Monthly Archives: August 2020

Friday Book – Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

Dear Readers, I am a sucker for a book in the form of a diary – there’s something about those daily entries, the feeling of a story unfolding across time, that I find very appealing. Plus,  this is no ordinary diary. Dara McAnulty is a teenager, living in Northern Ireland, with a passionate involvement with, and interest in, the natural world. That’s not all, though. McAnulty has a younger brother and  sister, and

Not only is our family bound together by blood, we are all autistic, all except Dad – he’s the odd one out, and he’s also the one we rely on to deconstruct the mysteries of not just the natural world, but the human one too. Together, we make for an eccentric and chaotic bunch. We’re pretty formidable, apparently. We’re as close as otters, and huddled together, we make our way in the world‘.

McAnulty guides us through his world, and while there are ways in which he experiences the world in a different way from many of us, there are so many occasions when I could empathise with him: before a holiday to Rathlin Island, for example, there is that all too familiar mixture of anticipation and terror.

Perhaps it’s because I love new places and hate new places all at once. The smells, the sounds. Things that nobody else notices. The people, too. And the right and wrong of things. Small things, like how we’d line up for the ferry, or what was expected of me on Rathlin when we arrived’.

When the diary begins, McAnulty is living in suburbia, and is suffering at school:

The fourth ‘report card’ of the year has kept my feet from touching soil and grass, and locked me in a cycle of exams where freedom seems nonexistent. The classrooms at school are claustrophobic. Through the stale air I’m bombarded with fidgets, sighs, shifts, rustles as loud as rumbles. The rooms are bright, so bright that the reds and yellows pierce my retinas. Fluorescents drowning natural light. I can’t see outside. I feel boxed in, a wild thing caged‘.

Outside, though, it’s different.

The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. ….Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel this way very often’. 

And McAnulty has been horribly bullied at school;

Unfortunately for me, I’m different. Different from everyone in my class. Different from most people in my school. But at breaktime today I watched the pied wagtails fly in and out of the nest. How could I feel lonely when there are such things?

But this is far from a misery memoir of any kind. Early in the book, McAnulty’s mother tells the family that they are moving house, to County Down. The author doesn’t know it, but this is going to be the start of an extraordinary rebirth for him. Nonetheless, there is the fear of change, and the loss of familiarity.

Every day, ever since I can remember, Mum has sat me down, sat us all down, and explained every situation that we’ve ever had to deal with. Whether it was going to the park, to the cinema, to someone’s house, to a cafe. Every time, all manner of things were delicately instructed. Social cues, meanings of gestures, some handy answers if we didn’t know what to say. Pictures, social stories, diagrams, cartoons. Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different’.

How I hoped that the move would be a good thing! I have rarely kept my fingers so tightly crossed for an author. And the first signs are good. McAnulty makes a friend with the boy next door, Jude:

We chat aimlessly about mythology and animals and – just stuff. I’ve never been good at conversation. It’s an art I don’t know the rules of. Either I just ramble on, spouting facts, not listening to the other person, or else I silently gawp, muddled by how to take part. It’s how it’s always been. With Jude, though, it feels easy. There’s no third person, no chiding, no group, no bullies. I’m cautious though. It’s like I’m waiting for the contempt to slip out, even accidentally’. 

And when he starts at his new school, the author quickly finds his feet:

I have never talked so much at school, ever…Discussing science, Star Wars, nature, maths, philosophy, history. Everything. I even started to wonder if this was what being normal actually felt like, but had to stop myself because normal is definitely not something I want to be. it felt strange, alien. But such a relief‘.

I have gone two weeks without being bullied. Two weeks. This is the longest period I’ve experienced without taunts and jibes or fists landing’ .

And as a brief interjection here, how horrific it is that this kind of aggression is tolerated in a school. McAnulty’s new school shows that it doesn’t have to be that way, that a bullying culture can be changed if everyone is determined to make it so. How I feel for all the children afraid to go to school, unable to learn, because they are afraid of physical and mental abuse.

The author’s connection to nature is profound. He is angered when a little boy finds a conker and the child’s mother throws it away because it’s ‘dirty’.

As I watch, anger surges inside. I think about all these tiny wrongdoings, everywhere in every season, the tiniest crimes. The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?’

Good question. Slowly, almost without noticing, McAnulty is drawn into the world of activism: he starts an eco group at school, something that would have been unthinkable at his old school. He goes on strike and stands alone in the freezing cold with two placards, one saying ‘School Strike for Nature’ and the other ‘School Strike for Climate’. He is frustrated, though, by the questions that he’s asked, and by the way that he’s now a ‘leader’.

Instead of asking about the issues, they wanted to talk about ‘me’, how I ‘felt’. Not the science or the facts’.

At the start of the book, McAnulty talks about the blackbird that he hears singing. Later, he talks about his favourite saint, St Kevin, who, legend has it, stood so still that a blackbird made her nest in his hand, and so he stood until the eggs had hatched and the fledglings flew away. The author, who has tried throughout this diary to work out how to both protect himself and to be part of the world, ends with this.

A blackbird might never choose to nest and lay its eggs in my palm, but I know that my hand will always be outstretched, to nature and to people. Because we’re not separate from nature. We are nature. And without a community, when you’re always on your own, it’s more difficult to share ideas and to grow’.

This is a remarkable book by a remarkable young man. It gave me insight into what it’s like to live with autism, the joys and tribulations of family life, and how activism takes root and grows. More than anything, it gives a marvellous window into the nature of Northern Ireland, and of the joys of paying attention. Highly recommended.

An East Finchley Update

Dear Readers, one thing that going for a daily walk before work has taught me is the restorative power of having something pretty to look at. Although the front gardens on my street are tiny, I love the effort that people have put into making them attractive. Here are a selection spotted in about two minutes.

 

I love the imaginative use of the gap in the brick wall here. Every season there’s something new.

I do love pampas grass. I know it’s a bit retro, but I love seeing the finches ripping bits off for their nests. This one has had lots of babies though, unfortunately.

This hebe is my number one plant within walking distance if I’m looking for late or early bumblebees.

I do love an imaginative use of pots.

Tutsan is really popular around these parts: a close relative of St John’s wort, it seems to flower forever.

And there are some fine apples and crab apples starting to appear.

Then it’s across the road to the Cherry Tree estate – these houses are later (1920s and 30s) with bigger front gardens, and some of them are gorgeous.

I thought that this fabulous plant might be a rhodichiton, but I’m sure one of you lovely people can let me know for sure 🙂

And I love this garden with its pond and little willow. Trees like goat willow are very important for early pollinators – I was wondering about getting a Kilmarnock willow for the garden for this very reason.

And the hibiscus this year! This garden has a blue one and a white one, and very fine they are too, so unexpected in a suburban road in North London.

And then it’s off to Cherry Tree Wood for a quick romp around the tennis courts and back to the main road. I am intrigued by this plant, which is growing very well. I am thinking Common Orache (Atriplex patula) but will have to go in closer for a proper look at the leaves. I am always hoping to find those Old English pot herbs Good King Henry(Chenopodium bonus-henricus) or Fat Hen (Chenopodium album) but no luck yet. What excellent Wednesday Weeds they would make!

Then it’s off to my favourite weed-spotting site, the unadopted road between the wood and Baronsmere Road. One thing that is doing very well is the Russian vine (Mile-a-minute plant) Fallopia baldschuanica). Well, what can you expect of a close relative of the dreaded Japanese Knotweed? I see that it also goes by the name of Bukhara Fleeceflower. Who knew?

I spy some evening primrose flowers, beloved by moths and a member of the willowherb family.

Lots of Japanese anemones are out too, a very reliable autumn plant in these parts, and tolerant of shade too.

When I get to the High Street, I see that the traffic light on the corner has been completely demolished. Usually a passing lorry just clips it until it is at a 45 degree angle, but this must have been a rather more substantial collision. As usual we’ll just have to be careful crossing the junction -pedestrians are definitely at the bottom of the pecking order in London generally, and at this crossing in particular.

And then it’s home. The buddleia outside my house are all but finished (although every time I think about cutting them back they throw another half-dozen flowers). What they do have is lots of honeydew on their leaves, which means that our little black and yellow friends the wasps are all over the plant, licking up the sugar. Methinks the pruning is going to have to be done with a watchful eye and great care. Fortunately it’s raining at the moment, so by the time I get to it maybe the problem will have eased a bit. Otherwise, wish me luck!

Wednesday Weed – Horseradish

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Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)

Dear Readers, there is a positive explosion of horseradish in the cemetery at the moment. I associate this plant with the over-grazed common land of Hackney Downs, back when I was a child: rugged ponies used to be tethered there (invariably piebald I seem to remember) and the turf was nibbled down to the roots. All that survived was great clumps of this stuff, and it seemed to me odd that something named after a horse seemed to be the only thing they wouldn’t eat.

I was therefore pleased to learn that the name probably has nothing to do with horses at all. In German, the plant is called ‘meerrettich’ (sea radish) and it’s thought that the English thought that it was called mare radish. From there, it was only a short jump to horseradish. Plus, calling anything ‘horse’ apparently used to mean that it was coarse and uncivilised, so maybe this also had something to do with the naming of this most uncompliant plant.

The plant is a member of the Brassicaceae or cabbage family, and has been grown for over 2000 years, largely as a medicinal plant – its pungent root has been used in salves for joint pain since 1500 B.C. It was also said, like many eye-watering herbs, to be useful as an aphrodisiac. Sadly, unlike the prickly lettuce  that I mentioned a few weeks ago, it doesn’t seem to have a priapic God to accompany the legend, but I do find it interesting that cabbage relatives, surely the most unromantic of plants in terms of their wind-producing aftereffects, have historically been used as a kind of sulphurous love-potion. Tastes certainly do change. 

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Horseradish was also said to be a diuretic (and was hence used extensively for dropsy), a vermifuge (for expelling intestinal worms) and was said to be extremely useful for treating coughs – maybe something that could come in handy what with Covid and all. A slice of horseradish root in milk is said to improve the complexion, and if combined with lemon juice it can remove freckles, though why anyone would want to get rid of those delightful attributes I have no idea.

According to my Alien Plants book (by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley), horseradish is unusual in being mostly sterile (it almost never sets seed), with all the plants we see coming from the rhizomes. Many of the plants that appear alongside roadsides are the result of people throwing out unwanted plants from their gardens. Why then, I wonder, is this one particular grave in St Pancras and Islington (pictured above) absolutely covered in horseradish? The world is full of mysteries, to be sure. All theories gladly considered.

Of course, most of us know of horseradish in association with roast beef, although from the 1600s on in the UK it was also eaten with oysters. Country inns used to grow it so that they could harvest the root and grate it on the spot, which is undoubtedly the most eye-watering way to eat it. The English in particular, having no chillies or black pepper to call their own, seem to like the pungency of ingredients like English mustard and horseradish, and are rarely happy unless their eyes are watering and their nasal passages on fire.

These days, horseradish seems to have become popular with smoked fish (maybe something of the Scandinavian influence has rubbed off), and we also regularly eat it in Austria, especially with the boiled meat dish Tafelspitz.  Personally, I find it a tricky ingredient to pair with other flavours, but do let me know what you think. Interestingly, horseradish is one of the ingredients of the Jewish Seder plate, and an American food writer mentions that she used to eat ‘Hillel sandwiches’ (named for the famous Rabbi Hillel) which consisted of matzoh, horseradish and charoset (a very sweet, sticky mixture of apples and nuts with sweet wine). She came up with a recipe for apple tart with walnut-horseradish frangipane, which looks delicious, and could possibly work if the balance is right. The recipe is here, and there’s a photo below to encourage you.

Photo One from https://food52.com/recipes/10817-apple-tart-with-walnut-horseradish-frangipane

Apple tart with walnut-horseradish frangipane (Photo One)

A quick look at Vickery’s Folk Flora pulls up a few other interesting uses for horseradish. In the Fens, one way of determining the sex of an unborn baby was for the prospective parents to sleep with a piece of horseradish under each of their pillows. If the husband’s horseradish turned black before his wife’s, the baby would be a boy, and vice versa.

Horseradish leaves (which look superficially like those of dock) can be used to treat nettle stings.

My favourite comment, though, was this:

My now ex-husband and I lived in a Steiner community near Middlesbrough for about a year. During that time he was very depressed and often angry. He was advised by a senior member of the community to wrap horseradish leaves on his feet to draw the heat from his head. It didn’t work and we divorced six months later‘.

This conjures up such a picture of domestic bliss, don’t you think?

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Horseradish at the front, knotweed at the back.

And finally, a poem. During the 2012 Olympics (and how long ago does that seem now?) the Scottish Poetry Library collaborated with BBC Radio to publish a poem by every country involved in the competition. Song 352 was from Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysesha, and I love the image of homely horseradish and his always hospitable hut. Horseradish is thought to come originally from the grasslands of Eastern Europe, and so I imagine it being woven into the culinary memories of people from all over this part of the world.

Song 352 by Oleh Lysheha 

When you need to warm yourself,
When you are hungry to share a word,
When you crave a bread crumb,
Don’t go to the tall trees —
You’ll not be understood there, though
Their architecture achieves cosmic perfection,
Transparent smoke winds from their chimneys..
Don’t go near those skyscrapers —
From the one-thousandth floor
They might toss snowy embers on your head..
If you need warmth
It’s better to go to the snow-bound garden.
In the farthest corner you’ll find
The lonely hut of the horseradish..
Yes, it’s here, the poor hut of a horseradish..
Is there a light on inside? — Yes, he’s always at home..
Knock at the door of horseradish..
Knock on the door of his hut..
Knock, he will let you in..

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://food52.com/recipes/10817-apple-tart-with-walnut-horseradish-frangipane

Sunday Quiz – A Rose By Any Other Name – The Answers

Dear Readers, congratulations to FEARN who got 15 out of 15 correct – give that woman a gold star! No other takers for the quiz this week, but I guess it’s the holiday season :-).

1) d) Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

2) f) Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

 

3) h) Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

4) j) Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum)

5)k) Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis)

6)b) Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

Photo Two by © Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

7)  Pirri-pirri burr (Acaena novae-zelandiae)

8)l) Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

9) i) Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

10) o) Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

11)n) Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

12) a) Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

13) e) Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

14) c) Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

15) g) Wall Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

The Storm Cock

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Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Dear Readers, I popped out for a walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery yesterday morning, grabbing a window between the bouts of stormy weather that we’re having at the moment. The cemetery was much quieter than usual, and I took a different route – I was trying to spy out where the worst patches of Japanese Knotweed are, because they are coming through the fence and on to the edge of the playing fields next door. The great thing about a new route is that you spot things that you wouldn’t normally see, like this grave marker, for example. There are several sites in the cemetery where the remains from graveyards that no longer exist have been re-interred, but this was a new one to me.

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We saw several foxes (and indeed I nearly tripped over one) but none of them stayed long enough for me to get a photograph. However, autumn has come early to the horse chestnuts, who are shedding their leaves due to various leaf-miner and fungal attacks, making the paths decidedly fox-coloured.

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The diseased leaves have a kind of beauty, too.

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We tramp through the mud and find some very impressive patches of knotweed, and a veritable forest of horseradish too.

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Horseradish

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We circle back through the more modern part of the cemetery, and a flock of four birds catches my eye. They fly fast, with a contact call that sounds like an old-fashioned football rattle. And then one perches on the top of a tree, and I see that this is a family of mistle thrushes, commonly known as ‘storm cocks’ from their habit of sitting at the top of tall trees and singing right from the beginning of the year, whatever the weather.

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I have seen these in East Finchley in Cherry Tree Wood, where a family breed, but these seem wilder, some how – I’m glad for the x50 optical zoom on my camera, because they certainly weren’t letting me get any closer. They have a habit of perching on the top of tall trees to sing in the spring, and in the winter they may commandeer a heavily-laden holly or hawthorn tree and defend it from all comers. In Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey have tales of the bird defending its nest against all comers, ‘driving away sparrowhawk and buzzard, knocking a barn owl off its perch and attacking and killing a jackdaw’. I must say I’m impressed, and I loved seeing this family today. Whether they will stay around is another matter, but it’s an indication of how much open spaces like the cemetery matter for wildlife. At the moment it is absolutely full of rose hips and berries, and I imagine it will be a magnet for birds over the next few months.

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The ever-present crows are keeping their eyes open for an opportunity too. Have a look at this one at its funereal best.

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On the way back, I stumble upon one of the many graves commemorating those who died in the First World War. The Artist’s Rifles, with their badge of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva, were founded as a volunteer unit in 1859, when there was a great fear of a French invasion after an attack on Napoleon III had been linked to the UK. Originally it comprised painters, architects, writers and others involved in creative endeavours. This was gradually widened to include other ‘professionals’, and soon lawyers, doctors and civil engineers were making up a sizeable proportion of the unit. In the 1901 census, Percy Hamlen, the soldier commemorated on the headstone,  was living in Lincoln Road (just a few roads away from me) and was 2 years old, sharing a house with his mother and father, four other children and a servant. IMG_1773

Ten years later, in the 1911 census, he had moved to Clifton Road, his mother is no longer on the census, and the youngest child, just two months old in 1901, is also absent. By 1914, when Private Percy Hamlen was just 16 years old, he died. From the death register, it appears that he died at home, so at least he isn’t one of the many who disappeared. A cemetery contains as many stories as there are graves, and more besides, and I find myself deeply moved by the death of such a young man, whose grave lies peacefully under the horse chestnuts. It is hard to remember that the statistics of any tragedy, be it a war or a pandemic, hide so many unique individuals, each one with their history, their quirks, their kindnesses, but remember we must, if we believe, as I do, that every life has value.

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Sunday Quiz – A Rose By Any Other Name

Dear Readers, the rose family (Rosaceae) is one of the most diverse of flowering plant families, with 55 species in the UK alone. So, this week’s quiz is simple: match the names to the photos. And hopefully everything will be coming up roses 🙂

As usual, answers in the comments by 5 p.m. UK time on Monday if you want to be marked, and if you don’t want to be influenced by speedy people, write your answers down first. Onwards!

Choose the species from the list below. So, if you think the plant in photo one is a dog rose, your answer is 1) a). Good luck!

a) Dog Rose (Rosa canina)

b) Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis)

c) Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

d) Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

e) Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus)

f) Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)

g) Wall Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis)

h) Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

i) Crab Apple (Malus sylvestris)

j) Herb Bennet (Geum urbanum)

k) Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis)

l) Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

m) Pirri-pirri-bur (Acaena novae-zelandiae)

n) Whitebeam (Sorbus aria)

o) Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

1)

2)

3)

4)

Photo One by © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

5)

6)

Photo Two by © Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

7)

8)

9)

10)

11)

12)

13)

14)

15)

Strewth…

Dear Readers, when I was complaining about the heat a few days ago, one of you lovely people told me to be careful what I wished for. Well, last night the weather finally broke. The thunder was so loud that it made it me drop my Kindle, and the poor cat crept up to the bedroom and lay between us, as flat to the covers as she could possibly get. What with the random letting-off of fireworks (people round here seem to celebrate anything with pyrotechnics) plus the terrifying vacuum cleaner, she’s had a nerve-wracking time of it lately, and the storm was almost the final straw. However, the coolness afterwards was delicious, and so I was looking forward to my walk this morning to see what had happened.

Which brings us to the pan. Before the storm the water level was well below the rivets that hold the handles on. This morning it’s well above them (and that’s without the obvious splashage. I reckon we had about an inch of rain in 45 minutes.

The pond is practically full and the purple loosestrife is leaning at a most peculiar angle.

The hemp agrimony looks damp but undefeated.

And so we head off to Cherry Tree Wood, the ‘tamer’ of the two woods within walking distance. This one has a children’s playground, tennis courts, and is generally more of what you’d expect from a municipal park, though it does still have some chunks of ancient woodland. A family of crows were digging for worms at the entrance, something they can finally do now that the rain has softened up the soil a bit.

I suspect that this was Mum and Dad with one of their two youngsters in the background. The adult crows pretty much rule the wood, and I once saw them on the rails of the Northern Line at East Finchley station, trying to eat a dead rat that seemed to have expired during an ill-advised trip across the live rail. I was worried that they’d be mown down by an approaching tube train, but they were happy to fly up and let the weight of the carriages do a bit of squashing for them. Sorry. I do love the way that they take every opportunity, though. The fledglings will learn a lot from their parents.

 

 

And then we go into the wood, and I start to notice what the rain has really done.

If you look closely, you can see all the rivers and streams that last night’s rainfall has carved through the fallen leaves. It gave me a real sense of the lay of the land and helps to explain why the grassy area to the right of this photo gets so sodden during years of heavy rainfall.

Apologies for the shaky photo! I don’t think I changed the settings after my dusk photos on Thursday. Doh.

 

 

 

 

It might not be the last of the rain either – according to BBC weather we have an 88% chance of another storm tonight between 21.00 and 22.00. I shall clutch my Kindle tightly and try to warn the cat.

Friday Book – Dark, Salt, Clear – Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash

Dear Readers, as we know I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist for the Wainwright Prize, and Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash  was a good, cooling read for the middle of a heatwave. The author spent about three months in Newlyn in Cornwall, a week on a trawler, and some time on the other fishing boats. Admittedly her mother is Cornish, and Ash had spent time on holiday in Cornwall as a child, but was this enough time to really get to know an area, and to write about it? Plus Ash is young, a Londoner, by her own definition ‘posh’. In truth, I was prepared to hate the book – I was worried that it was yet another example of someone who drops in on a culture, harvests a few pages and moves on.

However, several things save it. One is that Ash recognises herself as a ‘fish out of water’ when she first joins the trawler, and her greatest fear is that her seasickness will be so bad that she won’t be able to continue. She is brutally honest about her naivety – she asks the Captain of the Filadelfia for the wifi code, and he laughs, asking her if she knows how much it costs at sea? She is determined not to just sit around writing and taking photos and joins in the fish gutting, graduating from lemon sole to monkfish to rays, and eventually the highest skill of all, filleting. She desperately wants, at first, to belong, but gradually realises that this is impossible, and also that it’s ok, that there are many ways of relating to a place:

‘Though the town felt a huge experience for me, I was a blip, barely even that, in the long lives of most of its residents: a kid with a smart London accent who stuck out like a sore thumb, who asked a few questions and then left again’.

Secondly, she sees both the good things about Newlyn, and the things that are problematic, both its tight-knit, celebratory culture and the alcoholism, depression and insularity.

Sat there in the backroom office amongst half-inflated lifeboats, Lofty provides me with a list of some of his favourite ‘Newlyn’ phrases. ‘Good as gold’ is one he uses all the time to describe other members of the community, the goodness in this case simply meaning kindness and not needing to mean anything more than that. I can’t believe so many people in one place can be good as gold. One of my friends back home suggested that calling someone nice is practically an insult; when any of us gives a person a compliment, it is always that they are interesting, or smart, or cool, in recognition of some external factor rather than an innate quality or the way they treat others.

‘When I tell people I’m from London, I often get responses like:’There’s too many people. It’s filthy. And no one speaks to you; no one speaks English, even’. 

More than anything, though, Ash can write. I had a real sense of what it might be like to be at sea on a trawler, and I enjoyed some of the images she conjures up immensely.

Every time they come across small sharks wriggling out of the pile and snapping their strong jaws, they fire them back into the sea like shot-puts. I lock eyes with one and see across its face an expression of utter disbelief as it flies right past the wheelhouse window’.

From a birds-eye view the pontoons look like slender trees whose leaves are the boats that colour and animate them, blowing slightly in the wind’. 

The crabs themselves look to me like old leather purses, the kind you find in boxes at the back of charity shops or swinging from the arms of grannies.’

One moment really captured my attention. On the way home from her week at sea, one of the crewmen tell her that as soon as the ship comes within five miles of the land and gets a mobile signal again, everyone will pick up their phones and stop talking to one another. And so it proves:

‘Our fingers caress the smooth, clean surfaces of our virtual lives and in each of our eyes shines a reflected blue oblong. And, like that, the community of the past eight days fractures.’

And so, I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. I learned a lot about Cornwall, and about Newlyn and its fishing community. I found I was sympathetic to the author as she tried to fit in, to make herself useful and to understand how things worked.  I liked that she knew that she had only scratched the surface of the community that had welcomed her, and that she would never truly get to the bottom of what made them how they were. It will be interesting to see what she writes next, and I would love to hear the opinions of my West Country readers.

 

Waiting For the Sky To Fall

Dear Readers, the heat and humidity in London for the past few days has been difficult to bear for those of us already prone to hot flushes –  this is the longest hot spell in London since 1961, with temperatures consistently going above 34 degrees. I can hear all you people who live in Australia and South Africa and Asia laughing your heads off, but here in the UK we aren’t used to it, and the heat island effect of being in the city means that it never really gets chilly. Poor old things we are, sweating at our laptops and trying to decide whether a cup of tea actually does help or not. And so last night, braving the mosquitoes, we sat in our back garden, listening to the thunder and watching the lightning hopefully. Sadly, we got not a drop of a wet stuff.

There is something about sitting quietly, waiting for something to happen. I noticed a crisp, dry leaf falling prematurely from the whitebeam and skittering down the trunk. I saw the beautiful fluffy black cat rummaging in the leaves, and summoned up the energy to chase him after he grabbed a frog and ran away with it. I saw lots more lazy wasps amidst all the bees and hoverflies, a sure sign of autumn if ever there is one.

The heat lay over everything like a damp towel. A fork of lightning appeared over by the block of flats, and a few drops of rain spattered down, and then stopped.

We were watching for bats, and one careered past, flying low over the lilac, zig-zagging above the pond and then round and off. I didn’t see another one. A robin sang half-heartedly for a few seconds and then stopped, as if embarrassed.

The darkness gathered, as it does.

And still no rain.  So many new houses and flats are built without adequate protection from the sun – there are some apartments with enormous windows half a mile from me, and they are all south-facing. During the last heatwave, I was listening to the radio and a young woman said that it was so dangerously hot indoors that she had to take her new baby and her toddler and sit in a cafe all day, nursing a drink for as long as she dared. We are not prepared for the world that is coming, not at all.

Mum used to hate it when it got too hot. She’d strip off to her bra and sit in her chair complaining. Latterly, she forgot how to use the electric fan so the neighbours used to pop in to make sure it was on. Like so many elderly people, she didn’t drink enough either. Dad, on the other hand, loved the sun, and would go brown at the merest whisper of sunlight. I rather like the heat, normally, but in the middle of a pandemic it feels like one more thing that’s out of my control, something else to bear.

I have scattered a handful of dog food in case the fox puts in an appearance. She doesn’t, but the frog-murdering cat enjoys it.

I slap at a mosquito, and notice that the single bite has somehow set off my heat rash – I have no idea why this happens, but a solitary nibble by a midge or gnat has me scratching all over. What a wreck I am. A drop in the temperature of about 10 degrees Fahrenheit would turn me into a completely different person. As it is I am a sweaty, exhausted, slightly headachy curmudgeon with no redeeming features whatsoever. I hope that, wherever you are, you are dealing with things better than I am.

Wednesday Weed – Lady’s Bedstraw

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)

Dear Readers, this lovely plant has been flowering among the spear thistles and greater knapweed alongside Muswell Hill Playing Fields. It is such a discreet little thing that you could easily overlook it, but it has a long history of use by human beings. Lady’s Bedstraw is honey-scented when fresh, but smells of new-mown hay when dried, and this is one reason that it was used in straw mattresses. It was also believed to deter fleas, which must have been an additional bonus in medieval times, and until recently it was believed that the plant, dried between sheets of newspaper, could deter clothes moths.In Scandinavia, the plant was used as a sedative and analgesic for women in childbirth: the Norse goddess who helped women in labour was Frigg, and so the plant is known as ‘Frigg’s grass’.

The plant’s sedative qualities were also recognised in Gaelic mythology: a tea made from Lady’s Bedstraw was said to calm the terrifying battle frenzy of the hero Cúchulainn.

In Romania, Lady’s Bedstraw is known as Sânzianā, and was originally linked to the huntress goddess Diana (who was worshipped by the ancient Dacians who originally lived in the area). Nowadays, the Sânziene have been demoted to fairies, but these are still seen as powerful, wih the ability to promote fertility and cause injury. The festival of Sânziene is held every year on June 24th (although it is now said to be the ‘Festival of John the Baptist’ this is clearly based on a pagan midsummer celebration). Lady’s Bedstraw is central to the event:

“The folk practices of Sânziene imply that the most beautiful maidens in the village dress in white and spend all day searching for and picking flowers, of which one MUST be Galium verum (Lady’s bedstraw or Yellow bedstraw) which in Romanian is also named “Sânziànă”. Using the flowers they picked during the day, the girls braid floral crowns which they wear upon returning to the village at nightfall. There they meet with their beloved and they dance around a bonfire. The crowns are thrown over the houses, and whenever the crown falls, it is said that someone will die in that house; if the crown stays on the roof of the house, then good harvest and wealth will be bestowed upon the owners. As with other bonfire celebrations, jumping over the embers … is done to purify the person and also to bring health.

Another folk belief is that during the Sânziene Eve night, the heavens open up, making it the strongest night for magic spells, especially for the love spells. Also it is said that the plants harvested during this night will have tremendous magical powers.

It is not a good thing though to be a male and walk at night during Sanziene Eve night, as that is the time when the fairies dance in the air, blessing the crops and bestowing health on people – they do not like to be seen by males, and whomever sees them will be maimed, or the fairies will take their hearing/speech or make them mad.

In some areas of the Carpathians, the villagers then light a big wheel of hay from the ceremonial bonfire and push it down a hill. This has been interpreted as a symbol for the setting sun (from the solstice to come and until the midwinter solstice, the days will be getting shorter).” (From Wikipedia)

Photo One By Saturnian - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26838120

The Sanziene festival in Cricau 2013 (Photo One)

Botanically, Lady’s Bedstraw belongs to the Rubiaceae family, and is closely related to hedge bedstraw and cleavers . The frothy yellow flowers are pretty much diagnostic for the species  (hedge bedstraw flowers are white). It is found right across Europe and Asia, and is native to North Africa too. It has been naturalised in the northern part of North America, New Zealand and Tasmania.

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=129770

Photo Two

The plant can be used to make vegetable rennet, for coagulating milk during cheese-making, and it used to give its colour to Double Gloucester cheese. Double Gloucester was a very regional product, made only from the milk of the Gloucester cow. Nowadays, while a few artisan cheese-makers and small farms are making the cheese the traditional way, most of the stuff that you buy in supermarkets is made by large dairies and coloured artificially to give the golden hue. Fortunately, the Gloucester cow has been rescued from extinction, and Single Gloucester cheese can only be made from the milk of this breed, which has a characteristic white stripe along the backbone.

Photo Three by Graham Tiller from https://www.flickr.com/photos/77175657@N00/7007115394/

Old Gloucester Cow and calf (Photo Three)

As you might expect from a plant that is in the same family as Rose Madder, the roots of Lady’s Bedstraw can be used to produce a dye, which produces a range of colours from palest pink through to coral. The extraction and cleaning of the fine roots seems to be quite a palaver however, and I note that many dyers turn their attentions to the commoner hedge bedstraw instead. The photo below shows the experiments of a dyer from Connecticut, and very pretty they are too. The flowers of the plant can apparently be used to produce a yellow dye, but I suspect you’d need a lot of them. 

Photo Four from https://localcolordyes.com/2011/10/19/dyeing-with-ladys-bedstraw/

Skeins dyed with lady’s bedstraw roots (Photo Four)

Lady’s Bedstraw doesn’t seem to be much eaten by humans (except for the cheese connection) but it is much loved by a variety of caterpillars, including those of the appropriately-named Bedstraw Hawk Moth (Hyles gallii). What a splendid creature! They also feed on Rosebay Willow-herb, so I shall have to keep an eye open.

According to my caterpillar book, 19 species of moth caterpillar have been found on Lady’s Bedstraw. This delicate little plant certainly pulls its weight on the biodiversity front, and it should feature in any wildflower meadow.

Photo Five by By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11242384

Bedstraw Hawk Moth (Hyles gallii) (Photo Five)

Photo Six  By Hectonichus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20863851

Bedstraw Hawk Moth caterpillar (Photo Six)

And finally, a poem. How I love this! I can see it all. I did not know that Frances Cornford(1886 – 1960) was chiefly known for her unkind and much parodied poem ‘To a Fat Lady Seen From a Train’ (‘Oh fat white woman whom nobody loves/Why do you walk through the fields in gloves?). This humane poem, however, seems to me a much better way to remember her.

The Coast: Norfolk

by Frances Cornford

As on the highway’s quiet edge
He mows the grass beside the hedge,
The old man has for company
The distant, grey, salt-smelling sea,
A poppied field, a cow and calf,
The finches on the telegraph.

Across his faded back a hone,
He slowly, slowly scythes alone
In silence of the wind-soft air,
With ladies’ bedstraw everywhere,
With whitened corn, and tarry poles,
And far-off gulls like risen souls.

And before we leave Frances, I note that one of her poems was much loved by Philip Larkin and his lover Maeve Brennan, who would read ‘All Souls Night’ every year after Larkin had died.

All Souls’ Night

My love came back to me
Under the November tree
Shelterless and dim.
He put his hand upon my shoulder,
He did not think me strange or older,
Nor I, him.

Frances Cornford

Photo Seven from https://russellboyle.wordpress.com/2017/09/17/childhood-by-frances-cornford/

Frances Cornford (Photo Seven)

Photo Credits

Photo One By Saturnian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26838120

Photo Two from CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=129770

Photo Three by Graham Tiller from https://www.flickr.com/photos/77175657@N00/7007115394/

Photo Four from https://localcolordyes.com/2011/10/19/dyeing-with-ladys-bedstraw/

Photo Five  By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11242384

Photo Six By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20863851

Photo Seven from https://russellboyle.wordpress.com/2017/09/17/childhood-by-frances-cornford/