Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – The Panoramaweg

View of the Seenplatte from Hochgurgl, Austria

Dear Readers, when I go for my annual trip to Obergurgl in Austria, there is always one day when the cloud is so low that the scenery disappears behind a veil of mist. I rather enjoy these days – the sound is muffled, the walkers are few, and familiar scenes become mysterious. We always call these days our ‘panoramaweg’ days, in tribute to the information boards at popular tourist sites which set out the view that we should be seeing, with the mountain peaks named and the paths and ski-runs clearly marked, all completely invisible behind an interminable blanket of grey. Sometimes the clouds lift, sometimes they don’t, but we always keep our fingers crossed and head out anyway.

Heading up in the Hochgurgl lift

The walk we’re doing today is from the middle station of the Hochgurgl lift, back to Obergurgl. It’s a pleasantly varied walk, involving mountains, bogs and forest. We are greeted on arrival by the usual bunch of cows. Unusually, this time the calves are running with their mothers – in the village, the calves seem to be separated almost as soon as they’re born. And for a few moments the cloud lifts.

There is a positive posse of snowblowers already for action during the winter season. This year, there was a snowfall of several metres in May, and as noted in last week’s post, the vegetation is well behind where it should be. I wonder what will happen to the skiing industry as natural snow becomes less and less predictable? This valley earns the vast majority of its income in the winter season. Everything is changing, and we seem ill-equipped to deal with it.

And then the cloud rolls back in. The alpenroses (actually a type of azalea) are just coming into flower – some years they have already finished by the tme we arrive.

And I have always been fond of this chap.

As we turn the corner towards the boggy bit of the trail, we are confronted by a most unusual sight. There are several cars and vans parked beside the track. There is a man wearing only swimming trunks under a massive fur coat. My husband tells me that there was also a woman in swimwear but for some reason I didn’t notice. There are cameras and one of those white umbrellas that photographers use.

Clearly, no one told the photographer what the weather forecast was.

As no shooting was going to take place any time soon, we ambled on down the path, stopping only to take a photo of a rather splendid hat that is presumably going to be utilised when/if the cloud lifts.

The ponds along the track, which are sometimes dried up by this time of year, are full of water, and even contain a few tadpoles.

We march on upwards through the mist. We can hear the jangle of bells in the distance, but are unsure whether they come from particularly acrobatic cows, goats or the long-eared Italian sheep that graze here. Finally we find out as we see a little family of sheep silhouetted against the skyline. They are unusually skittish and gallop off up the mountainside, though I suspect that the rustle of a lunchpack would soothe their nerves.

Onwards! The next part of the path leads into the Konigstal, a particularly difficult valley (from the point of view of someone still recovering from a sprained ankle). It was a popular spot for smugglers crossing into Austria from Italy – they brought tobacco, sheep, furs, and even tea. There is still a customs hut at the top of the Konigstal, and I suspect that many a backhander was passed over – how else could someone drive an entire flock of sheep past, even at dead of night?

On the way we pass some black vanilla orchids. I’ve seen about four species of orchids this year, and I know that many more pop up later in the season. This place really is a botanist’s dream.

Black vanilla orchid (Nigritella nigra)

To cross the Konigstal you have to go a long way into the valley, and to keep your fingers crossed that the bridge is still there. One year it wasn’t, and we ended up wading across. It’s always a relief when it looms into view.

There is a lot of snow about this year, and where it’s melted back there are the alpine snowbells. These are the first flowers to appear once the snow is gone, and they take advantage of the lull before the other plants, overwhelm them. I love the fringes on the ‘cups’, and think of them as the quintessential Alpine flower. They only grow above 900m and are normally seen just after the snow melts.

Snow in the Konigstal

Alpine snowbells (Soldanella alpina)

From now on the walk is one long descent, through the pine forest and eventually to Obergurgl. The clouds appear to be lifting a bit (or we’re getting lower) (or both).

We can hear the constant calls of nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) above the trees – these are a kind of jay, and are responsible for planting a lot of the pines, as they bury the pine nuts for winter sustenance and often don’t eat all of them. They are rambunctious birds and at this time of year often have youngsters in the nest, but they are also shy and difficult to photograph. So here is a photo taken by someone with infinitely more patience than I have (and probably a better camera too)

Photo One by Original author and uploader was MurrayBHenson at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain,

Spotted Nutcracker (Public Domain)

I love this part of the path, where the smell of pine resin rises and the walking becomes a little easier. The sun finally comes out, persuading us to take off our waterproofs.

There are gentians of some kind along by the path – probably trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis) though they seem a tiny bit pale. I am holding out hope that they are the slightly rarer Clusius’s gentian (Gentiana clusii). I really must get a better book for ID of Alpine flowers – does anyone have any recommendations?

Clusius’s  gentian?

And finally, Obergurgl heaves into view. I cannot believe the amount of building work that is going on this year (we have a morning coffee every day and admire the different cranes and lorries that are operating on the Edelweiss and Gurgl hotel and the new conference centre). But from here, all is peaceful, and we are starting to look forward to a Radler (shandy) or an Almdudler ( a traditional herbal drink which tastes like a cross between ginger beer and green tea).

We climb up again to cross the final waterfall before heading down into the village. One year we were staying here and learnt that a woman at another hotel was terrified of heights and also of crossing running water. The whole holiday must have been purgatory for her. I can only imagine that she was very poorly advised.

The penultimate leg of the walk…

And finally we meander into the village through a mass of meadow plants, including this magnificent clover. There must be a dozen different clovers and vetches in the fields around Obergurgl and this year I’ve been able to enjoy them for the whole fortnight: normally the first cut of the meadows has been at the end of the first week in July, but this year the weather just hasn’t been good enough, though the hay trucks are starting to roll now.

And so tomorrow we will be heading home after another holiday in Obergurgl. It’s hard to explain how much this place means to me – it seems to be quintessentially healing for the mind and the body. I always come back to London feeling refreshed, and this year is no exception. I still have challenges to face, and no doubt all sorts of things will be waiting for me at home, but I feel better able to deal with them. And now, it’s off for a final apfelstrudel. Tschuss!



Bugwoman on Location – The Meadows of Obergurgl

Dear Readers, this has been the year of falling down. I have fallen down, for no apparent reason, outside the post office, outside the nursing home, outside the newsagent. A week before Mum died, I fell over spectacularly while walking to the dentist. On every occasion there has been no apparent reason for the tumble – no uneven pavement, no obvious trip-hazard. One minute I am vertical, and the next I am not.There are lots of explanations – weak ankles, stress, distraction – but the one that seems truest to me, the one that I feel in my heart, is that I have been carrying a lot and my body would really like me to just stop.

Well, two days before I was due to leave for Obergurgl for my annual holiday, I was sitting on the sofa, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and knitting, when John rang to tell me there was a fox outside. I sprang up but my foot had gone dead, and so I fell over with a mighty crash and a distinct crunch. By the time John got in, there was an egg-sized swelling on my foot and I was shaking with shock.

Well, after a trip to A and E for an X Ray it was clear that ‘all’ I’d done was torn a few ligaments, and so we decided to go on  holiday, and to take it easy. And take it easy I have. Yesterday we went for a little walk in the meadows (followed by plum cake at the top of a mountain that was reached via a chairlift), and it was a real treat to just meander along, noticing the plants and insects.

But first, you have to squeeze through all the building work. I feel so sorry for anyone who has never been to Obergurgl before. How the heart must sink at the sight of all the cranes and scaffolding and concrete mixers! This year, the Edelweiss and Gurgl is getting yet another face lift, the village hall has been demolished to make way for a bigger venue and there are no less than two underground car parks being built. Last year a crane managed to knock the  weathercock off the church spire, and to be honest I don’t give it much chance of staying there for the whole of this year either. The trouble is that the summer season is so short (snow lays late and comes early this high up) that everyone is desperate to get stuff done by the beginning of the winter season, when most of the money for the year is made. It’s hoped that the new village hall will attract conferences during the summer, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed too – we’ve seen the number of hotels open in the summer fall from eleven to three, and if it gets much worse I suspect the place won’t open until ski season.

Fortunately after only a five minute meander through the crashes and bangs of the building sites,  you can be skipping (or in my case hobbling) among the most beautiful alpine flowers you can imagine. There were a few new species for me to notice this year as well – it feels as if everything is at least a week later than usual, and there is plenty of snow on the higher altitude walks (yet another good reason for not rushing to do anything strenuous).

Obergurgl ‘improvements’. Much like Rome, it will be lovely when it’s finished

But cross the river, and you have this.

The main colour of the meadow is yellow – dandelions, yellow rattle, different kinds of daisy. We underestimate the importance of flies as pollinators, but every flowerhead is full of them. Lady’s Mantle forms a large part of the underlayer of the meadow.

Different forms of wild cranesbill are everywhere, making puddles of purple.

There are more flies and some ichneumon wasps on  the Queen Anne’s lace.

And here are some Alpine poppies, the first that I’ve ever seen. I think that these chaps might be Rhaetian poppies (Papaver alpinum ssp rhaetium), a specialist of the Central and Southern Alps. I was so delighted that I did an ill-advised little dance. I was even more pleased when I spotted that one of them had a most conspicuous spider lurking among the petals.

Further along the path, there were even some bright orange poppies, a colour variant of the same species.

On we went. My foot didn’t seem to hurt, but later in the walk I noticed that my boot was rubbing on  my lower leg. It seems that the swelling in my foot had decided to move north, and when I got home my foot was more or less a normal shape but I now had a new set of bruises higher up. I was tempted to include a photo but I thought I’d spare you all the horror. After all, you might be eating.

I am always so impressed by the range and variety of insect life that lives in the meadows here, a testament to the lack of pesticides and to the way that the hillsides are managed – they are cut twice, once early in the summer, and once at the end. This preserves the biodiversity by making sure that the perennial weeds like dock and nettle don’t get a foothold. The yellow rattle helps too by keeping the richness of the soil down – most mountain  meadow plants thrive on  thin, depleted soils, which is one reason that some of them make excellent ‘weeds’ when they arrive in cities.

And here is a beetle, another underrated pollinator, on a cranesbill. I suspect that s/he is some kind of longhorn beetle, but haven’t been able to ascertain the species. Do give me a shout if you know!

And then I spotted another new species of plant for this year – alpine clematis (Clematis alpina). This has usually finished flowering by the time we arrive, so it was a real pleasure to see it this year.I really love its delicate lilac-blue colour, and rather shy, droopy flowers.

By this time I was feeling a bit droopy too, so it was a short hobble to the chairlift for reviving coffee and cake. And today, my foot and leg are feeling much more like their normal selves. Fortunately there are storms forecast, so I foresee another day of plant watching and taking it easy. There is nothing like a minor injury for making you stop and take stock.

I was a little worried about coming back to Obergurgl – it was while I was here, a year ago, that my Mum’s final decline began, and also it became clear that Dad wasn’t just ‘a little confused’ but had full-blown dementia. i thought that being in the same place might allow memories to surface that I’ve been trying to avoid. And this is exactly what has happened. But it feels as if the only way out is through, somehow – if I don’t feel what I need to feel now, it will only ambush me in future. And there is something about the landscape here, the mountains,the sound of the river, the nesting house martins and the cuckoos calling in the pine forest, that holds me. I sense that there is nothing new in what I feel, nothing that hasn’t been witnessed before. Nothing that I can’t survive.

Bugwoman on Location – Alpacas

An Alpaca

Dear Readers, a lot of therapy animals visit Dad’s nursing home in Dorchester, but there are none more unlikely than this pair of alpacas. The last time they visited I missed them, but on Monday my timing was perfect. I was sitting with Dad, who was munching on a custard tart and enjoying a ‘frothy coffee’ (one shot decaff latte – the last thing we want is for Dad to be any more hyperactive than he currently is) when a pair of alpacas were brought in by their handler. They had just been shorn and looked adorably naked. Plus they have the tiniest little feet considering how big they are.

Dad was instructed to stroke the handsome creature on the neck, and he did his best although it’s difficult to follow instructions when you aren’t as in control of your body as you once were, and your memory is shot. But the alpacas were very forgiving, and their handler was adept at reading their body language and moving them on if they were getting nervous or uncomfortable. I am sure that they are strong enough to vote with their (tiny) feet if anything happened that they didn’t like.

Dad has always loved animals (our house was full of pets when we were children) and although he isn’t quite sure who I am (though his face always lights up when he sees me) he remembered seeing the alpacas on a previous visit. He could not take his eyes off them. These moments are so precious and I was so glad that I was there to witness his pleasure.

I asked the handler about whether they were keeping the alpacas for wool, but apparently not: they have a herd of 34 animals at the moment, and when they are sold they either go as pets, or, occasionally, as guard animals for herds of sheep. Alpacas have a deep and abiding antipathy to all canids, and will kick dogs or foxes who trespass on their territory. Don’t let that innocent face fool you – alpacas can nip, kick and occasionally spit, although it is unusual for this to be aimed at humans. Certainly, these two were perfectly behaved (and regularly rewarded with nibbles), even after one lady resident asked if they were some kind of hunting dog.

I often wonder what goes on in Dad’s mind these days. When I visited on Monday he was very calm and happy, but at the weekend he apparently phoned the police to tell them that two people had been murdered and were buried under the patio. The police had to come out to make sure that this hadn’t actually happened, although it was always unlikely as there is no patio. So, when Dad told me with great glee that the home had been ‘crawling with coppers’ he gave me no indication that they were only there because he’d called them. It certainly livens things up for everyone.

At first, I wondered if it was something that Dad was watching on television that was triggering his fantasies, but now I think that he is trying to make sense of what is going on. Mum is gone, and so she must have been kidnapped or murdered, because nothing else would keep her away from him. For a while, he thought that Mum was jealous because other women were helping him to shower and dress, and so she wasn’t answering the phone when he called. And yet he sat beside me at the funeral, and at a recent memorial service at the home, and at the time he knew that she was dead. It’s as if his brain now has many rooms with no interconnecting corridors, and he can hold several paradoxical thoughts simultaneously, without the slightest sense of contradiction.

On Tuesday I popped in to see him before I headed home (we’re off to Austria this weekend so it was a flying visit) and when he spotted me he threw his arms open.

‘I’ve been waiting for you!’ he said, as we embraced. He is so thin these days. He eats everything and enjoys his food, but he is losing weight. He is too frail for any invasive tests and so we are just taking it day by day, checking that he is eating and drinking and as happy as he can be under the circumstances. We sit down and I make a cup of tea and he has another custard tart and a coffee.

And then I get up to go.

‘I’ll walk down to the station with you and we can get on the train and go and see Mum’, he said. ‘But don’t walk too fast because I’m not as quick as I used to be’.

The station is a quarter of a mile away and mostly uphill,  just to mention the most unimportant reason why he couldn’t leave the home to travel to London to see his wife (or his mother, it’s never quite clear).

‘Oh Dad’, I said, ‘You don’t really want to do that do you? It’s pouring with rain for one thing’.

‘But Mum’s in the hospital and she’ll want to see me’, he said.

And now it gets tricky because if I tell him that Mum’s dead, and then get my suitcases and go, he’ll be even more upset and confused than he is now. Furthermore, it’s not as if this terrible news will ‘stick’.

‘I’ll tell Mum where you are Dad, ‘ I say, ‘And she loves you and she knows you love her’.

He gets up to come with me. If I let him see the code to the lift, which enables him to leave the home, that will be something that he probably will remember.

I catch the eye of one of the carers.

‘Do you want to come with me and have a cup of tea, Tom?’ she asks.

‘No thank you, I just had one’, he says, following me down the corridor.

I give him a firm hug and a kiss and tell him that I’ll see him soon. He stands, swaying and a little unfocused, watching as I get into the lift and head downstairs. As the doors shut, I hear the carer ushering Dad back into the living room. His world has shrunk, largely, to his room and to the communal areas on the second floor. If he feels trapped it’s because he is: for his own safety, for sure, but he chafes against the restriction. He was always such an intrepid man, and I suspect that in his head he still is, solving crimes and stumbling upon nefarious goings on.

I am reading a wonderful book about homing pigeons (which I will discuss further when I’ve finished it), but one thing that has stayed with me is that, if you want your pigeons to improve their times, you need to make sure that they only see their partners when they get back from a race. For them, ‘home’ is not just a physical place, but their loved ones. For Dad, Mum was ‘home’ for 62 years. He may well be looking for her for the rest of his life.

It’s not until I’m on the train that I start to cry.

Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….

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,

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 (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,

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.