Dear Readers, I have always felt a bit ambivalent about cut flowers. There’s something a bit wasteful about them, and about the fact that they’ll soon be dead however careful I am. However, this week there was a special offer on British-grown flowers via Abel and Cole, and in the midst of my revision frenzy I couldn’t resist. They do say that there’s only so much willpower that you can call upon at any one time, and clearly all of mine is going on keeping me in my seat and forcing me through the endless things I seem to have to get into my brain. There’s no room for saying ‘no’ to antirrhinums and sweet william and cornflowers and night-scented stock, and my second-hand jug seemed to be just the thing to stick them in. See what you think.
I read a lot about growing ‘cutting gardens’ and am always very impressed, but as my garden is north-facing, it isn’t always full of blooms (though I have to say that the mock orange (Philadelphus) is doing really well this year). My sunny front garden feels a little too small to raid, especially as it seems that the bees need all that they can get at the moment. I know some people who grow flowers as well as food on their allotments, which seems like a splendid idea, but requires a bit too much time for me to look after at the moment.
The ‘British Grown’ bit was important for me – I do appreciate that flowers grown in places like Ethiopia contribute to the local economy, but I’m never sure how much the actual growers get (though if you know of any companies that seem ethical do let me know). And then there’s the air-freight bit, which freaks me out (I do work for a climate-change charity after all). But all these things are a balance, and in these difficult times I would never judge anyone for wanting to bring a bit of colour to their lives. In the summer, though, it’s well worth seeing what’s available from closer to home. I love my flowers, and this week they have certainly hit the spot.
What cheers you up when you’re up against it? In addition to flowers, I could mention chocolate, a new knitting project, a walk around the garden or a new episode of the Great British Sewing Bee (or my new secret vice, Glow-Up). As far as the TV shows go, I love watching people being creative, and I love how the UK programmes generally show people being collaborative and caring rather than in-your-face competitive. I find it comforting, and sometimes surprisingly moving, old softie that I am. There is something very inspiring about ‘ordinary’ people creating extraordinary things.
Anyhow, back to the stomata and the turgor pressure and the transpiration. Roll on next week….
Dear Readers, I strongly suspect that one of the side effects of living through the pandemic has been a rise in agoraphobia (literally ‘fear of the market’, and usually expressed in terms of being afraid of crowds, wide-open spaces or even just leaving the house). In the past few days I have talked with several people whose loved ones are now terrified of going outside the front door. These were people who were previously adventurous and confident, but now experience panic attacks, dizziness, a feeling of being out of control, breathlessness, sweating and disorientation, even for a brief trip to the shops.
I’m no psychologist, but observing my poor Mum in her last years brought out a few common factors for me. Being housebound, or at least spending a long period of time indoors seems to shrink not only our physical but our mental worlds, to the point where we only truly feel safe inside four walls. Couple this with social isolation and you have a recipe for anxiety. Then, there are the added problems of hearing and sight deterioration which happens as we get older – if we are going out regularly we may adapt to these changes, but if we are confined and then suddenly broach the outside world, it can all feel too much. Next, there is a genuine fear of falling, made worse by feeling giddy and by having lost fitness over months of walking no further than the fridge or the end of the garden. And finally, there’s the fear of infection and of the possibility of getting sick, especially as so much of the world has gone back to ‘business as usual’.
Personally, I have long had a fear of being in situations that I couldn’t escape from, and that has definitely gotten worse. Just before Christmas, we went to see a play in the West End, and passed through Leicester Square tube station. It was absolutely rammed, to the point that I was afraid that there would be an uncontrollable crush as there wasn’t room for people to get off the escalators. I could feel myself beginning to panic in a way that I probably wouldn’t have done pre-pandemic -after all, I’ve lived in London all my life and being surrounded by people is nothing new. Fortunately nothing happened, but it’s a long time since I’ve been so afraid.
It feels to me as if there has been a great mental forgetting of the cost of Covid in human terms, but for many people, their bodies haven’t forgotten, and are bearing the fear and anxiety that it’s no longer acceptable to express openly. Personally, I hate that we have had no real, official reckoning with what happened, no acknowledgement of the history that we lived through, and of the price of it for so many of us. There can be no true moving into the future without weighing up and acknowledging what’s happened, the mistakes that were made, the things we learned, and what needs to be put in place for the future. For those still mourning a loved one, or suffering from Long Covid, or still sheltering, the pandemic has ongoing consequences. And for those who still don’t feel ‘normal’, who sometimes panic in open spaces, who hyperventilate in crowds, who still automatically do ‘the dance of social distancing’, I know how you feel. I would be intrigued to know how you’re doing, lovelies. Do you know people who are struggling? Are there things that you notice about yourself that have changed? Or is it just me?
Dear Readers, I wanted to share with you the sad news of the death of one of the blog’s most regular contributors, Fran Freelove. For anyone who did my weekly quizzes, Fran and Bobby Freelove were the ones to beat, and very rarely was this accomplished, even though for the past six years Fran has been undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer.
Fran and Bobby were sisters, but her son Antony told me that it was actually Fran who normally did the quizzes. Her range of knowledge was astonishing – everything from plants and insects to songs and birdcalls were all taken in her stride. She was always generous to anyone who did manage to beat her, although this was a rare occurrence indeed.
But there was so much more to Fran than her knowledge of the natural world. Although we never met, I always thought of Fran as a kindred spirit. We agreed on so much. Here is Fran writing about the foxes in her garden, for example:
We’re extremely lucky to have three, Betty, Bass and BonBon, we haven’t seen our fourth one, Stump ( he only had half of his brush) for quite some time. They do get fed and they’re very good at time keeping! We have cameras so we can watch them, it’s quite amusing the antics they get up to. With their mortality rate being so high we must do all we can to look after these beautiful creatures.
Like me, she was often horrified at the way that people treated the natural world, and enjoyed trying to make things better. And how I loved her sense of humour too!
You are so right Bugwoman. We too have collected rubbish for the nearly four years on our daily walks, we hate to see our beautiful countryside spoilt by other peoples thoughtlessness. If everyone just did a little bit wouldn’t it be a nicer place. We’re always surprised about the number of Red Bull cans, it obviously doesn’t ‘give them wings’ enough to put them in a bin. Litter picking can be quite therapeutic we find.
And here is Fran, feeding her extremely lucky tadpoles…
We feed ours with the tadpole foods you can get, early and late stage, quite expensive but they seem to like it. When they come up to feed don’t you just love their little faces. 😀
And she and Bobby had different opinions about frogs:
You have touched on one of my most favourite subjects, frogs. Whilst i read your post avidly it has to be said Bobby was the total opposite, they give her the heebie jeebies. During the season i often get a phone call with her panicking at the end of the phone because she’s found one in her garden. While she actually locks herself in her house i have to go and rescue the little treasure and take it back to my pond, good job we only live four doors apart. I think they are the most amazing little creatures so i never mind adopting yet another one. My pond is right under my bedroom window and the sound some nights of the frogs singing is wonderful.
We had the same attitude to pesticides too.
We totally agree with Anne on the use of pesticides, we would not dream of using them, and we’re lucky enough to have foxes and hedgehogs as well as a vast array of birds. Our gardens are healthy and full to brimming. As we’ve said before, everything is here for a reason.
Fran had been commenting on the blog since 2017, but the first time that she even mentioned that she was undergoing treatment for cancer was in 2020.
We too very much enjoy your posts. It’s so important to be involved with nature, i’ve (Fran), been battling cancer and am now, after two major ops, masses of radiotherapy now in fortnightly chemotherapy. To be outside is so important surrounded by all the lovely things, we so love our walks and it definitely helps take your mind off things.
And I mustn’t forget to mention Fran’s faithful cat Toby. Here is Fran talking about her cat.
They truly are one of the best companions, throughout my illness there are days when i have to spend days in bed, he will not leave my side and lies on the bed with me even on lovely sunny days when i know he’d much rather be outside.
Between 2018 and 2020, I had seen the decline and death of both my parents, and Fran was such a comfort to me, even though she was going through surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy herself. She was such a kind and generous woman, and I will always be grateful for her insight and empathy. Here is Fran after I posted about Mum and Dad going into a nursing home:
You have done this purely for the right reason and that is the welfare of your parents. You have always done everything possible for them so you have absolutely nothing to reproach yourself about. We remember when our father went for respite care for a while what a huge weight it was off our shoulders to know someone was there 24-7 for his needs. I’m sure your mum will soon adapt to her new surroundings and it sounds like your dad will be fine. We wish you and your parents all the very best and we’re sure we’re safe in saying so does everyone who reads your post and feels like they have been on this journey with you.
And here is Fran after my Mum’s death in 2018.
We were so very sad to hear of your mother’s passing. A difficult time for you and your dad but a gentle release for her. Your mum will still be with you, just in different ways, you have some wonderful memories to look back on which we know will help you through the coming times. take care xx
A blog is a strange thing. I never met Fran, and yet my world was always a happier place knowing that she was in it. My dream when I started Bugwoman was that it would create an online community of people who cared about the natural world wherever they lived, and Fran was so much part of that. I’d like the finish with the first comment that she ever made on the blog, back in 2017. I would have loved to have Fran and Bobby as my actual neighbours too, but I will always think of Fran whenever I see a fox in the garden, or a frog in the pond. Farewell, my friend, and heartfelt condolences to Bobby, Fran’s sister, Antony, her son, and to her other family and friends. I am holding all of you in my heart.
Hello Bugwoman, my sister and i thought we must comment on your blogs, we found you quite by accident some while ago after i had major surgery. We adore everything to do with nature and wildlife and we can’t wait to read your brilliant blogs every week, so informative and you have such a lovely way with words. We walk every single day through our local woods whatever the weather and there is always something different to see. You sound so much like us we’d love you as a neighbour, Fran and Bobby.
Dear Readers, today is the start of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations here in the UK, and between 1.06 p.m. and 1.15 p.m. there was said to be a good chance of seeing the planes that made up the celebratory flypast. The Red Arrows display team was involved, along with various Spitfires, Hurricanes, a Lancaster Bomber and a wide variety of helicopters.
I’m not really into the whole Jubilee thing. I’m really glad that people are finding a reason to celebrate and be happy, to have fun and to enjoy themselves. Goodness knows we deserve it after the last few years. I also know that the Queen is a hard worker, though so are the people who worked on Covid wards or wore themselves out delivering parcels or exposed themselves to the virus while they were driving buses and I don’t see them getting a flypast. I look around at people plunged into poverty, people with Long Covid, people worried about their jobs and their electricity bills and their rent, and it all feels a bit bread and circuses. And where is the reckoning for the whole Covid fiasco, with its strong whiff of corruption and one of the highest death rates in the world? I am still too sad, and too tired, and frankly too angry to be putting up bunting and pretending it didn’t happen. If that sounds curmudgeonly, so be it. Regular readers won’t be surprised.
Having said which, I do love a good flypast, in spite of the shedloads of carbon involved. And so I sat on the front step with my camera and my binoculars trained on the sky. I had my ears wide open for the rumble of engines.
Well, not quite tumbleweeds. Next doors’ cabbage palm is flowering, and you can smell the sweet blossom from right up the street. Combined with my lavender, which is just coming into flower, it makes for a heady brew, and the bees love both of them.
It feels as if pretty much the entire street has taken the opportunity to go away on holiday for the week. it’s so quiet that I can hear the wood pigeon cooing away on the television aerial opposite.
The green alkanet is still flowering, though it is a very untidy weed, and there is more cuckoospit on the lavender than I have ever seen. The buddleia is more or less aphid free though, which makes a pleasant change from last year when the honeydew rained down on the wheelie bins and made them very attractive to wasps.
And then, finally, I hear a rumble. Is it a World War 2 bomber? Is it a Spitfire?
I rather think it’s an Airbus.
And so I have no idea where the flypast went but the airspace above East Finchley remained serene, and I toddled back indoors to get on with my maths revision for the exam on 13th June. There’s another flypast planned for Sunday. Let’s hope it has a better sense of direction.
Dear Readers, buying me a book can be very hit and miss, as my poor husband has discovered over the past twenty years. Either I’ve already read it, don’t want to read it, or it’s just a little bit off of the hub of whatever I’m interested in at the time. I sometimes feel like one of those children who is fascinated by horses for twenty minutes, just enough time for the grandparents to get the toy stable for her birthday, unaware that by bedtime she’s already changed her passion to dogs. Hey ho. But for once I really loved this book – it has a surprising selection of unusual poems about cats, along with the ones that I already knew. And it seems very appropriate as our little cat Willow has been a bit in the wars just lately, and that makes me appreciate her even more.
Willow in a patch of sunshine
Firstly her blood pressure has gone up, and we are now on the maximum dose of the drug that we use – hypertension can be dangerous in cats, causing blindness amongst other things. Fortunately her readings are ok at the moment. People often ask me how on earth you measure blood pressure in a cat, and the answer is by putting the cuff around the tail. Who knew? Not me for sure.
And now her weight is going down. I suspect that she wasn’t feeding properly while we were in Canada – she often goes off her food while we’re away. We had someone coming into feed her because she hates other cats and so a cattery is out of the question, but I think she gets lonely. Hopefully her weight will go up again now we’re back.
For a while there she was yowling her head off during the night (just what you need when you’re jetlagged) but fortunately she’s settled back into her routine. Cats love their routines (or at least mine does) and she gets very cross if we aren’t in bed/on the sofa/ available to groom her at the specified times. She has us extremely well-trained but every so often we do something radical like go out or stay up late, which she doesn’t approve of. Plus, for two years she’s had people with her all the time. Nobody being around must have been an awful shock.
And now for a couple of poems. This one is by Marge Piercy, better known for the novel ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, which I devoured as a young woman, but she is also clearly a fine observer of cats.
The Cats of Greece by Marge Piercy
The cats of Greece have eyes grey as the plague. Their voices are limpid, all hunger. As they dodge in the gutters their bones clack. Dogs run from them. In tavernas they sit at tableside and watch you eat. Their moonpale cries hurl themselves against your full spoon. If you touch one gently it goes crazy. Its eyes turn up. It wraps itself around your ankle and purrs a rusty millenium, you liar, you tourist.
This poem, by Thom Gunn, is so well-observed. I love the way that the cats fight and decide when enough is enough.
Apartment Cats Thom Gunn
The Girls wake, stretch, and pad up to the door. They rub my leg and purr; One sniffs around my shoe, Rich with an outside smell, The other rolls back on the floor – White bib exposed, and stomach of soft fur.
Now, more awake, they re-enact Ben Hur Along the corridor, Wheel, gallop; as they do, Their noses twitching still, Their eyes get wild, their bodies tense, Their usual prudence seemingly withdraws.
And then they wrestle; parry, lock of paws, Blind hug of close defense, Tail-thump, and smothered mew. If either, though, feels claws, She abruptly rises, knowing well How to stalk off in wise indifference.
And my mind turns to the inevitable. This is so poignant and fresh that it gets me every time I read it. I love the conversational tone of Billy Collins’s work. You might want to skip it if you are missing an animal who has died.
Putting Down The Cat
The assistant holds her on the table, the fur hanging limp from her tiny skeleton, and the veterinarian raises the needle of fluid which will put the line through her ninth life.
‘Painless,’ he reassures me, ‘like counting backwards from a hundred,’ but I want to tell him that our poor cat cannot count at all, much less to a hundred, much less backwards.
And finally, although this one is also sad, there is something about the unexpectedness of it that makes me pause. I love the last stanza, so unexpected and yet so true. I love Jane Kenyon’s poems. She always makes me think.
The Blue Bowl BY JANE KENYON
Like primitives we buried the cat with his bowl. Bare-handed we scraped sand and gravel back into the hole. It fell with a hiss and thud on his side, on his long red fur, the white feathers that grew between his toes, and his long, not to say aquiline, nose. We stood and brushed each other off. There are sorrows much keener than these. Silent the rest of the day, we worked, ate, stared, and slept. It stormed all night; now it clears, and a robin burbles from a dripping bush like the neighbor who means well but always says the wrong thing.
Dear Readers, for the past few days I’ve been hearing the wheezy calls of young starlings as they chase their parents around the garden begging for food. There doesn’t seem to have been the enormous influx that there has been in past years, when I’ve been worried that the neighbours will complain about the racket, but numbers seem to be growing steadily day by day. As these wide-eyed innocents gaze around, wondering why all the other birds have flown away and failing to notice a creeping a cat, I feel a particular kinship with them as I, too, am starting to venture out after two years of lockdowns and being careful.
Today, for example, I am off to the theatre to see ‘Straight Line Crazy’ at the Bridge Theatre. It’s about Robert Moses, the man who tried to redesign New York, and the lead role is played by Ralph Fiennes, so it should be good. You can have a look at the link below.
But I find myself a bit anxious. After so long avoiding crowds, I’m going to be in the middle of one, for two hours and fifty minutes. I don’t think it’s so much about Covid (after all, I’m triple-vaxxed and have actually had the disease) as it is about social contact. I feel as if my world has shrunk over the past few years, and to ratchet it open is actually a little painful, like going back to the gym after a long break. My trip to Canada helped, but somehow getting back to ‘normal’ at home feels more difficult.
Still, I am a great believer in not letting our worlds become smaller if we don’t have to. It feels like finding a balance at the moment. I am still wearing a mask on public transport, and will do so in the theatre, as much to protect others as to protect myself. I do think that the current wave of covid has whistled through the UK, but I also think that there are new variants waiting in the wings. I do intend to get back into the world, but I also want to be prudent. I would love to hear what’s happening where you live, and how you’re negotiating any return to the new normal. In the UK I have the distinct feeling that the pandemic has been declared over and we are all just trying to work out what the best thing to do is, which will vary widely according to circumstances.
On a more personal level, we have a weeks’ worth of Away Days coming up shortly. This will involve actually meeting people in person, and I fear that my social skills will have atrophied while I’ve been happily interacting on Zoom. There are people in my wider team that I’ve never met in the flesh, and the thought of discussing work-related stuff with them for the best part of three days is frankly a bit overwhelming. And being an introvert, the thought of ‘fun’ activities fills me with horror. It’s not that I don’t like being with people, it’s just that with lots of folk all having Fun I often feel like the odd one out – I’m much better getting to know a small number of people well. I crave meaningful connection, and I find that hard to achieve in a big group. But I am trying to have an open mind, and to not let my anxiety get in the way. I intend to take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time. I imagine there will be things that are enjoyable and stimulating, and things that are rather less so, but at the very least I will learn about my colleagues and about myself, and that’s no bad thing. Is anybody else negotiating a return to face-to-face activities? How are you doing? Is it fun, or do you want to crawl back to bed and pull the covers over your head? Or, like the young starlings, are you emerging happily back into the light?
Dear Readers, I like to think that I’m a well-organised person, but a trip to the garden centre is usually enough to see me coming home with something completely random that I’ve spotted. This week it was a winter honeysuckle shrub – I remember watching the bumblebees feeding on one in February last year, and so I decided that it would be a good addition to the garden. Now it just has to stop raining long enough for me to actually plant the poor thing.
I have also taken advantage of the Royal Horticultural Seed Scheme this year. Seeds are collected in the various RHS gardens, and you can send off for up to 15 packets for a mere £10 if you’re a member. There’s no way that I could use a whole 15 packets, but I shall be sharing my seeds around. I’ve got a nice combination of natives, such as cow parsley, honesty and wild carrot, and some rather more unusual plants.
Honesty (Lunaria annua) (Photo Two)
Wild carrot (Daucus carota) (Photo Three)
One such unusual plant is this Colour-changing Tobacco Plant (Nicotiana mutabilis), where the flowers start white but gradually change to pink.
And how about this Large Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora)? It will be interesting to see how this does.
Large Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) (Photo Five)
I seem to have also bought some Hairy Foxglove (Digitalis ciliata) seeds – this plant is smaller and more delicate than the Large Yellow Foxglove. I see a lot of foxgloves in my future, especially as the ‘normal’ foxgloves that I planted last year have probably self-seeded all over the place. Clearly I need a country estate rather than a suburban back garden.
Hairy Foxglove (Digitalis ciliata) (Photo Six)
Ooh, and before I forget, I also have some seeds for this cyclamen (Cyclamen mirabile). I find that Cyclamen do ok in the garden, so I thought I’d have a bash at another species to complement the Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum that I already have.
Cyclamen mirabile (Photo Seven)
Anyhow, I am fully expecting to have more seeds than I know what to do with, so I will be up to my ears in seed trays for the next few months. I will keep you posted on my progress, which has historically been rather hit and miss. My plan is to improve the shady, woodland part of the garden, which is lovely in spring but then rather sparse, so that will be my focus for 2022. Let’s see how I get on! And let me know if you have any particular plans for your garden/pots/house plants this year.
Dear Readers, when I was growing up we had a variety of pets – a cat called Fuzzy, a dog called Spock, and a blue budgie called Fella. Fella lived in a cage on the sideboard for the whole of his life – we feared that if we let him out, either one of the other pets would get him or we’d never be able to get him back. My Mum remembered another caged bird that had escaped and had been chased around the room to try to recapture him until he’d died of fright. So Fella was permanently incarcerated in a cage about the size of a small suitcase.
As a child, I don’t remember him seeming to be unhappy. He loved his millet, and would chirp away to himself. But now and again he would go into a frenzy, squawking and flapping his wings, as if remembering what it was to fly. Feathers and dried droppings would go in all directions, and this was usually a cue to change the sandpaper on the bottom of the cage and generally tidy him up.
Fella must have died, but I don’t recall when – he didn’t come with us when we moved house when I was fifteen, so it must have been before then. I do remember that as I’d grown up, I started to have an aversion to keeping birds in cages – it seemed such a sad and limited life, such an imposition. We had the chance to enjoy the bird, but they got to do so little of what they had evolved to do. What depth of frustration was behind Fella’s ‘mad half hours’ as we used to call them?
And I was reminded of this again when I read this article about wild budgerigars in Australia. After the droughts and bushfires of the past few years, there has been a bumper wet season, and the birds are gathering in flocks up to 100,000 strong to drink, feed, pair up and make nests in the old red gum trees that they rely on (budgies are cavity-nesters, so need dead wood to nest in).
Steve Pearce, the photographer, describes how the sheer number of birds causes the air pressure to change, and the ‘whoosh’ as they fly past.
What a rich and varied life these small parrots must lead! Of course, there are risks from hawks and other predators, from climate change and habitat destruction, and yet I have an inkling that any caged bird would prefer to take their chances living as evolution has designed them to do.
Hawk and budgerigars – Photo by Steve Pearce
We yearn for contact with nature, and yet so often we want it on our terms. When I was older and had money of my own, I kept reptiles and amphibians for a while. Sadly, you learn how to care for these creatures, with their complex needs, by trial and error, and it didn’t take me long to realise that my error could easily result in the death of a lizard or a frog, and so I stopped. Plus, where did these animals come from? Some may have come from breeders who were more experienced in the ways of animal husbandry than me, but how many were illegally harvested from the wild?
I think there has been something of a shift in the whole idea of pet keeping – more people take on rescue cats and dogs, and people who keep other animals get better advice about what their pets need. And it isn’t about loving them – I loved Fella, and my reptiles, and it didn’t give them a better life, because I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t take the time to find out. Our sense of entitlement about the natural world, the idea that it is here to serve us and that that is its only value, is at the root of so much of what is wrong, from climate change to factory farming to the abandonment of ‘lockdown pets’ now that people are going back to work. I applaud that so many more people are thinking about these questions, and are considering other ways to be in relationship with the natural world. A change of attitude can’t come soon enough.
Photo by Steve Pearce
And if you would like to actually see the budgerigar murmuration, head over to this link to see it all happening….
View of the sunset from our window at the Shrubbery Hotel
Dear Readers, I have already said goodbye to Somerset once, but here we are again, still sorting out my Aunt H’s house. A lifetime of 93 years gives ample opportunity to accumulate ‘stuff’, especially when you are interested in family history and local history and all matters church-related. And so we headed down to Broadway this morning to sort out the kitchen and to prepare for all the paperwork that will need to be signed tomorrow. While John went off to collect the keys, I had a chance for a walk around the garden. I would say a ‘final’ walk around the garden, but clearly that would leave a hostage to fortune.
The foliage on the shrub below is gradually turning scarlet, and there is a fine crop of berries, but what on earth is it? I would have said some kind of berberis, but those long fruits are confusing me somewhat. Let me know what you think, gardening people!
There has been a lot of judicious pruning in the garden and it’s looking in much better shape than it was.This Viburnum is in full flower and I could smell its sweet scent from ten feet away. What a boon to a winter garden this plant is! I wonder if I could squeeze one in.
The white periwinkles have come back, having been strangled by the bramble. I love their pale, star-like flowers.
There is a fine Hawkshead fuchsia, another plant that I’ve been thinking about trying – in fact I might nick a cutting and see how it does. I’m sure Aunt H would have approved.
And the cyclamen are in flower. I love the way that they carpet the ground under the shrubs, to be replaced by the snowdrops and primroses and crocuses in the spring.
Whatever happens to the house, I doubt that the garden will be a priority for anyone – the garden is large, the cottage is small, and at the very least I imagine someone will want to extend. Even if they don’t they will probably want to change the garden into something else, as people always do. I hope that they give it a year so that they can see what’s already there, but folk are in such a hurry these days. It makes me think of what might happen to my resolutely idiosyncratic garden when we move, or when I die – no one with small children will want a massive pond, and I suspect that the days of the inconvenient whitebeam and the prickly hawthorn will be numbered too. But if this year has taught us anything it’s that the future is out of our control. Who knows what will happen? It’s certainly not worth worrying about.
As I go through Aunt H’s belongings I am struck by her frugality, and how much it chimes with the mood today – the desire to recycle, to reuse, to save things ‘for a rainy day’. There’s a jar full of bottle tops. There are plastic Stork margarine containers, used and reused over and over again to store soup and stews for freezing. I find jars of chutney from ten years ago, and boxes full of buttons. There’s much to learn from a generation that had to make things last and was reluctant to waste things. If we were all a bit more like Aunt H our beaches might not be full of plastic bottles and crisp packets and wet wipes. I’m pretty sure that Aunt H never utilised a wet wipe in her life, and if she had I have a suspicion that she’d have washed it and hung it out to dry somewhere.
Back in our hotel room, I watch the sun go down, and realise how rarely I allow myself to do such a thing. Tonight, the sun is painting the edge of the clouds with a light as sharp as one of Aunt H’s knives. She had knives for everything, most of them past their best, all of them kept in case they’d be needed again. It is hard, putting aside the remnants of a life. But our things are not us, though they sometimes tell our stories. Aunt H trod more gently on the earth than most of us, though she also trod on the toes of those who didn’t adhere to her standards of behaviour. Like all of us, she was complicated. She drove me to distraction on occasion, but I miss her, and so do many other people. She has left a hole in the village and church community that it will be very hard to fill.
Dear Readers, it’s taken eighteen months, but on Saturday we finally said goodbye to my Dad, Thomas Reginald Palmer. We were blessed with one of those glorious days that Dorset does so well: soft sunlight on green fields, the glow of old stone, finches singing in the hedgerows and a great calm over everything.
The church had been dressed for the harvest festival, and the flowers looked as if they were illuminated from inside.
Dad’s sisters arrived and I showed them to the grave. I hadn’t seen them since the start of the lockdown, and I think for them Dad’s death hadn’t been real until they’d seen the headstone. I left them to spend some time with Dad on their own. How hard it is to lose someone of your own age, and because Dad had moved to Dorset they hadn’t been able to see him as much as they would have liked. But how much time is enough, when someone you love is gone?
The service itself went in the blink of an eye: I managed to deliver my eulogy with only a few tears, something that I don’t think I could have done if the service had been closer to Dad’s death. We listened to some Spanish guitar music, to ‘The Lark Ascending’, and to the Celtic Blessing
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
May the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
And then there was home-made cake and sandwiches, and a lot of memories shared. Lots of people came from the village and it was lovely to catch up with people’s lives. I wondered if this would be the last time that I’d come to Dorset – all the tasks related to Mum and Dad are now done – but Dorchester and Milborne St Andrew are so imbued with their spirit that I think I’ll still come to visit, to see my Dorset friends and to enjoy this beautiful part of the country.
Before we headed home, I walked out to the grave on my own to say goodbye, and God bless, to Mum and Dad. What remains for me, now, is an immense stillness, filled with sadness but also with so much love.
Thomas Reginald Palmer 5th December 1935 – 31st March 2020.