Dear Readers, domesticated dogs split genetically from wolves at some point between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, but we don’t know where it happened, or why. Some scientists believe that the wolves helped humans to hunt, and the relationship developed from there. Others think that wolves scavenged around waste dumps, and so became used to humans.
However, Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Food Authority has another explanation. She and her colleagues estimated how much food was available during the Arctic winters, and has calculated that humans probably ended up with more meat than they could eat – humans have a limited capacity to process protein, which would have led to food being available to feed to orphaned wolf cubs. To my mind, this is part of an explanation rather than the whole thing: after all, lots of animals eat meat, but only wolves ended up becoming domesticated. Maybe the cubs were recognised as being useful in the hunt, and so were treated as working animals rather than pets? It’s an interesting theory, however, and helps to fill in the mosaic of reasons for why dogs rather than wolverines or badgers or otters ended up becoming ‘man’s best friend’.
Argentinosaurus with human for size comparison (Photo Two)
Stop press! Scientists in Argentina are excavating a fossil that they *think* might belong to the largest land animal that ever lived. Known as Argentinosaurs or titanosaurs, these huge animals lived about 98 million years ago. They are sauropods, more familiar to old ‘uns like me via animals like the brontasaurus and brachiosaurus – all of them have small heads, a long, long neck and tail, and four pillar-like legs. When I was growing up, it was assumed that they had to be at least semi-aquatic to bear the weight of their bodies, but these days scientists think that, while they probably lived in wet and coastal areas, they had plenty of physical adaptations to ensure that they could wander across the landscape like so many gigantic reptilian giraffes.
So, how big were they? The scientists, led by researchers from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, are saying that, from the remains that they’ve discovered, they think that their sauropod is ‘bigger than Patagotitan’, a creature that measured 37 metres (121 feet) long, and weighed 85 tonnes. However, everyone is a little nervous about definitively stating that this is ‘the big one’, as researchers have been found to have overestimated the size of ‘their’ critter before.
One very interesting thing is that there were sauropods of various sizes walking around 98 million years ago – some were a mere 6 metres long (which is still bigger than a car of course). It’s likely that each species had a particular ecological niche, preferring specific plants or types of habitat. Oh for a time machine, to go back and see these amazing creatures in action! Though I’ve watched enough science fiction films to know what happens if I accidentally drop a hair pin or a pair of nail scissors, so it’s probably not a great idea.
The original article by Joshua Rapp Learn is here.
Cave paintings showing three pigs (one complete, two vestigial) plus two handprints (Photos by A. A. Octaviana)
And finally, cave paintings found in Indonesia show the oldest known image of an animal in the world – they are at least 45,000 years old, and could be older. The paintings, in Sulawesi, show a complete life size Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis), an animal that was extremely important to the early hunter-gatherers of the region. The painting has been partly covered by a mineral deposit, and it’s this that gives the approximate date although, as the deposit overlaps the image of the pigs, the image itself could be much older.
The hand prints in the top left-hand corner are usually made by someone taking a mouthful of paint and blowing it over the hand, so the researchers hope that they can extract some residual saliva for DNA analysis.
The date of the paintings, which makes them as old as those found in Europe, raises interesting questions about the routes taken by humans when they left Africa – it used to be thought that eastern Asia was inhabited rather later. There is a scarcity of human remains in the area, so there are some thoughts that the paintings could actually have been made by Neanderthals, rather than humans. It will be very interesting to see how this story develops, but what it does point up, to me, is the extremely close observation of animals by early societies, and the significance that such creatures had in the lives of humans.
You can read the original story, by Ibrahim Sawal, here, and there is also a short film which gives an idea of the scale of the painting.
Dear Readers, there was a definite touch of spring in the air this morning, so off we went for our usual trot around the cemetery. I always love the entrance with its cedars of Lebanon and stately weeping willow. Apparently the cemetery used to have a lovely lodge which was demolished in 1850 and replaced by a very functional brick building. The quest for modernity in the 1960s and 1970s seems to have involved many acts of vandalism, but at least the trees are still here. They make me feel more peaceful as soon as I see them.
One of the gravestones along the first path that we walk has fallen over, and turned into an impromptu birdbath. I often see crows taking advantage of the shallow water.
The spring weather seems to have kicked off a whole lot of corvid activity. There was a family of magpies in the ash trees, calling to one another and cheerfully picking through the twigs. I imagine there are lots of little insects who are having their hibernation brought to an abrupt end.
And then further on, I see a pair of crows, one of whom has what looks like a chocolate brownie in his beak. At least I hope that’s what it is. I suppose it could be something more unpleasant, but I don’t know of any animal that produces rectangular droppings, so I’m going with the brownie theory.
Down by the eastern entrance I notice a parakeet, perched up in a high branch. There seemed to be a lot of these birds around today, enjoying the sunshine.
Walking along Withington Road within the cemetery, I was struck by how the sun illuminated some of the angels.
And suddenly I had a sense of being watched.
And yes, it’s the statue of the Scotsman that I’ve mentioned before. He must only be visible from this point at the very turning point of the year, when all the leaves have fallen but the new growth hasn’t got going yet. There’s always something new to see here. And how splendid the rosehips are looking! There are still so many redwings here that I’m surprised there are any left at all.
Earlier, I’d seen two or three crows chasing the poor old kestrel. But as we were leaving there was a right old ruckus, with crows flying in from all points of the compass. Nowadays I always look up and try to get my camera ready.
And there, right in the middle of the whirl of wings was the buzzard. Poor thing, I am beginning to feel almost sorry for it. It’s the bird in the lower centre with the paler mottled underwings. The angle is deceptive, but it’s at least half as large again as the crows. I still haven’t worked out where it roosts, but I can’t imagine it’s popular in the cemetery.
The crows, on the other hand, seemed to be having the time of their lives. They’ll fly at anything – kestrel, sparrowhawk, buzzard or their particular favourite, the heron (which of course looks like a gigantic bird of prey in flight. As far as I know, none of these birds will take crow eggs or nestlings, so it seems almost visceral. Plus, crows generally hang out in family groups or pairs and aren’t supposed to be particularly social: however they’ll happily join in when a mob starts forming. I wonder what studies there have been? Let me know what you’ve noticed, readers: I’m intrigued.
Dear Readers, I’m still trying to get out for a walk every day, although with the dark mornings, the Year End (which I fear will be a theme for the next few weeks) and the habit some companies have of scheduling meetings for the Crack of Doom, it’s been a bit trickier than it was in spring. Plus, hauling oneself out of bed on a freezing cold morning takes more willpower than being woken by the sound of the dawn chorus. Nonetheless, I found myself in Coldfall Wood on Friday, and I was very pleased that I did. Although it is still muddy, it is now alive with the sound of Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming on the trees. I listened to one as it drummed, flew to another tree, drummed on a thinner branch which resulted in a higher pitched sound, and then whizzed back to its original tree. A few weeks ago I reported on a study in San Francisco that found out that white-crowned sparrow females preferred a deeper- pitched call so maybe female woodpeckers feel the same? At any rate, it’s a joyful sound and, along with the yaffle of green woodpeckers and the male song thrushes testing out their spring songs it gives me some hope that the world is still turning. Plus, the rose-ringed parakeets are getting very over-excited, as well they might – they start selecting nesting sites long before anyone else gets round to it, and some of them are now actively courting.
If you haven’t heard any of these sounds before, here they are. Firstly, a great spotted woodpecker drumming in the Highlands of Scotland.
Secondly, a green woodpecker ‘yaffle-ing’
And here’s a song thrush.
And finally, the sound of rose-ringed parakeets in flight. It’s becoming as much a sound of English woodland as any of the three above, although the sight of those elegant bright-green birds munching on horse chestnuts is still strangely exotic.
Anyway, on we go. You might remember that last year the seasonal pond in the woods overtopped all of the bridges and boardwalks. This year, there has been some work done on the drainage, and the water is flowing freely. Hopefully we’ve found a happy medium, so that there is water enough for the plants and animals that rely on the dampness, while also not turning the whole site into a lake. Let’s see how we get on.
But what is this?
There is foam on some of the rivulets and streams. It doesn’t have the tell-tale soapy odour of pollution, but I’m intrigued nevertheless. So I have a look at the Environmental Agency website, which tells me that the foam (which is made up of millions of tiny bubbles) occurs when molecules such as fatty acids (known as surfactants) interact with the surface tension of the water, and allow air and water to mix more easily. Sometimes these surfactants are natural – they can occur when there is a high volume of organic material, such as dead leaves, in the water. Fatty acids are also released in small amounts by living organisms. When these organic compounds are dissolved in water, they’re known as Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC). The majority of foam in rivers and streams is natural, and has the following characteristics:
It might start off white but quickly becomes cream-coloured or brown as it picks up matter and sediment
It has a natural, earthy, fishy or grassy smell
It occurs in many locations and accumulates in eddies and sheltered areas
The foam can persist for some time, but will gradually diminish in size
It’s often found where the water is turbulent or agitated (the majority of the foam in Coldfall was along the streams running into the main pond)
It’s often seen on windy days or following heavy rain that washes down leaves etc.
So, this seems very like natural foam to me, though I will keep an eye on it – the streams are often contaminated with run-off from the roads round about, and many of the nearby houses have been wrongly connected to the water system.
Just so that we know the difference, man-made foam
Appears white in colour, but often has a perfumed or soapy odour
Usually appears over a small area, near the site of discharge
Doesn’t usually occur over long distances
Foam disappears quickly, as modern detergents are biodegradable and will dissipate once the source of the surfactant is removed
Generally not related to natural events.
However, when foam-pollution events do occur they can be devastating – the River Ouse was contaminated by a soapy substance that killed thousands of fish in 2018. In 2019 a long stretch of the river Irwell in Salford turned into a ‘bubble-bath’ after someone disposed of something down a surface drain. Rivers have long been thought of as being a way to get rid of something liquid that we don’t want, with little thought for the other creatures and people who rely on it. And I haven’t forgotten the day back in 2011 when the stream in Coldfall turned bright green following someone deciding to get rid of something noxious. Some recent water testing in the Wood showed that the quality was actually surprisingly good, so let’s hope that we can keep it that way.
Dear Readers, after the high culture of last week here’s something a bit more tuneful. All you need to do is match the plant to the lyrics from the (hopefully) popular song below. Normally I would knock up some photos, but as it’s year end at work (and some of you will know what that means!) I am just going to give you 10 plants and 10 lyrics, and all you have to do is match one to t’other. An extra mark for the full name of the song (or thereabouts) and a discretionary mark if you can name the singer/band (though some of these are ancient, rather like me, and will therefore have been knocked up by multiple folk).
So, if you think that lyric 1 is about blackberry, your answer is 1/A
Now, if I spot that you have answered in the comments (and some of you are very very quick) I will send you a quick message and then unapprove your answer so that it doesn’t influence anyone else. However, if you think you might be influenced I would be inclined to write them down on a piece of paper first.
Answers on Friday next week, so get your ideas in by 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday 21st January if you want to be marked.
‘And you’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle made for two’
2. ‘I beg your pardon…’
3. ‘And then worst of all (worst of all)
You never call baby when you say you will (say you will)
4. ‘Small and white, clean and bright,
You look happy to greet me’
5. ‘Tiptoe, through the window,
By the window, that’s where I’ll be’
6. I lost myself on a cool damp night
I gave myself in that misty light
Was hypnotized by a strange delight.
7.You gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion
You’ll be scratchin’ like a hound
The minute you start to mess around
8. Ooh, I bet you’re wonderin’ how I knew
‘Bout your plans to make me blue
9. Absolutely going down the drain
It’s a terrible day
Up with a knock
Silly girl I don’t know what to say
She was running away
10. I was working part time in a five-and-dime
My boss was Mr. McGee
He told me several times that he didn’t like my kind
‘Cause I was a bit too leisurely
Seems that I was busy doing something close to nothing
But different than the day before
That’s when I saw her, ooh, I saw her
She walked in through the out door, out door
Dear Readers, you really know your poems! On the basic quiz, Mike at Alittlebitoutoffocus got 7 out of 10, while FEARN, Anne and Fran and Bobby Freelove all got 10 out of 10 on matching the plants to the poems. Fran and Bobby then went the extra mile by also getting some of the poets, giving them a total of 16 out of 20. But runaway winner this week, with an amazing 20 out of 20 was Anne. Well done Anne! A fantastic result, but you should all be very proud of yourselves, and thank you for playing. Now, I wonder what will happen tomorrow?
1.C) Daffodils – ‘I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud’ by William Wordsworth. My Mum used to know this by heart, as she did many poems.
2. E) Cuckoo-pint/Lords and Ladies – ‘Cuckoo-pint’ by Blake Morrison. I love some of the imagery in this – the brown matchstick, the half-unrolled umbrella. Blake Morrison is better known as a writer of prose, but I think this is a most creditable work.
3. H) Ivy – ‘ To the Ivy’ by John Clare. I doubt there was ever a better poet of our ‘weeds’, and I make no apology for including Clare twice.
4. J) Himalayan Balsam – ‘HImalayan Balsam’ by Anne Stevenson. What a great description this is! The whole poem is a feast.
5.D) Saguaro (Giant) Cactus – ‘To the Saguaro Cactus Tree in the Desert Rain’ by James Wright. Wright is a new poet to me, but I love that opening image of the owl peering from a hole in the tree.
6.A) Autumn Crocus – ‘Autumn Crocus’ by Ruth Fainlight. Such lovely close observation, and I love the way that the religious and natural imagery seem to infuse one another.
7. G) Yarrow – ‘The Yarrow’ by John Clare. Look how he notices the leaves of the yarrow, and the way that the colour of the flowers varies! The man was a genius.
8. B) Daisy – ‘To a Mountain Daisy – On Turning One Down With the Plough, in April 1786’ by Robert Burns. I love how Burns can move from the tiniest daisy to the existential fate of all human beings in a few verses. You might not want to read all of this if you’re already feeling glum.
9.I) Thistle – ‘Thistles’ by Ted Hughes. What a ‘male’ poem this is! I love Ted Hughes’s imagery in this, though, what with all those Vikings.
10.F) Gorse/Whin – ‘Whinlands’ by Seamus Heaney. Oh Seamus. What a poet. His poems always seem to involve an opening-out to me. At the end of them I just want to stare into space for a bit.
Dear Readers, I’m finding the present UK lockdown much more difficult than the first two, and I’m sure I’m not alone. In the Northern Hemisphere it’s winter, and so the days are shorter, and the possibilities for going for a local walk are squeezed into a few hours. Plus I find myself ‘doomscrolling’ on the phone, going from news of the frightening events in the US to the seemingly unstoppable march of the virus, to tales of climate change, extinction and disaster. Some days I am so anxious that my skin crawls. Other days, I feel close to despair. If I am feeling like this when I am in such a privileged position – no real money worries, no children or family to worry about, a job, a roof over my head and a garden – I can only imagine what it’s like if you have terrible neighbours, children to home school, a job that forces you to go out and expose yourself, no outside space where you can decompress. And those of us who have lost some one dear to them during the course of this pandemic, whether directly through Covid-19 or indirectly, I can only bow my head in sympathetic sorrow – as regular readers will know, I lost my poor old Dad in March last year. He didn’t die from Covid, but the circumstances around it caused a chain of events that led to his death. So I offer this in all humbleness, and I hope that some of it will resonate and help.
Stop, or at least limit, doomscrolling!
Tempting as it can be to just spend your life on the phone, worrying, I’ve learned that setting limits has helped my mental health enormously. I put my phone on to recharge when we have dinner, and don’t look at it again (usually) till the morning. I had to start doing this when Dad’s dementia meant that he could ring at any hour of the day or night – once he was in the Home, and I knew he was being looked after, I knew that I could phone him back in the morning. But these days, it’s because if I read something particularly troubling it spoils my sleep.
The worst thing about having the whole world come at you through your phone is that it can make you feel helpless. Which brings me to the next thing that’s helped.
2. If you can, do something about it!
As I’m lucky enough to still be working, I donate to organisations like my local foodbank. I sign petitions for things that are happening, especially locally where the numbers really count – we recently got a stay of execution on some ancient oaks in Queen’s Wood in Highgate for example. I am on the Whatsapp group for our street, and have been able to help out with people who are unwell or shielding – without the group, I wouldn’t have know what was needed. You can be an activist without even stepping out of your front door. There’s nothing to stop us from joining a campaign, writing to our MPs or making a donation if we have any spare cash, and the benefits are endless, not least in making us feel useful and engaged.
3. You are not alone
Well, except in an existential sense of course. But this is one way in which the internet has helped – you can make connections with people that you can’t currently see in real life, but who can share ideas or a joke or news. I think one positive thing that might come out of all this is that people who used to shun the internet have learned to use things like Zoom and Facetime, and although it’s no substitute for getting together for a chat over coffee and cake, it’s so much better than nothing. Also, I have recently rediscovered the joys of talking on the phone.
Do reach out. It’s very easy for the world to contract, and that’s something that should be pushed against at all costs. Phone a friend! It always makes me feel better.
4. Get outside, but choose your time and place carefully
I love going for walks in Coldfall and Cherry Tree Wood, and especially in the Cemetery. But these places can sometimes be extremely busy, and there’s not much fun in dodging people every five seconds. I tend to avoid the woods at weekends, even now, and was also avoiding the times when children were being taken to school and coming home, as those times were busy too.
However, I have become an even bigger fan of walking in cemeteries, as regular readers might have gathered. If you have a cemetery locally and haven’t visited it yet, do give it a go if it’s open – they are full of interest, both in terms of history and of wildlife and plants, and I find them surprisingly uplifting. Many of them have restrictions due to Covid so do check. I also prefer them at the weekend because there aren’t usually funerals going on, and so I don’t feel as if I’m intruding, though our cemeteries are big enough to avoid gatherings.
5. Get creative
I have spent the past months knitting like a maniac. For me, it’s always something that I’m making for someone else, just because otherwise I don’t have the impetus, but I also love it: there’s something about the rhythm of crafts such as knitting or embroidery or crochet that seems very soothing. Also, it adds steps onto my Fitbit so I usually hit my exercise target :-).
A jumper I made for my Boss’s little boy. I wouldn’t mind one meself.
6. Exercise your brain!
There has been a lot of advice around physical exercise, which I largely get from my walks, but how about our brains? I’ve gone the whole hog and embarked on a degree with the Open University (never one to do things by halves) but there are literally thousands of courses online, many of them free. People speak highly of Coursera but the Open University also do a range of free courses. Plus, if you have some money to spare there are courses in everything from embroidery to cookery to languages (this one is free, and I also recommend Rosetta Stone).
Plus, if you don’t want to study intensively, there are a raft of free talks and lectures out there. I have been reporting on the LNHS (London Natural History Society) talks (which are all free and are also recorded so you can catch up with them even if you can’t watch them live). In fact I hope they carry on with them after the lockdown is over. New Scientist also has talks, so does The Guardian, and practically every cultural institution has been running at least a few, so there should be something for everyone.
The great advantage of a course or a lecture is that it helps me to look outside my very small world and feeds my curiosity.
7. Read, but carefully
I thought that 2020 would be the year when I really got stuck into reading, and so I did, but I soon learned that I had to be particular about what I read. Normally I read the whole Booker Prize shortlist, but I soon found that the mood and atmosphere of a book could colour my whole day. So, at a time of high anxiety, I would put aside writing that made things worse, or which filled me with dread. Unfortunately that was most of the Booker Prize out of the window for a bit, regardless of the excellent writing! I am a bit delicate on this front, and some people don’t seem to be affected in the same way, so go for it if tales of dystopian apocalypse cheer you up.
I thought I might get into comfort reading (which for me means Dickens or Trollope or Jane Austen) but I haven’t so far. I also normally re-read the Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake every few years, but that’s also not cropped up. What I’ve really enjoyed are books by Madeleine Miller based on the tales from the Odyssey and the Iliad, Pat Barker’s book ‘The Silence of the Girls’ about Penelope and Briseis, the women in the Odyssey, and also Emily Watson’s translation of The Iliad. There’s something about Homer that resonates, whatever the age.
Mostly, I’ve read non-fiction, which can also contain some horrors, but which somehow seem more manageable. I read the whole of the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing shortlist, and wrote about most of them on the blog – my personal favourite was Brigit Strawbridge’s ‘Dancing With Bees’ but I enjoyed all of them. I’m currently reading ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, so expect a review soon!
8. Watch TV for comfort and inspiration
I love watching things like The Great British Bake-Off, The Great British Sewing-Bee and, starting this week, The Great British Pottery Throwdown. I love to see ordinary people showing their skills, and while I’m not the slightest bit interested in things like Big Brother or Love Island, I cannot get enough of reality shows where there’s actually a purpose. I love all the varieties of Masterchef except for (usually) the celebrity one – what’s the fun in watching someone who can’t cook make a hash of a shepherd’s pie?
After Mum died in 2018 I spent hours watching all the series of RuPaul’s Drag Race that were on Netflix (yep, all eleven of them). I found myself not only amazed at the extraordinary transformations, but also moved and inspired by the stories of the drag queens themselves. It was a kind of balm to my soul when I couldn’t move off of the sofa. I had no idea how exhausting grief was. This past few years have been an education.
I also love documentaries, particularly the wildlife ones, though they can be a bit too ‘when animals attack’ for if I’m feeling particularly vulnerable. I somehow don’t need David Attenborough, lovely as he is, to tell me how bad things are at the moment. After all, I work for a Climate Change organisation and am studying environmental science, so I think I have enough to contend with :-).
9. Make Unexpected Connections
And finally, dear readers, I can’t overstate how helpful writing the blog has been for me. When I decided, almost instinctively, to blog every day during lockdown, I could never have anticipated what the repercussions would be. Every day I have to get out of my little bubble of doom to think about what has interested or inspired me. Every day I get to interact with people all over the world, to share your thoughts and observations and to get a feeling for how you are doing. I’ve discovered some wonderful blogs, and some wonderful people. I have learned so much, and am constantly learning. Other blogs might have more followers and might make more of a splash, but I feel that we have built a real community here, and it makes me very happy. So thank you for reading, and do let me know what’s worked and hasn’t worked for you – I might create a page with links to resources on it so we can all share websites that could be useful.
Dear Readers, I never know what’s going to turn up in the organic fruit and vegetable box that I get once a fortnight, so finding a pair of pomegranates this week was a real treat! They are a strange fruit in lots of ways: the only edible bit is around the seeds, so they’re quite a lot of work. I remember my Mum saying that when she was a little girl, a pomegranate was such a treat that she’d sit curled up in the armchair for hours, winkling out the seeds one at a time with a pin. She was born in 1935 so I imagine this would have been just after the war, and surely such a fruit would have been an extraordinary luxury.
I remember Dad saying that he was given a banana by Princess Elizabeth as she was then when she visited the East End. It looks as if she spent a lot of the post-WWII period doling out bananas, and in this story, someone actually gives some back. Dad maintained that they ate them with the skins on because they didn’t know any different, though he was always one for embroidering a story if he thought it would make you laugh. It makes me even more determined to eat the ones that are gradually darkening in my fruit bowl. And, in case you missed it, Nigella Lawson even found a use for the banana skins in her recent TV series, to the bafflement of many. I’m sure my Mum would have thought it was a good idea.
But anyway, back to the pomegranate. To my surprise, it’s a member of the Loosestrife family, Lythraceae, which gave us such stars as purple loosestrife. The name ‘pomegranate’ came from medieval Latin, and means ‘seeded apple’. The Latin species name, Punica granatum, led to the idea that the fruit originally came from the city of Granada in Spain, and also led to the name ‘grenadine’ for the pink syrup that was a trendy mixer back in the days when I was a gal (hence ‘pink gin’).
The shrub can grow up to 33 feet tall, but also can be turned into a Bonsai. I’d never seen pomegranate flowers, so here they are!
Pomegranate flower (Photo One)
Even more excitingly, for me anyway, the word ‘grenade’ comes from the appearance of the fruit, and you can see why. Light the bit on the top and you’re away.
Actually, though, pomegranate comes originally from an area from modern-day Iran through to north-western India, though it has been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region for centuries, and has been farmed in Arizona and California. Thomas Jefferson had a pomegranate tree in his garden at Monticello in 1771, and the earlier settlers in the south managed to get some fruit from the tree. I suspect that it has always been a luxury: the fruit was found in the Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck, off the coast of Turkey, alongside perfume, ivory and gold jewellery, and where it is found in tombs these are usually of high-status individuals.
Pomegranates growing on a tree in Casa D’Oro, Venice
Pomegranates are having something of a resurgence at the moment, along with a rise in interest in ‘Middle Eastern’ food. In particular, I find myself falling over recipes that feature pomegranate molasses, and I can see why – it has an interesting sweet/sour taste that is more interesting than a lot of sugary ingredients. I have even had a drizzle over my porridge and yoghurt in the morning, which is the height of decadence! But those jewel-like seeds look so pretty scattered over savoury dishes that I can see why they’re a hit, and they also add an interesting crunch.
In Iran, pomegranates and walnuts are used, along with other ingredients, to make a fesenjãn, a kind of chicken stew flavoured with spices such as turmeric, rose, cinnamon and cardamom. Delicious!
Chicken and aubergine fesenjan (Photo Two)
The pomegranate has also been embraced by Mexicans, and it features in Chiles en nogada, a dish in which the green of chilli, the white of the cream sauce and the red of the pomegranate seeds represents the Mexican flag. It is often eaten during the Mexican Independence celebrations of August and September. In the photo below it looks as if parsley has been used to provide the green colour, although the dish itself is supposed to feature green stuffed chillis. Go figure.
Chile en nogada (Photo Three)
As you might expect for a fruit that’s been part of human culture for so long, there is a whole raft of folklore and mythology around the plant. In Greek legend, the pomegranate was thought to have sprung from the blood of Adonis, and Persephone’s consumption of the seeds while she was in Hades dictated how many months she had to spend underground. Even in modern Greece the pomegranate features in folklore: it is good luck to to be given a pomegranate as a gift when you move into a new house, and the dish kollyva which is brought as an offering to the dead contains wheat boiled with sugar and decorated with pomegranate seeds.
In Judaism, the pomegranate is one of the Seven Species, fruits and vegetables mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as part of the special products of the Land of Israel. It’s traditional to consume pomegranates at Rosh Hashanah because they are symbols of fertility, and this seems to be general: in countries from Azerbaijan to Armenia, China to India, the pomegranate means fruitfulness. In Armenia, which has a long association with the fruit, a bride traditionally smashes a pomegranate against the wall, with the scattered seeds ensuring that the marriage will be blessed with children.
Pomegranate statue in Yerevan, Armenia (Photo Four)
Many Jewish scholars (and some Christian ones) believe that the fruit in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate, not an apple. In Christian iconography, the split fruit represents Christ’s suffering and death, and this is prefigured in Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate (1487).
Detail from Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate’ (circa 1487) (Photo Five)
And now, a poem.In fact, two poems. Eavan Boland died in April last year. She is one of Ireland’s most important poets, and yet I hadn’t come across her before. There is so much to learn in our short lives. Below, I’ve included two of her poems. Pomegranate, because of today’s theme – it might help to know that Boland moved with her family to London in 1950, and had her first experience of the anti-Irish sentiment that was rife. The second poem, Quarantine, is one of those poems that makes everything stop for a moment. See what you think.
The Pomegranate Eavan Boland – 1944-2020
The only legend I have ever loved is the story of a daughter lost in hell. And found and rescued there. Love and blackmail are the gist of it. Ceres and Persephone the names. And the best thing about the legend is I can enter it anywhere. And have. As a child in exile in a city of fogs and strange consonants, I read it first and at first I was an exiled child in the crackling dusk of the underworld, the stars blighted. Later I walked out in a summer twilight searching for my daughter at bed-time. When she came running I was ready to make any bargain to keep her. I carried her back past whitebeams and wasps and honey-scented buddleias. But I was Ceres then and I knew winter was in store for every leaf on every tree on that road. Was inescapable for each one we passed. And for me. It is winter and the stars are hidden. I climb the stairs and stand where I can see my child asleep beside her teen magazines, her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit. The pomegranate! How did I forget it? She could have come home and been safe and ended the story and all our heart-broken searching but she reached out a hand and plucked a pomegranate. She put out her hand and pulled down the French sound for apple and the noise of stone and the proof that even in the place of death, at the heart of legend, in the midst of rocks full of unshed tears ready to be diamonds by the time the story was told, a child can be hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance. The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured. The suburb has cars and cable television. The veiled stars are above ground. It is another world. But what else can a mother give her daughter but such beautiful rifts in time? If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift. The legend will be hers as well as mine. She will enter it. As I have. She will wake up. She will hold the papery flushed skin in her hand. And to her lips. I will say nothing.
Quarantine Eavan Boland – 1944-2020
In the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people a man set out from the workhouse with his wife. He was walking—they were both walking—north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. He lifted her and put her on his back. He walked like that west and west and north. Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead. Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history. But her feet were held against his breastbone. The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold. There is no place here for the inexact praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body. There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847. Also what they suffered. How they lived. And what there is between a man and woman. And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi oozing nickel-rich sap (Photo One by Anthony van der Ent)
This post is based on this article from New Scientist by Michael Allen.
Dear Readers, for many years it’s been known that plants are useful for bioremediation: some species of brassica guzzle up metals such as nickel from the soil, cleaning it in the process, and lichens are also known to help clean up pollutants. It’s thought that plants do this because the metals are toxic, and might therefore help to protect them against insect predators. Such plants are known as hyperaccumulators because they store so much of the element.
However, when Anthony van der Ent, a plant-hunter based at the University of Queensland in Australia, found a shrub called Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi at a park ranger’s station in Malaysian Borneo, he noticed that it oozed a bright blue-green sap. Upon analysis, it turned out that the sap contained 25% nickel by weight.
Nickel is an essential ingredient in products such as computers and smart phones, but will become even more important with the advent of the rechargeable batteries in electric cars. The metal is also needed for wind turbines. It’s estimated that for electric cars alone, the amount of nickel needed will double, to 256,000 tonnes, by 2025. But the normal method of getting the metal is by strip-mining, one of the most environmentally devastating extraction methods: it creates defoliation, soil erosion and pollutant run-off which contaminates sea water and rivers. One of the leading world nickel producers is the tiny island of New Caledonia.
Open cast nickel mine in New Caledonia (Photo Two)
So, would it be possible to grow hyperaccumulating plants so that the nickel could be extracted from them, rather than despoiling the environment? One problem is that the plants don’t grow just anywhere: the metals in the soil are found in areas which had a lot of tectonic activity which meant that instead of just sinking, the elements were raised to the surface. Such soil is known as ‘ultramafic’.
Having found his plant, Anthony van der Ent set about creating the world’s ‘first tropical metal farm’ in Sabah in Borneo. He and his colleagues are growing Phyllanthus ruruschaneyi: every year the shrub is coppiced, the stems and leaves are pulped, and the nickel is extracted. In 2019 they reported a yield of 250 kilograms per hectare, currently worth almost $4000.
A long-time collaborator of van der Ent’s, Guillaume Echevarria of the University of Lorraine in France, also wanted to see what was possible, but using a tropical plant didn’t seem the right way to go. Instead, he used a different hyperaccumulator (not specified in the article but probably an Alyssum species). He has chosen some plots on ultramafic soil in Albania, and the plant is sowed and harvested by local farmers. The plant is then transported to France and burned to produce nickel-rich ash, from which the metal is extracted. The energy yielded by the burning is used as a heat source for nearby buildings, so Echevarria considers that the whole project comes in as carbon-neutral.
Although the results are not as promising as in Borneo, the plant still yields about 200 kilograms per hectare which, at around $3000 at today’s prices still makes this a viable business. For comparison, a hectare’s worth of wheat in the UK can be sold for about $2100.
While Van der Ent thinks that the whole project could be scaled up in areas where there are ultramafic soils, such as Indonesia, Echevarria is more cautious, and I have to say that I would be worried about large scale ‘phytomining’ too. Many areas of the world which are otherwise suitable for growing hyperaccumulators are also biodiversity hotspots and protected areas, and having seen the palm oil plantations in Sabah, the last thing the world needs is more hectares of monocultures. However, there are some areas, particularly in Greece, Albania and Bulgaria, where farms are being abandoned because the soil is so poor for other agricultural applications, and at least growing plants could help to stabilise and revegetate such areas, whilst providing the farmers with some extra income. Echevarria thinks that phytomining could provide a few percent of the global nickel requirements, which is not to be sniffed at.
It’s not just nickel either. Plants that hyperaccumulate arsenic, cobalt, manganese, zinc and rare earths have been discovered. Marie-Odile Simonnot, also at the University of Lorraine, has been assessing Dicranopteris dichotoma, a fern that grows naturally on spoil heaps near rare earth mines in China’s Jiangxi province.
Dicranopteris dichotoma (Photo Three)
It seems to be possible to harvest about 300 kilograms of mixed rare earth metals per hectare, including lanthanum, cerium, prasedoymium and neodymium from this plant, and Simonnot is working with Chinese scientists to run trials at old mining sites. This seems like a win-win to me, as the plant seems to grow in landscapes that are already environmentally devastated, and which could only be improved by a bit of native plant cover.
Nowadays, though, Van der Ent is no longer trudging through the jungles of Borneo. Instead, he is hunting through the herbariums of the world’s museums with a handheld X-Ray flourescence spectroscope. This gives an instant read-out of the elements that a specimen contains, and hundreds of new hyperaccumulators have been found in this way. Who knows what other secrets the plant kingdom contains? Let’s hope that this time we are able to work with nature to make the most of them, rather than against her.
Dear Readers, for once the elements were with us for this week’s walk in the cemetery. Things are so bad with the pandemic in London now that we wore our facemasks along the High Road until we were actually in and had room to social distance properly. Not all the pavements in East Finchley are wide enough to avoid getting closer than two metres to other people, and with the hospitals fit to busting, and the new variant apparently anything up to 70% more transmissible than previous ones, it seemed sensible to take every precaution we could think of. The last thing we want to do is to catch the virus ourselves or to inadvertently pass it on to anyone else, and I have to say that the vast majority of people are being extremely careful at the moment. I’m sure there are still a few folk who think that they are immortal, or don’t care enough to protect other people, but they really are few and far between around here.
But to get back to the walk – as we approached the entrance, I noticed that there were bits of car all over the place, and as we rounded the corner it became clear that a vehicle had gone bang into the wall of the cemetery. It’s been very icy around here, but this is a straight road so goodness only knows what happened. I just hope that nobody was seriously hurt.
Once we’re into the cemetery, I make a beeline for the chapel. My friend A told me that she’d spotted an interesting fungus growing from one of a group of plane trees, and her directions were excellent – it only took me about two minutes to find it. Having had a conversation with the experts on the British and Irish Fungi Facebook group, we think it might be the Spectacular Rustgill (Gymnophilus junonius), and what an apt name that is! Apparently it tastes bitter and turns green when you cook it, but I’d have thought that the former fact precluded anyone doing the latter. Anyhoo, this is a very fine fungus, and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.
The crows, squirrels, parakeets and jays were all in abundance today, gathering food and chasing one another. The crows in particular were very evident. The chap below seemed to be about to peck over one of the mourner’s wreaths that has been left out after a service. When he saw me, he folded his wings and hustled away as if to indicate that there was nothing to see here.
There are already primroses in flower in the woodland burial site, which always cheers me up.
And how I love the sunbeams coming through the trees.
The sun is so low that there are places in the graveyard that the sun doesn’t touch at all. I loved this icy stone with its hieroglyphics of fern and moss and seed.
And there is another crow, pecking over the leaves of a conifer to see what s/he can find. Maybe there are some tiny insects trying to hibernate amidst the needles.
And I do love a good reflection in a pothole. Isn’t that what they’re there for?
Last week, someone asked me about people in the cemetery who were buried following the 1918 flu epidemic, and it got me to thinking. I feel as if I haven’t noticed many non-military graves from this period: I found the one below today, but my husband assures me that the worst of the flu would have passed through by November 1919, so probably this person died of wounds or from the effects of gassing. It’s a very interesting question though, and one that I shall think on further.
I love the way that the melting frost lights up every blade of grass, as if each one was holding up a candle at a rock concert. Remember them?
And then, on the way home, I notice this wall.
Look at the moss! The cracks and crevices between the bricks are positively furry with the sporangia, the reproductive bodies. The moss must have found this spot to its liking, and multiplied like billy-ho (this is a relatively new wall). I loved the green and red of the moss against the terracotta stonework. It just goes to show how nature will colonise even the most unpromising of habitats.
Dear Readers, this week’s talk was by David Humphries, Tree Management Officer for the City of London. He has been based in Hampstead Heath for 35 years, and recently won a special award for caring for London’s trees. I was really looking forward to this talk, and I wasn’t the only, as for the first time since the LNHS talks started, this one was sold out! Fortunately, you can still watch the whole thing here, and I’d recommend that you do so, as the photos were fantastic, and I can only capture the merest flavour of the range of the talk.
Humphries is something of a fungiphile: he gave us a quick look at his computer, where he has 22,000 photos of fungi, neatly arranged into 584 folders, one for each species. Most of them were taken on Hampstead Heath, which has over 25,000 trees, and where upwards of 600 fungal species have been recorded. Humphries thinks this is probably because, unlike in 1830 when John Constable painted a view of the Heath that shows it completely bereft of trees, there are now a substantial number of habitats and tree species.
First, we had a quick run through the variety of fungi that can be found in association with trees. There are the perennial bracket fungi such as hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) which persist for years. They form layers, as you can see from the photo below, but these are not necessarily annual – each layer is created when the fungus produces spores, and in one example that Humphries showed us later in the talk, it’s clear that they can be produced on multiple occasions in a single year if the conditions are right.
Incidentally, Otzi the iceman who was retrieved from a glacier in Austria and turned out to be about 5000 years old had some pieces of hoof fungus in his bag – it is used to produce amadou, which can be used as tinder. But as usual I digress.
Hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) (Photo One)
Then there are the annual bracket fungi, such as shaggy bracket (Inonotus hispidus) which produce fruiting bodies and spores and then die every year. They may remain in the same location for many years, and on the photos that Humphries shared you could see the scars of the previous generations on the bark.
Shaggy bracket (Inonotus hispidus) (Photo Two)
However, with so many types of fungi, many looking superficially the same, how to ID them to species level? For some, you have to use microscopy of the spores, but Humphries had some general tips:
Take a slice through the fungus to look at the spore layer and the flesh
Have a look at the spore colour – anything from white to saffron to darkest inky black
Look in detail at the spore layer to see how the tubes from which the spores are released are coloured and shaped – Humphries recommended two useful resources:
If you are looking at a more typical ‘mushroom’, look at the gills and check to see whether they are attached to the stem or not (the word for where gills do form part of the stem is ‘decurrent’, a new word for me!)
Then, we moved on to the three ways in which fungi can be associated with trees.
Parasitic – it was Humphries view that parasitic fungi start to become problematic when a tree is weakened, either. A typical example would be honey fungus (Armillaria mellea)
Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea) (Photo Three)
Saprophytic – fungi that feed on fallen leaves, dead branches etc. They recycle nutrients that would otherwise not be released back into the soil. The earthstar that I found in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery would be an example.
And finally, there are the Mycorrhizal fungi. It’s only recently that we’ve learned what a vital part these fungi play in the health of plants – they form a mutualistic relationship with the roots of trees in this case, vastly extending the range of the roots in return for some of the benefits of photosynthesis. Some very familiar fungi, such as the edible boletus mushrooms and the traditional ‘toadstool’, Amanita muscari, are examples of mycorrhizal fungi. The fruiting bodies can often be seen exactly following the lines of the roots of the trees that are hosting them.
Amanita muscaria (Photo Four)
Humphries has, as you might expect, found some very interesting fungi in Hampstead, and one of the most attractive is the Many-Zoned Rosette (Podoscypha multizonata), of which the UK has about 80% of the European population. This is a rare species, which is being assessed by the IUCN for the Global Fungal Red List, and one reason for its rarity is that it is normally found on veteran oaks in oak pasture, a vanishingly rare habitat in the UK (though as I’m currently reading in Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’, it was probably once much more common. However, Humphries has noticed that the fungus has increased its range of hosts to include beech, hornbeam, lime, red and turkey oak and even horse chestnut, so maybe this bodes well for its future.
As you might expect from someone who is involved in maintaining the health of trees, Humphries has a lot of interesting things to say about the different ways that fungi can infiltrate a tree. There are broadly three colonisation strategies.
The first is fungal-induced dysfunction, as favoured by our old friend honey fungus. Basically, rhizomorphs, which are a ‘rope’ of hyphae (the filaments of the fungi) travel through the soil and colonize a tree which already weakened. Once they’ve found such a tree, they fan out under the bark and infiltrate the vascular system, preventing the tree from transporting water and nutrients. In honey fungus the rhizomorphs are often called ‘bootlaces’ and you can see why.
Honey fungus rhizomorphs (Photo Six)
Secondly, some fungi infiltrate the sapwood when it’s suddenly exposed, whether by storm damage, lightning, injudicious pruning, or, in the case of the poor tree on my road, sudden collision with a skip. Examples include the beefsteak fungus, which at least has the benefit of being edible.
And finally, there are the fungi that are living in the tree already, but which can only proliferate when the tree is weakened (endophytic fungi). These remind me a bit of the bacteria that live happily on our skin for ages, until our immune systems take a knock and then they lurch into action (Staphylococcus springs to mind). An insect attack, storm damage, root rock in high winds can all be starting points for such fungi (one example would be the birch polyphore (Fomitopsis betulinus). Humphries noted how, when a tree is cut down, these fungi can appear remarkably quickly once the sapwood is exposed to the air.
Trees can live quite happily with fungal infestations, sometimes for decades. However, many fungi will eventually cause problems. Some cause white rot, which is where the wood turns white and spongy because the fungus has ‘eaten’ the lignin which provides stability – this is what honey fungus does. Some cause brown rot, which is where the cellulose is ‘eaten’ instead, and the tree becomes brittle – an example of this would be chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). Some trees will eventually be hosts to both. And it isn’t just trees in forests, either.
Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) (Photo Nine)
Humphries mentioned two fungal diseases that are affecting that icon of the capital, the London Plane (Platanus x hispanica). One is Massaria Disease, caused by the fungus Splanchnonema platani. Humphries is of the opinion that this used to largely appear during droughts, but as most street trees have roots that are compacted, and as climate change affects rainfall in unpredictable ways, it has been seen in the UK. It normally causes branch fall in trees over 40 years old.
The second is elbowpatch crust (Fomitiporia punctata). According to the Forest Research UK site, this seems to affect a particular clone of the London Plane which has a propensity to develop weak forks. When infected by the fungus, it can drop whole branches, which is something of a health hazard considering how many there are.
Humphries spent some time explaining how part of his work is assessing trees, and deciding whether or not to save them, and how. There are various techniques that can be used to assess the amount of damage – a microdrill can be used to take a core through the tree without harming it, to see how far any rot has progressed. The whole tree can also be fitted with what sonic tomography receivers, which used sound waves to detect the integrity of the trunk – the photo of the tree in Humphries’s photo makes it look rather as if it’s getting an ECG. And there is much that often can be done, in terms of reducing the wind load that the plant has to bear in storms to prevent it being knocked over, and to support the tree. However, when the worst comes to the worst, the standing wood is endlessly useful for everything from beetles to woodpeckers, and fungi themselves are food for many invertebrates and other creatures (I’ve even watched a fox take a speculative bite out of a puffball.
However, the lockdowns and the increased footfall in Hampstead have caused additional challenges for fungi, and for the people who care about them. The big enemy seems to be compaction of the soil – no one seems to know how much this will damage the underground hyphae of the mycorrhizal fungi, without which many of the trees on the Heath will no longer thrive. Soil health is an issue for all of us, wherever we are, and it’s something to which we pay far too little attention in my view. I worry about the trampling in my local wood, but am also uncertain what we can do about it.
I really recommend this talk. It was stuffed full of information, and some of the photos that Humphries presented were wonderful. I learned so much, and I think I’ll probably watch it again to pick up some of the things that I missed or didn’t understand the first time round. So if you have an hour to spare and are wondering what to do during lockdown, here’s something to keep you entertained (along with all the other LNHS talks). The amazing world of fungi awaits!