Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – Spring in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, I like to have A Project when I go to visit Mum and Dad in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset, and for my April visit there was much ado about their 60th Wedding Anniversary party in September. We have found a wonderful venue which is actually available on the correct day, so now I’m in full-on Party Organiser mode. There are so many decisions to be made between Menus A, B and C, not to mention the design of the invitations and the colour of the flowers on the table. Then there’s the problem of finding the same harpist that Mum and Dad had at their fiftieth wedding anniversary party. And, of course, as you know my parents are not in the first flush of youth (they’ll be 82 this year), and neither of them are in the best of health either. So my urge to get as much sorted out in the shortest possible time runs counter to their desire for a gentler pace.

Mum says that if I just relax a bit, it will all fall into place. My question is, what place exactly will it fall into? Getting the balance right between being a pain-in-the-butt organisational shaper, and a laissez-faire slacker is proving tricky. I am full of anxiety. What if the people that they want at the party find out about it too late, and so can’t come? What if the harpist has retired? Should the invitation be a card or just a single sheet? I feel myself turning into the wedding anniversary equivalent of Bridezilla, and that will never do. After all, the important thing is that Mum and Dad enjoy themselves, and my being a bully is the last thing that’s required. And so I decide to take a familiar walk through the village and up to the farmland above to see what I can see, and to give myself a bit of perspective.

What I see first are lots of delightful weeds. Many of them are new to me, although I recognise them from my plant books. There is masses of corn salad with its small lilac flowers, which look almost pale blue against the foliage. There is some lipstick pink ramping fumitory. There is some ground elder, which is a surprisingly attractive plant until it takes over your garden. And there is a white plant with the tiniest of flowers arranged in a spike like a tiny orchid. And all this is before I even get out of the village proper and start climbing the hill.

Corn Salad

Ramping fumitory

Presently unidentified tiny white plant (now identified as thyme-leaved speedwell.)

I notice that the woodpigeons are displaying. A bird launches itself into the air with a sharp clap of the wings, ascends and then slides downwards as if on an invisible rollercoaster. The jackdaws are chuckling, and the wrens are belting out their strident songs from every bush.

As I turn away from Milborne, the first field that I see is full of oilseed rape. A member of the cabbage family, this plant has completely changed the face of English agriculture in the past fifty years, and it continues to increase in popularity ;the oil is having a renaissance as a healthy cooking oil with a high smoking point, and it is also used for biofuels. Oilseed rape is so yellow that it seems to sear the eyeballs, but each individual plant is rather elegant, at least at this time of year.

Oilseed rape

The hedgerow is full of chirping sparrows, and I pause for a long time to try to catch sight of a robin that is singing from within a berberis bush. I look up and down, peering through the branches and twigs, but as far as I can see it’s the plant that’s animate, with a voice of its own.

The hedges on either side of the road here are completely different. The one on the left is full of blackthorn and hawthorn, the one on the right is more decorative, with forsythia just going over and berberis, mahonia and quince. The birds don’t seem to care which one they sing from, but there is lots of feeding activity in the left hand hedge, where the ivy berries are proving very popular.

Ivy berries in the left-hand hedgerow….

Berberis in the right-hand hedgerow

I pass an old, corrugated-roofed farm building which has become an ecosystem in its own right, with the ivy covering the upper levels and moss growing like a pelt over the damper lower slope. A blackbird erupts from the foliage in a frenzy of complaint, tilts its tail and disappears back into a hedge.

A roofy ecosystem….

The ground opens out here, and I realise that I can pick out a sound that I’d not heard before; a skylark is singing in a tumble of notes  and whirrs and scales. I strain to find it and there, against a white sky, is a tiny black dot. I try to find it again but all I can see are the floaters in my eyes, like so many protoplasmic blobs.

I walk on, past the muddy puddle where I saw yellowhammers drinking last year. This year, there are heavy, hieroglyphic footprints in the drying soil.

On the other side of the path is a field full of stubble, and it occurs to me how different the geology is here. In London, it’s all about the clay, but here there are flint geodes on the soil, like misshapen eggs. The knapped flints are part of the vernacular architecture of Dorset, embedded into walls of all kinds, and I can imagine how someone would have picked up the stones, measuring them in the hand, before placing them in the mortar. The first few inches of soil influences everything about an ecosystem, from the microorganisms to the birds and mammals, and so it seems a shame that soil is so often worked until it is no more than dust. Our ancestors would have known better, I’m sure, leaving the land to recover rather than working it until it had no more to give. We think of history as being a tale of relentless improvement but history tells us no such thing.

Flint geodes…

I walk down past a tiny secluded wood, fenced in on all sides and impossible to enter. However, through a few gaps in the foliage I can see the whiteness of windflowers against the indigo-blue of English bluebells and the butter yellow of Lesser Celandine. This tiny fragment probably once extended for miles, but at least this is still here. It is a pleasure to peep through the hawthorn and barbed wire to see the woodland flowers growing undisturbed.

Wood anemones and English bluebells in a tiny fragment of ancient wood

And so, as the sun comes out at last, I must head back down to the village. I pass a quartet of eager walkers heading up the hill, all men of a certain age with strong legs and clear eyes and maps of the area in transparent plastic map cases. We wish one another good morning, and I tell the leading chap about the little wood with the flowers, and the skylark. I suspect that they are men on a mission, however, rather than idle dreamers like me, though bluebells have been known to stop many people in their tracks.

And so I return home, calmer and more optimistic and definitely less beset with fonts and floral displays. And when I download the photos from my camera, I find this.

Yellowhammer!

You might remember that last year, I spent almost an hour trying to get  a photo of a yellowhammer for you all, and failing. Today, I just took a quick snap of a couple of birds on a telephone wire, and here is a yellowhammer for all to see. Trying too hard is often counterproductive. Maybe Mum is right, and there’s a lot to be said for letting things fall into place after all.

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Bugwoman on Location – At Crossbones Graveyard

On a Thursday lunchtime, the streets around London Bridge station are mobbed with folk heading for Borough market to pick up their artisan coffee and hog-roast sandwiches, but just a few hundred yards further on is the garden of the Crossbones graveyard, a place of pilgrimage for many and a space for quiet contemplation amidst the traffic, human and vehicular.

It is  said that the site was originally a medieval burial ground for the sex-workers, or ‘Winchester Geese’ who worked in the area, and who were required to be buried in unhallowed ground. I went to an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in the 1990’s which showed a variety of skeletons, and told what could be learned from their condition. One of the bodies, exhumed from Crossbones,  was of a woman estimated to be 16-19 years old, only 4 foot 7 inches tall, and with well-advanced syphilitic lesions of the skull. I remember being haunted by the delicacy of her bones as she lay exposed in a glass case. I have always been simultaneously fascinated by what these remains can tell us, and appalled at what feels to me like desecration. I imagine that the young woman now lays in a vault in the Museum of London – the circular building in the middle of the roundabout there is an ossuary, full of historical bones.

The site was subsequently used as a pauper’s graveyard. Over 15,000 people too poor to afford burial were buried here, many of them children under a year old. The graveyard itself fell into disuse after 1853, at which point it was said to be absolutely full of remains, with one body thrown on top of another.When the site was used for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990’s, 142 bodies were disinterred, among them the young woman mentioned above.  The ribbons attached to the memorial gates of the site record the parish records for some of the people buried at the site.

‘A poor man taken out of the street, December 2,1725’

‘Margaret Keen, Fishmonger Alley, 22’

‘Mary Ann Jupp, Silver Street, Age 4 months’

People also attach remembrances of those who have died more recently, so that the gates are covered with tokens of those who are no longer on this earth.

Inside the garden there is a quiet space, where the rattle of trains en route to London Bridge is interspersed by the flapping of a wood pigeon’s wings and the song of a blackbird.

The entrance to the garden is via an elegant ‘goose’s wing’ shelter. There is a feeling of hopefulness and renewal, as the plants break into flower and the bees go about their work once again.

A queen wasp resting in the euphorbia

The willow tree was positively abuzz with honeybees collecting pollen to feed the larvae back in the nest. I love the little orange ‘baskets’ on their legs. It just goes to show that even in such an urban spot, insects will be attracted if we grow the right plants.

There were some other excellent pollinator plants in the garden as well.The early spring bees were all over the periwinkle, but were a bit too fast for me to get a photograph.

Vinca major (Periwinkle)

The brunnera was doing a great job of attracting pollinators as well – this is a great woodland plant, and mine is just popping up again in my garden (though it’s well behind this one).

Brunnera macrophylla

The green men statues are honoured at a ceremony in the autumn giving thanks for nature’s generosity.

The boards at the end of the site shows a map of the area in medieval times, and two poems taken from the ‘Southwark Mysteries’, a contemporary Mystery play written by local author John Constable, and performed by 50 professional actors and a cast drawn from the local community, at the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral in 2000, and again in 2010. The plays, with their ribaldry and boisterous nature, attracted a great deal of controversy, as you can read here. However, the overall message of the production was that no one is beyond redemption, and I’d have thought that this was something that was intrinsic to Christian belief. In 2007, before the garden was officially ‘a garden’, one of the on-site security guards, Andy Hulme, began to construct ‘the invisible garden’ behind the gates and shrine which were at that time the main focus of the site. One of his works was the Pyramid, into which seeds have been scattered over the years. One side of the pyramid is covered in oyster shells from Borough Market – oysters were once the food of poor people, washed down with gin or stout. Many of the people buried in the graveyard would have eaten them.

The pyramid built by the Invisible Gardener

The most moving part of the garden though, for me, was the shrine behind the gates. A statue of the Virgin Mary tenderly cradles a goose, surrounded by flowers and tokens, and by broken chains. For many people, the statue also represents the Goddess, and it is typical of the inclusivity of Crossbones that, if you look, you will find symbols of many faiths. The principle here is divine love, whatever form it comes in.

The garden is currently leased from Transport For London (who recognise its role as public space) and is managed by Bankside Open Spaces Trust and the Friends of Crossbones, who provide volunteers to open the garden between 12 and 2 pm on weekdays, and for a longer period at weekends. The garden is free to enter, but do sign the visitors book on your way out – when the usage of a space is recorded, it’s much easier to protect it from the ‘powers that be’. There have been many times in its history when Crossbones has been under threat.

Crossbones role as a memorial garden for the outcast dead is what makes it unique.  We are all just one mental illness, one financial catastrophe, one crushing bereavement, one addiction away from becoming outcasts ourselves. And in a city where everything moves too fast, and follows the money too enthusiastically, it is easy for people to be left behind. Only by including everyone can a city or a community thrive, and Crossbones is a powerful symbol of those who were not, and are not, included. Ceremonies of remembrance are held on the 23rd of each month at 7 p.m., not just for those buried in the garden but for all our outcast, dead and alive.

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Bugwoman on Location – The Survivor

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica 'Vegeta')

The Marylebone Elm (Ulmus x hollandica ‘Vegeta’)

Dear Readers, this magnificent elm tree, over 100 feet tall, was for a long time the only surviving elm tree in Westminster. It is estimated to be about 150 years old, and was probably planted as a sapling in the grounds of the parish church of St Marylebone. Unfortunately, the church was so badly damaged during bombing in World War II that it had to be demolished, so now the tree finds itself marooned on the pavement outside a tiny Garden of Rest.

img_9680As I stand under the tree and lean back to take my photo, I become aware of what an enormous organism this is, dwarfing the people under it. It has the a presence, a sense of individuality that I often recognise when I spend time with old trees. And this one is a survivor twice over, because not only did it escape the German bombs, it was also somehow bypassed by the Dutch Elm Disease of the 60’s, which killed over 25 million trees in the UK alone.

img_9684Dutch Elm Disease had been in the UK since the 1920’s, but this was a mild strain of the micro-fungus which causes the disease, and which usually just killed a couple of branches. The fungus is carried by bark beetles, who normally do only minimal damage when their grubs dig tunnels through the bark. Unfortunately, the 1960’s brought a much more dangerous strain, carried into Europe in a consignment of logs from North America. As the fungus enters the wood, the tree reacts by plugging up the xylem that brings nutrients and water to the leaves. Gradually whole sections of the plant die off, and so the leaves that bring nutrients to the rest of the plant fall, and the tree starves. Over 75% of all the elm trees in the UK died.

Elms that have been incorporated into hedgerows survived the fungus, which only really starts to impact on the tree when it grows above 5 metres. However, all over the country the giant elms, the preferred nesting trees of rooks, succumbed. Among them was the largest elm ever recorded in the UK, the Great Saling Elm, with a girth of 6.86 metres and a height of 40 metres. The elms in the paintings of John Constable are also mostly gone.

By John Constable - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149396

John Constable ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden (1823 version) (Photo One – see credit below)

This tree has been our companion since at least classical times: the Linear B lists of military equipment found at Knossos mention that the chariots were made of elm wood, and elm was used by medieval bowmen if yew couldn’t be found. The Romans also used elm saplings as supports for their grapevines: the ancients spoke of the marriage between the elm and the vine. As Ovid put it,

‘ulmus amat vitem, vitis non deserit ulmum’ (the elm loves the vine, the vine does not desert the elm)

Elm wood was hollowed out to make many of London’s underground waterpipes, and to make lock gates on the canals. The original Tyburn Tree was a huge elm, before it was replaced with a gallows. And Seven Sisters in north London originally referred to a stand of seven elm trees, referred to in the mosaic by Hans Unger on the platform of the tube station. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called ‘The English Elms’ about this very subject:

Seven Sisters in Tottenham,

long gone, except for their names,

were English elms.

 

Others stood at the edge of farms,

twinned with the shapes of clouds

like green rhymes;

or cupped the beads of the rain

in their leaf palms;

or glowered, grim giants, warning of storms.

 

In the hedgerows in old films,

elegiacally, they loom,

the English elms;

or find posthumous fame

in the lines of poems-

the music making elm-

for ours is a world without them…

 

to whom the artists came,

time after time, scumbling, paint on their fingers and thumbs;

and the woodcutters, who knew the elm was a coffin’s deadly aim;

and the mavis, her new nest unharmed in the crook of a living, wooden arm;

and boys, with ball and stumps and bat for a game;

and nursing ewes and lambs, calm under the English elms…

 

great, masterpiece trees,

who were overwhelmed.

To hear her read her poem, have a look at the link here.

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two - see credit below)

The Seven Sisters elms, mosaic by Hans Unger (Photo Two – see credit below)

I noticed that wire had been twisted around the trunk of the Marylebone Elm, I suspect as a support for Christmas fairy lights. This is something of an indignity, but I suspect that the tree is less perturbed than I am. I sometimes think that we treat trees with such disregard because we can’t imagine that they are living things because they are so large, and live on such a different timescale from us. Certainly, we seem to view them with all the compassion that we would extend to to a lamp post. And yet, I have cried hot tears at the callous cutting down of trees, and at the disrespect that we show them, and it seems I am not the only one: in Sheffield recently, two ladies were arrested for trying to prevent the cutting down of their local street trees, an event which commenced at 4.30 a.m. to try to avoid public outcry.

img_9685But, at least the Marylebone Elm is still in good health, and the buds are just appearing. Soon, there will be the crisp, veined leaves, and then the yellowing into another autumn.

img_9677

By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The strange flowers of the English elm (Photo Three – see credit below)

By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (see credit below)

elm-leaf-231855Although the Dutch Elm disease problem has never gone away, there have been thousands of new plantings of the trees, including some in W1, the postcode of the Marylebone Elm . Elms are complicated trees, with many subspecies and varieties, and some have more resistance than others. Plus, as already noticed, small trees can survive as saplings or in hedges for many years. The elm is still here, under the radar, still providing nesting places for blackbirds and food for over 82 species of insects, including the white-letter hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds only on elms. The numbers of the butterfly were much reduced by the death of their foodplant, as you might expect, but they are now fighting their way back.

By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK - White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album) (Photo Five – see credit below)

The giant elm of Marylebone seems strangely out of place these days, slotted in among the buildings as if every last inch of space that it takes up is begrudged. And yet, here it still stands, a survivor of fire and destruction, and of the insidious fungus that destroyed so many of its compatriots. It reminds me of that generation of people who survived the trenches and saw untold horrors, and yet who just got on with it. And that is what living things do, given half a chance – they carry on, until they can’t. May the Marylebone Elm carry on for many years to come.

img_9672 Credits

Photo One (Constable) – By John Constable – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149396

Photo Two (Seven Sisters Mosaic) –© Copyright Oxyman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three (Elm Flowers) – By Rosser1954 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Elm Leaves) – By Ptelea at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (White-letter hairstreak) – By Ian Kirk from Broadstone, Dorset, UK – White Letter HairstreakUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30182755

I discovered many of the elm facts included in this blogpost in this article by James Coleman at The Londonist, and very informative it is too.

All other blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman’s Third Annual Report

IMG_5397Dear Readers, what a year it’s been! It started in February 2016 with a rather disappointing revisit to the Abraham Cruzvillegas installation at Tate Modern, which contained soil from different sites in London, and was supposed to provide an idea of the diverse flora from the capital. Sadly, it was rather underlit, and none of the raised beds were labelled, so it was impossible to know where each sample of soil had come from. Plus it finished in February, just before everything started to come into flower! A most frustrating exercise which could have been both artistically and scientifically interesting. Harrumph!  It did provide an excuse for a bracing walk along the Thames, however.

IMG_5528March was all about frogs and this poor little fox, half eaten up with mange. It was the start of my daily walk to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where I dropped medicated food to try and clear up the fox’s skin problem. As a result I met a group of people dedicated to looking after the cat population in the cemetery, and the other animals too, especially my friend B. To my surprise, the homeopathic medication sent from the National Fox Welfare Society worked, and I gained many glimpses of the foxy population.

The fox with mange

The fox with mange

The first frogs of the year

The first frog of the year

Fox at sunset

Fox at sunset

By April there was some improvement in the original fox, and she had a mate. Plus, from looking at her underside, it seemed that she had cubs, though I didn’t see them while they were very small.

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

The vixen (looking a bit better I think)

IMG_6107

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

The dog fox waiting for his dinner

Yet another fox

Yet another fox

On the Wednesday Weed front, I found some honesty

IMG_5987and some fritillaries.

IMG_6003May brought comfrey and lady’s smock, and a few more foxes

IMG_6578

Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis)

IMG_6244

The vixen and the dog fox earlier this week

The vixen and the dog fox – the vixen definitely looks as if she’s feeding cubs

And by June, I think this is the first sight of a cub. Plus, we had fledgling long-tailed tits, and a rather surprising creature spotted while on the New River Walk in Islington

IMG_7158IMG_6662 IMG_6639IMG_6793In July, I was off to Austria for our annual two weeks in the Alps. Where it snowed.

IMG_7258Though not all the time, fortunately….

IMG_7221August saw my first visit to Woodberry Wetlands and a trip back to my roots in the East End, to see what had happened to Stratford since the Olympic Games. I was impressed with the wildlife that I saw in both places.  And the fox cubs were out and about in the cemetery.

Woodberry Wetlands

Woodberry Wetlands

IMG_7598

Heron and Mute Swan at Woodberry Wetlands

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Young goldfinch at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Kestrel at the Olympic Park

Another young fox

Another young fox in the cemetery

September saw my first ever pied flycatcher, during a visit to see my parents in Milborne St Andrew, Dorset.

img_8010I had never seen so many rose hips as there were in the cemetery, either.

img_7989And the horse chestnuts reminded me of my Auntie Mary. How often the fruits of the season jog my memory, putting me in mind of people and places long gone.

img_7954And the foxes were still about, of course.

Dog Fox

Dog Fox

October brought a trip to Venice with an 89 year-old friend of mine, and a particularly wonderful encounter with a young vixen in the cemetery.

img_8087img_8066img_8314img_8247In November, I discovered the joys of a slow shutter-speed on my camera, and had an encounter with a grey wagtail at the Barbican Centre.

img_8613-2 img_8615-2

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

December brought a return to Milborne St Andrew, some very fine Islington cats, and a supermoon. It also introduced me to the hidden meaning of having pampas grass in your front garden.

Ice on a Dorset stream

Ice on a Dorset stream

A very fine Islington cat

A very fine Islington cat

Supermoon!

Supermoon!

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Supermoon apparently tangled in branches

Pampas grass

Pampas grass

And finally, January has brought a stroll along the Mutton Brook in East Finchley, stinging nettles and a Very Fine Cat Indeed.

The Mutton Brook

The Mutton Brook

Stinging nettles with small 'friend'

Stinging nettles with small ‘friend’

Bailey, the world's most magnificent cat.

Bailey, the world’s most magnificent cat.

So, dear Readers, what an exciting year it’s been! If there are things that you’ve liked particularly, do let me know (and yes I will be spending more time in the cemetery on fox watch in the months to come). I am also open to suggestions if I have missed your favourite ‘weed’, or if there is somewhere in London that you’d like me to take an excursion to.  In the meantime, thank you so much for your support, and I look forward to your company in 2017. The world is an uncomfortable place for many people at the moment (including me) and there is much solace to be gained in the plants and animals that surround us.

All blog content copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location: The Animals of Venice (Part Two)

img_8255Dear Readers, when my 89 and a half year-old friend M and I were in Venice a few weeks ago, it was impossible not to notice that the Venetians appear to have a thing about lions, particularly winged ones.

Pensive lions....

Pensive lions….

Imperial lions....

Imperial lions….

Distressed lions….

Bronze lions who may or may not be Phonecian

Turkish bronze lion from 300 BC

The winged lion is the symbol of  Venice, and is associated with St Mark. The story goes that when Venice was first founded, it was felt that it needed a saintly relic to consolidate its position as a new power. The body of St Mark was stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and was smuggled out under some pickled pork so that the Muslim guards could not find it. This was something of a coup for Venice – other cities might have a saint’s finger, or a piece of the Holy Cross, but Venice was the only place with a whole saint. The symbol of the lion may be a reference to a legend that the saint was thrown to the lions, who refused to eat him. In many images and statues in Venice, the lion is holding a book with the words ‘Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus’ said to be the words of an angel heralding St Mark, which means ‘Peace to thee, Mark, my Evangelist’. The rest of the quotation, so well-known to Venetians that it is rarely shown is ‘Hic requiescet corpus tuum’, meaning ‘ here your body will rest’, which is rather handy under the circumstance.  Where the lion is shown with his wings around his head, as in the image below, it is said to be ‘ in moleca’, or in the form of a crab, especially appropriate for the symbol of such a watery place.

Terrifying lions.....

Lion ‘in moleca’

When I first came to Venice, there were lots of little live lions around, in the form of stray cats. In 2009, we came across a positive ‘cat city’ in front of a church, lovingly built from wooden boxes so that the cats could have shelter in the cold weather, and with dozens of saucers of cat food and water left out.

The 'cat city'

The ‘cat city’

Since then, there has been an attempt to control the numbers of cats by neutering them, and the cats that I saw this time were pampered animals with collars. One ginger cat ran happily along the path in front of us, over two bridges and finally in through a cat flap on an august Venetian front door. On one of the smaller canals to the north, we found a little blind cat sitting behind the window grilles, soaking up the sun in complete safety. But of the scrawny, sad, runny-eyed creatures of sixteen years ago, we saw not a single one.

Little blind cat on the Fondamenta Della Sensa, soaking up the late autumn sun

Little blind cat on the Fondamenta Della Sensa, soaking up the late autumn sun

There are also a surprising number of dogs in Venice. This year, there seem to be inordinate numbers of French Bulldogs, including one adorable chubby puppy waiting for the vaporetto on Murano. Dachshunds abound, as do all kinds of indeterminate mongrels. On the Cannaregio canal, where we were staying, a dog seemed to be as essential as a wheeled shopping basket, and you could guarantee to see the same dogs and owners going for a morning constitutional at the same time if you happened to look out of the window. The lack of earth and green spaces seem to deter these water-dogs not a  whit as they happily trot on and off of vaporettos and in and out of water taxis. Their owners are, largely, good about collecting and disposing of the inevitable consequences of owning a live animal, and I would say that these Venetian hounds have an interesting life, with lots of opportunities to bark at seagulls and sniff the behinds of their neighbours.

There is one kind of dog, however, which seems unchanged since the days of the artist Carpaccio, back in the sixteenth century. Carpaccio is my favourite Venetian artist, because he packs so many details of ordinary Venetian life into his paintings, and because, of all the Venetian artists, he seems the most humorous and ebullient.

Miracle of the Holy Cross by Vittore Carpaccio

Miracle of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge by Vittore Carpaccio – notice the little white dog in the gondola on the right

vittore_carpaccio_miracolo_della_croce_a_rialto_01-2

This is a little scruffy white dog, that the artist depicts in several of his paintings, and which you can see jauntily inspecting the fondamenta on any morning. In fact, one of these dogs is shown in a painting that I always visit when I go to Venice, as if it were an old friend. It is at what I always call the School of the Dalmatians (more properly the Schuola di San Georgio degli Schiavoni), which features many of Carpaccio’s greatest works.

There is  a ‘Saint George and the Dragon’, which includes bits of dead bodies and frogs and toads and lizards.

Vittore Carpaccio - St George and the Dragon (1502)

Vittore Carpaccio – St George and the Dragon (1502)

There is a painting of St Tryphon exorcising a demon from a young woman – the demon is a very small dragon/donkey cross, who looks rather disgruntled at being exposed.

Vittore Carpaccio - St Tryphon and the Basilisk (1502)

Vittore Carpaccio – St Tryphon and the Basilisk (1507)

There is the painting of St Jerome bringing the lion that he has befriended in the wilderness back to the monastery, and all the monks fleeing in terror like so many winged creatures.

Vittore Carpaccio - St Jerome and the Lion (1509)

Vittore Carpaccio – St Jerome and the Lion (1509) Was there ever such a gentle and inoffensive lion?

But as much as I love all of these works of art, and look forward to visiting them, only one painting in this room moves me to tears, every time. A monk is in his study, writing a letter, when he looks up as if suddenly realising something. Experts now think that the monk is St Augustine, and that he has been granted a vision that the friend that he is writing to, St Jerome (the man with the lion in the previous picture) has died. But what makes the picture for me is the small, scruffy white dog sitting on the floor, looking at his master with puzzlement. Across all those years, it speaks to me more eloquently than any of the works of the othergreat artists because who doesn’t recognise the scene – the moment of dawning truth, the dog who knows something is wrong, but has no way of understanding what is happening, or what he can do to comfort his master. The painting speaks to me of love, and loss, and of the way that animals are so often silent witness to our most private moments.

Vittore Carpaccio - The Vision of St Augustine (1509)

Vittore Carpaccio – The Vision of St Augustine (1509)

Carpaccio Paintings in public domain. All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially but please link back to the blog, thank you!

Bugwoman on Location: The Animals of Venice (Part One)

img_8314Dear Readers, last week I took a trip to my favourite city in the world (after London of course), with my intrepid 89.5 year-old friend, M. M had mentioned that she had a yearning to see Venice ‘one last time’ and, as I’ve spent many happy weeks there over the past ten years, and really enjoy M’s company, we decided to take a chance on a visit. Last time M. visited, she had an unfortunate stumble when she was rushed off of a vaporetto, and ended up with twenty stitches in her shin and a rather exciting ride in a speedboat ambulance across the lagoon. We were determined that nothing so unfortunate was going to happen this time, and indeed it didn’t.

Casa  Tre Archi

Casa Tre Archi – our apartment was on the top floor

For the past four visits, I have rented an apartment with a company called Visit Venice: it’s on the Cannaregio canal, which is much quieter than ‘the main drag’ around St Marks, and it gives me a chance to shop and cook, which I enjoy. I was a little worried that M would have trouble with the precipitous staircase, but she managed it like a trouper, as she did all the other steps and trip hazards of the city. Indeed, her turn of speed when we wanted to visit a 12th Century basilica on Murano that was due to close in 20 minutes was such that I had to hurry to keep up.

But surely such a watery, stony, cramped environment would be somewhat bereft of animals? Well, dear readers, what it lacks in biodiversity it makes up for in opportunism, for I have seldom felt every mouthful of croissant being watched so carefully. If you sit by the canal with a panini, you will soon be accosted by all manner of seabirds. Huge menacing yellow-legged gulls stand on the mooring posts, eyeing up your mozzarella with a calculating look.

img_8326The smaller black-headed gulls swoop like sea-swallows. Pigeons peck at your feet, some of them with interesting patterns of iridescent and white feathers on their necks, and sometimes a cheeky sparrow will land on the back of a chair and consider, with tilted head, whether he can make an assault on your half-empty plate.

img_8318In short, all the usual seaside suspects are here, and if you want to examine gull behaviour I can recommend a coffee next to the fish stand by the Guglie Bridge, where you can witness every possible gull tactic, from distraction (one gull struts along at the front of the counter while another gull is pulling squid from a bucket at the back), ambush (one gull steals a sardine and is then chased until he drops it by a bigger, older gull) and subterfuge (a gull sneaks underneath the fish stand and pulls at a fish until it falls off, unnoticed).

Egrets can sometimes be seen patrolling the edges of the quieter canals, watching for the tiny fish that eat the algae on the steps that are used by the gondoliers, or picking at the crabs that haunt the hollow places. They are not averse to using the gondolas themselves as a perch.

img_8312img_8311Venice is located on some of the main migratory routes from Europe into Africa, and so it was no surprise that there were many flocks of starlings heading south. Men in camouflage gear often puttered quietly out into the lagoon at first light, sometimes with a little dog standing at the bow, nose twitching, as if it was already possible to smell the scent of wild duck. And as we stood on the Tre Archi bridge one evening, a man pointed skyward, and we all watched as a flock of birds flickered overhead, on their way to warmer climes. I am always moved by these vast movements of animals from one place to another  and mentally bid them good luck as they run the gauntlet of hunters and starvation, ill winds and sudden freezes. May they reach safe harbour, may they prevail.

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But most of the biodiversity of Venice is tucked away out of sight. You are never more than a few steps from a canal here, and the sound of water slapping against stone, the sun dancing on ripples, is the quintessence of this place. It all seems somehow unreal, like a dream, at least until the chug of a waterbus or the mewing of a gull brings you back to reality.

img_8251The walls of the canals quickly become home to algae and snails and all manner of invertebrates, who are in turn eaten by crabs and fish. Each waterway, each set of steps, becomes its own microhabitat, washed by the tide twice a day like any stony beach. In general, the water is cleaner than it has been for years – although Venice has a reputation for being a smelly place, I have never noticed this (although in fairness I do visit out of season – the combination of crowds, mosquitoes and heat in high summer are a bit more than I care do deal with). There is even talk of the lagoon becoming a destination for divers  who want to explore the many wrecks and the undersea communities that have grown up around them. img_8319For animals, I suspect that the whole of Venice is a kind of stony island, full of wasteful creatures who aren’t too careful where their crusts end up. It always interests me to think about how a non-human would view a city, and somehow nowhere is this clearer than in that magnet for everyone who visits Venice, the Piazza of St Marks. There are some of the most important historical sights in Europe crammed into this space, and yet, for the seagulls, these matter not. Yellow-legged gulls cruise around the mosaics of the Basilica, circle the campanile, and terrify the small children who are attempting to feed the pigeons. All our works are nothing more than a potential perch and, probably, a bit of a nuisance. There is a Venice that is navigated by the birds, and a Venice that is visited by us, and these two cities are superimposed, one on the other, just as there is a ‘dog’ Venice, and a ‘cat’ Venice, and a Venice as experienced by small children. The Venice of a sailor or a gondolier must be very different from Venice as loved by a rather scruffy middle-aged insect fan and her 89 and a half year-old friend. How interesting it would be to bring all these experiences together! It makes my head spin to think about it.

img_8355img_8358img_8357All photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share, but please link back to the blog, thank you!

The Weed of Hercules

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Dear Readers, during my trip to the Olympic Park a few weeks ago I was astonished to notice an eight-foot tall Giant Hogweed standing on the bank of the canal next to the Aquatic Centre. I saw ‘astonished’ because the area does not want for gardeners, and also because this is not a shy demure plant of the kind that I usually write about. No, this plant is a pirate, with flower heads the size of dinner plates and a potential height of up to 18 feet tall. It is also not something that you want to have around if you have children, or anyone vulnerable, for this is that unusual thing: a plant that lives up to the hype.

Those of you old enough to remember the 1980’s might remember a programme featuring, I think, Esther Rantzen, in which the full horror of Giant Hogweed was revealed. The plant’s  sap contains chemicals  called furocoumarins, which are released when the plant is damaged, whether through strimming when the plant is young, or through being macheted down when mature. Children are particularly attracted to the plant because of its extraordinary size – it makes even an adult feel as if they are in Land of the Giants – and the hollow stems invited use as a blowpipe. Unfortunately, the sap, whilst initially appearing to cause no problems, actually changes the structure of the skin if it touches it. If that skin is exposed to sunlight, the result can be as minor as a rash, or as extreme as severe, lymph-filled blisters that may require hospitalisation. Furthermore, the skin will erupt again whenever exposed to sunlight.  Although there have been many ‘scare stories’ in the media about perfectly innocent plants, for this one it seems that many of the claims are justified. For a full and detailed picture of what’s been happening with the plant, I recommend our old friend The Poison Garden  website, where all things Hogweed-ish are discussed. There is also an excellent section on this website about identification of Giant Hogweed, and how to tell the difference between it and the Common Hogweed (Heracleum spondylium). Incidentally, Common Hogweed (which is very common as its name might suggest) also contains furocoumarins, but seemingly at a much lower concentration than its giant relative. I would also suggest protective measures if you are strimming a patch of this plant.

Incidentally the band Genesis, who were responsible for introducing both Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins to an unsuspecting public, included a song about Giant Hogweed on their Nursery Crymes album. For your delectation, here is a live rendition from 1973. You’re welcome.

Des Colhoun [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Giant Hogweed flowers (Photo One – see credit below)

The Latin name ‘Heracleum mantegazzianum’ refers firstly to Hercules (probably because of the plant’s outrageous size) and then to Paolo Mantegazza, a nineteenth-century anthropologist who may have been the first person to extract cocaine from the coca plant. The plant is originally from the Caucasus, and was introduced to the UK by the Victorians, who were rather taken with how pretty it was, and what a fine show it made alongside the lakes and rivers of their estates. Alas, as is often the case, the plant did not stay where it was put, which will be of no surprise to the readers of this blog. It can now be found in North America, New Zealand and most of Europe. Although the seeds are rather heavy (as you might expect of something this size) and fall close to the parent, they can be easily transported on the soles of the shoes of the unwary, and I wonder if they can also survive falling into water and being carried that way. Certainly I have no idea how on earth the Olympic Park specimen turned up.

© Copyright Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A Giant Hogweed bud. Don’t get too close now….! (Photo Two – credit below)

Getting rid of Giant Hogweed is an expensive and difficult business. Nothing short of full-body cover and protective glasses will do. Seeds are viable for up to seven years, and so annual spraying in the spring (with all its concomitant health and environmental hazards) needs to be take place. As John Robertson explains in The Poison Garden, the only alternative to spraying is to completely replace the topsoil, which can cost many thousands of pounds that councils currently don’t have.

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The magnificent Giant Hogweed (Photo Three – credit below)

I had a momentary dilemma about what to do about the Giant Hogweed. It is a truly magnificent plant, and in its native lands it probably goes about its business unmolested, as presumably local people know what it is, and how to deal with it. But here, in London, next to the most popular swimming pool in the capital? I sent the Olympic Park team an email telling them I’d spotted Giant Hogweed, and they emailed back to say that they will remove it. Do I feel as if I betrayed a true wonder of the natural world? Yes. But people, especially children, will be curious about the plant, and will not know about the danger that it represents. For once this particular Giant Hogweed really does meet the definition of a ‘weed’ – the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Four (credit below)

Photo Credits

Photo One – Des Colhoun [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two – © Copyright Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Photo Three – By Huhu Uet (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four – © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence