Category Archives: Uncategorized

Whale Stories

Orca porpoising in Hood Canal, USA (Photo by By Minette Layne from Seattle, Washington, USA – Single breaching orca (cropped), CC BY 2.0,

Dear Readers, two whale-related stories today. First up, Orcas (Orcinus orca) have managed to sink three boats in the Straits of Gibraltar since 2020 (though out of more than 500 encounters that’s not bad odds). The whales appear to target the rudder of the boat, charging it until it’s broken or bent. But why? One theory is that the attacks stemmed from something that happened to a particular female whale, White Gladis. The author of a study on the whale attacks, Alfredo López Fernandez, believes that the whale suffered a traumatic event – either a collision with a boat, or possibly entanglement in illegal fishing nets. Since then, she started to attack the boats, and other whales have copied her – in at least one encounter, the sailors involved believed that a female whale was teaching her offspring to charge their boat.

Another theory is that this behaviour is just a fad – the whales are just playing, and certainly they show no interest once the boat has stopped. They don’t appear to be trying to target the humans (and their behaviour with prey animals such as seals, where they band together to topple a seal resting on an ice floe into the water) shows that they are able to devise complicated tactics to get at ‘food’ if they want to.

However, whales attacking boats that they believe have harmed them has a history – grey whales were known as ‘devil fish’ at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries, because mother whales would ram any whaling boats that they saw (and quite right too). Maybe the orcas really do see boats as a threat. However, this isn’t good news for them – the Iberian population of orcas is only 39 individuals, and ramming a boat can be more dangerous for the whale than it is for the humans. Let’s hope that the whales come to a decision that it isn’t worth the hassle soon – orcas are extraordinary creatures, and the world would be much worse off without them.

Orcas breaching close to Unimak Island in the Aleutians, Alaska (Photo by By Robert Pittman – NOAA (]), Public Domain,

And now onto the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus). This cetacean can live to be over 200 years old, and weighs in at a sleek 80,000 kilograms, give or take a few grams. Scientists would expect such a large animal to have a higher rate of cancer than smaller creatures, simply because they have so many more cells, each of which could potentially become cancerous. However, like many other large animals, the rate of cancer in these animals is much lower than expected, something known as Peto’s paradox.

Bowhead whale breaching off the Alaska coast (Photo By Bering Land Bridge National Preserve – bowhead-1 Kate Stafford edit, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Not only do the whales have more copies of genes that suppress cancer, but they are also much more able to repair the DNA damage caused by exposure to carcinogens, ageing etc. The repairs are also much more accurate than those that occur in other animals, including humans, cows and mice. Alas, although we now know what happens to bowhead whales, we can’t just generalise from their mechanisms to ourselves, but it does cast an interesting light on why these marine creatures can live to such an advanced old age. In 2007, a bowhead was found dead with a type of harpoon manufactured between 1879 and 1885 still embedded in its body ( a sad inditement of our troubled relationship with these remarkable animals), which meant it was approximately 130 years old. However, since then a whale aged 211 was found, and the Australian national science agency, CSIRO, estimates that the natural lifespan of a bowhead is about 268 years.

You can read all about bowhead whales and their remarkable ability to avoid cancer here.

Also, another factoid. The bowhead whale has the largest mouth of any animal, measuring almost a third of the length of its body (they grow to about 50 feet long), and the baleen in its mouth (the structures that are used to filter out the plankton on which this giant feeds) is about 10 feet long. And it has the thickest blubber of any animal, with a maximum thickness of 19.5 inches.

Traditionally, bowheads have been hunted by indigenous peoples around the Arctic Sea, and a small number of whales are still taken every year (67 individuals, or .05 of the Bering Sea population). However we might feel about this, now that commercial whaling pressure has been removed, there is also growth in the number of whales in many other parts of the bowhead’s range, so I am allowing myself to feel the tiniest bit of cautious optimism, in the face of realism about climate change, seabed drilling, pollution etc etc etc. Maybe these tough, long-lived animals have more in their DNA than ‘just’ cancer resistance, and I’m sure that there is much more that we can respectfully learn from them.

Bowhead whale ‘spyhopping’ off the Sea of Okhotsk (Photo By Olga Shpak –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Dark and Shady Corner

Dear Readers, I’m sure many ‘proper’ gardeners would throw up their hands in horror at the sight of the side return to my house but I must admit that I rather like it. My garden is north-facing, but this little narrow sliver between my house and my neighbours seems to have become a ‘weed sanctuary’, a home for all the commonest ‘weeds’ of East Finchley, and, in my view, nothing that I could plant would ever thrive as well.

So, what do we have? First up is Greater Celandine, a member of the poppy family, and a more cheerful plant you couldn’t wish for, even though it is poisonous. It was believed to be a cure for warts, and as my maternal grandmother was a great curer of carbuncles and skin complaints of all kinds, it will always have a place in my garden.

Then there’s Yellow Corydalis, a member of the fumitory family. I love the flowers but I have a particular fondness for those wispy, delicate leaves. This is another common North London weed, most often seen growing out of tiny crevices in a wall.

And then there’s our old friend Herb Robert, the first plant that I ever did a Wednesday Weed about back in 2014. It’s a cranesbill (or species geranium), its leaves smell of burning rubber, and the leaves and stem turn to bright red – it made the railway lines at East Finchley station look very fine a few years ago. I just love it.

And peeping out below the Herb Robert in the first photo is some Green Alkanet, although this is happier in the sunnier conditions in the front garden.

And then there are a few plants that have ‘blown in’ – these tend to be at the sunnier, garden end of the side return. I love these forget-me-nots, planted about three metres away but now making themselves at home here. The original plants were from my dear friend J, and so I always think of her when I see them.

And finally, how about these? This is Tellima, otherwise known as fringecups – I originally planted some right at the other end of the garden, where they did rather badly (I think it was too dry under the whitebeam). And now they’re back, and a happy bumblebee was feeding from the rather inconspicuous but nectar-heavy flowers.

At one point I was planning on getting some containers to plant up along the side of the house, but for now I think I’m going to let it be. It can be a bit tricky to walk along in the height of summer, but how pretty it looks with all its pink and yellow and blue. And last year an enormous white foxglove pinged up next to the hosepipe, so it’s always full of surprises. So, while the garden may not win any Gardens Illustrated awards, it makes me (and the creatures that I share the garden with) happy, and that’s good enough for me.

And They’re Here…

Dear Readers, it’s a little later than usual but the starlings are starting to fledge, and as usual there are frantic parents all over the bird table, and youngsters who, when all the other birds fly off, stay put and look around as if they don’t understand what all the kerfuffle is about, which indeed they don’t. Today it was the magnificent black cat, Bear, who lives across the road, and who often makes an attempt to catch the birds, though he usually doesn’t manage it. It’s a sad fact that the dense undergrowth that makes the garden so attractive to birds also provides multiple hiding places for felines, but then there are lots of pairs of eyes on the watch, so most birds escape most of the time.

I adore cats, but there are clearly too many of them around these parts, and they take a terrible toll of our wildlife. Keeping them in at dawn and dusk would help a bit, as would wearing a collar with a bell, though some cats learn to move very stealthily even when they have one (and of course cats can get strangled if the collar isn’t quick release). My cat is an indoor cat through choice, largely because she’s terrified of all the other cats that move through the garden, but going forward I think I would only have indoor cats, in an attempt to take at least one predator out of the equation. Of course, some cats are also daft old things that don’t take birds or other small mammals, like my Mum’s cat Snuggles who would doze on the lawn with small birds hopping within paws-length and never a feather ruffled, so you can’t tar all cats with the same brush. Nonetheless, many of them do what they instinctively need to do, and it’s yet another threat to our beleaguered birds and small mammals, to go alongside intensive farming, avian flu, urbanisation etc etc.

Still, here are the starlings raining down on the bird table. Note the poor sparrow bullied out of the way early on.

And then these two turned up.

Historically feral pigeons haven’t visited the bird table, but just lately these two have taken ownership, although the starlings can still be a match for them en masse.

The big brown pigeon is quite something, and I can’t work out whether he has a full crop or is in some way unwell – he was certainly feeding well, and flying normally, but he does look a bit odd. Still, I suppose that I only put food on the bird table occasionally now, so we’ll see what happens over the next few weeks. And I am also keeping an eye on the magpies, who still seem to be around their nest in the whitebeam, though I’ve seen no sign of offspring yet. It will be interesting to see what happens as more starlings fledge and attract all manner of predators (including corvids and sparrowhawks) to the garden.

What a Strange Year….

Cuckoo spit on the lavender

Dear Readers, I don’t know what’s going on where you live, but here in East Finchley, after a very wet and cold spring, all sorts of things are positively busting out, including the froghoppers. I have never seen so much cuckoospit in my life – not only is it all over the lavender, but it’s also on the catmint and the poor old asters, where it seems to be taking quite a toll (though I suspect some of this is actually the slugs). Generally, cuckoospit looks a little unsightly but doesn’t cause any harm, and is soon gone – the ‘spit’ is a protective layer for the rather cool little bug (a true bug in this case) who lives inside. You can read all about it here (and I note that 2014 was apparently another very good year for froghoppers), and for anyone interested in the plant disease Xylella (spread by froghoppers, but according to the RHS not yet detected in the UK as at 2023) I did a piece here.

And then I’m worried about the buddleia (as usual). It starts off so pristine, but already the black aphids have arrived and are damaging the leaves, some of which are shiny with honeydew already – not a complete disaster, as honeydew is the favourite food of several butterflies, including the holly blue that I saw last week.

Holly blue

However, this yellow discolouration is new – I’m thinking possibly a virus of some sort, or eelworm or something else exciting. Any thoughts, gardening friends?

All in all, though, I am not unhappy with how things are going. I know the green alkanet has run amok, but look at the happy pollinators.

And there’s a mint moth hiding in the nettles…

And the Bowle’s mauve perennial wallflower is doing really well…

And there is not a spare square inch for any more plants. Although that probably won’t stop me from buying some :-).

Red List Twenty One – Nightingale

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhychos) Photo by Bernard Dupont

Dear Readers, I have never knowingly heard a nightingale, and yet this bird is deeply linked to our ancestral memory – English folksongs regularly rhapsodise about the sound of the bird, and I particularly like this rendition of ‘The Sweet Nightingale‘ by Jackie Oates. Clearly Keats was familiar with the bird, and his poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ was written on hearing the bird on or close to Hampstead Heath, just a mile from where I live And yet, I’ll bet I’m not the only person who has never heard this little brown migratory bird, a little bigger than a robin, which used to fill the air with sweet music. Have a listen below – this was recorded in Suffolk by the aptly-named Antony Wren.

And this is also a UK recording, by David Bissett. You get a whole 8 minutes of song in this one (plus some woodpigeons in the background for good measure)

Nightingales are migratory birds, arriving in the UK about now, so if you hear a bird singing in coppice or shrub there’s a possibility that it could be a male nightingale setting up his territory. Alas, these days it’s more likely to be that other nocturnal singer, a robin, and very glad of him we are too. However, the nightingale, unlike the robin, has very particular requirements, and these are not being met, resulting in a 92% drop in the number of nightingales breeding in the UK since 1970.

At the Knepp Estate (famous also for its turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies), an attempt has been made to identify exactly what the nightingales need in order to settle and breed. Historically they have been birds of coppiced woodland, but at Knepp it was found that what they preferred (as to what they used in extremis) were dense hedgerows and scrub – mixed hedgerows 8 to 14 metres deep were developed, containing a preponderance of blackthorn to keep many predators out, and the number of nightingale territories has increased from 7 to 34, an amazing success story. In 2021, over 40 singing males were heard. Previously, much of the blame for the fall in the number of nightingales had been attributed to problems during migration, and I’m sure that’s part of the story (after all, the birds fly across the Sahara desert to be here), but the provision of suitable habitat seems to indicate that if the conditions are right, they’ll stay.

The experiment at Knepp makes an interesting point. Here’s what their website says:

“Nightingale territories are usually found in habitats associated with woodland and woodland edge, with coppiced woodland being particularly important historically. Their dramatic decline is thought to be in response to changes in woodland management and intense deer pressure, resulting in the loss of low, dense under-storey vegetation. Surveys over the last 30 years, however, have identified scrub – such as in the Southern Block at Knepp – as being particularly important habitat for nightingales, providing suitable habitat structure for up to twice as long as coppiced woodland. The fact that scrub is rarely tolerated in the modern landscape has no doubt contributed significantly to the nightingale’s decline.

But it also demonstrates how we can be deceived by our own observations and received wisdom. We think we know the preferences of a certain species but forget that in our depleted landscape we may be observing it at the very limit of its abilities – not where it wants to be at all, but where it is clinging on for dear life. The potential of process-led projects like Knepp, where nature is allowed to reveal herself rather than be dictated to by human management, is enormous. It allows us to observe what species like nightingales really want and that, in turn, will help us to plan for their conservation in the future.

I find this all very heartening. I am all for actually observing what’s going on with curiosity and empathy  – animals and plants have much to teach us about what they actually want and need, if we are not too hung up on our own stories about what they should require. I would love to hear the nightingale in real life, even if I have to make a trip to Knepp to hear it, but how much more wonderful it would be if we could make a home for them all over the south of the country.

As usual, John Clare’s keen eyes noticed where the nightingale likes to make her nest nearly 200 years ago. I love the kindness of this poem, and his sympathy with the mother bird. If everyone could share his sense of being part of nature, rather than outside it, I suspect we would not be having quite so many conversations about how nature-depleted we are.

The Nightingale’s Nest

Up this green woodland ride let’s softly rove
And list the nightingale – she dwelleth here.
Hush! let the wood gate softly clap – for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn and eve, nay, all the live-long day
As though she lived on song – this very spot,
Just where that old man’s beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road and stops the way,
And where that child its bluebell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails.
There have I hunted like a very boy
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns
To find her nest and see her feed her young,
And vainly did I many hours employ:
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where these crimping fern leaves ramp among
The hazel’s underboughs – I’ve nestled down
And watched her while she sung – and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy
And feathers stand on end as ’twere with joy
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs – the happiest part
Of Summer’s fame she shared – for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ;
But if I touched a bush or scarcely stirred
All in a moment stopped – I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush
And at a distance hid to sing again,
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves.
Rich ecstasy would pour its luscious strain
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs,
For cares with him for half the year remain
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast,
While nightingales to Summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees and Winter’s nipping wrongs
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen; her world is wide.
– Hark! there she is, as usual, let’s be hush,
For in this blackthorn clump if rightly guessed
Her curious house is hidden – part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs;
For we will have another search today
And hunt this fern-strown thorn-clump round and round,
And where this seeded woodgrass idly bows
We’ll wade right through; it is a likely nook.
In such-like spots and often on the ground
They’ll build where rude boys never think to look.
Aye, as I live, her secret nest is here,
Upon this whitethorn stulp – I’ve searched about
For hours in vain – there; put that bramble by.
Nay, trample on its branches and get near
– How subtle is the bird; she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles, and now near
Her nest she sudden stops – as choking fear
That might betray her home – so even now
We’ll leave it as we found it – safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See; there she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears – our presence doth retard
Her joys and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird; may no worse hap befall
Thy visions than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall,
For melody seems hid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home – these harebells all
Seems bowing with the beautiful in song,
And gaping cuckoo with its spotted leaves
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest. No other bird
Uses such loose materials or weaves
Their dwellings in such spots – dead oaken leaves
Are placed without and velvet moss within
And little scraps of grass – and scant and spare
Of what seems scarce materials, down and hair,
For from man’s haunts she seemeth nought to win.
Yet nature is the builder and contrives
Homes for her childern’s comfort even here
Where solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places – Deep adown
The nest is made an hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lies her curious eggs, in number five,
Of deadened green or rather olive brown
And the old prickly thorn bush guards them well.
And here we’ll leave them still unknown to wrong
As the old woodland’s legacy of song

Photo by cheloVechek / talk, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


The Royal Entomological Society’s Insect Week

Small Damselfly (Ishnura posita) Photo by Benjamin Salb/Royal Entomological Society

Dear Readers, the Royal Entomological Society’s Insect Week runs from 19th to 25th June this year, with all sorts of interesting events, but to get us in the mood, here are some of my favourite photos from the 2022 photography exhibition. I am always astonished at the detail that these photographs manage to pick up, and the strange beauty of some of the images. I’m not sure why we get so excited about life on other planets when there is such variety so close at hand.

To see more details about these photos and more, have a look here.

Spotted tiger beetle (Photo by Benjamin Salb, RES)

Ashy Mining Bee (Photo by Rory Lewis RES)

Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) Photo by Raymond J. Cannon/RES

Male Orange Tip Butterfly (Photo by Sarah Perkins/RES)

Twin-lobed deerfly (Photo by Marc Brouwer/RES)

Beautiful Antlion(Euroleon nostras) (Photo by Dennis Teichert)

A Sunny Day in East Finchley, and Some Wisteria Hysteria

Dear Readers, if there was a prize for the most splendid wisteria on the County Roads in East Finchley, I would give it to this splendid  example on Huntingdon Road. The racemes (sprays of flowers) must be a good fourteen inches long, and it is at a peak of perfection. I have written about wisteria before, but I have been so busy during this past few weeks that I haven’t had a chance to go hunting. I’m sure that this plant cheers up everyone who passes it.

On Twyford Avenue I found these two wisteria shrubs, with pink flowers. When I look closely at the flowers, it’s evident that they’re a member of the pea family (Fabaceae). What a boon this family has been, not only providing us with everything from broad beans to runner beans to garden peas, but cheerfully fixing nitrogen from the air (with the assistance of some handy bacteria) and converting it into a form that other plants can use.

And finally, also on Twyford Road there was this one, also splendid, and I love it with the deep blue Ceanothus and that pale blue garage door.

It’s not just the wisteria that’s out at the moment though, and there are other pleasures of a more subtle kind. This Japanese maple with its red leaves looked lovely against the sky.

I was rather fond of the modest pleasures of wild plants too, like this little patch of Herb Robert close to All Saints Church.

Herb Robert

And then there was this Ivy-leaved Toadflax growing in the crevices in a wall.

At first glance, I thought that the small shrub in the photo below was a Euphorbia, but now I’m wondering if it’s something else. Opinions, please! I’m still leaning towards Euphorbia but am happy to be persuaded otherwise. It was a quite striking mixture of yellow and green.

The Photinia is in flower….

And this tree is a slight puzzle – I think it’s an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) but it could possibly be a Judas Tree (Cercis silaquastrum) – I shall have to wait until the leaves come to make up my mind. Whichever it is, it’s absolutely splendid. I love the way that the flowers come right out of the bark on these trees. And looking at them, wouldn’t you know that this is yet another member of the pea family? It’s something else to be grateful for.

An Irritable Woodpigeon

Dear Readers, over the years I have come to have an increased respect for the sheer curmudgeonliness of woodpigeons, who have an ability to be offended that surpasses even that of my local blue tits. It doesn’t take much for them to start standing on their tippy toes and flicking their wings at one another with a resounding crack which always sounds as if it would hurt. Imagine my delight, then, at reading my British Birds magazine and discovering that woodpigeons can also put that defensiveness to excellent use in trying to protect their nest from a perceived threat.

Paul Slater has been studying woodpigeons for many years, but in August 2020 he got a bit of a shock. He climbed up a tree to investigate a nest but instead of leaving, the adult bird flicked his or her wings at Slater and remained determinedly in situ. This surprised Slater as he had made over 2500 visits to woodpigeon nests in the Liverpool area, counting the eggs and ringing any young birds, and this was the first time that an adult had not only stayed put, but had attacked him. Slater remarks that usually the adult woodpigeon, on seeing a huge human climbing the tree, will drop to the ground and pretend to be injured (a behaviour that I didn’t know was in their repertoire).

When Slater visited again in September 2020, the chicks were large enough for ringing and so up he went, only to be met by a barrage of blows (which he comments were ‘surprisingly hard’). By this point in the story I am full of admiration for this feisty bird who was clearly taking no prisoners. Slater reports that on a subsequent visit he observed at least one large chick, but he had no need for any more tree climbing, and so the birds were left to get on with their lives.

It makes me wonder if urban woodpigeons are actually getting tougher – there’s a marked difference between city and country woodpigeons in terms of their shyness, and I remember the tale of a West Country farmer many years ago who, when asked what had impressed him most about a visit to London remarked that it was the tameness of the woodpigeons. Adaptation is a wonderful thing, and I’m sure that woodpigeons will continue to develop in whichever way helps them to survive the best.

Sleepy Seals

Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga angustirostris)

Dear Readers, I have always had a soft spot for elephant seals – they look like characters from a children’s book, they don’t put up with any old nonsense and the pups could not be cuter if they tried. I met them ‘in the flesh’ on an island off Baja California which used to be an old canning station, and the elephant seals were hauled out on the jetty and beach. They watched us as we wandered around (keeping a respectful distance) and would occasionally sigh deeply, as if it was all too much effort.

Elephant seals dive very deep to capture their prey (skate, sharks, octopuses and other deepwater denizens) – the record for a Northern Elephant Seal is over 1700 metres. However, I had no idea that the slept underwater, or how that worked. Well, Californian scientist Jessica Kendall-Barr and her team decided to find out.First, they found some relatively amenable  female elephant seals who could be somehow persuaded to wear a cap for a few days that measured their brain activity and heart rate – the caps were attached with a glue which would wear off in less than a week. I notice that they decided not to wrestle with the males who, though looking like enormous docile blobs when unmolested can rear up to almost six feet high when cross, which they often are.

Five of the seals spent all their time on the beach or in shallow water, but three of them headed off to the deep ocean, which is where elephant seals spend most of their time when not breeding. Unsurprisingly, the seals don’t sleep much when they’re at sea – they usually nap for ten minutes at a time, and sleep for less than two hours a day (compared to ten hours when they’re on land). But what is astonishing is what happens when they do nap. At about 100 metres down, the seals go into slow-wave sleep and start to drift downwards. But when they go into REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep (in humans thought to be associated with dreaming, so this is likely to be what’s happening to the seals too) they turn upside down and start to spiral towards the bottom of the ocean – one seal drifted down to 377 metres below the surface before waking up and heading towards the surface. Elephant seals can remain underwater for up to two hours without needing to take a breath, so this is probably quite relaxing for them. I wonder if they have that ‘where the hell am I’ feeling that I’ve been having when I wake up as I recover from jet lag?

In waters that are ‘only’ 250 metres deep, the seals will often take a nap on the ocean floor. This is something that other seals, including the endangered Monk seal, are known to do, and there’s a short video of sleeping seals here for your delectation.

And finally, and completely gratuitously, here are some Northern Elephant Seal pups. Instead of the impressive hooters of the adult males they have little snub noses. They are utterly trusting and relatively vulnerable, though I suspect they could still give you a nasty bite. Better to just admire them from afar, and be awestruck at how extraordinary this planet is.


A Spider Sonnet and Other Spidery Stanzas

White form of Flower Crab Spider

Dear Readers, my friend A alerted me to this poem by Robert Frost. I hadn’t come across it before, and found it rather intriguing.

Robert Frost – 1874-1963

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

Now, ‘heal-all’ is I think Prunella vulgaris (known as self-heal in the UK) and it’s usually blue, so a white flower would be most unusual.

I love the description of the ‘fat, dimpled spider’ and the moth with ‘dead wings carried like a paper kite’. I’m not sure about the whole design aspect though (says she with her scientist’s white coat on) – as we now know, even if the colour of the spider matches the flower that she’s on, it doesn’t seem to improve her hunting efficiency. And I suppose that the whole question of design implies that there’s someone ‘up there’ pulling the strings, bringing together the white flower, the moth and the spider (although his last sentence seems to imply that he doubts if even an all-seeing all-knowing deity could be bothered with a couple of invertebrates and a plant). I can see why my friend called it ‘intriguing’ because it opens up all kinds of questions about belief, causality and how the world works.

And clearly there’s something about spiders that makes humans philosophical. How about this, from Walt Whitman: it rather reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived at about the same time (1844 – 1889). Did one of them influence the other, I wonder?

A Noiseless Patient Spider
BY WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892)

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

And how about this one, by E.B White, who wrote ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and who seems to have a special affinity with spiders? I love that this poem gives the spider agency. The last stanza is a jaw-dropper.

The Spider’s Web

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.

And finally, just to remind us of something fundamental, here’s a poem by Nikki Giovanni. The last lines open this up into a much greater question. How much better the world would be if we acted out of curiosity rather than fear!

By: Nikki Giovanni

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her
I don’t think
I’m allowed
To kill something
Because I am