Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – Dale Chihuly at Kew Gardens

Sapphire Star by Dale Chihuly (2010)

Dear Readers, this week I went to Kew Gardens with my friend J to see the Dale Chihuly glass sculptures. I visited Kew for Chihuly’s previous exhibition in 2005 and remember sharing the photos with Mum, so it was bittersweet, but then everything seems to have the flavour of remembrance this year. Still, it is impossible to be melancholy in the presence of these sculptures, which blaze with colour and life even on a dull day with rain threatening. The first sculpture, ‘Sapphire Star’, looks as if it is about to explode, the transparent glass on the outside held in by gravitational pull of the heavier blue centre.

I knew little about Chihuly, other than that he is considered to be the absolute master of blown glass, so here is a potted history. He was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, to a Hungarian/Czech father, and a Swedish/Norwegian mother. His brother was killed in a navy flight-training accident in 1957 and a year later, his father died of a heart attack aged 51, leaving Chihuly and his indomitable mother alone. Chihuly started his studies in art and interior design in 1960 but he was soon frustrated, and travelled extensively in Italy and the Middle East. His first experiments in glass were in a weaving class in 1963, where he incorporated glass shards into textiles, but he didn’t blow his first glass until 1965. In 1966 he joined the first ever glassblowing course in the United States, at the University of Wisconsin.

Glass had become Chihuly’s primary source of artistic expression, and he went from strength to strength, winning a Louis Comfort Tiffany grant to extend his studies. He became the first American to ever work in Murano in Venice. He taught glass blowing and art for many years at a variety of alternative colleges, closing one down to protest the American involvement in Cambodia in 1970. Throughout his life he collaborates with other artists, and in the 1970’s begins his environmental pieces, designed to be placed outside.

While in England in 1976 he suffers a catastrophic car accident, which leaves him with 256 stitches in his face and a permanently damaged right leg and ankle. He is also blinded in his left eye. Undaunted, he returns to the US to take up his role as head of the Department of Glass at Rhode Island School of Design. For the first time, some of his pieces are bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which introduces him to a much wider public.

Photo One by By Bryan Ohno - Chihuly Studio photography collection, Seattle, Washington, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5664073

Dale Chihuly (Photo One)

In 1977 Chihuly starts to experiment with the organic forms that have informed his work ever since. In 1979, however, he damages his shoulder in a bodysurfing accident, and gives up the role of personally blowing all his glass. Going forward, his works are a collaboration between his vision and technical skill, and those who actually do the physical labour. He has mentored many of the up and coming glass artists in the world, and is incredibly prolific, with several exhibitions in different parts of the world every year. One of which, of course, is the one that I’m at Kew to see.

The influence of the natural world on Chihuly’s work is everywhere evident, but it is the natural world transformed – everything is bigger, brighter, more colourful than the original. It feels a little as if Disney’s ‘Snow White’ was seen by someone on LSD.  And yet, I was definitely cheered up by Chihuly’s pieces – the sheer exuberance and colour lifts the spirits however Eeyore-ish one is feeling. And with some of them, I was actually left speechless. Like the new installation in the recently refurbished Temperate House, for example.

Who could fail to be moved by the beauty of the colours and the skill involved? And indeed the Temperate House is Chihuly central, with sculptures outside…

and inside….

I think the sculptures are at their most effective when they mirror the surrounding plants, as in the red example above, or in the green and yellow sculptures in the accompanying pond.

I am not quite so sure about the mass of white shapes in the other corner, though I do like that they reference beluga whales.

One installation is a little bit off the beaten track, in the Japanese garden. It’s called Niijima Floats.

Niijima Floats (2010)

The spheres remind me of playing marbles when I was a little girl, and I like how varied and understated they were. The gravel is scraped into a circle around each piece, and the whole thing has a serene, surprising aspect, as if a giant has been playing marbles and has just stepped outside for a moment. I could have looked at it endlessly.

I rather liked this piece too, which is called Neodymium Reeds and Turquoise Marlins, the ‘Neodymium’ referring to the rare-earth metal that is used to produce the incredible lavender colour (which the photo hardly does justice to). The pieces are arranged on either side of King William’s Temple, which was built in 1837 and contains images of British victories from Minden in 1759 to Waterloo.

But my very favourite place in the whole of Kew is the small, hot, usually crowded Waterlily House. Whenever I visit the plants seem at the very pitch of perfection, and I can only imagine the work that it takes to keep them that way. But this time it has been ‘invaded’. Take a look.

And how beautiful these white and glass forms are. Yesterday, I was gobsmacked by them, overwhelmed by their presence. And yet. Have a look at the waterlilies and lotuses that shared the pond with them.

Lotus flower and seed pod

Waterlily

Waterlily

Waterlily (Nymphaloides indica)

I don’t know, maybe I’m being a curmudgeon, but there is something about some of Chihuly’s work that seems to overwhelm rather than complement. It says ‘look at me’ rather than ‘look at us’. And sometimes, that bright, brashness is just what I want and need, and I don’t care that it punches me in the nose.

But as I get older, I feel like there is a bit too much over-confidence, and not enough hesitancy. I am becoming an admirer of the subtle, the nuanced, the uncertain. Maybe that’s why I liked the ‘marbles’ piece more than the piece in the waterlily house, or some of the other more colourful, assertive works.

If you have a chance to visit the exhibition, do – Kew is always such a delight, and the trees in particular are splendid at the moment. Plus I had no idea that Kew had active badger setts, which cheered me up no end. And do let me know what you think. There is no doubt in my mind that Chihuly is a master of his art, an innovator and a mentor, and I admire him tremendously. But I think I would like his work more if it didn’t overwhelm the plants quite so much. Maybe that’s why I have no problem with his pieces in places like the lobby of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Context is everything.

Photo Two by Rod Allday / Chandelier in the rotunda of the V & A museum

Chandelier in the rotunda of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Bryan Ohno – Chihuly Studio photography collection, Seattle, Washington, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5664073

Photo Two by Rod Allday / Chandelier in the rotunda of the V & A museum

Empty and Full

The living room before

Dear Readers, this week I have been in Dorset, sorting through the remnants of Mum and Dad’s life in Dorset. There are boxes of photographs, most of them unlabelled but many of them lovingly put into albums. There are bank statements back to the 1990’s (Mum was always meticulous about finances). There are more light bulbs than you’d need to light up the Eiffel Tower, and a pile of canvases that Mum bought but wasn’t well enough to paint on. And then there is the wardrobe full of clothes, the ornaments, the pictures on the walls. If it hadn’t been for Mum and Dad’s lovely neighbours who have done a lot of the leg work on the non-personal stuff I swear I would just have sat in the middle of it all and cried. But instead, I discovered that I was a woman on a mission. To start with I lovingly considered every item, but gradually I became more ruthless, and more able to make snap decisions. Once the bungalow is sold we will be well on the way to having the finances to look after Dad without having to worry, so this was a great incentive. In two days we were ready to get the house clearance firm from Julia’s House, the local children’s hospice, in to take away the things that we couldn’t use or give away. The end result was this.

The living room after!

And as I sat in Mum’s reclining chair, waiting for the mobility aids to be collected, I could feel the personality of the place ebbing away and emptying out. Every time that I’ve walked into the living room I’ve had a strong sense of Mum and Dad’s presence, but now the house is starting to feel like a shell, just waiting for someone else to come along and love it. All that’s left now is Mum’s somewhat unusual choice of wall colour (turquoise in the main bedroom, sky blue in the small bedroom and pink in the living room, as you can see). And on Monday, the decorator comes in to give everything a coat of magnolia, so even that will be gone.

It all makes me very philosophical. A lot of Mum’s precious things have gone to people who will appreciate them. Her quilting material has gone to E, the lady who made Mum and Dad’s cake for their sixtieth wedding anniversary party. The neighbours have been given some of the furniture and ornaments. But even so, a lot of the things that Mum loved will be going to strangers via the hospice charity shop and, despite our best intentions, I’m sure some things will end up in landfill. And it will most likely be the same for me. Many of the objects that we love will fall into the hands of people who won’t know what they meant to us, and who won’t care for them as we did. That is, I fear, the fate of objects, so let us  enjoy them while we can. In Mum’s wardrobe there were pretty things that she’d put away for a special occasion that never came. Let’s make our ‘ordinary’ days a special occasion.

Strangely enough, when I went to sit on the seat outside the bungalow I had a very strong sense of Mum and Dad. They would sit there when they felt well enough and watch the neighbours going by and the children going to and from school. The spot is a real sun trap and so they didn’t sit there for long. But it did get me to thinking about those other things that they own and that won’t be ending up on landfill, their plants. The garden has become a symphony in blue, what with the cerinthe and the bluebells and the forget-me-nots and the perennial cornflowers.

The cotoneaster is abuzz with bees.

The ceanothus is just about to burst into bloom.

And when the man came to mow the lawn, Mum would tell him to go round the daisies rather than cut their heads off, and, bless him, he always did.

And so, I wonder what to take, and here I could do with some advice. How can I take a cutting from the cotoneaster and the ceanothus? Is such a thing even possible? I’m thinking it will be easy enough to take a couple of the cerinthes and plant them before they set seed, but I don’t know how to start with the other two plants. I have been noticing how both the cotoneaster and the ceanothus attract a multitude of bees, and it would be great to have them in the sunny front garden, plus every time I looked at them I’d think of Mum and Dad, and of Milborne St Andrew. Plants are something that do live on, and they have a meaning and existence of their own.

While I was in Dorset I had the chance to spend some time with Dad. He seems very calm and collected these days.

‘This isn’t a bad cruise ship at all’, he said when I popped in. ‘We’ve been to France and Germany. I never know where we’re going to next’.

Dad gestures to one of the carers who happens to have a beard.

‘This is the captain’, says Dad. ‘I’d like to introduce you’.

He tells Adrian, who is one of the carers and happens to have a very nautical beard, that I am his daughter, and I am chuffed that he actually remembers who I am. When my brother popped in, Dad told him that his sister June had been in three times, so I didn’t get any credit for my last visit. Not that I’m bothered (much), but still, it’s nice to be recognised, even if only briefly.

Adrian and I shake hands, and I go to get Dad some cake. There is always cake in the care home, and I do believe that Dad is starting to put on a little weight – he lost nearly three stone during the past eighteen months and was looking most unlike himself. He tucks into the cake with some difficulty, what with his fractured wrist from a fall a month ago and his problems with his shoulder, but he enjoys it hugely. Then he falls asleep, and so I slip out and head to my bed and breakfast.

Things have been moving so fast that I’m not sure that my emotions have caught up yet. I do know, though, that the night after the house was cleared, I slept through the night for the first time in almost nine months. It feels as if things are constantly shifting, and tomorrow I might be distraught again, but at the moment I feel as if I’m adapting to this ‘new normal’ state of affairs, both in terms of selling the bungalow, and coming to terms with Dad’s dementia. I no longer expect him to be the Dad that I remember, but in many ways he is more like himself than he’s been for ages – all the anxiety of the past few years seems to have dropped away and he’s back to the placid, stoical man that he was previously. I am starting to become less anxious myself, and to be able to sit with him and just go with the flow. There is still possibility here, still a sense of things to be enjoyed and company to be kept. I find myself becoming more accepting, and full of gratitude that he is still here.

Dad quality checking the gin in the Gordon’s distillery in 1985 (aged 50)

 

Like Something Almost Being Said

Dear Readers, on Wednesday we interred Mum’s ashes in the churchyard of St Andrew’s Church, Milborne St Andrew. The sun shone gently, the grass was full of wild primroses, and great tits and robins sang. I think Mum would have loved the spot where she was buried, not just because it was in a sunny, happy, open spot, but also because she was right next to the grave of her best friend Pat, who died a few years ago.

Mum was a great collector of ‘waifs and strays’, people who needed her help but didn’t have the capacity to reciprocate. Until she met Pat she didn’t really know what it was to relate to a friend as an equal.  Mum was an intensely social person but Dad wasn’t, and she was unhappy about leaving him on his own in the house. Dad was a great watcher of Last of the Summer Wine, and would have been perfectly happy watching it every day until it was time for Pointless, and then the News, and then The One Show, and then Midsomer Murders and then bed. Mum really chafed against these constraints, and Pat was someone who would whisk her out to a craft shop or a sewing group. She helped Mum to make her masterpiece, a magnificent embroidered quilt, and then convinced her to exhibit it at a craft show, where it got the Silver Award. Pat gave Mum a sense of possibility outside the confines of the bungalow, and when she died, Mum lost not just a friend but a whole way of accessing the outside world.

Mum with her quilt. All the embroidery and the quilting was done by hand.

Mum’s ashes lay  next to a field which is often full of sheep and their little lambs. She would have loved that too. One of the local estates, Kingston Maurward, has ‘lambing weekends’, where you can go into the sheds and actually see the lambs being born. Mum was enchanted, and so was I, though I remember the chaps having to go outside for a breather. But after that she eschewed all lamb meat, in spite of it previously being her favourite roast dinner. She was tending towards vegetarianism as she got older, but for Dad, a meal wasn’t a meal unless there was meat in it., and there was no way that Mum was going to put her preferences in front of Dads.

When I was younger, I used to worry that Mum hadn’t fulfilled her potential, largely because Dad was the centre of her world, and whatever he wanted came first. She was so creative and so outgoing, and her life could have been different. But would she have been happier? I doubt it. She adored Dad, and he adored her, and they had worked out a way of being together that largely suited them both. I found a letter that Dad had written to Mum while he was out in Venezuela making gin for United Distillers, and it was so full of the longing to be home and to see her again that it reminded me that this was a love match, a true partnership in which each person needs and respects the other. Someone said that the truth of a marriage can never be seen from the outside and I think that’s an accurate observation.

Dad was at Mum’s funeral, but not at the interment – he broke his wrist in a fall last weekend and has a chest infection. I popped in to see him before the ceremony and he was asleep. He looks so frail now. He disturbed in his sleep and I stroked his hair as if he was a little boy. I left him a ‘frothy coffee’  and some Polo Mints and Dairy Milk chocolate. Hopefully the nurses will let him know that I visited, otherwise he’ll think he’s been visited by the confectionery fairy.

I did find a poem, though, which I thought represented him, even though he wasn’t there.

A Marriage
 
R.S. Thomas
 
We met 
    under a shower
of bird-notes. 
    Sixty years passed,
love’s moment
    in a world in
servitude to time. 
    She was young;
I kissed with my eyes 
    closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
    ‘Come’ said death,
choosing her as his
    partner for
the last dance. And she,
    who in life
had done everything
    with a bird’s grace, 
opened her bill now
    for the shedding
of one sigh no
    heavier than a feather.

But what struck me most about the ceremony was the sense that life was bursting forth all around us, even as we mourned for Mum. As we bowed our heads in prayer the breeze rustled the leaves, and the jackdaws chinked overhead. I know that Mum would not want us to be frozen in time but to move on, to do whatever it was we are here to do. The flow of the river carries us forward however hard we cling to the riverbank. Mum lives on every time I’m in a gift shop and see something that she’d like, every time I smell White Diamond perfume, every time I hear ‘You Are My Sunshine’. I am bereft, but also strangely hopeful, as if everything has been scoured clean. I don’t know what will happen next, but as I look at the unfurling of the leaves, my heart lifts, just a little.

The Trees
 
Philip Larkin
 
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of look new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Bugwoman on Location – Collingwood, Ontario

One of these swans is not like the others….

Dear Readers, it’s always such a pleasure to arrive in Canada and to spend some time in Collingwood, Ontario before heading down to the hurly-burly of Toronto. On Sunday, I went for a walk with my husband’s aunt L and their soft-coated wheaten/schnauzer mix Charlie. Most of the bay was frozen, and so the waterfowl were huddled together. There were lots of mute swans (Cygnus olor) with their bright orange bills, but right in the middle was a slender, black-billed swan. It was my first sight ever of a wild trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) and I was immediately taken with how elegant and self-possessed the bird appeared. Furthermore, he had a bright yellow wing tag, and so we could identify him as T29.

The internet is a wonderful thing, and I was able to ascertain that T29 was born to parents K09 and 038 who nest near Chatsworth. His parents and six of his siblings moved on to Port Credit, near Burlington, but T29 did not, and was spotted with his sibling  T28 in Thorold. Now, T29 seems to be on his own, and is tolerated by the mute swans. Occasionally he bobs his head and calls, and I hope that some other trumpeters soon fly over and he can join them. However, trumpeter swans don’t breed until they are 5 to 7 years old, with some swans waiting until they are in their late teens. Like other swan species they normally mate for life, so it makes sense to wait for the right partner to come along.

In this of course, as in all things, I am reminded of Mum and Dad, and their 61 year marriage. ‘Till death us do part’ was accurate in their case, as it is with most swans (although ‘divorces’ are not completely unheard of). I once asked Mum what she thought the secret of a long happy marriage was, and she thought for a few moments.

‘There’s a lot of luck involved’, she said. ‘You’re a completely different person at 40 from how you were at 20. If you’re lucky, you’ve both changed in ways that your partner can cope with. Otherwise, it can be very tricky’.

And I’m sure she’s right. I hope that life is simpler for swans than for humans, and that they have less personality change to worry about.

But back to the trumpeter swan. Its beak is the longest of any waterfowl, and they also have a very long neck, which is not curved like that of the mute swan. They are also noisy birds, as their name would suggest (the Latin buccinator means ‘trumpeter’). See if you can pick out the sound of the trumpeters in amongst the Canada geese in the video below.

Yet the sound of trumpeter swans wasn’t heard in Ontario for over a hundred years – the bird was driven to extinction in the province by hunting and habitat destruction. Unlike the more tolerant mute swans, trumpeters breed in wild marshland where they will be undisturbed by humans, a habitat which is becoming harder and harder to find. Fortunately, in 1982, a biologist named Harry Lumsden set about a project to reintroduce the bird to its former heartland by rearing eggs taken from trumpeters in Western Canada (if an egg is taken from a nest at the right time, the mother will often lay another egg, leaving the original one free to be reared elsewhere). The birds were then released on wetlands across Ontario. Over 500 were released in the twenty-five years of the project, and there are now almost 2000 wild birds. Many of them can be seen at the original Wye Marsh site, where they overwinter before moving north to breed.

Trumpeter at Wye Marsh

So, it is always a pleasure to see a new species, but I was even more delighted to spot these geese. At first glance I thought that they were snow geese, but a closer look at the field guide revealed them to be Ross’s geese (Anser rossii), a very attractive small goose that breeds in northern Canada and normally overwinters as far south as Mexico. I figure that these two were downed by the cold weather, and will soon be heading much further north.

Ross’s geese (Anser rossii)

My misidentification of them as snow geese was, I think, forgivable ( I blame the jetlag), but they are about 40% smaller, and have a softer, rounder appearance. Also, they have grey colouration at the base of their bills, and much shorter necks. This pair kept a very low profile, avoiding any interaction with the other waterfowl. It seemed clear to me that they didn’t plan to hang about, and indeed, on the day that we headed to Toronto they disappeared.

It’s difficult to describe the subtle delight of gradually getting to know the birds of a different country. I recognised the call of the first red-winged blackbirds who had arrived to claim their territories, and the pair of cardinals on the bird-feeder felt like old friends. I know that it is only the tip of a massive ornithological iceberg, but it feels like a good start. During this period of my life when so much has changed, I love the way that Canada is beginning to feel like a second home. There is so much to love about its wild places and its kind, generous people.

Bugwoman on Location – 120 Fenchurch Street Roof Garden

Dear Readers,  while London has many splendid Royal Parks and city squares, the City of London itself can feel like something of a desert to those of us who enjoy the hum of bees and the whispering of the breeze. Furthermore, some of the sites that sound enticing, such as the Sky Garden in the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building, are completely enclosed, and require pre-booking. I remember visiting this site and being extremely disappointed: the public were promised a garden (indeed, this feature was what finally got the planning permission for the building granted) , and instead they got, in the words of Oliver Wainwright, the architecture critic of The Guardian, ‘a meagre pair of rockeries, in a space designed with all the finesse of a departure lounge’.

So, it’s fair to say that I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for the new Roof Garden just along the road at 120 Fenchurch Street. First signs were promising: there is, of course, security in place (bags are X-rayed), but then a lift whooshes you up to the fifteenth floor, without any id or pre-booking required. The lift doors open, and there you are.

One of the views from the Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street

This place is all about the angles. It is a mass of triangles. The water feature zig-zags eastwards towards views of Canary Wharf and the building work around Whitechapel.

Toddle round a bit further and the Gherkin appears. This building has gone from ‘unsightly’ to ‘icon’ in the space of fifteen years, and indeed it now seems elegant and modest compared with some of the other skyscrapers that are being thrown up.

The Gherkin

And indeed you can see the Sky Garden from here. I rather like the perspective that fifteen floors gives you as opposed to thirty-six.

The Walkie Talkie

But what, I hear you ask, of the garden? Well, there are actually plants, and there is much about the design to like. I love the effect of the wooden shuttering on the concrete, for example – it reminds me of the same effect in Sir Denys Lasdun’s South Bank Centre, but here the concrete is a soft cream colour. I think it will look very fine when the myriad of vines have grown up. The concrete itself is covering the services and plant for the building, and has the effect of breaking the roof garden up into smaller, more intimate areas.

There are some plants in flower already, and I see a lot of bulbs just waiting to pop.

Euphorbia

Astrantia and narcissi

Japanese anemone

Persicaria

There are a healthy number of species geraniums, which will be great for pollinators later in the year.

There are also rafts of ferns and ornamental grasses.

And there is a whole area of low hedging which echoes the angles of the pergolas. I am a little miffed at the waste of an opportunity to provide more plants for pollinators in this space, but then I am a bit monomaniacal on the subject, as regular readers will know. I will be interested to see if bees actually do pop up to this height once they discover that there’s food available, and will have to revisit in the early summer when things have grown up a bit. As a study found that bumblebees are quite happy at heights of 3250 metres in the mountains of Sichuan in China I’d have thought that a mere 15 floors would be well within their range, provided there’s an incentive.

Low hedging with the Lloyd’s Building in the background

Wisteria is being encouraged to climb the struts of the pergolas, and very pretty it will be too once they get going. At the moment I quite like the starkness of the design, but plants will soon change all those sharp angles to something softer and more natural.

So, I am cautiously optimistic about The Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street. It is an exposed site, but because it is broken into ‘rooms’ by the concrete there will be a little more protection for the plants. I am sad that it isn’t a little more wildlife friendly, but it is not all about human convenience either. It is certainly a fine place to visit if you are in the City, and at some point a swish restaurant will open on the fourteenth floor in case all that ‘fresh’ London air makes you hungry. When I went, at 10 a.m. on a cloudy Thursday, the security staff outnumbered the visitors, and were very happy to chat. Apparently the place has been overrun with bloggers (I seem to have become part of an infestation), but the time to avoid is between 12 and 2, when everyone pops up for their lunch, although they aren’t supposed to. I don’t blame them – this would be a magnificent spot for a sandwich on a sunny day. I shall definitely revisit later in the year to see how the garden is getting on.

Opening hours are currently between 10 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. until 31st March, when the evening opening times are extended to 9 p.m. There will soon be a coffee hut for any caffeine addicts. They are also currently trialling weekend opening from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Total capacity of the garden is only 207 people, so I expect that there will be queues when the weather is good, especially in the evening. If you want to see how busy it is, you can have a look here, which is rather cool.

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Borough Gardens, Dorchester

Clock tower in Borough Gardens

Dear Readers, this week I was in Dorchester, spending some time with Dad and doing the practical things that follow on when someone dies – going to the bank, meeting with the solicitor. I felt sad as I headed to the nursing home: Dad was always a quintessential patriarch, in command of himself and head of the family, and it’s hard to see him become more vulnerable as his dementia gets worse. So, I walked into the lounge with some trepidation.

‘They made us walk uphill! For 83 miles! And we’re all old-aged pensioners’, Dad announced as I sat down next to him.

A group of the residents had been for a nature walk in the nearby woods, and Dad had thoroughly enjoyed it, for all the  hard work involved. He’d also taken the opportunity to correct the unfortunate person who was leading the walk.

‘He said that the holly leaves are pricklier at the top than they are at the bottom of the bush, but that’s the Wrong Way Round’, said Dad. ‘It’s to stop the animals grazing so why would they be pricklier at the top!’.

Since it was largely Dad who piqued my interest in nature as a child, I was not the least bit surprised that he was right. He still wins in all the general knowledge quizzes too.

It’s strange how the brain works. Dad can remember the capital of Iran but not who he is, at least not consistently. He was moaning about my behaviour the previous night (when I had apparently been demanding tea and generally wandering about) even as I was sitting there, bemused. I have learned not to contradict or correct him, because that didn’t go down too well when he was compos mentis and there’s certainly no point in doing it now. Instead, I am learning to be curious about what’s going on for him, and where he is at this particular moment.

I am also aware that vascular dementia tends towards silence, towards the end of speech, and so I want to wring every drop of meaning out of my relationship with my Dad while I still can.

Dad was always such a raconteur – my brother and I used to find the way that his stories grew and grew hilarious when we were callow teenagers. He’d been to Venezuela when he was working as a gin distiller, sometimes staying for months at a time. While there, he’d eaten the best steaks he’d ever had. And the size!

‘They were the size of this table!’ he’d tell the assembled friends and family , while Mum got on with the carving of the much smaller piece of beef that she was trying to stretch out so that everyone got served. My brother and I would imitate him afterwards.

‘The steaks were the size of a football pitch!’

‘No, they were the size of Wales!’

We would weep with hysteria at our own cleverness. It was only later that we grew to realise that Dad’s exaggeration was the result of his never feeling quite good enough for the company that he kept, in spite of his extraordinary achievements. He left school at 14 to support his mum and sisters, but he ended up travelling the world, learning Spanish and, finally, running the heritage centre for Gordon’s Gin. For all that, he never felt that his true stories were interesting enough, and so they were embellished until they were unrecognisable.

Seen in this light, the 83 mile walk is typical Dad.

And outside, spring is pushing through. It seems almost an insult. How dare life be going on when I feel so frozen! Bloody crocuses, busting forth so hopefully! And look at those honeybees and bumbles, already bustling about and looking for nectar and pollen. Life goes on relentlessly, whether I want it to or not.

I take a walk to Borough Gardens, a tiny municipal park close to the nursing home, which has everything you might want, and a few other things besides. Like the fine clock tower in the first photo, and this lovely bandstand, surrounded by some ruthlessly pollarded trees.

But it’s the plants that get me, every time. I start off marching along and end up dawdling, my eye drawn to the buds and the patterns in the leaves, and the sheer abundance of life just waiting to burst out.

Snowdrops

Witch Hazel

Sedum seed heads

A variety of pampas grass ?

Fern

Green hellebore

Robins sing their hearts out from every shrub

The herring gulls stand like sentinels, waiting for the rustle of a crisp packet.

Even in this tiny park with its swings and fountain and tennis courts and greenhouses, there is a sense of the natural world leaping into action, taking the opportunity to wake and breed and flower, and I feel that same force entreating me to take action, to move, to awaken to possibility. Part of me wants to linger in stillness, and part of me is filled with an urge to make something new, to carry the baton forward. And so I stand, oscillating, between two poles, eager for rest and called to movement. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but also strangely exhilarating.

Outside the park, there is an avenue where the crows are already starting to repair their nests. At the foot of each great tree there is an explosion of crocuses. I find that I am most moved by the damaged ones, those that have been trampled by passing dogs or crushed by a child’s foot. I suppose that they remind me of me, bruised and imperfect, but still trying to flower.

When I go back to see Dad, he’s leafing through one of the big lever-arch files that contain medical records. One of the nurses must have left it on the table. I watch him for a while. He seems to be trying to do something, but I’m not sure what. I see the man who used to organise conferences and dinners for the pensioner’s association after he retired, the man who used to run a whole distillery in a language that wasn’t his own. He seems very calm, contemplative even. I sit beside him as he ‘works’ away, and finally closes the file. The nurse comes by and collects it.

‘Thank you for helping us, Tom’, she says.

Dad nods. ‘You’re welcome’, he says.

It is possible to honour and respect someone even when it’s not clear what they know, or understand. It’s possible to meet them where they are. I am being shown that holding on to what someone was is not helpful, for them or for us, and that being curious can be a useful tool in trying to rebuild a relationship with someone who is in a state of flux. Just as the natural world is always cycling, changing, adapting, so is Dad, and so will I.

Mum’s Memorial

St Andrew’s Church, Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, on Saturday last week friends and family  gathered to say goodbye to my Mum, Sybil Esme Palmer. Many people had battled through the snow to get there, following a blizzard the previous night, and the inside of the church was so cold that we could see our breath. But the church was full, and the singing was hearty. We sang ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Immortal, Invisible’, and my brother read the eulogy with a composure that was all the more impressive because I knew how devastated he had been by Mum’s death.

We had been very concerned about whether or not to bring Dad to the service. For weeks he hadn’t mentioned Mum, and seemed to have forgotten all about her, so we were worried that suddenly plunging him back into the reality of the situation – that his wife of 61 years had died- would distress him greatly when he was already so confused and frail. But then, a few days before the service, he began to talk about Mum again, and so we took the decision that he needed to be with us all. One of his carers from the nursing home came with us and Dad held her hand all through the service. I am so glad that he was able to come: it would have felt very incomplete without him. And I think he rather enjoyed the reception afterwards, which was beautifully arranged by my brother’s partner, and which had some very thoughtful touches, like the packets of forget-me-not seeds that everyone could take home with them.

Dad recognised his two sisters, and many people from the village. Everyone took the time to talk to him, in spite of the fact that what he was saying didn’t always make sense. Once this village takes you to their heart, you’re theirs for life. There was such a feeling of palpable love in the room, both for Mum and for Dad, that it seemed to lift a shadow from my heart. To have inspired such a spirit in such a diverse mix of people is a true memorial to the character of the people who are no longer with us.

And also, I might be biased but I cannot believe how handsome my Dad is. He seems to be being scoured away by dementia, but he reminds me now of an ageing film star. No wonder the ladies in the nursing home have a soft spot for him.

Bugwoman and her Dad

And then, of course, everyone goes home and here I am, with my memories and my sadness. I feel as if I have slowed right down to walking pace. I am finding great solace in cooking at the moment, and am baking bread as if the shops will soon run out. And then I was sitting at my desk writing, and happened to look up, to see this little chap.

Noddy, made by Mum

My Mum was such a creator, of toys and clothes and food and paintings. I mentioned to her that someone I knew was pregnant, and Noddy appeared a month later. He looks as defiant as my Mum often was, hands on hips and refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer. I love the laces on his shoes, his hair, his little belt and scarf and the bell on his hat. I must have ‘forgotten’ to pass him on, because there he was on the shelf, and I had no idea that he was there. When I took him down and cradled him he brought back everything that was fine about Mum, her generosity, her skill, her enormous heart. I don’t think I’d realised how much I missed her until that moment.

Everyone that I saw at the Memorial had received something handmade from Mum. Towards the end of her life she became very fond of making scarves, and giving them to anyone in the village who stood still for long enough. I remembered that I had gotten one from her, and went into my wardrobe to look. She’d made me four.

And then, I remembered The Bag. This was from an earlier period, when Mum was into patchwork quilting, and I think that it’s astonishing. I use it on special occasions, and have to wear something plain because it’s always the star of the show. Mum pieced together all those tiny pieces of fabric just before she started to get numbness in her fingers, and became unable to do such fine work. Life took so many things away from my mother, but she kept turning to the next thing, determined to create until the very last months of her life.

Ah Mum. What a lousy time of it she had over those past few years, coming down with one illness after another, gradually losing her mobility and, I fear, showing the first signs of dementia right towards the end. But she took such joy in things. A few weeks before she died, I bought Mum and Dad a box of Hotel Chocolat chocolates, and although Mum was barely eating at that point she managed three, each one cut into quarters. Later, she had a liking for toffee yoghurt, and the carers rushed to make sure there were enough in stock. Nothing that life threw at her could ever completely dent her spirit, and she found something to be glad about every single day. Her heart was full of love until the day she died, and for all I know she loves us still, as we do her.

RIP Mum. This poem was read out at the service. I hope you’ve found your Inn at last.

Up-Hill

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

   Yes, to the very end.

Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?

   From morn to night, my friend.

 

But is there for the night a resting-place?

   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?

   You cannot miss that inn.

 

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?

   Those who have gone before.

Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?

   They will not keep you standing at that door.

 

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?

   Of labour you shall find the sum.

Will there be beds for me and all who seek?

   Yea, beds for all who come.

Christina Rossetti

Bugwoman on Location – The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum, London

Dear Readers, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the Natural History Museum in London. I love the  building that houses the collection of over 80 million specimens; it has been described as a ‘cathedral to nature’, and it certainly repays close inspection. The outside is clothed in a mixture of pale blue-grey and golden  tiles, and everywhere you look, there are animals and plants. The entrance gate is decorated with reliefs of different creatures, and I particularly liked these rats.

Not to mention these iguanas

And how about this cobra?

I think that you could have a delightful time just looking at the decoration of the building without even going inside. The east wing is decorated with extinct animals, and the west wing with living species, at the request of the Director at the time, Richard Owen. It can be seen as a rebuttal to Darwin – Owen was unconvinced by Darwin’s theory of evolution as it stood, and wanted to show the separation of extant and vanished species, rather than their continuity. We can just enjoy being looked down on by rather menacing pterodactyls and sabre-toothed tigers.

The west wing features a few more familiar creatures, such as this splendid lion.

It’s not always so straightforward, though. The animal below is some kind of extinct mammal, but to the left there is what could easily be a coelacanth, a lobe-finned fish that was thought to be long vanished from the oceans until one was hauled up in 1938.

Photo One by By Alberto Fernandez Fernandez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2550966

Preserved coelacanth found off the Comoros islands in 1974 (Photo One)

The decoration inside the museum is just as ornate. In the entrance hall, each niche is decorated with birds who forage up and over the arches.

As you go upstairs, the birds are replaced by monkeys clambering through vines, though they look rather more like little people to me, especially with their unnervingly human hands.

One of the wonders of the Museum is the ceiling of the Hintze Hall, which contains illustrations of plants from all corners of the world. With typical Victorian practicality, these are mostly ‘useful’ plants, such as coffee and the opium poppy.

So, really, what’s not to like? Well, as a child I was always extremely upset by all the dead and mounted animals, frozen in the act of flying and foraging and yet never to move again. On more than one occasion I had to be taken outside because I was so upset. It’s true that I was a tender-hearted child, but I suspect most children are this way, until they become inured to our ordinary cruelty.

I remember the Victorian display below from the first time that I saw it over 50 years ago, and it still disturbs me today.

Hummingbird display

There are over a  hundred separate birds in this case. The work to prepare and mount each of them must have been enormous. The species are not listed, and so this is purely for the delectation of those who stopped to admire it. I have no idea how quickly their colours faded, but the light in their eyes would have gone out quickly enough.

To the Museum’s credit, there are far fewer of these nineteenth century displays than I remember. There are also dodos here, and a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers, last seen in the wild in 1944. Habitat destruction and hunting doomed both these species, and this is all that is left, a few stuffed birds in a glass case.

A pair of Dodos (and a Giant Auk, bottom left)

Ivory-billed woodpeckers

But, things are changing. The Museum hosts the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which gives visitors another way to view animals and to wonder at their complexity and beauty without harming them (though there is a discussion to be had on ethical wildlife photography as well). Many of the specimens that have already been collected are housed in the Darwin Centre, where they provide invaluable information for scientists, especially with regard to assessing the changes in distribution due to climate change. Existing specimens are also used in the exhibitions on different aspects of animal and plant life, such as the current exhibition on nocturnal animals.

This move away from collecting for the sake of collecting and towards conservation is best exemplified by the change in the entrance hall of the Museum.

Photo Two by By Drow male - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4933219

Dippy the diplodocus (Photo Two)

Until recently, the entrance hall housed a cast of the bones of Dippy the Diplodocus, and this had been the first thing that visitors saw when they entered the Museum since 1905. However,  they have recently gone ‘on tour’ and have been replaced by the skeleton of a young blue whale, who was found stranded in Wexford Bay, Ireland, after being injured by whalers in 1891. The bones have been in storage for all this time, but in 2017 it was decided to replace the dinosaur with the whale.

This is a stunning creature, 25 metres long, and it seemed to gaze down on me as I entered. The work of getting it into the hall was detailed in a recent BBC programme which I watched with great interest, but nothing prepares you for its size and presence. My previous visits to the Museum gave me a sense of voyeurism, as I spent all my time looking at these long-dead creatures. There is something of a challenge about these bones, however. I had the distinct sense of being gazed down upon and evaluated by those empty eye sockets. This is the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet, and we treat the world as if it were our playground and rubbish tip. If the bones could speak, how much rage and sorrow would that voice contain?

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Alberto Fernandez Fernandez – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2550966

Photo Two by By Drow male – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4933219

A Return to the Barbican

Dear Readers, you may remember that I visited the planting at the Barbican Centre in London a few years ago, and was very impressed. Today, in an attempt to get back to something like normality, I went to see a matinee of Macbeth featuring Christopher (Dr. Who) Eccleston in the Barbican Theatre but before I settled down I wanted to see how the gardens were standing up, and what they looked like in the most uninspiring month of the year. By January, most gardens are looking a bit tired, and one is lucky to have more than a few things in flower. It’s all about texture, and these plantings have that in spades.

The light at this time of year can be strong but the sun is low in the sky, and this creates all kinds of strange effects between the tower blocks. It’s here that the grasses come into their own. The seed heads look molten, glowing with an unearthly fire. I felt as if my poor parched senses were drinking the beauty in.

The icy wind whistles between the buildings, but there were hardy souls weeding and tidying the beds. I told one man how much I enjoyed the gardens at any time of year, and he pointed out a few things that were in flower, a salvia and a little cranesbill. But strangely enough, it’s the starker delights of bark and twig that appeal to me at the moment.

I found one spot, sheltered from the wind, where I noticed the fur on this frosty-leaved plant. I love the way that each leaf has a centre-parting, like a damp-haired schoolboy.

The euphorbia and the Japanese Anemones are still going strong where they have some protection from the cold.

Because of the way that the sun reflects from the windows, there can be strange, fleeting puddles of light.

There is a pond under one of the buildings, and went to see if there was a yellow wagtail, as there had been on a previous visit. Today, there was nothing but reflections.

There are some big, concrete containers that have been planted with a wildflower mix. I was surprised to see cornflowers and mayweed and yarrow still in bloom. I have seen wildflower plantings in a number of other places, but have my doubts as to the provenance of the plants – near to my house in East Finchley, an area has giant yarrow and the largest-flowered creeping thistle that I’ve ever seen. Possibly these are cultivars, but they look remarkably like the wild plants on steroids. The plants here, though, look pretty much like the real thing.

I used to visit the Barbican regularly at lunchtime (I worked just across the road), and it was a most unimpressive place, with the beds full of regimented primulas and well-behaved geraniums. Today it’s a wild and woolly prairie, full of interest even at this time of the year. When I visit in summer the place is full of pollinators having a pit-stop for nectar and pollen. This is an exposed and variable habitat, where the wind scours the soil and the sun blazes down, but the garden is doing well. It just goes to show what can be done with a bit of imagination.

And Macbeth was pretty good too, with the part of the witches taken by three scary children in identical red dresses, and Christopher Eccleston giving it his all in a northern accent and body armour. I get a bit fed-up with the handbrake turns that the characters take, but I think we have to blame Mr Shakespeare for that rather than the performance. It sometimes feels like one of the few Shakespeare plays that could actually do with being a bit longer to allow for the deterioration in the characters’ states of mind. But still, if you fancy a couple of hours of supernatural goings on, the descent of one of the lead characters into madness and all manner of surprising goings-on, this is your play.

 

Bugwoman on Location – Weymouth

Dear Readers, on Tuesday we went to Weymouth for my Mum’s cremation. We are having a bigger gathering in Milborne St Andrew, where Mum and Dad lived, in February. But Mum wanted to be cremated and, unlike in London where crematoria are ten a penny, in Dorset the nearest one was in Weymouth, a place to which none of us have any connection.

Events like this always put our own choices into the spotlight. My plan is to be buried in a cardboard coffin in a woodland somewhere  – I have no worries about insects munching my bones and helping to recycle me. But Mum was never one for creepy crawlies, and she had been graveside on too many cold, rainy days to want to inflict that on us, so cremation it was. She also thought that it was cleaner, somehow, simpler. I think that she missed a trick by not wanting to be fired into the stratosphere in a rocket, like Hunter S Thompson, but there is still something about the thought of her body, which had been the cause latterly of so much pain, being reduced to its simplest elements that I find comforting. I am so glad that we managed to have some of these conversations before Mum died, so that at least some of what she wanted was clear. It’s never too early to have these discussions with those we love. Life is hard enough after you’ve been bereaved without having to second guess what the person who has died would have wanted.

We went for a walk around the town of Weymouth before the service. It is a fine little town, with a working harbour and its own lifeboat. Everywhere, people were going about their business – walking their dogs, mending nets, sitting on benches and gazing out to sea. It’s surprising how often I glimpse Mum in the colour of a stranger’s hair, the way that they walk, a certain tilt of their head. She seems to be everywhere.

The cliffs that make up the Jurassic Coast peered through the early morning mist. Mary Anning found the fossil of an ichthyosaurus not far from here. It is an interesting part of the world. However, all I could think of was those last few weeks with Mum as her life ebbed away, and my mood coloured everything grey. But then I remembered that the day before Mum went into the Nursing Home, an ice-cream van had parked up outside the school opposite their bungalow, and Mum had been able to enjoy one of those Mr Whippy icecreams with a flake in it. I had never noticed an icecream van there before, so it seemed like fate. Mum adored those soft icecream cones, and even without her teeth, she managed to eat it all. There is grace everywhere, but it’s easy to overlook it.

Everything seemed unreal, as if I was in a dream and would soon wake up to find everything as it should be. But as usual, it took nature to bring me back to reality. Perched above a pile of nets was a pair of herring gulls.

They seemed watchful, and I soon realised why. There was a young herring gull picking through the fish scales and guts on the quayside below, and I suspect that he was their chick.

Like all young birds, young gulls seem so witless, so vulnerable.  This one looked around, and emitted the most plaintive, sad little cry, half way between a squeak and a wail.

‘Oh’, I said, ‘he’s crying for his mother’.

And then, I realised what I’d said, and finally I could lean on my husband’s shoulder and cry for mine. At last I could be present with what was going to happen, the end of my mother’s physical presence on this world, and I could start the remembering that would be the work of the rest of my life. My mother is always with me, in the shape of my eyes, the length of my fingers, my skill with roast potatoes and my love of colour. There is a particularity about each person who walks this earth which comes into the sharpest focus in the weeks and months after they’ve died. They are unique, and they will never come again, and that is what is so, so hard.

But there is solace, nonetheless, in the universality of death, at least for me. Someone described the loss of a parent as an initiation, and it feels like walking through fire. I will not be the same on the other side, but maybe I will be more compassionate and perhaps even wiser. Grief is the price that we pay for loving with all our hearts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.