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Travelling Home

Mum and Dad on their wedding day 61 years ago

Dear Readers I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the last things. During this past year I have watched so many things fall away from my parents, but these  events are rarely marked because we don’t realise that they are final at the time The last time that Dad was able to do the Guardian Quick Crossword. The last time that Mum was able to enjoy solid food. The last time that Mum could walk, or go to the toilet on her own, or enjoy ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The last time that she said my name.

When I last reported on Mum and Dad’s progress, they had just moved into a nursing home, and Mum in particular was raging about what she considered her incarceration. It was a dreadful time. We didn’t have the care in place to send her home, and she was so ill that no amount of care would have been enough, but she was determined not to settle at the nursing home. On one occasion she called the police to get her out. She fought with the staff about everything from taking her medication to having a bath.

It is no exaggeration to say that I was in despair, though I was also secretly proud of her. She has a long tradition of being defiant. If there was a complaint to be made at a restaurant, or if an unfortunate scammer rang up to try to get her credit card details, she was ready for the challenge. One man who insisted that he was from Sky Television and wanted Mum to divulge her bank account number ended up calling Mum a ‘very nasty woman’ and putting the phone down in high dudgeon. Given her track record, there was no way that my mother was going ‘gently into that good night’.

Gradually, she got to know some of the nurses and to accept care from them. But it wasn’t long before Mum was sick again. She has an ailment called a pseudo-blockage, in which the whole of her digestive system comes to a halt, causing nausea, stomach pain and bloating. Sometimes this is a result of another disease such as cancer, or diverticulitis, or Parkinson’s disease, and sometimes it’s just a result of old age. Mum had five days in hospital, at the end of which time the hospital said that they could do nothing more for her, and that she was too frail for any investigative tests. She was sent back to the nursing home, and I went to visit her.

I saw one of the carers who had previously tried to look after Mum when she was at her feistiest.

‘She’s like a different woman’, said the carer. ‘She’s totally prepared to let me look after her now’.

‘Is that a good thing?’ I asked.

The carer squinted and considered.

‘No, ‘ she said. ‘Probably not’.

I went in to see Mum. Her head was bent to one side like a bud on a stalk. She was complaining about a head ache, and said that her arm hurt, and her neck hurt.

The nurse gave her some oral morphine. They were planning to use a morphine patch if Mum’s condition came back, which the hospital had assured them it would. And so, without even noticing, we were now into palliative care, which treats the symptoms of the severely ill whilst recognising that they will never get better.

Mum was still fairly lucid, but she was in pain. The doses of oral morphine came closer and closer together. There was talk of a patch that released morphine into the blood stream.

At one point, Mum opened her eyes and said

‘Someone is helping me’.

‘Who, Mum?’ I asked. I wondered if it was her mother, dead at 64 years old of a heart attack.

‘I don’t know’, said Mum, and closed her eyes again.

When I left Mum, I said ‘I love you’, as I always do.

‘I love you’, she said, and then, as I got to the door, ‘I love you’, again.

On Monday I get a call telling me that the pseudo-blockage has come back, that Mum is in increasing pain and that they are going to start Mum on a syringe driver that releases a regular amount of morphine directly into her bloodstream. The nurse tells me that this usually indicates that we are talking about weeks of life left, not months. It could even be days, though it’s difficult to say for sure.

On Wednesday I jumped onto the train to go to Dorchester to spend a few hours with Mum.

Mum hasn’t really eaten solid food since mid-July, and her face is returning to the planes and angles that it had when she was a young woman. Her skin is stretched thin over her cheekbones, and her cat-green eyes have a kind of febrile light, when they are open. Her mouth has fallen in and the nursing staff are using big, lemon-scented cottonbuds impregnated with glycerine to keep her lips and tongue from cracking. They wash her, and offer her milk which is the only food left that she can tolerate. They are like handmaidens caring for an elderly priestess. There is something stately about Mum now, something ancient as if carved out of stone.

At first, Mum is groaning, and Dad is trying to interpret the noises that she is making. The nurses come in to replace her morphine syringe and gradually the groaning stops. When Dad goes for lunch, I have a chance to sit and hold Mum’s hand.  I see her take three or four breaths and then pause for what seems an interminable time before taking the next one. I can  see the vibration of her labouring heart beneath her nightshirt.

People talk about a dying person ‘letting go’ or ‘giving up’, but it seems to me that what is going on is a tussle between the different parts of person, with some systems closing down and others wanting to hang on. It is complicated, this business, and different for everyone. It seems like hard, private work.

It is surprisingly quiet in the room – no nurses, no television, just the sound of birds in the tree outside. I tell Mum that I love her, that she is surrounded by so much love. I tell her that my brother and I will look after Dad if she’s not around. I tell her that my brother and I will look after one another too.

She squeezes my hand, though it could just be a spasm.

I tell her that I’m going to feel pretty bloody silly if next time I come in, she’s running around the room.

I cry a bit. And then all is peaceful again.

A week ago, Mum said ‘I love you’.  She said it twice. These might be the last words that I ever hear from her, because I sense that she is labouring away in some place too deep for words. But whatever happens next, those words will be enough.

 

Wednesday Weed – Winter Daphne

Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’

Dear Readers, I hope you will indulge me this week – I have a cold and am feeling a bit sniffly and sorry for myself, so I thought I would write about a plant that couldn’t be closer to home. I have a Daphne in a pot right next to my kitchen door, and when it flowers in January the delicious scent wafts up every time I go out to top up the bird feeders.

Daphne odora is native to China but soon spread to Japan and Korea.It grows best in acid soil, hence its being confined to a terracotta pot in my garden. The leaves are evergreen, and in my variety they are gold-edged. The plant is a member of the Thymelaeaceae, a large and varied family of some 898 species including lacebark trees and paper bush (Edgworthia). Daphne has a reputation as a delicate, short-lived garden plant, at least in the UK – it can grow into a substantial shrub, but generally has a life of only 8 to 10 years. Mine is fairly happy after five years in its pot, and I am keeping my fingers crossed. However there is a legend that says that if you tell another gardener that your Daphne is doing well, it will die, so please close your ears to my boasting.

Photo One by Miya [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Daphne odora in flower (Photo One)

This plant really is all about the perfume. Its Korean name means ‘thousand-mile scent’, and its Latin species name means ‘sweet-smelling’. Even my little shrub can make me stop in my tracks when it is in full flower.According to the A Wandering Botanist website, the following legend explains the plant’s Chinese name:

According to an early Chinese herbal, a monk fell asleep below a cliff on Lu Mountain (Lu Shan) in Jiangxi Province. In a dream he smelled a fragrance so strong and memorable that he recalled it clearly when he awoke. He climbed up the mountain to find the source of the odor, finding Daphne odora. He called the plant “sleeping scent” (shuixiang). which has changed over time to the similar-sounding name lucky scent (ruixiang). 

But not everything about Daphne is sweet. All species of Daphne are poisonous: the sap may cause skin irritation, and the berries (if they appear) may, according  to the Poison Garden website

‘…. cause vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain and a burning sensation in the mouth. Larger doses add to these shivering, dilation of the pupils, convulsions and damage to the oral passages and the intestine’.

Interestingly, the sap was used to give young women rosy cheeks as it irritated the skin.

There is one recorded case of Daphne poisoning in a child, from 1887, and this related to a four year-old eating the berries of Daphne mezereum or spurge laurel. In 1950 a seven year-old was taken ill after eating some of the leaves. Generally the taste of the berries is too acrid to encourage much ingestion, though they do look rather like redcurrants. My little shrub has never produced any berries, but here are some on a Daphne mezereums so that you can see what they look like.

Photo Two by Jeffdelonge [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Daphne mezereum berries (Photo Two)

The name ‘Daphne’ comes from the jGreek legend of Daphne and Apollo. Daphne was a water nymph, who was pursued by Apollo. Just before he caught her, she appealed to her father Poseidon, who turned her into a laurel tree (Laurus nobilis). The Greek word for laurel is ‘Daphne’, hence the general confusion. Here we can see Daphne transforming into a tree in her haste to get away from Apollo. Women generally came off worst in any encounters with the gods of antiquity.

Photo Three by By Architas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70138441

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini (1622-25) (Photo Three)

I rather like this more modern take by  Iris Le Rutte in Oldenburg, Germany.

Photo Four by Anaconda74 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

‘Daphne im Wind’ by Iris Le Rutte, 2011 (Photo Four)

And for our poem this week, here is a piece by the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950). I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with her poetry: I am not that struck by this piece (although it obviously fits our topic of the week), but see what you think.

Daphne

Why do you follow me?—
Any moment I can be
Nothing but a laurel-tree.

Any moment of the chase
I can leave you in my place
A pink bough for your embrace.

Yet if over hill and hollow
Still it is your will to follow,
I am off;—to heel, Apollo!

And yet, I never fail to be moved by this one. I think it sums up the rage that often accompanies death, and is so rarely expressed.

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the
world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Miya [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Jeffdelonge [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Photo Three by By Architas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70138441

Photo Four by Anaconda74 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons

Bugwoman on Location – Walthamstow Wetlands

Dear Readers, Walthamstow Wetlands is the largest urban wetland in Europe, and opened to the general public earlier this year. I have been eager to visit it, but wanted to pick a time when it wasn’t too crowded. What better day, then, than a grey blustery November day? There are no less than eleven reservoirs here, and so we decided to concentrate on the southern part of the reserve, walking to the Coppermill Tower past the East Warwick reservoir, and then looping back past Reservoir 1.

The Engine Room cafe and shop

The reserve is still an operational Thames Water site, providing 3.5 million people with water every day. However, it is surprisingly peaceful. It is also home to two listed Victorian industrial buildings, and there are many pieces of paraphernalia relating to the site’s main purpose – moving water from A to B. The Engine Room (above) housed the pumping machinery relating to the reservoirs, and is now a cafe ( I can recommend the orange polenta cake), interpretation centre and shop.

Further into the reserve is the Coppermill. It has the most extraordinary Italianate tower attached to it, which served no earthly purpose that I  could see other than being decorative. The mill was powered by the Coppermill stream, and between 1808 and 1857 it produced the power to turn copper ingots into pennies and halfpennies. In the fourteenth century it was used to grind corn, in the 1670’s it produced gunpowder,in the 1690’s it rolled paper, and during the 1700’s it was used to work leather, and generate linseed oil. In the 1850’s the mill was purchased by the East London Water Authority, and used to pump water during the building of the reservoirs. These days, its milling and pumping days are over, but it is still used as an operational hub for Thames Water.

The Coppermill

But what, you might ask, of the animals? Walthamstow Wetlands is a prime spot for moulting  tufted duck, for example; over two thousand of them choose the reservoirs as a haven during this vulnerable time of the year. I always loved the way that tufted ducks dive with a wake of bubbles, and bob back up to the surface like corks.

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

The site is also home to a sizable proportion of North-Western Europe’s northern shoveler ducks. These are such handsome birds, especially the drakes with their mix of russet and bottle-green, and their golden eyes. They are such easy ducks for the beginner to identify too, with their over-sized bills, which they swish through the water as they sieve out the tiny invertebrates that they feed on.

Northern shoveler (male ) (Anas clypeata)

Male and female shoveler duck

There are also, of course, some of the usual suspects. Coots are already fighting over territory, though you’d think with all these reservoirs to choose from there would be plenty of room. Canada geese graze beside the more formal, raised reservoirs. They look particularly splendid silhouetted against the sky.

The increasingly common Egyptian geese also like this area – a little family wandered over to us to see if we had anything in our pockets, the male uttering his characteristic wheezy call.

A mute swan drifted up the Coppermill stream, and reminded me of the time that I was walking to catch my train to work at stupid o’clock. I heard the sound of rustling wings, looked up, and seven mute swans flew overhead, just above the rooftops. I was transfixed. Sometimes, nature can turn an ordinary day into something with an almost mythical quality.

Walthamstow Wetlands is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for herons too – it has one of the five best heronries in the country. I saw many herons flying past, but the nests, which are enormous, are abandoned at this time of year. I must make sure to pay a visit in the spring though. Young herons look more like dinosaurs than almost any bird I can imagine.

The heronry on the island in Reservoir Two, surrounded by cormorants

 

At this time of year, the heronries are largely home to cormorants. Up to 100 pairs breed every year, down from 300 pairs in the early 2000’s. This is not a bird much beloved by anglers, and neither is the heron. On the other hand, the chaps (and they seemed to all be chaps) who were sitting in their olive-green tents and dipping their fishing rods into  Reservoir One seemed to be a peaceable lot, not much given to getting annoyed about any avian competition. Long may this happy state continue!So all in all I was extremely impressed by Walthamstow Wetlands. I saw a lot of things that I didn’t manage to photograph, including an extremely friendly goldcrest who was working the needles of the gorse bushes beside Reservoir One, and a flock of long-tailed tits in the same area. But there is so much more to see! There are reputed to be kingfishers everywhere, plus as the winter goes on all kinds of waterfowl will drop in. There are water rail ( a ‘bogey bird’ for me, inasmuch as I have heard it many times but have never actually seen more than a few red toes before they disappeared into the reeds). And there are sometimes bearded tits. Who could resist? I shall make a return visit to Walthamstow Wetlands very soon.

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bearded Tit (Panurus biarmicus) (Photo One)

Completely Unapologetic Plug

I would like to recommend ‘Birdwatching London‘ by David Darrell Lambert as an excellent guide to the many places in the Capital for birdspotting. A great resource whether you live here or are just visiting. I would also like to put in a plug for the Natural History Bookshop, a tremendous online shop for all things nature-related, from books to moth traps to microscopes.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday Weed – Japanese Anemone

Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis)

Dear Readers, many of the gardens in East Finchley, including my own, are in the final stages of the flowering year. I have spent the afternoon cutting back the greater willowherb (and getting covered in the fluffy seeds in the process), and next week the buddleia will finally get its demi-annual pruning. But one plant that is absolutely busting out all over East Finchley is the Japanese anemone. Its big single flowers are a final source of pollen for pollinators, and the plant looks delicate and graceful. I have a great fondness for the white varieties, but the plant comes in all shades of pink as well. It doesn’t mind poor soil and, like many other members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), it will tolerate dappled shade.

Japanese Anemone comes originally from China, but has been naturalised in Japan for many years. Indeed, it belies its sylph-like elegance with the belligerent nature of a heavyweight boxer, and, once established, can spread by a proliferation of suckers. The RHS list it as one of their ‘thugs’, meaning a plant that will require judicious management if it is not to take over.

The plant was first described in Carl Thunberg’s Flora Japonica in 1784. It was introduced to the UK from China in 1844 by the plant hunter Robert Fortune, who spotted it popping up between the gravestones in a cemetery in Shanghai. I can imagine that this ethereal plant brought a touch of late-autumn beauty, and looked exquisite against the reddening foliage.

Photo One by By Abraham Jacobus Wendel - book by H. Witte and A J Wendel: Flora: afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van boomen, heesters, éénjarige planten, enz. voorkomende in de Nederlandsche tuinen, Groningen: Wolters, [1868]., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53895628

A painting of Japanese Anemones by Abraham Jacobus Wendel, 1868 (Photo One)

Whilst the Chinese Anemone (Pulsatilla chinensis) is one of the Fifty Essential Herbs of Chinese Traditional Medicine, I can find no mention of Japanese Anemone being used medicinally. Nor can I find anyone who has tried to eat them – the plant has a reputation for being poisonous, but most sites that I’ve looked at suggest that it is merely unpalatable rather than being positively toxic. Maybe this is one of those plants that can be loved for its beauty alone.

And for my poem this week, here’s an excerpt from ‘Sentenced to Life’ by the Australian writer Clive James. James has leukaemia and COPD, and has been writing valedictory poetry for the past few years. An experimental drug treatment has bought him some extra time, and he has been extraordinarily prolific, writing everything from a translation of Dante to book reviews, and this latest collection. I won’t quote the whole poem (in line with my preference for not taking bread from the mouths of living poets), but in this verse he gets to the heart of things.

“Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known

The name for Japanese anemones,

So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone

Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees

Without my seeing them. I count the bees.”

Photo Two by By Schnobby - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19091330

Japanese Anemone seeds (Photo Two)

Photo Credits

Photo One by By Abraham Jacobus Wendel – book by H. Witte and A J Wendel: Flora: afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van boomen, heesters, éénjarige planten, enz. voorkomende in de Nederlandsche tuinen, Groningen: Wolters, [1868]., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53895628

Photo Two by By Schnobby – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19091330

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – An Update from Milborne St Andrew

Dear Readers, on this very day last year Mum and Dad had their 60th Wedding Anniversary Party, and what a great day it was! This year, however, the celebrations were rather more subdued.

Mum has been in hospital for six weeks now. Well, more accurately, she’s been in ‘hospitals’ – the County Hospital twice, Wareham Community Hospital once and now she’s in Blandford Community Hospital. When I saw her after my week in Monterey I was shocked at how much weight she’d lost. She had her elegant cheekbones back, but at a cost – the doctors have been treating Mum for a blockage/pseudo-blockage/infection (take your pick), but the outcome has been that Mum has not been able to eat solid food for all this time. The fact that someone dropped and broke her bottom dentures didn’t help. She looks about a hundred and ten years old, as people do when they don’t have their teeth in, but her sense of humour and feistiness are in fine fettle.

For example, since she has been in hospital she has been asked SIX TIMES if she wants a Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is known as a ‘DNR’ and is attached to your medical records. It means that if you die, no one will attempt to try to revive you. Mum replied that she would like to be revived, thank you very much.

‘There’s nothing wrong with me except for this blockage thing’, she said, ‘and I want you to resuscitate me if you can. I’m not done yet’.

But every time she changed ward or hospital, she was asked again, sometimes several times. The last time she was absolutely furious.

‘Are you expecting me to pop off at any moment then?’ she asked the consultant, who was surround by a penumbra of junior doctors with clipboards.

‘Oh no’, he said, as the others chorused the same response.

‘Then why do you keep bleeding asking me?’ she said. ‘I know that this might not be your choice, but it is mine’.

And so they slunk away.

Mum has been a fighter all her life, from her birth as a 2 lb 12 oz premature baby in 1935 through heart attacks and depression and COPD and arthritis and all the pains that flesh is heir to and more, and she ain’t about to cave in now. She wants to be home, with Dad.

Which brings us back to the anniversary.

You might remember me telling you that Dad seems to be much more confused lately than he has been in the past. Someone from the Memory Assessment Clinic came out on Tuesday, replicated the tests that his doctor had done, and found that he had got worse (well, I could have told them that). But  he has long periods of lucidity, when he does know who people are and what is going on, and at hospital visiting time he gave Mum her Anniversary card. His writing is terrible (I come by my scrawl honestly), and it isn’t helped by the peripheral neuropathy in his hands, and his stroke. But he had written

‘To my only wife and girlfriend, I love you forever’,

and he struggled out of his wheelchair to give her a series of kisses while the carer and I made ourselves scarce.

When we got home, I walked around Dad and Mum’s garden while the wind blew and the rain came in horizontally, and pondered what to do. Mum is currently unable to walk, and until she can make it from bed to the toilet to her chair, she won’t be able to come home – the bungalow is just not set up for a wheelchair. Meantime Dad is particularly confused at night, when he is likely to wake up, discover that Mum isn’t there and ring everyone he can think of, even if it’s 3 a.m. And so my brother and I are trying to manage the situation, to keep everyone safe while retaining their right to make their own decisions, to head off disasters at the pass and to deal with totally unexpected disasters as they crop up.

But the big lesson of this whole experience has been to try to learn when to push and when to accept, when to plan and organise and when to go with the flow. The flowers in the garden bend with the wind, and so must I.

At 6.30 a.m. earlier this week I was rudely awoken by a magnificent grizzled patriarch in his underpants, all ready for his  shower. The trouble was that the carer wasn’t coming until 8 a.m.  and Dad won’t let anyone else help.

‘I’ll just sit here’, he said, plonking himself down in front of an open window.

‘Dad you’ll freeze there!’ say I from my bed. ‘Why don’t you go and sit next door and I’ll make you a cup of tea’.

‘I’m alright here’, he says, as the wind tousles his hair. And then the lure of tea works its magic.

‘I think I’ll go and sit next door’, he says.

So I spring up, shut the window, whack up the heating and make him tea.

‘I’ll just put this blanket here in case you get cold’, I say.

‘I won’t get cold!’ he says. But I notice that he’s wrapped up in it twenty minutes later. The trick is to say nothing.

And eventually the 90 minutes passes, and the carer comes in, and dad is spruced up for another day. He has chosen navy trousers and a navy, yellow and red-striped teeshirt, and he looks very handsome, if I say so myself. I am trying not to concentrate on the fact that he’s dropped ten inches off his waist size in the past eight months in spite of eating voraciously. I have a call logged with the GP to talk about that, but at the moment, as Dad reclines the chair to get comfortable for another episode of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, all is well.

Sometimes there are moments of grace, of stillness, of ordinariness when I can stop and actually feel what’s going on. There are moments of horror, but also moments of the most tender care, the most profound love. I feel held in the embrace of everyone who has anything to do with Mum and Dad, from close family and carers through to neighbours and friends and the wider community. So many people stop me on the village street to ask me how Mum and Dad are doing. So many people are helping. There are so many small kindnesses that don’t feel so small to the person on the receiving end.

Someone said to me that looking after the elderly was a bit like looking after toddlers.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Except that one day a toddler can’t do something, and then the next day they can. With my parents, one day they can do something, and the next day they can’t’.

But with that stripping away we get closer and closer to what’s real, what it’s all about. At the heart of it all, at the end of it all, there’s a man in a wheelchair kissing his wife of 61 years, just like he did when he was a young blade and she was a shy girl of 22. At the heart of it all, there’s love.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day 61 years ago

Wednesday Weed – Goldenrod

Goldenrod (Solidago sp, probably canadensis)

Dear Readers, I’d been noticing this member of the daisy family growing in swathes alongside the railway line from Dorset to Waterloo, and was interested to come across it again in Trent Park in North London. Then, I saw some in the US during my recent visit to Monterey Bay. Goldenrods are largely native to North America, and are a family of some 120 species which look remarkably similar to one another, and may sometimes hybridise. In the UK, Canadian goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is a popular garden plant and I would guess makes up a large part of the wild population here, though there is a native goldenrod too (Solidago virgaurea).

Goldenrod in the UK is largely a plant of wasteland and railway embankments, thriving on the bright sunlight and shallow soil. It is extremely popular with pollinators, who seem to love the racemes of tiny yellow flowers. The nectar produces a clear and spicy honey when not mixed with nectar from other plants.

Photo One by By Ivar Leidus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Cryptic Bumblebee (Bombus cryptarum) on European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) (Photo One)

Goldenrod is sometimes blamed for causing hayfever, but this is more likely to be the result of ingesting the pollen of ragweed (Ambrosia sp.) which blooms at the same time in late summer. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, and the plant is largely pollinated by insects: ragweed is wind-pollinated, so the pollen is light. However, handling the plant can cause skin irritation, and a 1998 report  suggested that goldenrod (along with chrysanthemums and other members of the daisy family) caused such severe dermatological reactions that florists handling the plants on a daily basis were forced to change careers.

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Goldenrod and asters (Photo Two)

The leaves of goldenrod were once seen as a possible source of rubber by none other than scientist and inventor Thomas Edison. The idea was taken up by Henry Ford, and the tyres on the the Model T Ford that were given to Edison were made from goldenrod. Ford was concerned about the need to continue with rubber production during the Second World War, when many sources of the substance were cut off, and it seemed that goldenrod might produce a viable substitute, as the leaves contain approximately 7% rubber. However, the material produced was tacky, with low tensile strength, and so the experiment was abandoned.

Goldenrod does, however, have a distinguished history as a medicinal plant, particularly with regard to the treatment of kidney and urinary problems.

American goldenrod at Zmudowski State Beach

The young leaves and seeds of goldenrod have been used by Native American peoples as food, and a tea can also be made from the leaves or flowers (after the Boston Tea Party the plant was used to make ‘Liberty Tea’ to replace the tea that could no longer be obtained).

I was led slightly up the garden path by a US recipe for ‘eggs a la goldenrod’. It was described as ‘eggs on toast with gravy’. Turns out the ‘gravy’ would be called a ‘white sauce’ here in the UK, with the word ‘gravy’ reserved for the brown meaty stuff that’s poured over your roast dinner. Also, the recipe contains not a jot of the plant goldenrod. Two nations divided by a common language, indeed.

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Eggs a la goldenrod (Photo Three)

Goldenrod can also produce a dye, and the site here shows the amazing range of colours that can be created just by adding different chemicals. Dyeing is such an interesting subject, and such an outlet for creativity. I shall have to give it a go one of these days…

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Different dye colours produced from goldenrod (Photo Four)

Goldenrod does not just produce food for pollinators, but is also much liked by flies and parasitic wasps, whose larvae create galls just below the buds to protect themselves while they grow. Alas, some fishermen in North America have caught on to this and extract the larvae from their fortifications to use them as bait. Some woodpeckers and other birds have also learned this trick, and can be seen tappity-tapping until they’ve made a hole and can claim their prize, a valuable source of protein during the winter months.

Black-capped chickadee getting to work on a goldenrod gall (Public Domain)

Goldenrod is the state flower of Kentucky, Nebraska and South Carolina, and used to be the state flower of Alabama until it was replaced with the camellia. For many North American schoolchildren, its flowering indicates the end of the holidays, and time to get back to school. In the UK I can remember how the ‘Back to School’ signs in the windows of our local Co-op department store used to make my stomach shrink into my shoes. I hope that children these days have a happier experience of their educational establishments.

More US goldenrod

A patch of goldenrod growing outside your door is supposed to be a sign of sudden good fortune. On the other hand, goldenrod is yet another of those plants that superstitious folk in the UK will not allow inside the house. It is a wonder that anything floral gets past the front door in some abodes. Maybe just a few leaves would be safer if you are going to a dinner party. Or forget the flowers altogether and bring copious quantities of wine.

And as winter approaches, I am much taken by this poem by Bliss William Carman (1861 – 1929), a poet from New Brunswick in Canada that I hadn’t come across before. See what you think.

The Ghost-Yard of the Goldenrod by Bliss William Carman

WHEN the first silent frost has trod
The ghost-yard of the goldenrod,
And laid the blight of his cold hand
Upon the warm autumnal land,
And all things wait the subtle change
That men call death, is it not strange
That I— without a care or need,
Who only am an idle weed —
Should wait unmoved, so frail, so bold,
The coming of the final cold!

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1850’s cabin in North Carolina with goldenrod (Photo Five)

Photo CreditsPhoto One by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43154662

Photo Two from http://www.backyardnature.net/simple/bouquets/020.jpg

Photo Three from https://www.sixsistersstuff.com/recipe/eggs-ala-goldenrod-recipe/

Photo Four from http://fibre2fabric.blogspot.com/2007/09/dyeing-with-goldenrod.html

Photo Five by By Jason Hollinger (Snowy GoldenrodUploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

A Scented Walk in the County Roads

A Victorian Stink Pipe on Durham Road, East Finchley

Dear Readers, I was hoping to satisfy your curiosity as to my whale-related whereabouts this week, but the truth is that there has been so much activity that I’ve had not a second to compose something for you. So, I  hope you will forgive me and enjoy this piece that I wrote back in June for just such an occasion as this. Next week all will be revealed!

Dear Readers, it’s fair to say that summer in the city can seem to be a feast of rather unpleasant smells. There’s the smell of fat from Kentucky Fried Chicken when the wind is in the right direction, the ripe whiff of uncollected organic rubbish, and a slight scent of diesel. At least we aren’t still assailed with the perfume of sewage that used to be wafted skywards by the stink pipe pictured above. However, a leisurely ramble along the County Roads in East Finchley can present the perfume connoisseur with a veritable feast of pleasant scents, intensified by the humid atmosphere and the hot concrete.

Rose in All Saints Church garden

For example, who can resist the scent of a full-blown rose? Actually, there is wide variation in the scent of roses, from the floral via citrus to musk and even chocolate. This rose reminded me of classic floral with an overtone of lemon, and I could have stood there with my nose in it for an hour if the pose hadn’t been killing my back. These roses are not so popular with pollinators, though, who prefer the more lightly-scented single flowers of the Rosa rugosa species.

White rose in All Saints Church garden

And then there is jasmine. There are some splendid example on the County Roads, including the one that’s clambering over my friend A’s fence. Not everyone likes jasmine, as I’ve mentioned before – it is a waxy, sweet scent, a bit redolent of decay and decadence. I am convinced that Edgar Allen Poe would have been a fan. Today the scent seemed to come in pulses like a heartbeat.

Jasmine

And, surprisingly, some lucky person had a hedge of classic honeysuckle. It was going over a little, but there was still a trace of the honeyed perfume. It always reminds me of walks along hedgerows in the West Country as a child, with moths and bats rising over my head. Some of the showier varieties of honeysuckle have no smell at all, and I marvel at the breeding that could remove the key factor of a plant’s attraction in favour of a change of colour.

Some plants need a little encouragement to reveal their scent, like these splendid rosemary bushes, interwoven with spider webs. I love the spicy, resinous smell of this group of herbs, although I know many people who think that it’s a bit overwhelming and dominates the dishes that it’s used in.

Rosemary

And in the same family, of course, there is lavender, the bee flower par excellence at this time of year. The bushes in my front garden reveal their scent as I brush past them to get in at the front door. This year I must remember to dry some.

Lavender

And as I walk into the house for some much-needed shade, I smell honey so strongly that it’s as if someone has opened a pot of the stuff and warmed up a few spoonfuls in a saucepan. I pick up the buddleia flower and inhale. No wonder the bees and butterflies love it so much. It’s absolutely delicious. But I suspect that the smell of buddleia will always remind me of my mixed emotions during this troubling year, and will bring me both the wistful pleasure of remembering my parents, and the stomach-knotting sense of dread that seems to accompany every phonecall and visit. A scent can become subliminally linked to a set of emotions, and we often don’t realise the link until we breathe in a lungful of a long-forgotten perfume and it all comes rushing back. Smell bypasses our conscious processes and catapults us into the past, whether we want to go there or not.

Buddleia

It is said that the sense of smell is closely wired to the most ancient part of our brain, and it certainly seems to have a way of reaching past our consciousness and accessing our emotions directly.