate are the relationships between plants and animals in an ecosystem, and how easily disrupted. I am in love with the Fynbos, even though i have never visited, and I get a great deal of vicarious pleasure from the  Fynbos Guy website, which is full of information and some wonderful photographs, such as the two below.

Photo Two from https://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

Table Mountain Beauty (Aeropetes tulbaghia) (Photo Two)

Photo Three from https://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

Red disa orchid (Disa uniflora) (Photo Three)

There is some evidence that other members of the Hesperantha genus can be useful for soil stabilization in freshwater habitats, but I can find nothing specific about ‘our’ plant. However, I imagine that that tangle of roots and rhizomes would help to hold things together, at least temporarily.

And now for something of a treat. My Fynbos obsession has led me to seek out artists from the area, and the Table Mountain Fund is featuring four botanical artists with very different approaches to the flora of the area. I was much taken by StuART’s photographs, but all the artists are worth a look. Inspiration is everywhere, but I think these artists must feel spoilt for choice! Have a look and see what you think here. And just to whet your appetite, here are a few examples from the website.

Nic Bladen makes sculpture and jewellery.

Photo Four from http://www.nicbladen.com/current-work

Protea cynaroides by Nic Bladen (bronze) (Photo Four)

Photo Five from http://www.thevoorkamergallery.com/new-page-5

Flora – A Solo Exhibition by Lisa Strachen (Photo Five)

You can see StuART’s photography here

And finally, printmaker and painter Jane Eppel has created a Fynbos alphabet based on the flora of the area.

Photo Six from https://www.janeeppel.com/past-printmaking

A is for Agapanthus – Fynbos A-~Z by Jane Eppel (Photo Six)

I hope you enjoy looking at this varied and interesting work as much as I did.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7861171

Photo Two from https://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

Photo Three from https://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/

Photo Four from http://www.nicbladen.com/current-work

Photo Five from http://www.thevoorkamergallery.com/new-page-5

Photo Six from https://www.janeeppel.com/past-printmaking

 

 

 

What Goes On When I’m Not Looking….

Dear Readers, what a week it’s been! Work has been relentless, the boiler has gone on go-slow, my washing machine won’t drain, and the pond has sprung a leak. Fortunately, a lovely friend of mine has lent me a trail camera – I’ve always fancied trying one out, and it has been a welcome distraction from all the deadlines and high anxiety. I wondered what I might see, and I have not been the slightest bit surprised, though it’s always good to have your suspicions confirmed. So here, in no particular order, is what goes on in my garden when I’m not looking.

Firstly, cats. They always seem completely different at night, a bit like gremlins. Look at the one above, with those scary eyes. The reflecting lens at the back of the eye is called the tapetum lucidum, or bright tapestry, and it glows different colours according to the kind of animal. Apparently if you go out after dark with a torch, you can see the eyeshine of all the spiders. I must give that a try!

And we get cats in daytime too. Look at this fabulous chap. He lives across the road, and sometimes sits on my gatepost like one of those stone lions.

Next, collared doves. They seem to be cropping up everywhere, and they bustle about with perfect confidence, in spite of the moggies.

And then there are the squirrels, who are very flighty indeed.

And then there are those pesky humans, walking backwards and forwards and setting the camera off…

But the main reason that I set up the camera was to see if the foxes visited, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Night One

Night Two

Night Four (don’t know what happened to Night Three!)

And in broad daylight this very afternoon.

Well, having the camera is a lot of fun, and it has piqued my interest into what the foxes, in particular, are up to. The night time images aren’t clear enough to identify individuals, but what intrigues me is that they don’t seem to have a regular pattern – they’re as likely to turn up at 18.15 as they are at midnight. But what a privilege to have a little window into what goes on after dark. I think I shall definitely have a look and see if I can get one of my own. It’s given me a  little taste of the excitement that naturalists must feel when they put out trail cameras to see if there are snow leopards in the area, or to spy on bears. There is something about looking at those images that’s a real treat, because you never know what you’re going to see. And I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, I’ll see cubs later in the year. Keep your fingers crossed!

 

Wednesday Weed – Almond

Almonds (Prunus dulcis)

Dear Readers, the almond has always seemed to me to be the most exotic of nuts. Coming originally from Iran, it is a mainstay of pastries right across the Middle East and the Mediterranean region – I well remember the delicious sweetmeats that I ate in Morocco, including the Kaab El Ghazal (gazelle horns) of Marrakech, with their orange-water scented almond paste. Almond flavouring pops up everywhere, of course, from the marzipan that we use to cover our Christmas cakes to the amaretto liqueur of Italy, and those tasty little amaretti biscuits. When we were children and were lucky enough to get a tin box of the amaretti wrapped in paper, we’d roll the paper into a tube, set fire to the top, and clap our hands as the fiery cylinder flew up into the air, threatening to turn the curtains into an exciting conflagration. Well, entertainment was hard to come by in the East End in those days – remind me to tell you of the time my Uncle Ken blew up the living room window sill with his chemistry set.

However.

Almonds are most closely related to peaches – the corrugations on the shell are an indication of their genetic relationship.

Botanical illustration from 1897 (Public Domain)

And if anyone ever watches ‘Midsomer Murders’ or ‘Murder She Wrote’, you will recall the moment when the detective muses on ‘the smell of bitter almonds’ coming from an otherwise innocent glass of wine or half-quaffed cup of bedtime cocoa.

‘Cyanide!’ says the discerning viewer, and indeed, there are certain almond trees which produce not sweet but bitter almonds. Eating 50 bitter almonds is enough to kill an adult, but cyanide extracted from the kernels is much more potent. The poison is present to a certain extent in the kernels of apricots and cherries too, but we don’t normally eat these: the almond ‘nut’ is actually the equivalent part of the almond ‘fruit’. A tiny proportion of bitter almonds are occasionally imported with sweet almonds: the symptoms of cyanide poisoning include vertigo, so be careful if the world starts spinning after a handful of almonds. It is perfectly normal for the world to start spinning after several glasses of amaretto liqueur, however.

Photo One by By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6408498

Rose-ringed parakeet eating the blossom of a bitter almond tree in Teddington, London (Photo One)

These days, nearly 50% of world almond production comes from California, and herein lays a problem. Almond trees need a lot of water – almost 1.1 gallons to produce a single almond. California has been suffering from drought, and in the meantime the demand for almonds has gone up because of the trend towards drinking almond ‘milk’. I note that another area that produces a significant amount of almonds is the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, another area hit by severe drought. Other areas producing a lot of almonds are Morocco, Spain and Iran.

The problem of the sustainability of Californian almonds is exacerbated by the way that they are pollinated. Nearly half of all the beehives in the USA (over 1.4 million hives) are trucked to the almond groves in February (which is several months earlier than most bees would naturally be active). This enormous concentration of bees in one smallish area leads to the risk of infection and parasitism, particularly by the varroa mite.  One beekeeper described it as ‘sending my bees to war’ every year, and expected to lose up to 25% of his hives. Even if biocides are not used in the almond groves themselves, the bees come into contact with the chemicals via the heavily sprayed grape and cotton crops in the area.  Furthermore, the honeybees outcompete the many other local pollinators, leading to a decrease in biodiversity.

Almond growers are trying to develop self-pollinating varieties, which would do away with the requirement for bees, but currently the harvest from these trees is not as high as from the insect-pollinated cultivars.

To read more about this, have a look at this article.

Photo Two by Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/malubeng-518208/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=503038">malubeng</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=503038">Pixabay</a>

Honeybees on almond flowers (Public Domain)

The almond has had symbolic importance for both Christians and Jewish people, partly because it was the first tree to flower each year.  The menorah that stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was said to be based on the shape of almond blossom:

“Three cups, shaped like almond blossoms, were on one branch, with a knob and a flower; and three cups, shaped like almond blossoms, were on the other…on the candlestick itself were four cups, shaped like almond blossoms, with its knobs and flowers”.

Reconstruction of the menorah from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Public Domain)

In Christianity, the almond shape of some icons and images of the Madonna and Child is known as a mandorla, and was said by Saint Hildegarde of Bingen to represent the cosmos.

Photo Two by By Unknown engraver 1200/1300 - http://alittlebitofstone.com/2011/09/18/bit-of-medieval-stone-found-in-surrey-field/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85583018

The seal of Stone Priory in Staffordshire in the shape of a mandorla (Photo Two)

The shape of the almond seems to have an innate appeal to humans – a quick search turned up lots of references to the attractiveness of the ‘almond-shaped eye’, and fingernails that have that characteristic oval shape seem to be particularly desirable. I was briefly side-lined by lots of information about a Japanese race horse called Almond Eye, and very handsome she looks too, though not remotely like a nut.

Photo Three by By Ogiyoshisan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73601916

Almond Eye winning the Shuka Sho in Japan (Photo Three)

And finally, a poem. I rather liked this unusual offering by Robert William Service, a British-Canadian poet who was known as ‘the Bard of the Yukon’ (1874 – 1958). He was extraordinarily prolific, and wanted specifically to write poems for ‘ordinary folk’ rather than academics and intellectuals. See what you think.

Bird Watcher

 In Wall Street once a potent power,
 And now a multi-millionaire
Alone within a shady bower
 In clothes his valet would not wear,
He watches bird wings bright the air.


The man who mighty mergers planned,
 And oil and coal kinglike controlled,
With field-glasses in failing hand
 Spies downy nestlings five days old,
With joy he could not buy for gold.


Aye, even childlike is his glee;
 But how he crisps with hate and dread
And shakes a clawlike fist to see
 A kestrel hover overhead:
Though he would never shoot it dead.


Although his cook afar doth forage
 For food to woo his appetite,
The old man lives on milk and porridge
 And now it is his last delight
At eve if one lone linnet lingers
 To pick crushed almonds from his fingers.

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6408498

Photo Two by By Unknown engraver 1200/1300 – http://alittlebitofstone.com/2011/09/18/bit-of-medieval-stone-found-in-surrey-field/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85583018

Photo Three by By Ogiyoshisan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73601916

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Cemetery Walk

Cedar of Lebanon in East Finchley Cemetery

Dear Readers, I hope you’ll forgive a second cemetery post in seven days. This week, we found ourselves in need of some fresh air and some melancholy Victorian angels, and so we headed to East Finchley Cemetery on East End Road. If you decide to visit, can I recommend Margot Bakery, which you pass en route? It specialises in Jewish breads such as challah , and sourdough of all kinds. I bought a rye loaf which was crusty and full of flavour, and it was only my gross overindulgence at Christmas that stopped me from pocketing a chocolate babka.

Anyhow, back to the business in hand. East Finchley Cemetery is owned and managed by the City of Westminster – I am forever confused about who is responsible for what in the field of cemeteries and crematoria – City of London cemetery is actually in Newham, St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is in Barnet. This cemetery has had a lively recent history: it was sold to a development company for 3p in the 1990’s, was then sold on for a million pounds, and then finally purchased by an offshore development company for three million pounds. How it came back to Westminster City Council is a mystery. I’m sure the land would be worth much more than three million pounds now, but it seems unlikely that it would be allowed to be built upon. Maybe someone, somewhere, is hedging their bets for the future.

As you enter the cemetery, you are greeted by two magnificent cedars of Lebanon (planted in 1856) and the main chapel. Opposite is the memorial to Sir Peter Nicol Russell, who founded a school of engineering in Sydney, Australia. I rather like that he is posed topless with the tools of his trade, watched over by a solicitous angel. The statue is Grade II listed, as is the chapel.

The chapel has two carved stone faces next to the window. I love the way that church buildings so often have these little details that are not apparent at first glance.

On we go. As we head along the road, passing some very fine stone crosses, a car drives slowly past us, with a schnauzer attached to a lead running alongside. The lady driving gives me a cheery wave as she notices me watching. The dog seems completely unperturbed. Just goes to show that you never know what you’re going to see in a cemetery.

Before Christmas, when I was desperately trying to find plants for the Wednesday Weed, I looked everywhere for some mistletoe. Well, I didn’t look hard enough, because there’s some right here. Now I just have to remember it for Christmas 2020.

I was also stopped short by these small, smoky-foliaged trees, which I suspect are a variety of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). The variety here is probably a cultivar called ‘Elegans’, which retains that delicate, feathery juvenile foliage for its whole life. The wild tree is the national tree of Japan, and can grow up to 230 feet tall. These little chaps won’t get above ten metres.

 

Once I start to slow down and take notice, I find that there are things to look at on both a large and a small scale. I am taken by the solemnity of an avenue of conifers, but I also love the bright green of the moss against the paving stones.

There is a memorial to the people who died in the City of Westminster (St Marylebone as was) as a result of the bombing of London during the Second World War, and who are buried in the cemetery. I am always moved by the ‘old-fashioned’ names – the Violets and Winifreds and Horaces and Ethels and Mauds. These are the names of my grandparent’s generation – my granny on my mother’s side was called Minnie, and on my dad’s side we had Ivy. They went through so much, and seem to have borne it with a kind of stoicism. My Mum and Nan were buried in an air-raid shelter after the house next door was completely destroyed. My Mum remembered going off to school with her little gas mask strapped to her bag, and sitting in the underground cloakroom singing endless rounds of ‘Ten Green Bottles’ while the bombs fell on the houses round about.  Now that people who remember the war directly  are passing away, I hope that we remember their stories of what living through a war, either as a civilian or as a soldier, was like. There is too much political bluster and rhetoric, and not enough thought about what being in a war actually means for ‘ordinary’ people.

The yew bushes are all a-bustle with redwings, who pop out as soon as I go within 100 feet. They are nervous about the camera too, true farmland birds who know all too well what someone raising a metal object might mean. I love these small thrushes, blown in from Scandanavia and hoping for food. Well, there is lots of waxy red fruit on the yew to fuel them on their way.

 

Before we leave, we have to loop round to visit my favourite tomb, a monument to Sir Thomas and Esther Tate. Someone has left a pink rose on his foot. Thomas Tate was not related to the sugar moguls, but seems to have made his fortune through the manufacture of tennis racquets. His wife died within two weeks of his demise, in spite of being considerably younger than him. Whilst researching the memorial I have discovered a positive treasure-trove of information on London’s cemetery memorial in  The London Dead blog. Along with Margot Bakery, this website is definitely my most exciting find of the week.

The very expensive bronze memorial has two very over-worked cherubs at the corners. Poor things, after all this time they look in need of a rest. Plus, surely that posture can’t be good for their infant backs?

And so, as it starts to rain, we turn tail and head home. Whether we shall find ourselves mysteriously drawn to some local spot that does chocolate and raspberry babka, only time will tell. Suffice it to say that all that walking has made us hungry.

Photo One from https://www.topcitybites.com/top-bites/margot-bakery-london-chocolate-and-raspberry-babka/

Photo One

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://www.topcitybites.com/top-bites/margot-bakery-london-chocolate-and-raspberry-babka/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Weed – Cedar of Lebanon

Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani)

Dear Readers, this magnificent tree must be as far away from a ‘weed’ as anything that I’ve ever featured here. Once upon a time it was a feature of every mansion lawn, but it is rarely planted these days because it is considered to be too slow-growing .I am reminded that, in ancient woodlands such as Coldfall Wood which followed a pattern of ‘coppice and standard’, hornbeams would be planted around a single oak which would not be harvested for a hundred years. With the climate crisis escalating all over the world, we need to be looking ahead beyond our own short lifetimes. I rather like this piece by Alan Titchmarsh on the planting of trees that will not reach their full glory until long after we are dead.

My Collins Tree Guide points out that, in fact, the tree is extremely vigorous in the right conditions, and Titchmarsh’s trees have put on 24 feet of growth in 15 years. As you can see, you would need a lot of room for a cedar of Lebanon to achieve its full potential; those flat level plates of foliage spread out for many metres away from the trunk, shading everything underneath. The cones are enormous and look to me like walnut whips: they disintegrate and drop their scales while still on the tree. The needle-shaped leaves emerge from spurs that whirl around the stem. Everything about this tree is supersized. If you wanted a statement tree for your estate, this would undoubtedly be the one, and in the UK it has been planted since at least 1664, when it is mentioned in a book about timber. Apparently there are many  fine specimens in Highgate Cemetery. I shall have to go and have a look.

This cedar is the national plant of Lebanon, and features on that country’s flag. It is deeply interwoven with the history and culture of Lebanon – 2005 saw the ‘Cedar Revolution’, and it has been the symbol of many of the protests of the past ten years. Rarely has a plant been seen as such a personification of a nation.

The flag of Lebanon (Public Domain)

However, the extensive cedar forests of the region have been extensively logged – an ancient tale tells that the forests were protected by demigods, who were defeated in battle by humans, who cut down the trees. Lebanon and Turkey have both been at the forefront of attempts to reforest although their approaches differ: in Turkey, 50,000 young trees are planted every year, while in Lebanon attempts are made to improve growing conditions in the areas where the trees were previously common. One such is the mountain town of Bsharri in Lebanon, birthplace of Kahlil Gibran. The forest there is known as the ‘Cedars of God’ and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It also shows how hardy these trees can be when full-grown – the photo below shows the cedars when over 7 metres of snow had fallen.

Photo One by By Hany raymond rahme - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67139818

Cedars of God in Bsharri, Lebanon (Photo One)

The cedar features in many of the holy books of the Middle Eastern region. Hebrew priests were commanded by David to use the bark of the Cedar of Lebanon in a cure for leprosy. Solomon used the trees’ timber to build the Temple in Jerusalem. The tree is mentioned explicitly in Psalm 92, lines 12-15:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
13 planted in the house of the Lord,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
14 They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will stay fresh and green,
15 proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
    he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

I also love the tale of the Biblical behemoth, a giant creature who apparently grazed on cedars of Lebanon much as a cow eats grass. The monster needed to eat an entire mountain’s worth every day. I suppose that’s one excuse for the deforestation.

Cedar oil is currently being employed in the everlasting battle against the clothes moth, which has been making a remarkable comeback in the wardrobes of East Finchley over the past few years. It’s believed that cedar clotheshangers, cedar oil impregnated balls and cedar wood chests will all deter the little pests, but I suspect the ones in my house must have no sense of smell, because they still manage to find things to munch upon. The only answer seems to be having less clothes, worn and washed more often, and that’s maybe a lesson to all of us. However, although the cedar oil of antiquity undoubtedly came from the cedar of Lebanon, the essential oil today is much more likely to come from other members of the pine, cypress and cedar families, as the ancient forests have been almost completely eradicated.

Cedar oil was also used by the ancient Egyptians as a way of embalming the dead without the need to remove their internal organs – it was a relatively cheap way of preserving a loved one without all those priests and canopic jars and other paraphernalia.

Cedar of Lebanon has been used extensively for its timber – the wood is resinous and is believed to deter insects, and has been used for everything from building to carving.

Photo Two © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Bishop’s Tree, Fulham Palace, London. A recent addition to the gardens has been ‘The Bishop’s Tree’. Sculptures by Andrew Frost depicting some of the bishops and their animals have been applied to the stump of the Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) on the north side of the building. Delores Moorhouse commissioned the sculptures in memory of her late husband, Peter Moorhouse. (Photo Two)

And now, some paintings. You might expect that a tree as august as the cedar of Lebanon would generate its own cloud of myths, and so it was when the Hungarian painter Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka(1853 – 1919) first saw them during his trip to the Middle East. In 1880, while working as a pharmacist, he heard a mystical voice, telling him that he was going to be “the greatest painter in the world, greater than Raphael”. He saved up his earnings and in 1890 he headed off into Europe, North Africa, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. He didn’t start painting until after 1900, but his visionary, expressionist works were acclaimed, except in Hungary, where he was considered an eccentric crank because of his pacifism, vegetarianism and hatred of alcohol. His paintings of the cedar of Lebanon have a dream-like, hallucinatory quality that I find rather appealing. See what you think.

Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon (Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka – 1907) (Public Domain)

The Lonely Cedar (Tivadar Csontvary Kosztka 1907) (Public Domain)

And, of course, a poem. I liked this work from The Irish Times, by Peter McDonald – it refers to the cedars in Bsharri that I mentioned earlier, and seems to me to cover a lot of ground in a few short verses. See what you think.

Lebanon by Peter McDonald

High up in the dead cedar, someone has carved
a figure of Jesus stretched over the cross:
his polished face, angular and half-starved,
faces downwards, like that of a man diving
in free-fall to the ground, ready to toss
his life away, and then see death arriving
bang on time, almost already there,
upwards towards him through breathtaking air.

What god would ever want this for himself?
If once he looked out forwards, he would see
a line of mountains, the snowed-over shelf
of Mount Lebanon, the Kadisha valley
stretched underneath it, and even each tree
around him, adding to the cedar-tally
one – but he looks down, and is looking still
down to the earth with a singular will.

Living his second, discontinuous life,
a young man talks to us about the war,
phalanges, sects, and the contours of strife
that make the map of his imagination;
how close he came, or came at least not far
from death when a hand-grenade in conflagration
caught him out of nowhere, on the left side,
as a friend next to him and a stranger died.
He remembers how the air was sucked away
all in an instant, how the blast was not
noise but a silence opening; the spray
of soil and stones and blood together going
in the wrong direction, and a vacuum, hot
and fast, pulling him inwards; a force growing
enormous in a second; then the fear
just after, as they dragged his body clear.

And now the same man stands here fit and whole
below the Jesus of the Maronites,
his talk of trees, and the cedar-patrol
that guards year-round the few of them still standing;
the dangers of dry summers and cold nights,
and names of birds here, flying off or landing
close to their hidden nests somewhere above
all of our heads in the protected grove.

What we might say, standing on his deaf side,
is lost, but he laughs and nods anyway;
how much is spoken, how much more implied
about things by the people who have seen them
hangs like a question, balancing today
in two natures with the one will between them:
even the thin air at this altitude
smells of needles and undecaying wood.

Peter McDonald’s works include Pastorals , Torchlight and a Collected Poems (Carcanet Press)

Photo Credits

Photo One By Hany raymond rahme – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67139818

Photo Two © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Year’s Walk in East Finchley

Dear Readers, on New Year’s Day I decided to go for a walk in Coldfall Wood and the adjoining Islington and St Pancras Cemetery. I don’t usually make New Year’s Resolutions, having a less than perfect record of achieving them (ahem), but this article from The Guardian got me all fired up about the power of moving. Walking is something that is easy to incorporate into my life, and I enjoy it, so there’s a good chance that I’ll keep doing it. Let’s see.

Anyhoo, it was off to the woods, and as usual my eyes were drawn to the strange shapes of the hornbeam trees. Once upon a time they would have been coppiced for firewood every year (cut right back to the ‘stool’), but since this stopped they have grown in the strangest, most tortured ways. You’ll notice how bare the understorey is as well – in the parts of the wood which were coppiced a few years ago, there is much more plant diversity, as seeds that were in the ground for decades finally felt the warmth of the sun and germinated.

The holly and the ivy

In this part of the wood, though, it’s all about the holly and ivy, as few other plants apart from a few early flowerers like lesser celandine can tolerate the shade once the leaves appear.

We turned off the path and sneaked through a hole in the fence, much beloved by dog-walkers, into St Pancras and Islington Cemetery.

It looks bleak at this time of year, but it’s already full of birdsong – jays chase one another, magpies rat-a-tat-tat and every hundred metres a new robin appears. I can hear great tits (‘teeeecher!’), the irritated twitter of blue tits, and the soft contact calls of long-tailed tits. I even hear the high-pitched call of a goldcrest in one of the big conifers. Sadly, I couldn’t get a single photo, so you’ll have to trust me.

How green everything looks, after all the rain we’ve had! There is moss everywhere. The angels on the corner by the newly refurbished chapel look even more melancholy than usual.

We head down to the ‘forest burial site’ which has had an almighty tidy-up – at one point it had docks seven feet high, burdock, and a wide variety of interesting weeds. Not at the moment, however, and even the big sad cedar, which looked to be on its last roots, has been subject to the chainsaw. At least it’s still standing, though – maybe one of the many woodpeckers than I heard drumming in the wood will use it.

What I wanted to investigate, though, was the new part of the cemetery, which has been under development for several years. Once upon a time, this area was used as a nursery to grow plants for the Borough, but the greenhouses fell into disrepair, and for a long time it was the haunt of foxes and birds. Now, however, the animals have been evicted and the area is pristine and rather disheartening. Hopefully once the planting grows up it will be a bit more welcoming. I am guessing that the blank plaques will be used to commemorate loved ones who have been cremated – there is a similar area at the other end of the cemetery. I know it’s a matter of personal choice, but give me a melancholy Victorian angel any day.

New commemoration area for cremations

Some gazebos. I’m hoping that something will be planted under them, but no sign of any beds yet

Planting (mostly euphorbias by the look of it)

So, let’s hope that the area will get a bit softer once the plants get going. The quality of the paving and brickwork is impressive at any rate.

On the way out, I spot this wonderful gravestone, commemorating one Gilbert Richard who fell through a snow bridge in Grindelwald, Switzerland, in 1896, and who was apparently of an ‘amiable disposition’. I am also moved by the death of Matilda Rose Dafforne, though she seems to be something of a paragon of the various virtues, and was probably completely terrifying as a result. I do think we should be told more about the lives of those who have passed, so we can get an idea of their personality – elsewhere in the cemetery someone is described as ‘a force of nature’, and I think we all have a fair idea of what that means.

I was also taken by this statue of yet another angel, mostly because the pruned trunk behind her reminds me of a rather eager dog begging for a treat. What do you think?

On the way back to the woods, I am taken by the number of graves featuring an anchor as a headstone – this is a sign that the deceased was a sailor, either in the Royal Navy or as a merchant seamen.

In amongst the higgledy-piggledy headstones, there are the patterns of nature – Ivy making a ladder as it climbs a sapling, bracket fungus emerging from a dead stem/

And then, we climb back through into Coldfall Wood. The rain this year has caused the ‘Everglades’ to become less of a wetland and more of a lagoon. Here are some shots from just before Christmas, courtesy of Neville who regularly walks his dog in the woods. Thank you Neville!

By New Year’s Day the level of water has dropped, but I still fear that the boardwalk and some of the bridges will need some work in the spring. There is obviously a drainage problem somewhere, and the Friends of Coldfall Wood group will be talking to Haringey Council to see what can be done.

I find myself dizzied by the reflections. In photography as in life, it’s hard sometimes to work out which way is up.

The poor crows who normally bathe in the little stream here seem rather confused and disgruntled at all the changes.

And then it’s time to head home, for a cup of tea and some of the leftovers from yesterday’s New Year’s Eve meal. I made the rice pudding with almonds and cranberry compote that I used to make for Mum and Dad, and very nice it was too. Just as well, as I seem to have made enough for about twelve people, and I sense rice pudding for breakfast in my immediate future. All in all, it’s been a very satisfactory start to the New Year. I hope that yours was as much fun as mine was.