Dear Readers, I am so attuned to looking for litter in our local open spaces that when I first saw this collection of puffball fungi growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, my first thought was ‘who dumped a lot of bits of polystyrene?’ But fortunately, for once this is something entirely natural. Giant puffballs can grow to 4kg in size but these were a lot smaller, and had already been extensively nibbled by something or other – small rodents such as mice and squirrels will often eat puffballs, and I suspect that foxes (of which the cemetery has an abundance) wouldn’t be averse to a mushroomy snack either.
Puffballs are edible, and, fried in butter, they are a delicious addition to an English Breakfast. But, as someone had already been eating these I decided to leave them. Hopefully the critters need them more than I do.
Puffballs reproduce by issuing forth a ridiculous number of spores (7 x 10 to the power of 12 according to Wikipedia), which come out of the fungus when it splits, hence the name.
Puffball producing spores (Photo One)
There is something so mysterious about fungi, the way that they work unseen, sometimes for years, and then produce these strange fruiting bodies before disappearing again. We are learning more and more about the way that they work in harmony with plants, helping them to absorb nutrients and water, forming a communication network, and breaking down otherwise indigestible material. And yet, they are largely ignored when we talk about endangered species, and it was only in 2013 that fungi were included on the IUCN Red list. Just as we are only scratching the surface of understanding the intricate relationships between bacteria and our own bodies, so we still have very little comprehension of the complexity of the links between fungi and other species. All the more reason to stop messing about with the environment, I’d have thought.
And then, as we turn to leave the cemetery, I hear a crow calling overhead. Crows have a very particular call when they are mobbing something – even though I don’t speak crow, it’s such a clear ‘call to action’ that it always makes me look up. This time, a single crow had taken objection to a sparrowhawk, and there was a fine dog-fight going on.
Crow to the left, sparrowhawk on the right
Crow to the right, sparrowhawk to the left
The crow’s calls didn’t go unanswered – another bird, probably his/her mate, came barrelling in, and between them they chased the sparrowhawk off. I have seen more exciting encounters by listening for excited crows and then looking to see what they’re worried about than I can count – it’s often a bird of prey but it can also be a heron, or, one one occasion, a poor tawny owl who appeared to be trying to get some sleep. What an excellent tactic for moving predators on, though, and what an example of team work, though I do sometimes feel sorry for the subject of all that cawing and buffeting.
You can hear the crow alarm call below. Something to listen out for!
Dear Readers, many plants are named after animals. Sometimes it’s because there’s something in the colour of a flower or the shape of a leaf that reminded our ancestors of a particular creature. Sometimes it’s because the word has gradually changed over time, or has been mistranslated. And sometimes, it’s because there’s a particular legend associated with the plant. Whatever the reason, our ‘weeds’ contain a positive menagerie of creatures, and this week I want you to fill in the blanks with the name of the animal that is missing. Simple as that!
So, if you think that the plant in the photo above is a Cat Rose, all you’d have to do is put 1) Cat in your answer. Or alternatively you could put 1) Dog, which would be correct :-).
Update – I seem to have missed out number 11! Just send your answers as numbered, I’ll know what you mean.
As usual, please put your answers in the comments by Monday 5 p.m. UK time if you want to be marked (and name-checked on Tuesday!) or feel free to play along on your own if you’d rather. If you are putting your answers into the comments, I suggest you write them down first to avoid being influenced by anyone speedy who has already submitted their answers.
And have fun! I really enjoyed going back through six years of Wednesday Weeds to find these examples for you, and I could easily have done another twenty. It seems that animals are everywhere!
Dear Readers, what a couple of years it’s been! From losing my Mum in December 2018 and my Dad in March this year, via a pandemic, a new job and an increasing love for my local area it has been a turbulent time, with some ups and a whole lot of downs. But somehow I’ve come to the point where I feel as if I’m ready for something new, something testing that will exercise my scorched brain cells and bring together a lot of the things that I’m interested in. And so, Dear Readers, in a few weeks’ time I will be commencing my degree at the Open University.
For those who don’t know, the Open University specialises in distance learning. People who never had the chance to take a degree, or who want to broaden their knowledge, can study for an honours degree at home, using a variety of printed and online materials, tutorials, field courses and seminars. I have to get 360 credits to get my degree, and most people who are doing the work part time take six years to get there.
Like many people, when I was sixteen I was interested in both arts and sciences, and was doing well in both. Ideally, i would have taken English, Sociology and Biology at A Level, but the timetabling just didn’t work, so reluctantly I dropped sciences. Fifty years later (how can that possibly be?) I feel like taking up where I left off. I know a lot of bits and pieces, but there is no framework to bring them altogether, and I’m hoping that I can choose modules that will help me to do that. I am going for an Open degree, which means I can decide what to study as I go along – if I develop an interest in geology or astronomy, or even art history, I can take a module to assuage my curiosity, though I shall be leaning heavily towards biology, ecology and the environment.
My first course is on environmental science, and the course books are arrayed above. How I love the smell of a fresh text book! My highlighters are ready and my notebooks are primed. As soon as the course actually starts on 8th September I will be working out my timetable. I haven’t been this excited in a long time.
What does this mean for the blog? Well, I’m hoping to carry on blogging daily, if only to bombard you with what I’m learning :-). But I’m sure you’ll understand if I have the odd day when my posts are a bit terse. If it turns out to be impossible, I shall let you know. But in my experience, the busier I am the more productive I am, so I am confident that I’ll get job, blog, course and life in general to fit together.
And somehow I feel like Dad, who was insatiably curious about everything right up until his death, would have approved. It’s thanks in part to the little bit of money that was left to me when he died that I’m able to do this. For a man who left school when he was fourteen he was a font of facts about everything from the capitals of Asia Minor to the kings of England, and he, too, would have loved to put all that knowledge together. I feel as if, in a way, I’m doing this for him and for me.
And finally, I realise that I’ve never shared the wallpaper in my tiny back room with you all. I chose this back in 2010, way before Bugwoman existed, but I think she was already brewing even then. What do you think?
Dear Readers, I am certainly getting about a bit on my quest to read through the books on the Wainwright Prize shortlist. This week, I am in Galloway in Scotland with Patrick Laurie, who is exploring the land of his birth as he farms his small herd of Galloway cattle and tries to create habitat to seduce the curlews he remembers from his childhood:
‘My entire family would rush to the kitchen door at night to hear curlews passing between our chimney and the wide, dusty moon.’
But Galloway has been through many changes – there was a rush to plant conifer plantations on the hills, and a later rush to windfarms. Laurie conjures up the sense of walking into one of the ‘forests’ perfectly;
‘Follow tracks into those new forests and you walk in the slot of black gutter’.
The forests brought money, but they also brought destruction;
‘We’ve lost our mountain hares, our black grouse and our eagles as the forests grew. Golden plovers are no more, and now salmon fade into silence. Years pass and the trees become easier to stomach because we can’t remember a time before them’.
Laurie wants to farm in a way that is gentler on the land, though he still wants to be a ‘real’ farmer, not a hobbyist. He wants to buy the local, native cattle because they are superbly adapted to the tussocky grassland:
‘Galloway cows have a particular knack for digesting rough grass. They’re born hungry, and they’ll fatten on feed which many other breeds would refuse to sleep on’.
And furthermore he is attracted to the ‘riggit’ Galloway breed, with its white line along the spine and variety of colours. I’m familiar with the Belted Galloway, which has black hind and forequarters with a white band around its belly, but these riggit cows look tough enough to handle anything that the weather throws at them.
‘Galloways have a long, curly, double coat which can turn away the rain. I watch the water running off their backs and down their sides like a straw raincoat. Their only concession to this weather is to stand with their arses to the wind. They form a corral and the weather breaks upon them as if they were rocks on the shore‘.
Riggit Galloways (Photo One)
But it’s the curlews that Laurie’s mind returns to, again and again.
‘That’s the curlew’s special gift; they’ll wake you to a web of old feelings and it doesn’t matter if they’re not your own. You smile and shudder in one fell swoop, and the day is changed‘.
Curlew (Numenius arquata) (Photo Two)
You can hear their call below.
He waits to see if a pair of the birds who return will nest, and so they do, but even after chicks appear they are quickly taken by predators, usually foxes. Laurie is often tempted to shoot them, but recognises how pointless this is; a new fox will move in to take the territory in a whisper. But he often encounters them;
‘He winds along the tops and only sees me when he is quite close. He freezes. Cold light makes him seem dull and dark, but I know every jammy note in that pelt. There is purple and grey, marmalade and smoke in his mane. He looks to the cattle as if they should have warned him I was here, then drops quietly away into the thickness of deep grass’.
I think what I enjoyed most about this book was the way that Laurie conjures up the quiet moments when he is alone with the cattle, or out on the hills. He has a gift for the telling simile: he imagines a man who has been attacked by one of his cows
‘lying in the long grass with his ribs stoved in like a smashed accordion and grand clouds rolling by without a shrug’.
‘The beasts gather to drink from a deep steel trough and gurgle up threads of drool which blow in the wind like gossamer‘.
‘Listen to a cow eating rushes: it’s a murderous squeak of destruction like the sound of trainers in a squash court‘.
Interwoven with this story of cattle and curlew, of ancient farm machinery brought back to life and local characters with their advice and tales is a personal story of trying to have a child, and the struggle with infertility, the indignities of clinics and the disappointments and sadness. But by the end, the author seems to have come to a kind of peace:
‘I’m drunk on the sight of byre dust swirling in a shaft of sunlight or the rasp of a brush on a granite floor. That kind of pleasure can make the hours sing, and I reach to be better at it because then I belong in the precision of that moment. I never reckoned to find this strength, but it’s a product of deep slowness and patience‘.
This is a beautifully written book, with some sublime moments of observation. It gave me a real sense of the landscape and the creatures of Galloway, of its history and its people. I love to learn something new when I read, and there was much to enjoy here. Recommended.
Dear Readers, Coldfall Wood in North London has been a source of such solace during the lockdown. I walk there early in the morning nearly every day, and even at that hour there are people going for a stroll, getting in their early morning exercise or walking their dogs. I would estimate that there are at least three times as many people using the wood as in a normal year and this has had consequences, both good and bad. The good part is that many folk who have never been in the wood before have grown to love it, and it’s only when people care about a place that it’s possible to protect it.
The down side is that, almost inevitably, parts of the wood have received so much footfall that vegetation has not been able to regenerate. Picnics have resulted in enormous quantities of litter and, when the bins could hold no more, people have dumped their rubbish rather than take it home. In the middle of a drought fires have been lit, and some were still smouldering the following day. Dens have been built out of fallen branches but sometimes live branches have been torn from trees to make a roof.
And on Sunday, I heard the sound of digging, and spoke to a group of grown men who said they were making a bike track for their children. I explained that Coldfall was a nature reserve. I told them that this was an ancient wood. In an attempt to appeal to their sense of self-preservation, I also told them that they were digging perilously close to a gas main. I might as well have been speaking Greek.
I have seldom felt more furious, or more impotent.
When a friend went back to take photos the following afternoon, she found this:
The roots of trees have been exposed, the forest floor has been disrupted, and that’s without the subsequent damage caused by bikes hurtling through the undergrowth. The incident has been reported to the police, but with so much else going on I will be interested to see if they actually have the time to do anything about it. Fortunately the excellent Parks Team at the council are already on the case, and we are hoping that the damage can be ameliorated and prevented from happening again, but even so this is immensely destructive. The hornbeams and oaks are already under pressure from a long period of hot dry weather, followed by torrential rain, followed by high winds. In a time of climate change we need all the trees we can get. Plus, the wood is species-rich; we have a nationally rare beetle, all three species of British woodpecker have been recorded, and the canopy in summer is full of feeding bats. All of them depend on the integrity of the wood and the health of the trees.
Here are just some of the birds that I’ve photographed over the past few years.
Greater Spotted Woodpecker
I am sometimes so disheartened by human beings. We seem incapable of seeing the bigger picture. So often, people think about their own needs or those of their families and don’t see anything beyond that. The trees provide the very oxygen that we breathe, and yet this seems to count for nothing. As the climate heats and changes I am reminded of the Buddhist teachings: we are children playing in a burning building, and yet we don’t have the sense to look around and see what’s happening.
But, fortunately, I’m not the only person who cares about the wood. The dogwalkers notice the changes in the wood, will tell people in no uncertain terms to douse their fires, and are proactive about things like litter. I’m part of the Friends of Coldfall Wood, a group of volunteers who are involved in the care of the wood. I’ve already mentioned the excellent Environment and Neighbourhoods team at Haringey council. We have groups like The Conservation Volunteers who help with the physical management of the wood, and Good Gym who last year planted spring bulbs on the edge of the Playing Fields for us in the pouring rain, and who regularly do litter picks on the run. In short, making sure that the wood stays healthy is a team effort.
Over the past few months my love for this tiny scrap of ancient woodland has deepened and grown. I am only just starting to realise how much there is to learn about the history and ecosystem of the wood, with its complex webs of life. I know that not everyone will cherish the place as much as we do: vandalism will happen, litter will be dropped, branches will be broken. Heartbreak is assured. But working together, we will protect this place. Who will speak for the trees if we don’t?
Dear Readers, some plants are so sprawling, so non-descript and so lacking in flamboyant features that we are apt to pass them by. No plants are more like this than the members of the Amaranthaceae or goosefoot family. Their flowers are collections of tiny white or red blooms held together in clusters, their leaves often look decidedly goose-footish (though not in the case of this species) and you would pass them by as yet another ‘weed’.
However, a member of the goosefoot family has recently become much more famous, and is being grown in various places in the UK. Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) is a South American plant prized for the high nutritional value of its seeds, although the Western appetite for this product was causing severe problems in Peru and other areas where it is a staple for the local population. Some pioneering companies, such as Hodmedods, decided to experiment with growing the grain in this country, along with some of our native bean species which had previously gone out of fashion. It’s also good to remember that in times gone by we ate many members of the goosefoot family ourselves, with Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) and Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) both providing us with grain and leaves.
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) (Photo One)
Many-Seeded Goosefoot is originally native to mainland Europe and Asia, but is considered an archaeophyte in the UK ( a plant that arrived earlier than 1500). Why 1500? Because after this point, the Voyages of Discovery to the New World resulted in a flood of new plant species to the UK, carried in ballast, in shipments of new exotic crops, and in cloth. It was a somewhat arbitrary line, but humans do love to categorise things as we know. Plants that arrived after this date are known as Neophytes. The whole subject of plant arrivals to the UK is a fascinating one: in ‘Alien Plants’, Stace and Crawley point out that many goosefoot species originally survived because they had such a close resemblance to the crop plant that was actually wanted. The Chenopodium species look very similar to sugar beet, for example, especially when they are young, and so they often survived. Many-Seeded Goosefoot is widely naturalised, in particular in North America where it probably arrived with the crops brought by the original settlers. It has been our companion for a very long time.
Many-Seeded Goosefoot is a specialist of heavy, clay soils, and particularly likes ponds that are drying out – it is a real opportunist, and those ‘many seeds’ no doubt help. Goosefoots in general have the highest tolerance for nitrogen of any ‘weed’, and often appear on dung-heaps or as arable weeds. Other members of the family, such as the sea-beet and the glassworts, are seaside specialists, taking joy in salt marshes and the strand line. It has not escaped my notice that there is a stand of spear-leaved orache close to the tennis courts in Cherry Tree Wood, where dogs regularly pee.
Many-seeded goosefoot (Chenopodium polyspermum)
What seems to be distinctive about this species of goosefoot (though I have to be careful because it hybridises easily) are the blackish seeds, and the particularly sprawling habit. Most other goosefoots are more upright, but many-seeded goosefoot seems to take every opportunity for a lie-down, and I can hardly blame it after the heatwave we’ve had. Also, note the rather pretty pink stems.
Many-seeded goosefoot seeds (Photo Two)
There are many recipes using goosefoot species – both the young leaves as a spinach substitute and, occasionally, the seeds. Most of these use Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), but I see no reason why you couldn’t use Many-Seeded Goosefoot if that’s all that you have. You can get some idea of the possibilities here. Fat Hen is still grown as a food crop in India, and there are many delicious recipes for dal, raita and other spicy delights on the interwebs – this one, for daal, is just a sample.
Goosefoot Dal (Photo Three)
Medicinally, the goosefoot species are often used as an emollient, and are made into poultices for boils, abscesses and wounds (hence one of its alternative names ‘Smearwort’). The plant is high in oxalic acid so should be avoided by folk with kidney complaints or gout.
And so, dear readers, before we leave this ‘ordinary’ plant, I am glad to share a couple of poems with you. First, this one.
And then this one, by Russian poet Sergey Alaxandrovich Yesenin, who died in 1925, and was famous for his poems about love and the simple life. This one is mysterious and rather lovely, I thought.
Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that my not making this quiz multiple-choice was pretty wicked, so let’s not do that again :-). Congratulations to FEARN for getting 9 out of 15, while Rayna got 8 and Rosalind got six. As FEARN said, ‘this one is impossible’, so well done to everyone for having a bash.
Dear Readers, as summer draws to a close there is a marked increase in activity. Flocks of young starlings are back in the garden, squabbling and sparring in their new livery – grown-up spots and iridescence on their bellies, infant tan and dun on their heads. Neither one thing or another, they try to act like adults but they often seem to be playing at it. They still gaze around, wide-eyed, when other birds are sounding the alarm. Winter is coming, and I wonder how many of them will survive it. Still, they are sticking together, and there’s more chance of finding food in a crowd, even though there might be less of it to go round.
And in the cemetery, magic is happening. We come out of a narrow avenue of yew trees and in the open area beyond, dozens of dragonflies are hawking for insects, drawing zig-zags in the sky, zooming low over the graves and then arcing up above the treetops. They move too fast to be captured on my camera, but they mostly look like Emperors – although dragonflies need water to breed, once that job is done they can often be seen in forest clearings. I have watched one pouncing upon a speckled wood butterfly, which stood no chance at all against these masters of the air. I see a few bright red common darters as well, stitching lines between the aerial ropes of the emperors. What a precious resource St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is, even more so since the lockdown, when much of it goes unvisited except at the weekends. I miss my early morning walks, but can’t help thinking that the woody areas are probably better off without walkers and dogs.
Common darters (red male and blue female) (Photo Two)
As I watch the dragonflys’ hypnotic dance, I notice a small bird of prey fly overhead and into the trees. Most probably it’s a kestrel (I’ve seen them in the cemetery several times before) but a part of me wonders if it’s a hobby (Falco subbuteo) – this bird is well-known for eating large insects, including dragonflies, and also beetles such as the rose chafer that I reported on earlier this week. I read an account recently of a whole pile of the metallic green wing-covers (elytra) left at the base of a fence pole – all that remained of the rose chafers dissected and eaten by a hobby. All I saw of ‘my’ bird was a striped underside and elegant wings. Probably a kestrel, but I can dream. Anyhow, kestrels will also eat dragonflies, so perhaps the motivation was the same.
Hobby (Falco subbuteo) (Photo Three)
On we go, into a woodier part of the cemetery characterised by tall ash, oak and horse chestnut trees. The horse chestnuts are always in a parlous state by August, their poor leaves reduced to crunchy fragments by leaf-miner moths and various fungi. But suddenly we are surrounded by a chorus of soft cheeping sounds, more than I’ve ever heard in one place. The calls come from behind us and to both sides, and I realise that we’re in the middle of a huge group of long-tailed tits. I count thirty, and see that the group also contains some great tits and blue tits as well. At this time of the year, young birds in particular gang up and search for food en masse. What interests me greatly is what they seem to be eating. I manage to get only one photo because these little birds move so quickly, but I can see that the tits appear to be rummaging around in the leaves, pecking away at what I hope are the larvae that are still in the leaves. It would be a great thing if birds are starting to recognise the leaf-miners as food – it’s a rich resource for them, and it would help the horse chestnuts as well.
Poor photo of a long-tailed tit pecking for leaf miners in a horse chestnut leaf
Long-tailed tits are some of my favourite birds – they remind me of little avian monkeys, scrambling through the branches and causing mischief. I have often heard the flock in the cemetery, although the calls are soft enough to miss if you aren’t ‘tuned in’. I love that the lockdown has meant that I end up doing a smaller number of walks more frequently, and the turn of the seasons feels very real when you see the changes from day to day, week to week. Also, writing about these birds gives me an excuse to post some of the photos that I’m most proud of, some shots of some newly-emerged long-tailed tits in the cemetery. There is much to be said for walking slowly, keeping your eyes and ears open, and being prepared for anything.
Dear Readers, they say that ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’, and this week I thought we’d look deeply and lovingly into the eyes of some of the UK’s commonest wildlife, to see what we could see. There are fifteen eyes below, and all you need to do is to tell me who they belong to. Just to make it a smidge harder, for once I’m not going to make this multiple choice, so you can tell me who you think you’re looking at.
As per normal, I will publish the answers on Tuesday, so if you want to be marked, pop your answers in the comments here on the blog before 5 p.m. UK time on Monday. Also, you might want to write your answers down before you get to the comments if you don’t want to be influenced by those who have gone before. Finally, some of the photos are a little blurred at this magnification. Just take it as an additional challenge :-).
Dear Readers, every so often something happens in the garden that reminds me exactly why I have a lot of scruffy hemp agrimony plants hanging around for months, and today was one of them. When this amazing insect flew over at first all I got was a burst of iridescent green, and I was convinced that it was a dragonfly. When it landed and the sun glinted off the carapace, I realised that a rose chafer beetle had landed, the first one I’d seen since I was last in Austria. What a pretty creature it is, as big as my thumb to the first joint and as bumbling and cuddly an insect as you’d wish to find.
Rose chafers have a bad reputation because they are rather partial to dog roses (hence the name). This one seemed to be mainly stocking up on pollen, and the grubs are handy detritivores, munching on rotting vegetation. And really, it looks like a jewel. Who could resist it?
One rather endearing thing is the way that it flies around with its elytra (the wingcases) closed and the wings out.
Rose chafer in flight – A great photo series by Bernie (Public Domain)
I can’t begin to tell you how seeing something like this cheers me up – the world seems so full of wonders just waiting for us to notice them. It has been so wet this last week that I’ve barely been able to get outside the front door, so there was a special joy in sitting in the sunshine and drinking my tea this morning, even without this beautiful creature turning up.
And then, it launched itself into the air, did a quick celebratory circle of the garden to see if it was missing anything and headed off at great speed in an easterly direction. They fly surprisingly quickly for such big critters, and I can imagine if one flew into you it would leave quite a bruise.
And finally, if you want to see a really amazing video showing all sorts of insects that don’t look as if they should be able to fly at all taking off in slow motion, have a look at the link below. I suspect you’ll have to belong to evil Facebook to see it, but it’s worth it. Have fun!