Author Archives: Bug Woman

Open University Update

Dear Readers, you might remember that I’m doing an Open Degree with the Open University, which is mainly focussed on environmental science and biology (though goodness knows there are lots of other exciting courses as well – Death and Dying, anyone? Or Art History? Or Sustainable Development? Anyway, this year I am doing two 30 credit courses – Cell Biology and ‘The Biology of Survival’ which is largely ecology. So, I’ll be looking at the teeny tiny things that make up the bodies of all living things, and the much wider picture of how organisms fit together.

For my cell biology course I actually have course books! I do love a good course book, there’s something about underlining passages and writing notes that helps consolidate things in a way that doing stuff on a screen just doesn’t seem to do.

It’s going to be hard work, as usual, but it does help to keep the brain active, and I love to learn things. I am a thwarted mad scientist, so this course is pretty much idea. And I particularly love the idea of challenging cells in part three of the curriculum. Does this mean that they are belligerent little devils, ready to slap the unexpecting biologist upside the head? Alas, I fear that it just means that they are structurally and operationally difficult to understand. Still, I am up for the challenge! Wish me luck….

 

A Tale of Two Street Trees

An Amelanchior just down the road from me.

Dear Readers, there have definitely been winners and losers amongst the street trees on East Finchley’s County Roads. This Amelanchior is leaning at a most precarious angle, and is losing its leaves early in spite of some neighbourly people watering it whenever they got a chance. I know there are different schools of thought about whether or not to stake trees, but this tree and, strangely enough, its older cousin across the road (another Amelanchior) are both on the slant.  I wonder if this is to do with the species, or the soil conditions, or bad planting, or something I haven’t thought of? Give me a shout in the comments if you’ve any ideas.

One thing that it isn’t is the direction of the sun, as the houses in the photo face due south, and so I’d have expected the tree to lean in that direction if it was going to go anywhere.

But some trees have clearly had a lovely year. Look at this crab apple!

It is absolutely laden down with those hard, sour little fruits. I must keep an eye open for parakeets, they don’t seem to mind the mouth-puckering astringency of those fruity bullets.

I have honestly never seen so many, and I half hope that the parakeets get the lot, as otherwise they’ll be slippery mush all over the pavement in a couple of weeks. It’s been a good year for fruits of all kinds in this neck of the woods, I wonder how the berries and nuts are doing where you are?

And so my busy week is nearly at an end, I have thrashed numerous project reports into submission and I can definitely see the end of it. Thank goodness for this blog, at least I have to tear myself away from my laptop once per day.

Wednesday Weed – Hoary Cress Revisited

Dear Readers, it is my ‘in tearing haste’ week, with reports to do, corrections to make, costs to move from one project to another (in the full knowledge that next month they might need to go back again) and Questions to be Answered on every conceivable front. But I have decided to stop for five minutes to share with you a picture of a roundabout in Beckton. Every so often a Docklands Light Railway train clatters over head, but if you look closely at the roundabout, you’ll see something that looks like snow. This is hoary cress, a most unusual ‘weed’ that is popping up all around the playing fields in East Finchley at the moment, but that I don’t remember seeing at all in my youth. I find it a most attractive plant, especially considering that it’s a humble cabbage – you might almost think it was a sedum or a saxifrage or something else exotic. And so, for more on this plant and its interesting history, read on, while I get back to my journals. Roll on the weekend!

Hoary cress (Lepidium draba)

Dear Readers, Muswell Hill Playing Fields has been a most unexpected source of interesting Wednesday Weeds over the past few weeks, but I was stumped when I first saw this plant. It reminded me somewhat of a white sedum, with its mass of snowy-white flowers and rather waxy green-grey stem, but a quick glance at my Harrap’s Wildflower Guide showed me that I had found another brassica; Hoary Cress. Apparently it is also known as ‘whitetop’, for obvious reasons.

This is a plant that is a long way from home, though: native to south-west Asia and southeastern Europe, it is treated as an invasive weed in both the USA and Australia, where it probably arrived in contaminated seed. In the UK it arrived in the early nineteenth century: in Alien Plants, Clive Stace and Michael Crawley suspect that it probably arrived in ship’s ballast. And therein hangs an interesting tale.

Ship’s ballast was comprised of gravel, sand, stones etc that were placed into the hold of a ship to give it stability and stop it capsizing. It’s easy to see how collecting this material in one port, and then emptying it out when the ship was at the end of its journey, could easily transport plant matter from one place to another. The first recorded case of it, according to Stace, was in 1627, when Francis Bacon reported that:

‘Earth that was brought out of the Indies and other remote countries for ballast for ships, cast upon some grounds in Italy, did put forth foreign herbs, to us in Europe not known’.

Ballast was sometimes dumped at sea, but this ran foul of harbour regulations and incurred a high cost when dredging was required to re-establish safe passage. As a result, it was increasingly left on the land, forming ‘ballast hills’ which must have been a botanist’s delight as alien species germinated. Some ports were more important for this than others: Newcastle, a port where ships went out carrying coal, and came back empty except for ballast, was a prime site for ballast-dumping, whereas London, which was largely an importing port, wasn’t the recipient of a lot of ballast (though alien plants often arrived with the cargoes themselves). The initial entrance site for the plant is established to be Swansea (another coal exporting port) in 1802, but this hasn’t stopped a whole array of stories about the plant’s supposed initial arrival (see later).

Ballast more or less disappeared as a source of alien plants as soon as iron hulls replaced wooden ones, but a number of plants were established by then. The most famous is probably pineappleweed, but in Cornwall prostrate toadflax (Linaria supina) probably arrived in this way.

There is little doubt that hoary cress was also imported with straw brought in for fodder, so it had at least two ways of arriving in the UK. Which ever route was the most important, it has earned the epithet ‘curse of Kent’ and is also associated with the area in yet another name, ‘Thanet Cress’, though it is now found in most parts of the UK. Stace describes it as an ‘aggressive rhizomatous species’. I find it interesting that it has turned up alongside the Playing Fields, much as I was puzzled about the oil-seed rape that is all over the place. I find myself wondering if these have emerged from an agricultural seedbank, dating from when the area was ‘proper’ fields rather than playing fields. I shall have to dig out some maps of the area and have a look.

Stace notes that hoary cress is also often a component of the cheap ‘cornfield seed mixes’ that are sold in order to generate an ‘instant meadow’. I think that this is quite an attractive plant, but that, if the playing fields are anything to go by, it’s also something of a thug – I suspect that the poor old cornflowers and poppies would soon be inundated by a sea of white. There is much to be said for buying such seeds from reputable sources if you want to end up with native species: there are many ‘lookalikes’ which are not the same as the ones that actually evolved here. Still, there is no way that the flora around East Finchley is ever going to be made up of exclusively native plants, and the species from other places make for a most interesting mix.

Stace also points out that in some ways, hoary cress is the ‘ideal’ alien: it doesn’t need any fungal support to spread, it can self-pollinate and spread via its rhizomes, and the seeds are wind-pollinated. In short, given a head start it could take over the world! And it might do this via motorway verges, where it is often found growing alongside oilseed rape. I can imagine those wind-dispersed seeds being blown along the road with each passing car, gradually travelling to every part of the UK.

The plant is also sometimes found in coastal areas, and seems to be highly salt-tolerant, which makes me wonder if the salting of motorways during icy periods has helped it to spread, much as Danish scurvy-grass has.

Now, during the lockdown I have found my thoughts often turning to food, and so naturally I wondered if this member of the cabbage family was edible. Results seem to be mixed: Wild Food Girl in the US uses the young plant in the same way that I would use tenderstem broccoli, and reports that tasting the flowers raw ‘nearly blew my head off’. The Hunger and Thirst website describes it as ‘delicious’. Nearly everyone is very specific that the plant should be eaten ‘young’, and some suggest that you could use the leaves raw, though they also mention that the plant contains hydrogen cyanide so you maybe shouldn’t be too overenthusiastic. As a great lover of broccoli I am almost tempted to have a bash myself. If the blogs suddenly stop arriving, you’ll know what’s happened.

Photo One from https://wildfoodgirl.com/2013/whitetop-a-wild-invasive-substitute-for-broccoli/

Hoary cress and oyster mushroom quiche by Wild Food Girl (Photo One)

Medicinally, the plant has been used to counteract scurvy (like all brassicas it is a good source of Vitamin C) and is said to also be good if you have contracted food poisoning by eating contaminated fish. This seems very specific: I almost wonder if its link with docks and the sea is coming into play here. However, in Plant Lives, Sue Eland mentions that rather than treating food poisoning, the seeds were used as a way of poisoning fish, so that they would float to the surface for easy harvesting – I’m guessing that the hydrogen cyanide was involved.

I went looking for folklore about the plant: often when a plant is a relatively new arrival, there isn’t much to say about it, at least in the UK. I found one ‘creation myth’, from an elderly lady who lived in Whitstable in Kent: she said that the hoary cress had arrived during the 1914-18 war, in the straw brought to feed the horses that were being shipped to the front. Sadly, we know that the plant actually arrived in Swansea a hundred years earlier, but of course plants do arrive in different areas at different times. The war link will not go away, either: in Vickery’s Folk Flora there is a story from the Westminster Gazette of 6th May 1915.

When our troops disembarked at Ramsgate after the disastrous Walcheren expedition of 1809. the straw and other litter on which they had slept aboard ship was thrown into a chalkpit, and afterwards carted into the fields for manure by a farmer called Thompson. A huge crop of the plant (Lepidium draba), thence named ‘Thompson’s Curse’, sprang up, spread right across England, and is now attacking the North Country. The roots of this terrible pest are many feet in length’.

And now a poem. This is actually about a different weed, spotted knapweed, but it could in essence be about any invasive plant, introduced accidentally or for a different purpose, but suddenly out of control. And, like all good poems, it is actually about much more than just a weed. See what you think.

Weeds by Dennis Held (from ‘Betting on the Night‘)

Blessed fiend, sultan of the sagebrush,

spotted knapweed of thee I sing,

bowed before thy spiked tenacity.

 

Cousin to other floral marauders

unholy cadre we honour with sacred

pagan names;dalmatian toad flax

 

dyer’s woad, purple loosestrife, leafy

spurge, hawkweed, cinquefoil,

hoary cress. Knapweed, you’re

 

a hired gun gone amok, imported

by beekeepers greedy for late

summer blooms, but soon

 

you outgrew the pasture

and blasted free, root-fed

toxins offing all around:

 

pedestrian bunch grass,

hyperbolic balsam root,

range-hardened sage,

 

croaked by your democratic

methods-all must die-

just doing what you have to,

 

doing what you can

and you have done it all:

invaded, took over,

 

wiped out the locals,

poisoned the ground,

wasted the water

 

moved west, ever west

and hell, that’s why we fight

so hard to purge you in futile

 

“War on Weeds” campaigns,

knowing we’ll fail, miraculous

centaurea maculosa, impure beast

 

half human, we love

and hate you best,

the honeyed weed within.

Photo Two By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA - Centaurea maculosa, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14711862

Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://wildfoodgirl.com/2013/whitetop-a-wild-invasive-substitute-for-broccoli/

Photo Two By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA – Centaurea maculosa, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14711862

Garden Update

Me window box!

Dear Readers, we might be getting into autumn, but the window boxes are still going well, and attracting all manner of tiny hoverflies. The marjoram has more or less gone over on this side…

…but is still doing well on this side. And also I got this new bright scarlet sedum, which is definitely cheering things up.

In my new recycled-tyre container, all is going well so far. The sedum is coming into flower

The asters will soon be busting out…

The purple toadflax is flowering too. I know it grows very vigorously all over the place but not in East Finchley. I love this delicate little plant, and so do the bees…

And this is a new plant for me: Caucasian germander (Teucrium hircanicum). Apparently the flower stems will eventually be 60cm tall, which will make for a very impressive (and crowded display). It’s a member of the Deadnettle family (Lamiaceae) as you can probably tell.

On a not so happy note, does anyone know what’s happened to my lavender? The foliage is going a most disconcerting yellow colour. Normally I’d think about water logging, but it’s in a very shallow, well-drained bed. All help much appreciated…

The lavender problem!

And finally, all these pollinator friendly plants are of course attracting predators, such as this nice fat spider, who has gotten quite chunky on all the hoverflies and the occasional honeybee. Such is nature, of course, and hopefully the number of insects who get a little help will more than compensate for those who are lost.

And finally I have moved and repotted this bottlebrush plant, which was languishing at the back of the garden. It was bought for me by my lovely Canadian aunties, one of whom passed away last week, and one of whom is now very unwell. Every time I look at it, it will remind me of them, and I hope that it will thrive in its new, sunnier home. I will write about both of them soon, but at the moment I just feel too sad. But I know that those bright red flowers will cheer me up when they come, and they’ll cheer the bees up too.

The Capital Ring – Beckton to Woolwich – Part Two

Bollards. 

Dear Readers, we finish our oatmilk coffee and vegan chocolate brownie (for, in a mark of the gentrification of the area the only open cafe is rammed with people and plant-based), and off we trot. We are supposed to cross two locks and then meander along the edge of Gallion’s Reach. This was the site, in 1878, of the worst ever disaster on a British waterway – the SS Princess Alice, en route from Gravesend to London, collided with the collier Bywell Castle and sank just four minutes, with the loss of six hundred souls. Today, all is quiet.

The locks are closed and bolted and clearly not available for us to cross. Oh dear. We head in completely the wrong direction. There is a lot of new building here, and a radar tower. The tower is operated by the Port of London Authority and presumably monitors ships and boats coming and going up and down the Thames.

Radar tower

The side of the road here is alive with flowers, mainly buddleia and what looks like rape. A painted lady butterfly rushes past but doesn’t stop to be photographed.

When we get to yet another DLR station we realise that we will have to reverse our steps, and cross the dock on the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge. And at this point my camera decides to misbehave and the viewfinder packs up, and so all the subsequent photographs are shot without me being able to see what I’m doing.

There is a grand view from the bridge, and at least the weather has lightened up a bit.

At the bottom of the bridge, we need to cross the road. But hang on a second…look who’s approaching the crossing!

The fox looks up and down the road and then sits down to wait….as you can see, the light has just gone red.

And then once the traffic has stopped the fox trots across the road…

Disappears behind a hoarding just a few metres away…

…and reappears further back along the bridge, before slipping into the undergrowth.

Well. We would never have seen that if the ‘correct’ path had been open. It just goes to show how serendipitous life can sometimes be.

And now we finally re-join the river and head down towards the Woolwich Foot Tunnel.

A family of Egyptian Geese seem perfectly at home on one of the slipways. They used to be rarely seen outside of private collections, but they seem to be expanding their range with great aplomb.

What handsome birds they are!

We see the exit to the foot tunnel taunting us on the other side of the river. It’s that red-brick circular building with the green top.

Some young mallards have settled down on another slipway.

We pass Royal Victoria Gardens, and I note that this Horse Chestnut is not doing quite as badly as some of the others I’ve seen. I wonder if some individual trees are gradually becoming more resistant to the onslaught of leaf miners and fungal problems. I do hope so – they are one of my favourite trees.

We see the car ferries idling on either side of the river, but they don’t go anywhere. This is not surprising as they don’t run at the weekend, so just as well we were planning to use the foot tunnel.

And then we finally get to the foot tunnel. Opened in 1912 it has 126 steps down, 101 steps up and is 495 metres long. At the top is a young man with a very large suitcase, who announces that the lift at this end isn’t working. He is considering his options.

The tunnel is a bit damp and I can’t help wondering if the River Thames is going to come bursting through, but all is well. In the middle of the tunnel you reach the lowest point of the Capital Ring, at 60 feet below sea level. Apologies for the joggly photo, but I’m sure you get the general idea. Although it says no cycling, we were passed by a chap on an electric bike, nonchalantly swooshing past. Further down the tunnel was a very large, athletic-looking dad running through the tunnel with a toddler in a push chair. I do wonder how both of them greeted the non-working lift at the other end, but both were moving too swiftly for me to warn them.

The whole thing looks rather Clockwork Orange-ish to me. It didn’t appear in that film, but it did appear in ’28 Weeks Later’, a 2007 film which is described as a ‘post-apocalyptic horror film’ starring Robert Carlyle and Rose Byrne. It doesn’t sound very cheerful, especially in the aftermath of Covid.

 

And then we’re in the air again, south of the river.

If we’d been doing the Capital Ring in the correct order this would have been the end of the walk, but because we started from home in East Finchley we’re only about a quarter of the way round, with some of the longer and hillier sections to come. I am really feeling the benefit of a weekly walk, though, and it’s so good to be rediscovering my city again. I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

The Foot Tunnel Terminus on the south side.

The Capital Ring – Beckton to Woolwich Part One

Dear Readers, this turned into a rather more exciting walk than we expected, due to unexpected route changes, broken down trains and all sorts of other shenanigans. However, we are not averse to an adventure, and sometimes things that seem like a nuisance can reveal sights that you would never have seen otherwise, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post. For today, though, we start where we finished last week, at Albert Dock Docklands Light Railway station. It always seems a bit space-age in these parts, what with the Blade-Runnerish elevated railway and the driverless trains. When we were young and the DLR had just opened in 1987, we used to ride it from one end to another just for the novelty value (rather as we ride the Elizabeth Line today, big kids that we are).

We head to Beckton District Park, which is rather green and lovely after all the rain.

This is described in the Capital Ring book as a ‘trotting track’, which to me implies horses, but I can find no mention of this either presently or historically. If anyone knows anything about it, let me know! My grandfather-in-law on my mother-in-law’s side (if you can get your head around that without a flowchart) used to own a champion trotting horse in Ontario.

And then we’re heading down to the Royal Albert Dock, part of the Royal Docks which were opened in 1880 and at the time were the largest in the world. They were closed to commercial shipping in 1982 but are now, as we will see, a massive watersports facility. First, though, I pass an absolutely massive fig tree, probably the largest that I’ve seen in a private garden outside of a stately home.

The plane trees seem to be suffering from the heat and drought again, with huge chunks of bark missing.

And how about this very handsome cat? He had his eye on a squirrel, and was rather disgusted when we got in the way.

Then we pass through Cyprus DLR station, named after the Cyprus estate, which was in turn named after the British capture of the island in 1881. My husband, who I love dearly, is always rushing on ahead if there is any uncertainty about the path (a characteristic that he shares with many in his family), and so he pops up a few times in the photos this week. That’ll teach him.

We are entering the campus of the University of East London. Last time we were here it was open and we were able to get a coffee and a sandwich, but of course the universities haven’t reopened yet, and so here we are, coffee-less, which is a disaster as regular readers will know. Nonetheless, we take the time to admire the student residences. Arsenic green seems to be all the rage this year.

Many people were out training on the river, including the folk in this dragon boat. Their cox was a very shouty person, but maybe that comes with the territory.

There were lots of smaller craft out and about too, and they were somewhat quieter.

And let’s not forget that just across the water is London City Airport. This is a Category C airport, which means that it needs specially trained pilots and crew due to its tight approach and the close proximity of buildings. I managed to get a video of a KLM plane taking off, and very pleased I was with myself too. I find this rather thrilling, though I understand why the local residents would be reluctant to support any expansion. Sound up for the full effect! And to hear me shushing my poor husband.

On the way to get coffee, we passed under the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge, formerly the Connaught Bridge. This was named after the Olympic rower, who won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games, and has close ties to Newham as well. Little did we know (bit of foreshadowing here) that we would soon be crossing it.

But for now we are meandering around the edge of the dock, admiring the water birds.

We pass the Galyons pub (which was a hotel) – you’ll see a lot of ‘Gallyons/Gallions’ around here and I thought they were probably named after galleons, those magnificent tall ships from the 16th Century. But no – a local family called Galyon lived around here in the 14th Century and many of the sights around here are named after them. The building used to be right on the railway, and was used as a hotel by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. One person who stayed overnight was Rudyard Kipling en route to India.

We wander towards the dock, and find, joy of joys, a cafe that is actually open, and an optimistic swan who seems to know that crumbs might be available.

It’s not as peaceful as all that, though…

And now begins a series of strange detours and minor misadventures, but be assured that there is a happy ending! More of this tomorrow….

The Devil’s Coach Horse

Devil’s Coach Horse (Ocypus olens) (Public Domain)

Dear Readers, today I went to Walthamstow Wetlands which, as the skies opened, proved not to be the world’s best idea. However, my friend S noticed a large, elongated insect with huge jaws crossing the footpath, right into the path of a jogger. We moved over to protect the creature from being squished, and it raised its abdomen in a gesture of threat. It had just calmed down when the runner actually passed and it performed its threat display again, probably roused by the vibration of the footfalls. Once the runner had passed we shepherded the beetle to the other side of the path and into the undergrowth. Goodness, if it isn’t geese that we’re trying to herd to safety at Walthamstow Wetlands, it’s beetles. What’s next? Bitterns? Kingfishers? Weasels?

A Devil’s Coach-horse! It must be twenty years since I’ve seen one. I’ve always had a soft spot for these tetchy beetles with their multiple defenses. Not only do they raise their abdomen in a satisfyingly scorpion-like fashion, but they also emit fluid from their mouths, a foul-smelling fluid from glands at the end of their bodies, and faecal matter just to complete the whole look. Their species name, Olens, actually means ‘smelly’.  You mess with one of these critters at your peril.

Photo One by By H.-P. Widmer - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79435306

A very impressive threat display by a Devil’s Coach Horse (Photo One)

Devil’s Coach-horses belong to the rove beetle family,Staphylinidae, which has over 46,000 members worldwide. Most rove beetles are elongated in shape, and feed on fly larvae, slugs, snails and the occasional earthworm, which they hunt down after dark. These insects are consummate predators – speedy, and equipped with huge jaws.

There are a lot of unfortunate superstitions about this beetle. It has long been associated with the devil, and there was a belief that if you squashed a Devil’s Coach-horse you would be forgiven seven sins. The beetles are said to have eaten the core of Eve’s apple, and are therefore guilty by association. There was a belief that the insect would raise its tail in the direction of a person that it wanted to curse, and in Ireland the only way to safely dispose of the poor creature was to pick it up on a shovel and throw it into a fire.

The only real danger from the creature (and the reason that I didn’t pick it up and move it) is that those powerful jaws are not just there for show – Devil’s Coach-horses are capable of giving a nasty nip, and shouldn’t be handled.

Photo Two by Quartl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A nice peaceful Devil’s Coach-horse (Photo Two)

The love life of a Devil’s Coach-horse is pleasingly straightforward. The females mate in the autumn (maybe our beetle was out and about during the day because s/he was looking for love). The eggs are laid in damp soil, and the adorable (ahem) larvae appear after about 30 days. They are every bit as irritable as the adults, with the same huge jaws and the same threat display, and they too eat the larvae of other insects, slugs, snails and earthworms. After about 5 months the larvae pupates for another month before emerging in the spring. The beetle can survive a second winter by hibernating as an adult in an old mouse burrow or other underground spot, before reappearing above ground as the days get longer.

Photo Three by Ben Sale from Stevenage, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Devil’s Coach-horse larva (Photo Three)

I was so pleased to see this insect again, a familiar friend from my childhood and a most welcome garden predator. It’s a shame that its sinister appearance has been the cause of so much prejudice. Maybe we should start a ‘Love Your Devil’s Coach-Horse’ campaign? The poor thing could certainly do with a bit of support.

Photo Four by Gail Hampshire from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gails_pictures/49599336556

Devil’s Coach-horse with shadow (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By H.-P. Widmer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79435306

Photo Two by Quartl, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Three by Ben Sale from Stevenage, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four by Gail Hampshire from https://www.flickr.com/photos/gails_pictures/49599336556

 

Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain

Cold Dark Matter – An Exploded View by Cornelia Parker (1991)

Dear Readers, I have a great fondness for an artist who would get the army to help her to blow up a garden shed with Semtex. I have an even greater admiration for the patience with which the artist combed the field afterwards, finding all the pieces, only to reconstruct them in her studio later. As she says, people seem to love to blow things up, and this work reminds me of one of those frozen moments just after something has happened. Is the garden shed flying apart, or, with a quick reversal, could it be put back together again, like Humpty Dumpty? There’s something playful here, but also something quite thought-provoking, and this is typical of Cornelia Parker’s work. Born in 1956, Parker has a deep interest in the transformation of objects, and in their potential even when damaged.

The idea of the shed was, according to Parker, because this is a place where we store things that we aren’t sure if we’ll ever need again. There are toys in the exploded shed, tools, all manner of bric-a-brac, all representing those things that we are reluctant to get rid of and don’t really want to bring into the light. Some of the objects were the artist’s own, but most were gathered from car boot sales over a three -month period. Parker discusses how the objects were charred and broken after the explosion, but how they were somehow reanimated once they were suspended, and I can see what she means.

Another work that I rather liked was ’30 Pieces of Silver’ from 1988-9. For this work, Parker again trawled through car boot sales and junk shops, collecting silver objects. These were then ceremonially flattened by a handy steam roller. I think Parker must have extraordinary social skills – she managed to persuade the Army to cooperate with the blowing up of her shed, and I imagine that a lot of steam roller drivers would have baulked at such a strange commission.

Once flattened, each object was suspended from a thread so that it hung a few inches above the ground. The objects are grouped into thirty ‘pools’, each containing between thirty three and forty six pieces, although each pool is roughly the same size. The overall effect is rather ethereal.

I was fascinated by the contents of the different pools. The one below has what looks like a brass platter, which is golden amongst all the silver.

And in the pool below, there’s what looks like a trumpet.

I love the shadows, too.

In War Room (2015), Parker has made a tent based on the one created for the Field of the Cloth of Gold by Henry VIII for his meeting with the King of France in 1520. The tent is completely lined with the material from which the Royal British Legion cuts out its poppies for poppy day. For Parker, the empty holes represent those who died in wars, although with only 300,000 holes it’s a massive underestimate.

Photo One from https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/cornelia-parker/exhibition-guide

War Room by Cornelia Parker (2015) (Photo One)

And finally, there’s Island, made in 2022. A little greenhouse, its windows whitewashed with chalk from the White Cliffs of Dover, stands alone in the middle of the room. The encaustic tiles on its floor come from the Houses of Parliament, and date back to 1847. What is disconcerting is the way that the single light in the middle of the greenhouse pulses on and off with the rhythm of an anxious breath. This is what Parker has to say:

“For Island I’ve painted the panes of glass of a greenhouse with white brushstrokes of cliff chalk, like chalking time. So the glasshouse becomes enclosed, inward looking, a vulnerable domain, a little England with a cliff-face veil. The Island in question is our own. In our time of Brexit, alienated from Europe, Britain is emptied out of Europeans just when we need them most. The spectre of the climate crisis is looming large: with crumbling coastlines and rising sea levels, things seem very precarious.

……The light inside the greenhouse slowly pulses, breathing in and out like a lighthouse. The white chalk strokes throw dark shadow moirés on the wall. What is white becomes black, and what was stable is now uneasily shifting.”

I loved this exhibition. Parker has a way of titivating the senses and the intellect which I find most satisfying. Well worth a look if you’re in London – the exhibition closes on 16th October, so there’s still time!

Photo Credit

Photo One from https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/cornelia-parker/exhibition-guide

At Tate Britain – The Procession

Dear Readers, today I took a little trip to Tate Britain in Pimlico, ostensibly to see the Cornelia Parker exhibition (of which more tomorrow). But when I got to the Duveen galleries, I was confronted by this lot, and very scary they are too.

This is the 2022 Tate Britain Commission, and it’s called The Procession. The artist is Huw Locke, who was born in Edinburgh but who moved to Guyana when he was five, just as the country was becoming independent.

It’s tricky to say what ‘The Procession’ is ‘about’, because it seems to be about many things – it’s about colonialism, conflict, history, nationhood, independence, and what these things mean. Locke says that he wanted the piece to be ‘human scale’, and so it is. He’s also used very workaday materials – cardboard features a lot, and while he’s used a lot of his own custom-printed fabric, a lot of it has also come from shops around London.

Locke says that the piece could be viewed as a puzzle, and that it rewards time spent with it – that was certainly my experience. I ended up spending about an hour wandering around and through it, wondering what things meant, trying to relate one character to another. I suspect I’d have needed to know a lot more about history, but I think it also gives you the opportunity to make your own connections and devise your own story.

Some of the characters seem quite frightening, but the children in the gallery seemed to love the piece, and their parents were having a great time trying to keep them from interacting rather more directly than the gallery wardens were happy with.

There is beauty here, and the macabre, and some characters who are both.

The Tate Gallery was, of course, built on money from sugar and the slave trade, and Locke says that this was a starting point for the piece. Then there is the sense of people on the move, people protesting and gaining a sense of their power, which feels very contemporary. But then there’s also a sense of Carnival.

And death is here too.

What is so striking about The Procession is the sheer amount of work that’s gone into it. If I’d designed one of the characters and brought them to fruition I would have been well chuffed, but here there are hundreds, all different, all with a story to tell. If you’re in London, it’s well worth a look. I’m sure everyone’s reactions will be different, and that is part of the interest of the piece.

To take just one facet of the piece: the banner here, showing the Black Star Line, is a reference to the shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey in the early 1920s. The idea was that the ships would transport goods and eventually African Americans throughout the African global economy. Garvey bought ships (funded by donations from the black community), but these were oversold and badly maintained, and the company itself was infiltrated by agents from what would become the FBI, who actively sabotaged the ships. So, the endeavour was a failure, through no fault of its own.

At the very end of the procession is this man. To me he looks rather like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on his head. His shoelaces are undone, and he is lagging a little behind, but he looks pretty serious to me. Like the last runner in a marathon, he will get there too, I have no doubt.

Wednesday Weed – Agrimony

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Dear Readers, when I was visiting Mum and Dad’s grave last week I came across this lovely plant with its tiny yellow flowers. Meet Agrimony, a member of the rose family and a plant that favours chalky soils, which is probably why I never see it in East Finchley. It has long spikes of yellow flowers, and this plant was one of the last to still be in bloom, with most of the rest now just bearing splendid seedheads. One of the vernacular names for the plant is ‘Church Steeples’, because of the shape of the flower spikes, which also explains ‘Fairy Wand’ and ‘Aaron’s Rod’. I suspect that its golden colour has a lot to do with the name ‘Money In Both Pockets’.

The foliage is said to be mildly fragrant but that of the plant’s close relative Fragrant Agrimony(Agrimonia procera) is said to be very perfumed, as the name suggests. Fragrant Agrimony doesn’t like chalky soils, so it’s interesting to see how two very similar plants have divvied up the ecosystem. It reminds me of the way that Great Tits and Blue Tits, very similar small birds, can use the same tree because the former feed closer to the trunk, while the latter can take advantage of the smallest twigs because they’re marginally lighter.

The name ‘agrimony’ is said to come from the Greek word for poppy, which puzzled me for a bit – the plant doesn’t look like a poppy. However, it has had a folklore reputation as a sedative (and we all know about opium poppies) – it was said that if a sprig of Agrimony was placed under a person’s head, he or she would sleep until it was removed. The plant could also be brewed to make ‘arquebusade water’ which could cure musket wounds, and ward off witchcraft.

The seedheads are covered in hooks, rather like burrs, which cling to the fur of animals and are easily distributed around the countryside by passing foxes and golden retrievers. This gives rise to yet another local name, Sweethearts.

Photo One by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=255258CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=255258

Agrimony seedheads (Photo One)

According to the indispensable Mrs Grieve’s Herbal, Agrimony produces a yellow dye, pale in September, darker later in the year. She also explains many of the medicinal uses of the plant. For internal haemorrhages, medieval medics recommended mixing the plant with pounded frogs and human blood. More recently, it was seen as being of great use in liver and gall-bladder complaints, skin conditions and gout. The plant also attracted the attention of Pliny the Elder, who believed that it could be useful for both preventing and treating snake bites. It is also said to be great for tired feet, so it’s just what I need after a trot around the Capital Ring. It was also used as an Anglo-Saxon sex aid: boiled in water, it would reduce lust, but if boiled in milk it would increase it. It just goes to show that a glass of warm milk before bedtime might not necessarily be relaxing.

Agrimony was a much commoner plant in the past, and one with such a variety of uses that many people will have known it. However, it is vulnerable to early mowing – its seed is set very late in the year, and so if an area is mown to early the seeds will not yet be ripe. This is a shame because Agrimony is favoured by many insects, including the Grizzled Skipper, whose caterpillars like agrimony and other small members of the rose family, such as wild strawberry and cinquefoil.

Photo Two by By James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1680913

Grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae) (Photo Two)

And so, a poem. In the Language of Flowers, Agrimony stands for thankfulness, and I like this work by Christina M.Ward from 2019. I remember how, when I’ve been confronted with the great challenges of life, such as the death of a parent, I’ve felt myself slow down and soften, as if I’ve shed a skin. This poem captures some of that feelng.

Agrimonia (a free verse poem) by Christina M.Ward 

I have gathered church steeples,
racemes of yellow Agrimonia,
as many as I can carry

It is not enough, I think

The butterflies and sun
follow me. We leave a
tender trail,

thankfulness, our meditation

I slide the ends under
cool waters, nip the ends
stems clogging the drain

You stir in your sleep,
a gasp, a wheeze

I am filled with hope, for you
for these —may their radiance
inspire your lungs to lift
searching the air for oxygen
as your eyes search for yellow

thankful, one more day

Photo Credits
Photo Two By James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1680913