Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Bugwoman on Location – That Condor Moment

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Dear Readers, although my recent trip to Monterey was mainly about the hunt for cetaceans, we would have been remiss not to take time out to  look for the largest land bird in North America, the California Condor. Its wingspan is just a shade under ten feet, it weighs in at 26lbs, and there are just 463 individuals left. This is, however, something of an improvement on its condition in 1987 when there were just 27 birds alive, due to a combination of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction.  In an extraordinary conservation effort, these last remaining wild birds were captured and a breeding programme was started at San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo. The first individuals from this attempt to reestablish the species were released in 1991, and you can now see this extraordinary bird soaring above the coastal areas of California, the Baja California peninsula and some of the desert areas of Arizona and Utah.

California condors are, in effect (whisper it!) giant vultures. Their larger Andean cousins occasionally kill things, but the California condor is a cleaner-upper, an invaluable part of the ecosystem but not a bird of prey. Close up it looks almost primeval, with its midnight-black plumage and bald face, but it is unquestionably magnificent.

Photo One by CC BY 3.0,

The face of a California Condor (Photo One)

Their role as scavenger hasn’t stopped them the California condor from featuring as both a creator and a destroyer in the legends of Native American peoples: the Yokut people believed that the bird sometimes ate the moon, causing lunar eclipses, whereas the Wiyot tribe of California believed that the condor recreated the human race after it was wiped out in a flood. Many peoples use condor feathers in their headdresses and ceremonial costumes, and the bones of the birds have been discovered in tombs. In many cultures, birds that fly so close to the sun are believed to have an affinity with the gods, and with returning the souls of the dead back to their ‘home’ in the sky.

Back to our trip to Monterey. We had spotted several birds in the distance, but were completely unprepared when we turned a corner to see a condor, in its characteristic legs-down posture, flying not twenty feet above a lay-by. We screeched to a halt in a tangle of cameras and binoculars, just in time to see the bird swooping low into a stand of trees. The guy repairing the overhead cables nearby  shook his head. I suspect he sees a lot of tourists nearly doing themselves a damage on their first close encounter with this extraordinary bird.

All the released birds wear a number tag, which enables them to be identified. The bird pictured at the start of this piece has the id number ‘ red twenty-six’, and has the name ‘Beak Boy’. He was hatched in Los Angeles Zoo in 1997, and was fostered by a pair of Andean Condors. These birds accidentally damaged his beak while feeding him, and although the beak has now healed it has a characteristic ‘lump’ on it.

In 2006 he paired with ‘Solo’ (#208) who was also reared in Los Angeles Zoo. This bird preferred the isolated areas of Monterey County, which are also hunting country. This exposed the bird to the risk of lead poisoning from shot left in the carcasses that the birds feed upon. In 2005 she was spotted in severe distress, and was taken into Los Angeles Zoo for treatment. Fortunately she survived, and was released. In 2008 an act was passed in California which bans the use of lead shot in condor territory, but this doesn’t protect the birds when they fly into other areas. Even the US military doesn’t use lead ammunition, and lead shot for anglers has been banned in the UK for many years. Come on American hunters, get with the programme! It isn’t just condors that are affected but all kinds of birds, from swans and loons to bald eagles.

In 2007, Beak Boy and Solo laid the first fertile condor egg in the wild in Monterey for over a century. Scientists were worried about this first egg, and so it was hatched in captivity. When the bird fledged she was released and joined her parents, no doubt learning all about what it means to be a condor. Beak Boy and Solo have hatched another five eggs since.

All this gives you an idea of the amount of micro-management involved in bringing a species back from the brink. Condors live for a long time (they can reach sixty years old) and breed slowly, not attaining sexual maturity until they are six, and only laying one egg every other year. However, if an egg or youngster goes missing, the birds will lay another egg: this was used by the conservationists as a way of doubling the ‘production’, with the original egg being raised in captivity by humans or condor foster parents, and the parents raising the second egg.

The birds are taught to avoid humans and overhead cables during the rearing process, which has increased their chance of survival in the wild. One of the measures involves feeding the nestlings via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to prevent them associating humans with food. The less these birds come into contact with humans, who have caused them so much harm, the better.

Nestling condor being fed via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to avoid habituation/imprinting on humans (Public Domain)

Let’s have a look at the story of another bird.

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is blue 52 or ‘Ferdinand’. He was hatched in 2012 but is already a large and impressive bird, though apparently with a sweet nature, hence his being named after the gentle bull ‘Ferdinand’ in the cartoon. Apparently when he was released, instead of flying off, he walked up the hill to where the other condors were feeding and joined in without any bickering or argument. He already weighs in at 23lbs and this is not surprising – his father, condor #1 or ‘Topa Topa’ to his friends, was the first condor to be taken into captivity in 1967 and is the largest captive condor ever recorded, at almost 26ibs.

And one last story…

Photo by Peter Dunn

This is green 11, or ‘Big Gulp’. He is a very young bird, hatched in 2015, and was named for his entertaining way of eating, which involved bolting down great chunks of semi-frozen meat. Since his release he has paired up with a much older, more established male #566, or ‘Mike’s Bird’, named for a conservationist who was killed the day after the bird was released. Mike’s Bird is the dominant bird in the area, but has been alone since the death of his mate a few years ago. Condors pair for life, and so maybe in his loneliness he is enjoying palling around with ‘Big Gulp’. The two birds apparently sit together and preen one another. It seems to me that California condors are generally most accommodating and tolerant birds, gentle giants.

The California condor preservation effort is probably the most expensive in US history, costing over $35m since the Second World War, and about $2m per year. I am not sure what price you can put on the sight of these birds soaring above the hills around Big Sur, but for me they are capable of inducing true awe, a sense of the sublime. They are ugly-beautiful, maybe the closest thing that we have to the great pterodactyls of old, in size if not in actual genetic proximity. Preservation of their habitat will protect a whole raft of other, less spectacular but nonetheless vital creatures and plants. The return of the California condor is a story about what humans can achieve when they put their minds to it. When we live in an age of such destruction, it’s important to celebrate our successes as well as bewail our failures.

Photo Credits

Photo One by CC BY 3.0,

You can see the biographies of all the Californian birds at the Condorspotter website

Bugwoman on Location – Monterey Bay

Dear Readers, I was due to travel on the 3rd of September, and on the 2nd September I was still not sure if I was going. Mum was in hospital, and Dad had had the paramedics out again for a chest infection. But suddenly everything seemed to settle down. Did I dare take a whole week out from the drama at home? I certainly needed it. I wasn’t sleeping. I was crying at the slightest little thing. I had broken out in a hideous rash. In short, I was on the verge of not being able to cope at all.

‘Go!’ said my brother. ‘I’ll handle things here’.

And so I went to the other side of the planet, to Monterey Bay in California, for a Naturetrek tour. I arrived in a flurry, my head still full of carer timetables and hospital visiting times and contingency plans. And then, I was out on the water, looking towards a grey horizon on a sea that was so calm that it felt as if the boat was bobbing about on liquid metal. The sea fret clouded my glasses and frizzed my hair, and the fog numbed the sound of the engine.

It can look so lifeless, the sea. But Monterey Bay is a cetacean hotspot, where cold upwellings from deep undersea trenches provide a feast of krill for the largest animals on earth, and all the smaller ones too. From that cold water comes the hottest blood in the ocean.

At first the sightings were fleeting. A long grey back broke the water, accompanied by a fountain of steam some thirty feet high. A blue whale, accompanied by her calf, was crossing the Monterey Bay superhighway. From our view in the boat she looked big, but the photograph below shows her true scale – blue whales grow to some 90 feet long here, though the longest ever recorded was 108 feet long.

Blue Whale swimming away from the boat (photo courtesy of Discovery Whale Watch and Slater Moore Photography)

Blue whales are remarkable animals, but because of their immense size they don’t go in for the acrobatics of their smaller relatives, the humpbacks, who measure a mere 50 feet long. There is a population of some 3000 humpbacks in the Monterey Bay area, and watching them made me wonder at their strength, their complexity and their sheer otherworldliness. Even after spending some twenty hours in their company in the course of a week I am still not quite sure if they were a dream, or if I actually saw them. Fortunately, there are photos.

It’s not uncommon to see a humpback ‘breaching’, or throwing itself out of the water. Scientists still don’t know why they expend the amount of energy required to heave that 30 ton body out of the water, but presumably it’s important. There has been speculation that it’s for communication (the noise of the splash carries for miles, and it’s been noted that when one whale breaches, another many miles away may do the same thing when the sound wave hits). Is it for exercise? Young whales seem to do more breaching, but maybe that’s just because they can. Or is it for sheer exuberance?

Incidentally, the angle of the photo below makes the whale look much closer to the boat than s/he actually was. The company that we used for the trips, Discovery Whale Watch  was very respectful of the rules around whalewatching in the area: whales were always given plenty of room, approached from the side rather than from behind, and the engine was cut when we were around the animals. In all the cases that I observed the whales carried on doing exactly what they were doing before we arrived.

Humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

We also saw the extraordinary sight of a mother and calf breaching at the same time – was the mother teaching the youngster how to do it?

Mother and calf humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Generally, when humpbacks breach they land on the back of their heads, which are bony, rather than doing a belly flop. Look at the length of those pectoral fins! When people first found the bones of humpback whales in the Americas, they took one look at those huge ‘hands’ and thought they must be looking at the skeletons of giant angels.

Another humpback breaching (Photo by Peter Dunn)

Humpbacks often feed communally on the huge shoals of anchovy that gather in the Bay to feed on the krill. We watched them blowing a circle of bubbles to make sure that the fish were pushed into a tight ball, before opening their mouths en masse and swallowing swimming pool-sized gulps of fishy water. I’ve watched scenes like this on Blue Planet, but never dreamed that I’d have a chance to see it in real life.

It’s hard to capture the excitement of seeing so many whales together. It felt such a privilege, as animal encounters always do to me. It is so easy to for me to become embroiled in my particular challenges and dramas, but seeing something like this wipes the mind clean until all that is left is a sense of wonder.

Humpbacks lunge feeding (Photo by Peter Dunn)

As the whales fed they were joined by sealions and pelicans, shearwaters and terns, until the whole sea was boiling. The biologist onboard pointed out that if the sealions started jumping, the whales were often going to surface right beneath them, and so it proved. Sometimes the whales seemed to get irritated with all the other creatures and made a trumpeting sound that reminded me of a baby elephant. It must be crowded under the surface with  all those other animals trying to muscle in.

And how quickly the whales gobbled up the anchovies! Sometimes, all that remained were a few sad silvery scales bobbing  beneath the boat. The feeding frenzy also gave us humans the dubious pleasure of smelling ‘whale breath’, which resembles a combination of flatulence and halitosis. I guess that if you live on a diet of krill you must need powerful stomach bacteria to deal with it all.

Sealions feeding above Humpback whales (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And as if this wasn’t enough, on several occasions we were joined by a superpod of several hundred Common Dolphin. They love to ride the bows of the boat, and the hashtag bites on their backs are a token of how determined each one is to claim the front spot.

Common dolphins riding the bow of the boat (Photo by Peter Dunn)

There are lots of explanations for why dolphins jump, too. Is it a dominance display, or a way of communicating? Probably both, but to me it also looks like a whole lot of fun.

Common dolphin jumping (Photo by Peter Dunn)

And when I got back to the land (which seemed to heave slightly under my feet) and gazed out to sea, I was left with a sense of profound mystery. In some ways whales are so similar to us (they are mammals after all), but when I think about their lives underwater, their songs, their epic migrations and their bonds with one another that might be maintained over many years and over hundreds of miles, I am astounded. To think that we share the planet with such creatures fills me with awe, and gratitude, and humility.

Humpback pectoral (Photo by Peter Dunn)

The majority of the photographs this week were taken by one of our guides on the trip, Peter Dunn. It was wonderful to be able to just watch and appreciate these remarkable animals without having to worry about whether I was getting the perfect shot. Sometimes, the camera comes between me and what I’m looking at, but this time I could relax into the experience. Thanks, Peter!

The photo of the blue whale with our boat was taken by Slater Moore, using a drone. In case you are worried about this causing disturbance to the wildlife, I should point out that it was used for less than ten minutes during a four hour cruise, and at no point was it flown close to birds or smaller sea mammals who might have been disturbed by the noise. Have a look at Slater’s website for some other remarkable photographs.

Bugwoman on Location – One Hell of a Week in Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, I was  visiting my Aunt Hilary in Somerset last Saturday when I received a call about my elderly Mum in Dorset. Outside Hilary’s window, a flock of fledgling sparrows was gathering in the shrubs and carrying on a conversation that seemed comprised of a single note, uttered with different degrees of urgency. But on my mobile phone, I hear that Mum is in a sorry state, vomiting, feverish and getting on and off the commode every twenty minutes. Paramedics were called in the morning, but had deemed her not ill enough to be admitted to hospital so she was at home, distressed and with Dad not able to help much because of his own infirmities.

When the carer visited again on Saturday afternoon Mum had worsened and the carer called 111. She was informed that a doctor would be with her within two hours. Two hours passed. The carer called again, and was told it would be another two hours. The carer was so worried that she called 999 at 8 p.m. I asked her to call me when the paramedics arrived, however late it was. They arrived at 12.50 a.m. and again didn’t admit Mum to hospital, in spite of a day spent vomiting and passing water every twenty minutes.

I should back up a little here, and explain. For you or I, a urinary tract infection or a bout of norovirus is unpleasant, but usually clears itself in a few days after a dose of antibiotics for the former, and starvation/lots of fluids for the latter. For someone like Mum, with heart failure, diabetes, COPD and a whole host of other stuff, a simple infection can quickly turn into something nasty like sepsis, or at best can cause her condition to deteriorate quickly. But Mum’s vital signs were still good, and so there was not enough cause to admit her.

At 5 a.m. the doctor arrived and gave her some antibiotics and some tablets for the nausea. It’s hard to take tablets when you have nausea, but she managed it somehow.

On Sunday morning I grabbed a taxi from Broadway in Somerset to Milborne St Andrew in Dorset. My taxi driver was a delightful chap in a top hat and shorts. I sat in the front seat and we drove through the rain, while he told me about his life: how he was an engineer and inventor by trade, and how he’d almost succeeded in getting funding for his master project, a way of helping the companies who fill in potholes to operate in the rain. I was happy to let him ramble on with his tales of lasers and oil on surface water and the difficulties of gauging the depth of a pothole when the light is being refracted. It took my mind off the situation that I was walking into.

I  got to the house and walked into Mum and Dad’s bedroom. Mum was half asleep. She didn’t have her teeth in, which always makes her look about 105 years old, and changes her voice. She hadn’t eaten, or taken any of her medication, because she felt too sick. She was burning up with fever, but said she felt a little better since starting the antibiotics. Her green eyes looked enormous in that little white face. I helped her onto the commode and realised how very weak she was. I’d no sooner got her settled into bed than she wanted to get out again. She was too hot, then too cold. By Monday morning Dad had decamped to the living room to sleep in his reclining chair because Mum was so restless, and I was starting to get a bit frazzled. I know how awful that feeling of a UTI is, the way you want to keep going to the toilet even when there’s nothing left in your bladder. I also began to understand how hard it is to keep lifting someone off a bed onto a commode, and then get them back into bed when they can do almost nothing to support their own weight. However strong your core muscles are (thank you, pilates!) sometimes the angles that you have to get into to lift someone put a terrible strain on your back.

On Monday the diarrhoea started, but I’ll pass over that quickly. The doctor popped in to visit her, and pronounced her vital signs acceptable. She still wasn’t taking any of her medications and what we now recognise as withdrawal was kicking in: some of her  medications are addictive, and without them she was starting to shake and become even more agitated.

On Monday night she needed assistance twice an hour. I would go to bed for half an hour’s shuteye and be roused instantly by sounds from Mum’s bedroom – the sound of the door banging against the bedside cabinet, a sure sign that she was trying to get up, or her cries for help. She would usually have already swung her legs out of bed and was laying at a most uncomfortable angle, which explained the urgency of her cries. No matter how many times I asked her to call out before she started moving, she was determined, even in her weakened state, to be independent. I sensed this was a recipe for disaster, and I was right.

At 1 o’clock in the morning I heard an even more desperate cry for help, and went into the bedroom to find her on the floor. There is no way that Dad and I could lift her back on to the bed, and besides I really wanted the paramedics to take another look. I dialled 999 and explained the situation, and they called me back to get all the details. They warned me that they were extremely busy, and that it might take a while for the paramedics to get to us, because the situation wasn’t life-threatening. I completely understand.

We covered Mum in blankets, tried to get her comfortable with some pillows and turned the heating up. Dad and I took it in turns to sit in the bedroom to keep her company.

Mum wasn’t happy.

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘I’ve got to get up’

‘I’m cold’.

‘I’m too hot’

‘Can you put a pillow behind my head’.

‘Can you take that pillow away it’s hurting me’

‘I’m really uncomfortable’

‘Somebody help me, please’

‘I want to get up’

‘Can’t you help me to get up?’

There is nothing worse than that feeling of helplessness, which so easily transforms into a kind of rage. I found myself getting inpatient with Mum, and close to tears. I went outside and sat on the bench in the dark to calm myself down.

A tawny owl called from very close at hand, a wild, otherworldly cry. It reminded me of someone calling out from the other side of a great divide,urgent and distressed.

Of course, this suited my mood perfectly, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the owl, who might have been in an excellent frame of mind for all I knew.

The paramedics finally arrived at 4 a.m., got Mum back into bed in a jiffy and, whilst worried about her, didn’t find enough warning signs to admit her to hospital.

I heard one of them say ‘How on earth is she managing?’

‘She isn’t normally like this’, I said. ‘She’s normally mobile enough to get about in the bungalow with her walker’.

And this is another problem – when you don’t know the patient, you may assume that she is always confused, or unable to get about, because you have no baseline to go by. It’s why I make sure to tell hospital staff that although Mum is a little forgetful, she doesn’t usually hallucinate or talk absolute rubbish.

And so Monday faded into Tuesday, and Wednesday. Several times I had to call on a lovely carer who lives locally to help get Mum back into bed when she got herself into a position where I couldn’t lift her on my own. I got better at getting her to and from the commode, but she was getting weaker and weaker. We managed to get her to eat some custard and a little porridge, and she was drinking lots of milk, but it obviously wasn’t enough. She was back on her medication, and at least had stopped shaking. Nurses popped in from time to time to check her blood sugar and see how she was doing.

The doctor visited while Mum was asleep. He took her blood sugar and her blood pressure, and she didn’t stir. He looked at her with concern.

‘I wonder if this is a turning point?’ he said. ‘She’s always been such a fighter. I’ve never seen her like this before’.

‘She’s still a fighter’, I said. ‘You might be surprised’. I was taken aback by the flare of anger that I felt.

Later, when Mum was a bit more alert, I opened the blinds so that she could see the garden, and I heard her call for me. I went in, and sat on the bed beside her.

‘Are they sparrows in the gutter opposite?’ she asked. ‘What are they doing?’

I leaned down so that I could see things from Mum’s eye-level, and we both called out as we saw a spray of water fly into the air.

‘They’re having a bath’, we said, and settled back to watch. When I looked down again, Mum was asleep.

On Friday, I had to leave to go home. I had had about three hours sleep in four days. I was bursting into tears over every little thing. I arranged for carers to be in the house for most of the time. I trialed some overnight adult diapers for when the carers couldn’t be there, because I didn’t want Mum getting out of bed when there wasn’t anyone to help her. I thought Mum would object because of the lack of dignity, but I think it’s a sign of how unwell she felt that they came as something of a relief, and they seemed to be comfortable and effective.

I sat by her bedside and held her hand.

‘I’ve got to go, Mum, but I’ll be back soon’, I said.

‘Don’t worry’, she said, ‘I’m getting better. You go home and don’t worry’.

And then I really did cry, which wasn’t very helpful.

‘Earlier on this week, I was laying here thinking that I was 83 and I’d had a good innings’, she said.

‘Mum, you’re only 82’, I said.

‘Oh!’ she said, and smiled one of those toothless grins that I’ve become so familiar with this week, ‘You’ve given me back a year, thank you!’

She thought for a minute.

‘Maybe I’m not ready to go just yet’, she said.

And so I left, and got on a train, and by the time I got to Bournemouth I got a call from the carer who said that she’d called the paramedics again and this time they were going to admit Mum to the hospital. I spoke to one of them, a chap called Alan.

‘Her vital signs are not bad, but there’s obviously something wrong so we’re going to admit her and see if we can get to the bottom of it’, he said.

I could have kissed him.

My train carriage wasn’t busy and so I spent the rest of the journey looking out of the window and being occasionally gripped by paroxysms of crying. It feels as if I am rebounding from one crisis to another, being pinged about like the ball in a pinball machine. I am encouraging the parents to think about getting a live-in carer, but Dad says having someone else in the house would drive him mad, and Mum only wants to do that if they can buy a bigger bungalow, which is completely inpractical – moving is stressful enough if you’re well. I feel as if they are one step away from disaster the whole time, and as if my whole life is on hold because I am trying to keep this little boat afloat by sheer willpower.

I get back to London, walk through to the kitchen, and see this.

The finches have been planting sunflower seeds, and this one has come into bloom while I’ve been away. And here I am crying again, because it is such a cheerful, hopeful plant, and I could almost believe that it’s looking through the window to welcome me back, and to tell me that everything will be well. And the cat comes down the stairs miaowing, and the buddleia that I was planning to cut back this weekend has a second flush of bee-covered flowers. I feel something in me that has been unanchored for days settle and grow still.

I will get through this, whatever it takes.


Bugwoman on Location – A Common Ground at Tate Britain

Dear Readers, the Tate has ‘form’ when it comes to installations that combine gardening with art. Who can forget the raised beds of ‘Empty Lot’ at Tate Modern, a most frustrating exhibit which missed a number of opportunities to illuminate the varied habitats around London. So, I was hopeful but not overly optimistic when I went to visit ‘A Common Ground’ on Monday. This is what the gallery says about it:

It seems like a lovely idea, but I too have ‘form’ when it comes to community gardens. I was treasurer at Culpeper Community Garden in Islington for several years, and I know that the idea of a pop-up community garden is almost an oxymoron – these places take years of slow growth to build up both the garden itself and the community that supports it. People need to get to know one another, and the plants need tender loving care to establish themselves.

And so it proved. Most of the beds housed plants that were not in the best of health. The poor old sweet peas had withered away to nothing. The large white butterfly caterpillars were having a delightful time and had eaten nearly all the cabbage seedlings to a stump.

Large White (Pieris brassiceae) caterpillars

Some plants were doing well, especially the ones in the greenhouse, where a lone shy young man was potting up some seedlings.

There were various forms of squash bursting forth, a homage to an installation called ‘The Squash’ by Anthea Turner, which takes place in the gallery itself. Someone wearing a squash on their head poses among the artworks, as we all gawp and take photos. What a job.  I cannot imagine how hot the performer has been during the last few weeks.

Hokkaido squash

‘The Squash’ by Anthea Hamilton

The raised beds themselves have a certain geometric elegance, but I can’t help thinking that runner beans would have been nice. Like so many edible plants they are elegant in their own right. As it is, the sweet peas are just not cutting it, though some broad beans are giving it their best shot.

Some plants are doing very well: there are some splendid hollyhocks and sunflowers.

There are a couple of beds which combine pollinator-friendly herbs and vegetables with plants such as verbena for the bees, and these are doing pretty well.

There are even fountains that are triggered by the human voice. I  wondered how these worked, but I think the idea is that you sit down for a chat and then  the fountain gurgles into life. My friend S and I were eventually loud enough to get one to work, and very exciting it was too.

But sadly there was no one for us to have a chat to. The young lad in the greenhouse didn’t want to talk, and that’s fine – not everyone who comes to a garden comes to socialise, and any community garden should allow for both the quiet and the extrovert. But there was nobody else. I suspect that it’s very different on Saturday when there are events (last week’s demonstration of Caribbean vegan cooking sounds particularly intriguing), but all in all I think the problem is intrinsic to the very nature of the project. Gardens take time and investment, and many gardeners wouldn’t want to spend time on something that will disappear at the end of October. This is a bit sad, as I’m sure this could be a very productive garden even in this period of time if it was looked after.

Also, community gardens are usually full of volunteers who live within walking distance, school children, pensioners, folk who have time to spare for whatever reason. The garden here could be the same, but I have a suspicion that by the time people get to know about the garden, it will be time for it to close.

I would have been fascinated to know a bit more about the kinds of fruit and vegetables that are being grown too: for example, there was a label for Yacon, a kind of tuberous South American daisy, but it was impossible to tell which plant it referred to, which was frustrating.

The questions that ‘A Common Ground’ ask are well worth considering. How does a garden bring people together? What can we learn from one another by growing and eating plants, side by side? What happens in those social interactions where people are working on a  common task? Unfortunately, my visit today makes me think that local people are not really engaged with this project, for all the reasons of time and location that I’ve mentioned previously. It frustrates me to see happy caterpillars munching on lovingly planted cabbages, and sweetpeas turned to brown paper for want of watering. My dad, who had an alllotment for most of his life, would have been horrified.

I shall pop back for a second look later in the year, just to see if things have gelled into something more coherent. But for today, this was a pleasant and interesting walk, nothing more.





Bugwoman on Location – A Dilemma

Dear Readers, here I am again in Milborne St Andrew. It’s fair to say all is not well with the parents – since I last wrote about what has been going on, Dad has been in and out of hospital for short stays twice. He is currently at home, though he insists that, while he was in hospital with pneumonia, Mum moved house to somewhere that looks exactly the same, with the same address and phone number. Apart from that he is fairly cheerful, but he is losing weight and is very frail and unsteady. I am trying to remedy this with a constant supply of ‘rocky Magnums’ – chocolate-coated ice cream bars with flaked almonds on the outside.

On Wednesday he took a tumble, but was rescued by a lovely neighbour with tremendous upper body strength, who was able to hoist him back into a vertical position.

Mum is stressed, depressed and increasingly forgetful. She abhors her new custom-made reclining chair (although it is doing wonders for her back) and has summoned the chair company by leaving a message to say that she hates the new chair, the new settee, and even Dad’s new chair, although Dad is actually very happy with it.  The technician is coming to have a look on Tuesday, and I just hope he’s wearing a tin hat. Although Mum might be little (and getting littler), she is fierce.

And so, you can imagine my delight when I sat on the bench outside their house to get a breather from all the excitement and noticed a wasp flying around my bare legs. I watched it idly, wondering how long I could linger until I was summoned again, and then I noticed another wasp. And another. I levered myself up  and had a look at the air brick in the wall under the bench.

Oh dear.


I have a lot of respect for wasps, and their role in the ecosystem. If you watch the movie carefully, you can see a wasp entering the nest on the right hand side, carrying what is either a grub or a lump of peach. I have watched wasps hunting for caterpillars on my sprouting broccoli, their eyes like searchlights. I’ve watched them tugging and pulling until the caterpillar loses its grip, and then fly off with the grub hanging from their undercarriage like a bomb.

In other words, if it had been my house, I would probably have left them alone.

But this is not my house. Mum had a very bad reaction last time she was stung by a wasp (many years ago), and is terrified of them. Although they were not coming into the house, their flight path was right across the area that Mum and Dad cross when they are getting into the car, and I could easily see one of them falling if a wasp flew near them. And so I called a local pest controller, who was there within a couple of hours, and who sprayed some insecticide into the nest.

‘Keep the windows closed for a couple of hours, because they’ll be cross now’, he said.

As well they might be, under the circumstances.

And I know this wouldn’t be a dilemma for many people because, for them,  humans come ahead of animals, especially where vulnerable family members are concerned. But I have often talked about how easy it is to exterminate creatures, instead of living alongside them, and there is something about the killing of an entire colony, with all its complexity and richness that makes me feel uncomfortable. If I had to make the same decision again I would still reach the same conclusion, but my heart would be as heavy as it was this time. Sometimes there is no right answer, just the least worst solution.

Back indoors, I gave Mum an Exotic Fruit Solero, which is flavoured with mango and passion fruit. This is not the healthiest food but at the moment, I’m just glad that the parents are eating something with lots of calories. Mum unwrapped it gingerly, gave it a lick, then another. She paused to consider the lolly for a moment.

‘Who’d have thought’, she said, ‘that at 82 I’d discover a whole new taste sensation?’

Mum and Dad’s current predicament has broken me open. I cry secretly when I see Mum and Dad’s former carer, who is regrowing her hair following chemotherapy, and who has the sweetest, most beautifully- formed head under her cap of fuzz.  I cry at the dead woodpigeon that I found in Mum and Dad’s garden, her eyes closed as if she was just asleep, and then I cry some more at the witless baby woodpigeon bumbling around on the lawn as if death were just a fairy story, and everything is going to live forever. And then I wipe my eyes and put my shoulders back, and get on with what needs to be done, like carers have always done, because there is respite in action. There’s something about making gravy or peeling potatoes or sliding a perfect pancake onto a warmed plate that soothes the soul, makes me feel as if I’m doing something to balance the scales that are tilting towards darkness.

I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but I do know that we need more Solero moments, more pancakes, more roast potatoes. We need the scent of roses and the cool softness of a breeze through an open window. We need fresh clean cotton sheets and the sound of jackdaws chuckling outside. These small moments of pleasure are what make the difference to a life, even if they aren’t remembered. Just because Mum and Dad’s short-term memory might be in tatters doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy things in the moment.




Bugwoman on Location – News from Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, last week I reported that my Dad had been in hospital for over a fortnight while I was on holiday. This week I rushed down to Milborne St Andrew, and Dad was at home.

The good news is that his ‘chest infection’ (actually pneumonia) is much better.

The bad news is that Dad isn’t really clear who anyone is, can’t find his way around the house, and thinks that his home is a new place that closely resembles where he used to live.

Sample conversation:

Dad: ‘That tree looks exactly the same as the one that was outside the old house’.

Mum: ‘What old house?’

Dad: silence

Mum: ‘This is the house we’ve lived in for 16 years, love. It’s the same tree’.

Dad: ‘If you say so’.

We call out the GP, who does a memory test on Dad. Dad does much better than we expect, but still badly enough to be referred to the Memory Clinic for a diagnosis. The doctor thinks that it’s not ‘classic’ dementia but a form of confusion brought on by the effect of not getting enough oxygen to the brain over a long period of time (because of the COPD) exacerbated by his recent pneumonia. COPD is the gift that just keeps on giving, and one lesser known effect is brain damage.

The doctor doesn’t think it’s going to get any better. The unstated conclusion that I’ve come to is that it will probably get worse. There might be peaks and troughs, and Dad might gradually come to feel more confident and relaxed in his own surroundings, so I’m not catastrophising, but it’s clear that things will need to change.

The doctor thinks that the options are residential care or a live-in carer. Mum doesn’t want either, but isn’t physically strong enough to cope with Dad if he needs help getting dressed or going to the toilet. Mum and Dad have always said that they want to be together in their own home if at all possible. So we’re going to investigate the live-in carer option. We are lucky that, as a family, we can scrape together the resources to even start to consider this.

I spend ten minutes in the garden, watching the bees riding the lavender as if each sprig was a bucking bronco.

We are lucky that Dad is such a stoical man – he takes each explanation of what’s going on with a surprised and suspicious scepticism, but is happy to sit in his recliner and take things as they come.  He is eating next to nothing, but can be tempted with creme caramel or anything with custard. There are long periods in the day when Mum and Dad are both snoozing peacefully away and I can get on with cooking and organising, or sitting in the garden with my camera. So often nature comes to the rescue. I am watching the bees and butterflies on  the buddleia when it occurs to me that one of these things is not like the others.

Hoverfly, possibly Eristalis pertinax

I think that this might be a drone fly, a type of hoverfly that looks superficially like a honeybee and probably gets some protection as a result. The eyes give it away, though – that line between them is indicative of a fly, not a bee. And for just a few minutes I’m immersed in something that isn’t care rotas or sorting out medication.

And then there’s a call from the living room and it’s back to that other real world, the one where people I love get sick and confused and cantankerous and infuriating.

I am stressed beyond anything I’ve known previously – I feel myself floating above some situations as if it’s not me at all. The first time I actually spoke the ‘Dementia’ word out loud I ended up crying all over the shop assistant in my local greengrocer. And yet, I also feel my heart opening. As I left on Friday I looked at Dad, with his hair all over the place like Sid Vicious, and felt such an overwhelming tenderness for him that all I could do was kiss him on the top of his head and tell him how much I loved him.

‘Love you n’all’ he said.

And I know that, whatever happens, he always will.






Wednesday Weed – Melancholy Thistle

Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)

Dear Readers, after two weeks in Austria I am back in an over-heated, parched London and find myself yearning for the fresh breezes of the Alps. So what better to do than to write about one of my favourite plants, the melancholy thistle (Cirsium heterophyllum)? It is true that this is not a southern plant in the UK, preferring the uplands of northern England (where it is known as the shaving-brush plant) and Scotland, but I have occasionally seen it in wildlife gardens in the Capital. Generally, it is found in cold and mountainous areas of Europe and Western Asia, and with its big, solitary flowerheads it is one of the highlights of an Alpine meadow. No sooner has it come into bloom than it is descended upon by bees, butterflies and flower beetles, who seem to swoon into its cerise embrace.

As my regular readers will know, my Dad became ill while I was in Austria, and I am heading off to Dorset to see what’s going on. It’s been a stressful time, and as at today (Sunday) Dad is still in hospital, and is very confused. So, you might think that a subliminal reason for picking the ‘melancholy’ thistle is because of my general mood. I had assumed that the epithet ‘melancholy’ came about because of the single, statuesque flowerheads of the plant, which may appear to slump lethargically when in bud,  but  Nicholas Culpeper viewed the thistle as a cure for sadness, saying that

the decoction of the thistle in wine being drank, expels superfluous melancholy out of the body, and makes a man as merry as a cricket; … my opinion is, that it is the best remedy against all melancholy diseases”.

It maketh the finches as happy as crickets in the autumn too, as they love the seeds. Plus, melancholy thistle has no spines. When I think back to those banks of flowers in Obergurgl, it fills me with a kind of joy that, every year, I have been there just at the right time to see the buds opening, and the creatures coming to feast. As I’ve grown older I’ve changed from wanting to skim the surface of a wide range of places to wanting to know them deeply, and it does my heart good to know where I might find the rose chafers, and the secret places where the fritillaries come to feed.

Rose chafer beetles (Cetonia aurata)  on melancholy thistle head

Apparently both the root and the leaves of melancholy thistle are edible, but the roots of all thistles are liable to produce flatulence, and the leaves are too prickly to eat raw. I’d be inclined to leave this one for the critters if I were you. However, the Speyside Distllery has been making some flavoured spirits using ingredients found in the Highlands, and to my delight they have one that includes melancholy thistle, along with

Scot’s Pine, Sweet Vernal-grass, Juniper, Rowan, Downy Birch and Aspen

My Dad used to be a distiller of Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin, and he is very unimpressed by the current trend for fancy flavours. Nonetheless I am much intrigued by such concoctions, although at 43% proof a bottle would last me a very, very long time.

Photo One from

Melancholy Thistle Gin. You’re welcome! (Photo One)

I have been considering which poem to use for this plant, and naturally many of them are Scottish – after all, the thistle is the symbol of that fine country. However, the question is, which thistle? While the melancholy thistle has the magnificent flower that we might expect, it is, as already noted, without thorns, and surely part of the symbolism of the Scottish thistle is that it is not to be trifled with. I have therefore, with regret, set Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’, and several works by Robert Burns, to one side, as I believe that they refer to the much feistier Spear Thistle.

However Ted Hughes, always a close of observer of nature, wrote a poem about thistles that somewhat hits the spot. I  suspect that even this is about a rather spikier thistle than the gentle Cirsium heterophyllum, but it is much too hot here in London to be particular.


Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Ted Hughes

How martial Ted Hughes sometimes seems! In so many of his poems, nature seems to be about nothing but scrapping and fighting. There is a lot of this, of course, but there is also a lot of co-operation and harmony. I prefer to think of the way that the melancholy thistles open to the fumblings of bees and beetles as being of benefit to both the insects and the plant, but Hughes is much keener on conflict. Ah well. Both our views are true, and they are not mutually exclusive. But just as Western society seems to see tragedy as more ‘real-world’ and more important than comedy, so the gentler aspects of life do not seem as worthy of celebration. I sometimes wonder how the concentration of the arts and media on conflict and destruction skews our psyches, and affects our view of the world.

And so, as a balance to the view of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’, here is one of my very favourite poems, which doesn’t mention thistles at all, but which somehow accords with my current mood. I am not a creationist, so in answer to the question ‘ Who made the world’ I would answer ‘ a complex interaction between forces’, but the close attention to the grasshopper, and the plea to be in the moment both appeal to me very much.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver


Photo Credits

Photo One from