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Wednesday Weed – Pomegranate

Dear Readers, I never know what’s going to turn up in the organic fruit and vegetable box that I get once a fortnight, so finding a pair of pomegranates this week was a real treat! They are a strange fruit in lots of ways: the only edible bit is around the seeds, so they’re quite a lot of work. I remember my Mum saying that when she was a little girl, a pomegranate was such a treat that she’d sit curled up in the armchair for hours, winkling out the seeds one at a time with a pin. She was born in 1935 so I imagine this would have been just after the war, and surely such a fruit would have been an extraordinary luxury.

I remember Dad saying that he was given a banana by Princess Elizabeth as she was then when she visited the East End. It looks as if she spent a lot of the post-WWII period doling out bananas, and in this story, someone actually gives some back. Dad maintained that they ate them with the skins on because they didn’t know any different, though he was always one for embroidering a story if he thought it would make you laugh. It makes me even more determined to eat the ones that are gradually darkening in my fruit bowl. And, in case you missed it, Nigella Lawson even found a use for the banana skins in her recent TV series, to the bafflement of many. I’m sure my Mum would have thought it was a good idea.

But anyway, back to the pomegranate. To my surprise, it’s a member of the Loosestrife family, Lythraceae, which gave us such stars as purple loosestrife. The name ‘pomegranate’ came from medieval Latin, and means ‘seeded apple’. The Latin species name, Punica granatum, led to the idea that the fruit originally came from the city of Granada in Spain, and also led to the name ‘grenadine’ for the pink syrup that was a trendy mixer back in the days when I was a gal (hence ‘pink gin’).

The shrub can grow up to 33 feet tall, but also can be turned into a Bonsai. I’d never seen pomegranate flowers, so here they are!

Photo One by By Sanu N - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Pomegranate flower (Photo One)

Photo Six by By Uwe Barghaan - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Even more excitingly, for me anyway, the word ‘grenade’ comes from the appearance of the fruit, and you can see why. Light the bit on the top and you’re away.

Actually, though, pomegranate comes originally from an area from modern-day Iran through to north-western India, though it has been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region for centuries, and has been farmed in Arizona and California. Thomas Jefferson had a pomegranate tree in his garden at Monticello in 1771, and the earlier settlers in the south managed to get some fruit from the tree. I suspect that it has always been a luxury: the fruit was found in the  Bronze Age Uluburun shipwreck, off the coast of Turkey, alongside perfume, ivory and gold jewellery, and where it is found in tombs these are usually of high-status individuals.

Pomegranates growing on a tree in Casa D’Oro, Venice

Pomegranates are having something of a resurgence at the moment, along with a rise in interest in ‘Middle Eastern’ food. In particular, I find myself falling over recipes that feature pomegranate molasses, and I can see why – it has an interesting sweet/sour taste that is more interesting than a lot of sugary ingredients. I have even had a drizzle over my porridge and yoghurt in the morning, which is the height of decadence! But those jewel-like seeds look so pretty scattered over savoury dishes that I can see why they’re a hit, and they also add an interesting crunch.

In Iran, pomegranates and walnuts are used, along with other ingredients, to make a fesenjãn, a kind of chicken stew flavoured with spices such as turmeric, rose, cinnamon and cardamom. Delicious!

Photo Two by By stringparts - originally posted to Flickr as Fesenjan, CC BY 2.0,

Chicken and aubergine fesenjan (Photo Two)

The pomegranate has also been embraced by Mexicans, and it features in Chiles en nogada, a dish in which the green of chilli, the white of the cream sauce and the red of the pomegranate seeds represents the Mexican flag. It is often eaten during the Mexican Independence celebrations of August and September. In the photo below it looks as if parsley has been used to provide the green colour, although the dish itself is supposed to feature green stuffed chillis. Go figure.

Photo Three by By Jessica Toledo - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Chile en nogada (Photo Three)

As you might expect for a fruit that’s been part of human culture for so long, there is a whole raft of folklore and mythology around the plant. In Greek legend, the pomegranate was thought to have sprung from the blood of Adonis, and Persephone’s consumption of the seeds while she was in Hades dictated how many months she had to spend underground. Even in modern Greece the pomegranate features in folklore: it is good luck to to be given a pomegranate as a gift when you move into a new house, and the dish kollyva which is brought as an offering to the dead contains wheat boiled with sugar and decorated with pomegranate seeds.

In Judaism, the pomegranate is one of the Seven Species, fruits and vegetables mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as part of the special products of the Land of Israel. It’s traditional to consume pomegranates at Rosh Hashanah because they are symbols of fertility, and this seems to be general: in countries from Azerbaijan to Armenia, China to India, the pomegranate means fruitfulness. In Armenia, which has a long association with the fruit, a bride traditionally smashes a pomegranate against the wall, with the scattered seeds ensuring that the marriage will be blessed with children.

Photo Four by By Tatevhovikyan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Pomegranate statue in Yerevan, Armenia (Photo Four)

Many Jewish scholars (and some Christian ones) believe that the fruit in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate, not an apple. In Christian iconography, the split fruit represents Christ’s suffering and death, and this is prefigured in Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate (1487).

Photo Five by By Sandro Botticelli - Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Detail from Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Pomegranate’ (circa 1487) (Photo Five)

And now, a poem.In fact, two poems.  Eavan Boland died in April last year. She is one of Ireland’s most important poets, and yet I hadn’t come across her before. There is so much to learn in our short lives. Below, I’ve included two of her poems. Pomegranate, because of today’s theme – it might help to know that Boland moved with her family to London in 1950, and had her first experience of the anti-Irish sentiment that was rife. The second poem, Quarantine, is one of those poems that makes everything stop for a moment. See what you think.

The Pomegranate
Eavan Boland – 1944-2020

The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed. And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and
the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.

Eavan Boland – 1944-2020

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Sanu N – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Two by By stringparts – originally posted to Flickr as Fesenjan, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Three  By Jessica Toledo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Four By Tatevhovikyan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo Five  By Sandro Botticelli – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Photo Six  By Uwe Barghaan – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Natural Navigation – How Do We Find Our Way Around?

The Mistletoe Tree in East Finchley Cemetery

Dear Readers, this week I have been wondering about navigation. Why is it that some of us seem to be naturally good at finding our way around, even in unfamiliar territory, while others seem capable of getting lost in within a hundred metres of their house? I was prompted to think about this last week when we went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery. We found an area that we hadn’t explored before, because it had been fenced off for maintenance, and very interesting it was too – look at the vistas through that Italianate Crematorium that had previously been inaccessible unless you were actually there for a service.

Anyhoo, on coming outside I somehow got turned around, and we wandered around vaguely (in the sleet I might add) until I spotted a tree with mistletoe growing in it. As far as I know this is the only mistletoe tree in the cemetery, and in fact the only one I’ve spotted in my ‘territory’. Once I saw it, everything fell into place, and I knew the way home.

It’s been shown that, in Western cultures at least, there are two methods of wayfinding: one that relies on landmarks, which is why you’ll get instructions such as ‘turn right at the supermarket, and then left at the flower shop’. The other relies on a ‘mental map’, which I think of as more of a top-down view, as if one were an eagle soaring above the land and noticing where to turn left and right. For a long time, it was thought that women naturally used the former, and men the latter, but more recent studies have shown that  most people use both methods to find their way around, though they often have a strong preference for one or the other. I am strongly biased towards the landmark method, probably because I often notice natural signs, such as the mistletoe tree, or particular things that strike me as unusual or interesting. A typical route around St Pancras and Islington Cemetery would sound something like ‘walk past the cedars of lebanon, go along the grassy path past the little pond where the crows bathe, left of the chapel, down the road past the dog roses, turn right at the pet cemetery and walk through the woodland graveyard, don’t miss the swamp cypress’.

Of course, if you don’t know what a cedar of lebanon looks like, you’d be better off with the kind of instructions that my husband might give, which would be much more of the ‘go straight ahead, turn left, turn right’ variety. He might also throw in something about walking north or south but then he is Canadian.

Which brings me to another thing. In a recent study, people from the Nordic countries were in the top ten in the world when playing a navigation game. There was a theory that this could because of Viking seafaring ancestry, when presumably people who could actually find their way to land would have been positively selected for, but a more likely explanation to my mind is that, from a very early age, Scandinavian children are out and about, cross-country skiing and orienteering and walking. I suspect that this might develop that ability to notice where you are in relation to where you started that is so important in a landscape that might, in winter at least, be almost devoid of landmarks. I am reminded, also, of the way that the Inuit question their children constantly to make sure that they are paying attention to their location.

But to return to this question of men and women navigating in different ways. Is this just a Western thing? And what is going on?

Anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan, from the University of Utah, is working with her colleagues and other scientists to look at societies in other parts of the world, and to determine whether there are sex differences regarding the ability to navigate. In two tribes, the Tsimane of Bolivia and the Twe of Namibia, there were no differences in the ability of boys and girls to point accurately to distant locations, and imagining being in one location and pointing at another. However, at puberty, girls in both tribes become much more anxious about physical dangers, and about getting lost.

This is borne out in the research of Sarah Creem-Regehr at the University of Utah. She found that Western women in an unfamiliar environment tended to roam less, to take less shortcuts and to return more often to familiar places than men. It seems that, almost universally, women are more cautious than men, and for good reason. I would love to see studies done on the navigational abilities and tendency to risk-taking of older women, however – I suspect that it would show that, post-menopause, women can be much more inclined to be bold and to take considered risks, at least while they have the health and the opportunity to explore.

To return to the Twe and the Tsimane, though, there is a twist – Cashdan found that although girls became more afraid of exploring their environment in both groups, it was only in the Twe that this led to a marked difference in navigational ability between the groups. The Twe in Bolivia live in dense jungle, and don’t tend to roam far anyway – the jungle is a dangerous place, and both sexes hunt, forage and fish in a relatively small area. The Tsimane in Namibia live on grassland, and the men travel long distances to visit family, while the women stay at home. The men therefore have greater navigational challenges, and continue to develop and hone their skills throughout their lives. The women are stuck at home waiting for some chap to turn up.

Interestingly, other markers for being good at navigation include having a good sense of smell – the olfactory part of the brain seems to vary in size with the hippocampus, which is where our locational sense ‘lives’. This is probably evolutionary – think of the salmon ‘smelling’ their way home, or the way that wolves home in on their prey.

So, it seems that navigational ability is something that is dependent not just on culture or sex, but on the opportunities that we have to test ourselves and to experience the world around us. I suspect that we all develop our own styles according to the things that we notice, be it plants and gravestones or houses or shops. One thing that does seem clear though is that we have to get out and notice things. Some scientists suggest that this is key to improving our navigational ability. Another technique is to look behind us often – for one thing you might spot a fox sitting on the path watching us depart, but it also helps our brain start to visualise our route for the way back.

One thing we definitely shouldn’t be doing is relying on our phones. One scientist, Dan Montello of UCSB,  who has been studying navigational ability has this to say:

‘“I’m fairly confident that regular use of map software impairs a person’s ability to wayfind on their own,” says Montello. “It certainly impairs cognitive map formation.” He believes that satnav and phone map apps are undermining our natural navigation abilities, going as far as to describe this as “technological infantilism”.

Plus there’s always the danger of walking under a car, or into a lamp post.

So, what do you think, readers? I know a lot of you do a lot of walking. How do you navigate, and has it changed? What advice do you have for the navigationally-deprived? What do you do when you get lost? Do you view GPS as handy, or the work of the devil (or somewhere inbetween, like most things?)

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January in the Garden

Dear Readers, the first day back to work after a fortnight off is always a little bit anxiety-provoking, at least for me. What will have turned up in my Inbox while I’ve been off, eating rose and violet creams and watching episodes of 1970s favourite ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ (don’t ask). But my Inbox turns out to blissfully free of crises (at least so far), and so I spend a few minutes actually in the garden. Not many though, as it’s starting to sleet, the wind is enough to blow your wig off and I don’t want to deter the poor hungry birds. Have a look at the bittersweet berries though! So glad I didn’t cut them back.

And at least now I know where the squirrels are hanging out. I interrupted one eating my grape hyacinth bulbs yesterday and s/he wasn’t the slightest bit perturbed when I banged on the window. They have that ‘who, me?’ look down to a T.

Next door’s shrubs are in full flower – the hebe has been going since May. Just look how windy it is! Very alarming. No wonder all the bees are staying tucked up in bed.

Not so the starlings though. They practically live in my garden these days, as my budget for suet pellets is blown every month. I have two whole sacks on order, but of course they’re delayed what with Covid, and the poor old Royal Mail struggling to keep up. However, I do have a final tub of live mealworms. This starling almost seems to know it.

And while I’m on the subject, spring isn’t really that far away – look at the buds bursting out everywhere! These are on my lilac, but nearly all the shrubs are starting to stir.

So, out I go into the cold and wet to pop out some mealworms onto the bird table. The scene is like something from Alfred Hitchcock.

But once I’ve put the food out, and they’ve got their courage up, it’s chaos for about three minutes.

And then it’s all gone. I just hope the suet turns up soon. Those starlings will be outside with placards if I don’t find something to feed them.

I-Spy Books – A Trip Down Memory Lane

Photo One from

I-Spy books from the 1950s and 60s (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I was a little girl I was obsessed with I-Spy books – they were a cheap and cheerful way of helping a child to pay attention, especially during a long, dull car trip. The idea was simple – each book had a variety of objects to ‘spy’, with different points according to how rare they were. If you managed to complete a book, you could send it off to ‘Big Chief I-Spy’ and would get a certificate and a feather. I had no idea that Big Chief I-Spy was an actual person, Charles Warrell, who had the original idea and self-published the first few books. He single-handedly managed all early communications with children, but his assistant Arnold Cawthrow took over when Warrell retired, in 1956, and continued as ‘Big Chief’ until 1978. The whole ‘Red Indian’ theme lasted until the early 1970s (Big Chief’s assistants were usually known as ‘Hawkeye’) when David Bellamy the botanist took over as the person who received all the completed books and the obsession with cartoon Native Americans was quietly dropped.

My personal favourite was ‘I-Spy Dogs’ – from an early age I could tell a Welsh Terrier from a Lakeland Terrier, a Norfolk Terrier from a Norwich Terrier (it’s the ears you know), and while I was an obedient little girl when it came to ‘not talking to strangers’ I was known to dash across a busy road, I-Spy Dogs in hand, to ask a bemused adult if their dog was a Sussex Spaniel (100 points!) My little brother much preferred ‘I-Spy Cars’, especially when we were out for a drive in the Ford Consul and he could note down the passing Humbers and Chevrolets. Strangely enough, I wasn’t that interested in the ones about plants and trees, coming to botany later in life, but I was fond of ‘I-Spy in the Country’ with its sheep and goats and tractors.

I am fascinated by some of the earlier titles. I imagine that ‘I-Spy in the Army’ might have been because of National Service – children then were probably much more familiar with people in uniform and army vehicles. You might look a long time to complete ‘I-Spy Country Crafts’ these days, sadly. And what on earth was in ‘I-Spy the Unusual?’ I’m sure that there was a whole social history of the era to be read in these books. And how about ‘I-Spy in Hospital’? I’m sure things have changed a whole lot, but what a good way to occupy a small child who was apprehensive.

In its heyday, there were half a million children who considered themselves part of the I-Spy ‘Tribe’. Some of the books had six print runs to keep up with demand. I remember it getting very competitive, and cries of ‘Mum, he’s cheating’ often emanated from the back of the car. But by 2002 the I-Spy books came to the end of the road. Published at this point by Michelin, it seemed that there was just not the demand anymore, probably coinciding with widespread mobile phone ownership and the rise of video games.

But wait! When I go onto the National History Book Society online shop, what do I find but some snazzy new I-Spy books? From 2016 Harper Collins has been releasing a series of titles, including ‘I-Spy Creepy Crawlies’. How I would have loved this when I was a child! It might even have prised me away from my Papillon and Pekingese obsession ( the Papillon was worth 70 points but every elderly lady had a Pekingese and so it was only worth 20).  One sign of the times is that there is an ‘I-Spy at the Airport’ (though it’s probably not so relevant at the moment). There is an ‘I-Spy Camping’ though, which might hit the spot at the moment. And how about ‘I-Spy Garden Birds’ for a locked-down child who is lucky enough to have a garden?

Photo Two from

One of the new I-Spy books (Photo Two)

I loved these books. They made me curious about all kinds of things, and once I’d gotten over my dog obsession I branched out into many other subjects. I am tempted to buy one of the books for nostalgia’s sake. Do you still send the books off once they’re completed, I wonder? And how has the point scoring of the afghan hound changed since 1969? I note that the rarest breed, the Shiba Inu, only counts for 20 points, which suggests that the point spread is much narrower than it used to be. Harrumph.

Photo Three from

I-Spy Dogs 2020 Style (Photo Three)

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two from

Photo Three from

A Misty Walk in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, what an atmospheric walk we had in the cemetery today! The freezing fog seemed to muffle every sound except the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays. The frost had touched the plants on the more open areas, turning this stonecrop into what looks like a mass of miniature cacti.

We decided to take a slightly different path from the one that we usually do – when there’s no view of the sky it seems perverse to take the route next to the North Circular Road with its constant traffic. So we passed this enormous mausoleum which is the tomb of Ludwig Mond, a German industrialist and chemist who developed a way of extracting nickel from its ore (called the Mond process). He was a benefactor of many scientific institutions, including the Royal Society. The tomb is based on the Temple of Nemesis in Rome, and is Grade II listed.

On we go. I love the underused, overgrown paths through some parts of the cemetery, like ‘Straight Road’ here. To the right, the moss has grown over something. I think it looks rather like a sleeping dog.

A sleeping moss dog?

We pass the grave of poor Percival Spencer, described here as an aeronaut – he was in fact an early adherent of hot-air ballooning. Legend has it that this tomb once bore the effigy of a balloon, but there’s no sign here. Spencer was the third generation of balloonists in his family, and made many cross-Channel crossings. He was the first person to fly a hot-air balloon in India in 1889, and subsequently passed his knowledge on to Ram Chandra Chatterjee, who was the first Indian to fly solo later that month. In the same year, Spencer was the first person to parachute safely in Ireland (one worries somewhat about the unsafe parachute adventures, but history has drawn a veil over those proceedings). After such an exciting life, Spencer’s end was decidedly earth-bound – he passed away from pneumonia at his home in Highbury, aged only 49.

Close by is this splendid headstone – there are a few of these monumental blocks in the cemetery, but none of the others have an artist’s palette on the front. Sadly, the wording is almost gone so I’m unable to tell you who was buried here. My husband thought that the palette was the cartoon figure of a man’s head smoking a cigar, and once you’ve seen it it’s difficult to see it any other way.

Further on I passed this rather cubist piece of tree surgery. I find all the planes and the way that the algae is shading the faces fascinating. The tree itself seems none the worse for the experience, and is already bursting with buds.

Then we pass another very fine mausoleum, this one with gold mosaics and a finely-wrought angel over the door. It’s the tomb of Letizia Melesi who, in 1913, was struck and killed by a taxi cab – this might have been the first road accident. One of the panels at the front shows the poor lady being helped to heaven by an angel while an alarmed taxicab driver gesticulates from his vehicle. The other panel shows Letizia’s husband, Gaetano, praying beside the tomb. All progress comes at a cost, for sure.

Photo One from

Photo One

Photo Two from

Photo Two

I think I’ve featured William Alexander Lamond before, but I never fail to be impressed by his statue. He looks almost as if he’s just about to step off his pedestal. He died in 1926, aged just 57, but his loving wife, Helena, lived on until 1961 when she was 95. Whenever I pass, he always has a bunch of flowers in his hand. Someone still loves him, clearly.

By now I’m thoroughly chilled to the bone in spite of the thermals, so we head for home.

But what is this, blooming by the side of the path? Did no one tell this plant that it’s the end of December? Well, this is winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans), introduced from Italy in 1806 and known from the wild since 1835. The little flowers are said to be strongly almond-scented, but there are too few of them, and it’s too cold for them to make much of an impression today. Still, if any bumblebee was foolish enough to stick her furry head outside for a quick nip of nectar, at least her search wouldn’t be totally in vain.

Flower of winter heliotrope

Photo Credits

Photo One from

Photo Two from

Christmas Day

Two Cedars of Lebanon at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, this was my first Christmas Day with just my husband and I, and no one else to care for or to worry about. At times like these, the sheer number of options could have been overwhelming, but as London is in Tier 4 as far as Covid was concerned, it made life a little less complicated. The main decision was whether to go for a walk in the cemetery before we opened the presents or afterwards. At first, I was all for sticking with my family’s tradition of having breakfast and then sitting around and opening the presents one at a time. But the day dawned so bright and cold that it seemed silly not to get out, especially as the cemetery was opening at 9 a.m.

Doing something new proved to be just the right thing. The empty chair where Mum used to sit has seemed to get more and more prominent over the last few days, and the weight of the past can become very heavy without any consideration of the future. As soon as we passed the Cedars of Lebanon at the entrance to the cemetery I could feel myself becoming a little lighter. There is something about the company of the dead that puts things into perspective: those ranks of headstones, each representing people who lived, were loved and died, reminds me that those who mourn are not alone, however much we might sometimes feel like it. Each death is a very individual experience for the people left behind, but it is also a universal one.

Of course, I go to visit ‘my’ swamp cypress. This time, I notice the rather elegant twist in the trunk.

Although the tree is now practically bare, there are still clumps of fine, feathery, copper-coloured leaves attached to a few of the outermost branches. I can really imagine this tree growing in a swamp somewhere, dripping with Spanish moss.

‘My’ swamp cypress

The last few leaves…

We walk over to Perimeter Road, where the noise from the North Circular Road is so loud that we can barely hear one another. But there are already flowers on the Cherry Laurel in one place, and well-advanced buds in another.

It has been a great year for yarrow, with many of the plants still in flower.

Every few minutes a car whooshes past, en route to a grave. I had never thought about how, for many people, this is part of their Christmas Day – they visit Granny’s grave, just as they used to go to her house or have her over for turkey and sprouts. In many cultures, the dead are included in celebrations – in China there are shrines to the ancestors in the house, and in Madagascar they go to visit the dead and tell them all the gossip while they unwrap and rewrap their bones. I suppose that this is our version, our way of not just remembering those who’ve gone, but somehow being with them. I am struck by the way that many of the people gathered are not sad, but are full of Christmas spirit and bonhomie, and this cheers me – maybe these people have integrated the sadness of someone’s passing into their lives, and are able to think of the good times, to share the happy memories.

I notice the squirrels and the jays looking for acorns that they buried a few weeks ago. The cold weather is making everybody hungry and in need of calories.

And as we pass a cypress-lined avenue, I am, as usual, stopped short by a strange animal perched on a headstone. What could it be?

Well sadly it’s not a baby owl, but a decapitated stone bird that used to hop along the top of the grave. It gets me every time.

And then it’s home, to open our presents, have a bit of lunch and for me to get peeling the sprouts. It does cross my mind that we’re having sprouts even though neither of us really like them, but then some Christmas traditions might take a bit more shifting :-).


Notes from an Open University Course – Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

Photo One by By Nanopixi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Qinngorput-Nuuk in Greenland (Photo One)

Dear Readers, regular followers will know that I have a particular bugbear about the way that the knowledge of indigenous peoples around the world is ignored when explorers and scientists descend on a community. Often, new plants and animals are said to be ‘discovered’ when the local people have known about them all along. The information that is held by communities about how things are changing in their areas is not considered as important as that gathered through western scientific methods. I can see that this is changing, and just as well.

This week we have watched two sets of documentaries on the BBC. One, ‘Operation Iceberg’, dates to 2012 and involves a set of scientists looking at how icebergs form and are broken up, and the impact of climate change. It features a host of favourites, including Chris Packham and  Helen Czerski. Nobody who actually lives in Greenland is interviewed, and their only visible presence is when an Inuit guide goes ashore onto the iceberg with the scientists because there are no fewer than five polar bears living on it. You would think that if anyone had been noticing climate change it would be the folk who live in Greenland, but the only ‘experts’ are flown in from the UK.

Fast forward to this year, and ‘Waterhole’, in which Chris Packham and Ella Al-Shamahi present a trio of programmes about an artificial waterhole created in the Mwibe reserve in Tanzania. Here they do at least interview the black Tanzanian guides, who know the animals as individuals, and understand their behaviour and history. Even so, they are on screen for a vanishingly small amount of time.

My current Open University module is on the Arctic, and so I have been learning about sea ice and polar bears and ocean currents and the albedo effect. But what has fascinated me has been the lack of voices of Inuit people in my own view of the North Pole. Why do I know more about the voyages of Elizabethan and Victorian explorers than I do about the people who actually live in the region?

Which brings me to TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge). In the last few decades, scientists have finally begun to understand that people who live in an area might have an understanding of its patterns that a person from outside would miss. The elders in many communities have an in-depth knowledge of the history of their worlds, often handed down from one generation to the next. There are four ‘strands’ of TEK:

Firstly, it is usually oral – it was passed between people living in close proximity. Western ‘knowledge’ is usually written down and is available for dissemination to a wider audience. This also emphasises the importance of understanding the local language – as we know, there are many words and concepts that are not directly translatable from one tongue to another.

Secondly, it is both local and context-specific – one Inuit population, for example, will have knowledge that is not transferable to another community.

Thirdly, it is that much over-used word, holistic – whereas science loves to pop things into categories (wolf, caribou, grass), indigenous knowledge more often focuses on the relationships between them. TEK is shared between members of a community, not ‘hoarded’. It is seen to be part of the social fabric of the society that generates it.

Finally, TEK is highly adaptive, and will change over time as circumstances and conditions change. Although this type of knowledge is labelled as ‘traditional’, it’s the ways of knowing that are often carried down through the generations, rather than the content, so that if the caribou change their migration route, or the sea ice becomes more treacherous, these details can be incorporated into the ‘knowledge base’.

For so long, the knowledge of indigenous people has been seen as ‘quaint’, interesting but not actually very useful. With typical Western arrogance we have assumed that we have nothing to learn. However, let’s have a look at some of the child-rearing practices that were used by Inuit peoples during the recent past.

In the dialects of Inuit, there are two words for teaching: ilisayuq and isummaksaiyuq.

Ilisayuq means ‘to lecture, to correct answers by drill, to invite students to memorise, to cause learning’. It is used for the kind of school-based learning introduced by teachers from North America.

Isummaksaiyuq, on the other hand, means ‘to cause thought’ – it is about encouraging the student to observe, to experiment, and to think about the problem at hand. Here are some examples of issummaksaiyuq:

  • Inuit children are questioned and tested by adults when they go on a journey. They are asked to point to the direction of home, to say whether they’ve ‘been here before’, to notice landmarks. Navigation in such a difficult landscape, where landmarks can look very different according to the time of year or the weather conditions, is key to survival, so these children are expected to pay attention from a very young age.
  • Children are woken early and told to observe the wind and sky conditions – this daily assignment would then be shared with elders and other members of the community. Gradually even very small children learn to understand what the likely weather conditions will be.
  • Instead of forbidding children from taking part in dangerous activities, adults explain what the likely consequences are, and let the environment teach its own lessons. Because communities tend to be quite small, there would often be adults who could keep a watching eye on children while appearing to be uninterested, illustrating the old saw about ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.
  • Children are not admonished and lectured, but they are questioned about their actions from a very young age. One common question to a small child who is misbehaving is ‘are you a baby’? If the child says ‘no’, then the consequences are clear – they shouldn’t behave like one. Interestingly, if a child says ‘yes’ and pretends to be a baby, the adults consider that she is growing and learning – she knows what the difference is, and what the advantages and disadvantages of each state are.

I find this fascinating, and it makes me think about how much the controlled, programmed childhood of many western children blunts their spirit of adventure and their ability to reason things out for themselves. I wonder, these days, if I would have been shunted from one ‘activity’ to another as a child, instead of being allowed to come home and ‘muck about’ in the garden, observing caterpillars and spiders and getting covered in dirt. I suspect that I would not be as curious about the world if more of my time had been spent being ‘organised’.

However, it’s also important to note that as Inuit societies are changing (all these examples are from the 1970s and 1980s), so is the teaching style – many young people, worried by what they see in their environment, are joining scientific research programmes: there have been projects around eider duck nesting and indigenous plants. The blending of scientific method and TEK seems to me a most hopeful amalgam, a way of helping two very different communities to understand one another and achieve synergy.

There is undoubtedly a long way to go before the people who live in the areas most affected by climate change have an equal seat at the table, but it seems to me that listening and valuing their perspective, including them in positions of real power and dropping our attitude of ‘we know best’ will all help to move things in the right direction.

New Scientist – Highlights of 2020 Part One

Title Photo from

Two Fairy Penguins at St Kilda Pier, Melbourne, Australia – winner of Oceanographic Magazines ‘Ocean Photography Awards’ 2020. The photographer is Tobias Baumgaertner (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, whilst 2020 has been in many ways the gift that just keeps giving, New Scientist has kept me fascinated and amused with its stories of wildlife and plants, both extinct and extant. This lovely photo of two Fairy Penguins (Eudyptula minor) seems so appropriate for this time somehow. Fairy Penguins (also known as Little Penguins) are, indeed, little – they only stand just over a foot tall. This pair would stand and watch the twinkling lights of Melbourne for hours, according to the photographer Tobias Baumgaertner. The Fairy Penguin colony at St Kilda Pier numbers about 1400 individuals, but the penguins in the photo wanted a few minutes away from the bustle of the colony.

And while we’re on the subject of photography, the world’s largest digital camera, which will form part of the sensor array at the Vera C.Rubin Observatory in Chile, was tested by taking the largest photograph every taken – this 3.2 gigapixel photo of a romanesco cauliflower. The camera is powerful enough to take a detailed photo of a golf ball 24 kilometres away, and will eventually be part of a project that will survey the southern sky for the next ten years.

Photo Two from

The largest photo ever taken (Photo Two) from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Now, if you go out for a walk during lockdown in the UK, you are more likely than ever to spot some of these most unlikely creatures – red-necked wallabies.

Photo Two by By Noodle snacks ('s Wallaby) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Red-necked wallaby (Notamacropus rufogriseus) (Photo Three)

Wild wallabies have been spotted on the UK on at least 100 occasions during the past decade, according to a study by Holly English at University College Dublin. Originally from Eastern Australia and Tasmania, these animals were popular in collections all across the UK, and have thrived when they’ve managed to jump over the fence. There is a population of about 1750 individuals on the Isle of Man, a breeding population on Inchconnan Island in Loch Lomond which were set free by their owner in the 1940’s, and English believes that there might also be wallabies breeding in Cornwall and the Chilterns.

The native habitat of these wallabies is surprisingly not that different from the warmer, wetter parts of the UK (and of course everywhere is getting warmer and probably wetter with climate change).

There was also a small population in the Peak District, but these died out in about 2009 following big winter storms.

Generally wallabies are not thought to present any problems with regard to native UK species, but they have become invasive in New Zealand, so one to watch I think.

You can read the whole article here.

And finally, Johan Hermans, a botanist from Kew Gardens thinks he may have found ‘the world’s ugliest plant’ in Madagascar. The orchid lives in deep shade in the leaf-litter of a forest in the south-eastern part of the country.  Gastrodia agnicellis’s species name, which means ‘little lamb’, refers to its woolly root, and the idea that the flower looks a bit like a lamb’s tongue.

Hermans expected the flower to smell unpleasant – many forest-floor orchids are pollinated by flies, and so smell like decaying flesh. However, this one has ‘a fresh citrussy smell’, and Hermans says that we still don’t know how the plant reproduces. It spends most of its time underground and only emerges to flower and disperse its seeds. Let’s hope that this strange plant, which grows only in a tiny area of the south-eastern forest, where deforestation and burning for agriculture are a constant threat, will survive.

Photo Four by Rick Burian. Taken from

Gastrodia agnicellis (Photo Four)

Photo Credits

Title Photo from by Tobias Baumgaertner

Photo Two from  by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Photo Three By Noodle snacks (’s Wallaby) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Four by Rick Burian. Taken from



Winter Wonderland 4

Title Photo by By User:Fir0002 - Own work, GFDL 1.2,

Rainbow Lorikeet (Title Photo)

Dear Readers, enough of all this snowy bleakness! In winter there’s often rain and sometimes the sun blasts through and creates a rainbow for us. So today your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to name the birds shown below, one for each colour of the rainbow. And to be extra mean, I am not going to give you any names, though I hope they won’t too difficult. They come from all over the world, so fingers crossed there will be something here for everyone.

As you will remember, I started the quiz  on the 19th December and will finish on Christmas Eve (24th December) – answers for the whole quiz will need to be with me by 5 p.m. UK time on Monday 28th December.

If you missed yesterday’s quiz, just search the blog for ‘Winter Wonderland’ and this should bring you up all parts of the quiz. I am also going to include the links for the whole quiz on Christmas Eve, just in case you are bored after eating mince pies and watching It’s A Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time.


Rainbow birds

Photo Twelve by By FWS - USFWS website, Public Domain,

Question 12

Photo Thirteen by By Almir Cândido de Almeida -, CC BY 2.0,

Question 13

Photo Fourteen by By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Question 14

Photo Fifteen by Bernard Spragg. NZ from Christchurch, New Zealand, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 15

Question 16

Photo Seventeen by Dawn Scranton from Cornwall, Ontario, Canada, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 17

Photo Eighteen by _paVan_ from Singapore, Singapore, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Question 18

Winter Wonderland 3

Title Photo 3 from

Siberian Tiger tracks (Title Photo 3)

Dear Readers, it looks very unlikely that we’ll have a white Christmas this year, but even so I thought I’d see how good we are at identifying animals from the tracks that they leave behind. As usual, just match the photo to the animal!

As you will remember, I am doing a short quiz starting on the 19th December and finishing on Christmas Eve (24th December) – answers for the whole quiz will need to be with me by 5 p.m. UK time on Monday 28th December.

If you missed yesterday’s quiz, just search the blog for ‘Winter Wonderland’ and this should bring you up all parts of the quiz.

Winter Footprints

Which animals left these footprints? Match the photo to the animal, so if you think the footprints in Question 8 were left by an otter, your answer is 8) A)

A) Otter

B) Badger

C) Hare

D) Fox

Photo Eight By DooferKiin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Question 8

Photo Nine by © Copyright Michael Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Question 9

Photo Ten by © Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Question 10

Photo 11 by

Question 11