Category Archives: Uncategorized

Invertebrate Poetry

Photo One by © Nevit Dilmen / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Pond-skater (Photo One)

Dear Readers, when I woke up at 5 a.m., as I sometimes do, I found myself thinking about poetry, and about how often invertebrates are used to stand in for all kinds of human attributes and experiences. I adore W.B Yeats, as much for the way that the lyricism of his work begs to be read out loud as anything – think of ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death‘ or the most misquoted poem of the Twentieth Century, ‘The Second Coming‘. But you might not be quite so familiar with this, ‘Long-Legged Fly’. Three perfect visual images, linked by the idea of the fly. Actually, a pond skater is not a fly, but I forgive him.

Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

And how about this, from Fleur Adcock, who lives in East Finchley. I love the way that this poem starts from a five year-old and a snail, and opens out into the question of how mothers are seen, what kindness is, and how we try to protect our children from the realities that they will soon encounter.

Kindness to Snails

For a Five-Year-Old
Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it.  You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.

Photo Two by Retiredplayboy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Philippine orange tarantula (Orphnaecus philippinus) (Photo Two)

And finally, how about the tarantula? I rather love this poem by Thomas Lux, especially the last few stanzas.

Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy 

THOMAS LUX

For some semitropical reason   
when the rains fall   
relentlessly they fall

into swimming pools, these otherwise   
bright and scary
arachnids. They can swim
a little, but not for long

and they can’t climb the ladder out.
They usually drown—but   
if you want their favor,
if you believe there is justice,   
a reward for not loving

the death of ugly
and even dangerous (the eel, hog snake,   
rats) creatures, if

you believe these things, then   
you would leave a lifebuoy
or two in your swimming pool at night.

And in the morning   
you would haul ashore
the huddled, hairy survivors

and escort them
back to the bush, and know,
be assured that at least these saved,   
as individuals, would not turn up

again someday
in your hat, drawer,
or the tangled underworld

of your socks, and that even—
when your belief in justice
merges with your belief in dreams—
they may tell the others

in a sign language   
four times as subtle
and complicated as man’s

that you are good,   
that you love them,
that you would save them again.

So, over to you Readers. Do you have a favourite poem that is loosely invertebrate-themed? I’m sure there must be lots of bee and butterfly and moth poems out there. I’d love to read them!

Photo Credits

Photo One by © Nevit Dilmen / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Two by Retiredplayboy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

An Autumn Walk in Coldfall Wood

Cyclamen hederifolium in Coldfall Wood

Dear Readers, it has been so relentlessly wet for the past few days that I haven’t had the heart to brave the great outdoors. But today it dawned bright and cold, and so off we ran to the woods to see what had been going on. We were a little later than usual and so there were lots of dog walkers and children heading off to school, and you’d almost think things were back to normal were it not for the way most people are still instinctively leaping to one side to put six feet of distance between them and the next person.

Still, I was touched by the way someone had corralled the cyclamen into an enclosure to protect them. These are Cyclamen hederifolium as far as I can see, which is a wild native species, though these plants look rather more like the domesticated variety. Technically, people are not supposed to plant anything in a nature reserve, but I’m loathe to suggest that these particular plants be dug up when someone obviously has taken such care to protect them. I would say that as they naturalise the ‘fence’ will need to be moved out though.

Elsewhere, the woods are just starting to turn gold and orange. Everything feels poised on the cusp, ready to tumble into winter.

Hornbeam turning orange
Oak turning to copper

Along the path next to the allotments there is a burst of holly berries. They are so red that it’s startling. How can the birds possibly miss them? They even look delicious to me

And then it’s out on to the Fields, and I fall in love with the brambles all over again. Some of them are still in flower (and I’m sure that any late queen bumblebees will be delighted), but it’s the red of their foliage that is so striking. There is a legend that when St Michael cast the devil out of heaven, he landed in a bramble bush, which must have been most uncomfortable. So, he cursed it, and ever since the fruit is supposed to turn bitter after 29th September, St. Michael’s Day.

Bramble in flower

And look! The Japanese Knotweed is still in flower, though as far as pollination goes this isn’t an issue – in the UK all the plants are from one single female clone. Unfortunately, as we know, one single bit of rhizome results in a whole new plant. Still, at least the bees like it.

I got a little bit of a surprise when I heard this bird singing from the top of a shrub. I rather think it’s a dunnock, though the light isn’t very good. Who’d have thought that this shy, shrinking-violet of a bird would be advertising itself so vigorously at this time of year? Maybe, like so many plants and animals, it’s confused.

And then, with my eyes primed to see red, I noticed this street cherry tree on the way home. It has been horribly pruned at some point, and looks rather like a naiad trying to pull her way out of the trunk, but the colour! What a joy this time of year can be.

Saturday Quiz – Unleaving

Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) at the back of the Guildhall in the City of London)

Dear Readers, I have always been fond of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem ‘Spring and Fall – to a Young Child’, which seems to me to sum up the human predicament.

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

But it seems to me that part of the glory of the ‘unleaving’ is the extraordinary range of colours that the leaves achieve before their eventual demise. How brightly they shine at the end! Something to aspire to, surely. And so, for this week’s quiz, let’s have a look at some autumn leaves, and see if we can pair them up with their names. You have until 5 p.m. UK time on Thursday to pop your answers into the comments, and if you don’t want to be influenced by anyone speedier, write your cogitations down first :-).

I think this is a pretty tough quiz, and would be delighted with myself if I got half of them right, but then you lovely people always surprise me, so let’s see….

Onwards! Just match the photo to the species. So if you think photo 1) is of a horse chestnut, your answer is 1)a)

a) Horse Chestnut ( Aesculus hippocastanum)

b) Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

c) London Plane (Platanus × acerifolia)

d) Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

e) Weeping Willow (Salix babylonica)

f) Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

g) Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

h) English Oak (Quercus robur)

i) Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

j) English Elm (Ulmus minor)

k) Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

l) Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

m) Wild Service Tree (Sorbus torminalis)

n) Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

o) Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Photo One by Liz West from https://www.flickr.com/photos/53133240@N00/49486708/ Ash
1.
Photo Two by Peter O'Connor from https://www.flickr.com/photos/58414938@N00/8251708423/ Beech
2.
Photo Three by AnemoneProjectors / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) English Oak
3)
Photo Four by By Famartin - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47084964 Weeping willow
4)
Photo Five by Stefan.lefnaer / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) Alder
5)
Photo Six from https://botanicwalk.blogspot.com/2017/10/field-elm.html English elm
6)
Photo Seven from the Trees for Cities website https://www.treesforcities.org/stories/the-mysterious-story-of-the-london-plane-tree
7)
Photo Eight by Famartin / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) hawthorn
8)
Photo Nine by Rosenzweig / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) Wild Service Tree
9)
Photo Ten by Leonora (Ellie) Enking at https://www.flickr.com/photos/33037982@N04/5133784330/in/photostream/
10)
Photo Eleven by Marija Gajić / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) Sycamore
11)
Photo Twelve by Ninjatacoshell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
12)
Public Domain (Ginkgo biloba)
13)
Photo Fourteen by By Rosser1954 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74704802 Silver Birch
14)
Swamp cypress
15)

The End of the Megafish?

Photo One byBy Максим Яковлєв - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67084661
Beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) Photo One

Dear Readers, my go-to source for all things scientific is New Scientist. What a treasure trove it is! I love the way that it makes me consider things that had never crossed my mind before. And this week, there is an article about the neglected giant river fish that are quietly disappearing.

A megafish is defined as any freshwater species which weighs more than 30kg (the weight of an adult golden retriever). 206 species fall into this category, and many can reach a much greater size than the criteria stipulated

The beluga sturgeon (Husa husa) is the largest, and it’s critically endangered. The largest specimens can measure 7 metres long and weigh 1.5 tonnes. These huge individuals may be extremely old – sturgeons take 20 years to reach maturity, and it is likely that they can live to be a hundred, if they get the chance. They used to be found in rivers all over Europe, and even today if you should happen to catch a sturgeon in an English river ( a most unlikely event, but it’s as well to be prepared) you will need to hand it over to the Queen as it’s been a Royal Fish since 1362. Sadly, Beluga sturgeon are critically endangered because of the taste for their eggs: a single fish can provide a poacher with 30,000 euros’ worth of caviar. The fish can be farmed, but the product is apparently inferior. Once found throughout the Adriatic, Caspian and Black Seas, the sturgeon is now listed as Critically Endangered.

Still, the beluga sturgeon is better off than the poor old Chinese Paddlefish (Psephurus gladius) which is now thought to be extinct. They have been overfished, and then their migratory route had a hydroelectric dam built across it. Then the river became increasingly polluted, and the volume of shipping was also a challenge. The last live fish – a 3.6 metre-long female – was caught in 2003, but by this stage she was probably ‘dead fish walking’ (or swimming) because a search of the Yangtze basin in 2017 and 2018 didnt turn up a single fish. The scientists who broke the news described the extinction as a ‘reprehensible and irreparable loss’.

Photo Two byBy Zheng Zhong(Life time: 1612-1648 (years active)) - Original publication: Nanjing, China, early-mid 17th centuryImmediate source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62706228
17th Century depiction of a paddlefish (Photo Two)
Photo Three By Alneth - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85605561
Chinese paddlefish in the Wuhan Museum of Hydrobiological Sciences (Photo Three)

The loss of the Chinese paddlefish does seem to have focussed the minds of the Chinese government – they have been working with various conservation bodies to develop ways of protecting their ecosystems, and have introduced a moratorium on fishing in 332 designated areas. However, while there are still the dams and the pollution there’s a long way to go.

Lest we in Europe start feeling too superior, though, let us note that the Danube is the river considered the worst in terms of threats to biodiversity. And a recent report that every single one of England’s rivers was polluted should also give us pause. Fish really do have nowhere else to go if their habitat is damaged, poor things.

Still, as we all have enough to feel sad about at the moment, here are a few happier stories. When I was younger I often used to hang out at the aquarium at London Zoo, where there were some of the biggest fish that I’d ever seen. Pirarucu (otherwise known as arapaima) are huge fish that have to breathe air – they come to the surface to gulp in some oxygen via a special organ called the labyrinth, which enables the animal from the atmosphere. This is probably an adaptation to the sluggish, under-oxygenated waters of the Amazon where the fish lives. It seems to do very well in aquariums, but it is also bouncing back in the wild – on the Juruá river, which feeds into the Amazon basin, sustainable projects have enabled this amazing fish (which can grow to a length of three metres) to start to increase in population.

Photo Four By George Chernilevsky - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6933126
Pirarucu (Arapaima leptosoma) in Sevastopol Aquarium (Photo Four)

And although the Chinese paddlefish seems to be lost, the American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), is now a protected species throughout its last haven, the Mississippi and Missouri basins. This poor fish was not only fished for sport, but also for its caviar. They are nearly blind, because they don’t need to see in the muddy waters, but they do have electroreceptors not only on their sensitive ‘paddles’ but also on most of their body, which enables them to pick up the swarms of tiny zooplankton that they feed upon. They then open their mouths and suck the little animals in.

Photo Five byBy Хомелка - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25958644
Paddlefish (Photo Five)

Although the Mississippi basin is an extremely degraded environment, the American paddlefish seems to be doing ok, and is even increasing in numbers. It would be really something if we were able to save the last species of these giant fish before they’re lost forever.

Photo Credits

Photo One By Максим Яковлєв – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67084661

Photo Two By Zheng Zhong(Life time: 1612-1648 (years active)) – Original publication: Nanjing, China, early-mid 17th centuryImmediate source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62706228

Photo Three By Alneth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85605561

Photo Four By George Chernilevsky – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6933126

Photo Five By Хомелка – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25958644

Wednesday Weed – Avocado

Dear Readers, if there is a more frustrating fruit on the face of the earth than the avocado I have yet to meet it (though the peach runs it pretty close). How can it go from rock hard to rotten without any intervening period of ripeness? Even the gentlest cupping to check for softness leads to a horrible brown bruise. It doesn’t help that I can’t abide the things if they’re the texture of rubber or reduced to mush either. And yes, I know I’m difficult to please.

One avocado-based activity that is fun, though, is how easy the stones are to turn into a rather attractive house plant. I can’t be the only one who has balanced the seed on some toothpicks above a jar of water and watched as the leaves bust out of the top.

One method for propagating avocados (Public Domain)

I have, of course, never persuaded the plant to produce any more baby avocados, but then what’s the point? They’ll only disappoint me yet again.

Photo One byBy B.navez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4877156
The Avocado in situ (Persea americana) (Photo One)

The avocado plant comes originally from Mexico, and is a member of the Lauraceae or laurel family (not really a surprise when you look at those leaves). The fruit is technically a large berry, and it has the handy attribute, as we know, of ripening after picking. The ‘ready to eat’ avocados that you see in the shops have been exposed to ethylene in a ‘ripening room’ – ethylene is produced most noticeably by bananas, and light dawns as I begin to see that my poor avocados have probably been being stored too close to my fruit bowl, which would explain a lot.

All of today’s avocados come from the criollo, the ancestral form of the avocado. This was being cultivated as long ago as 5000 BCE, and eaten from the wild tree long before this: an avocado pit was discovered in the Coxcatlan Caves of Tehuácan in Mexico that dated to about 10,000 years ago. And small wonder that our ancestors enjoyed it: it has lots of Vitamin K and Vitamin C, and is a source of both saturated and unsaturated fats.

Photo Two byBy Nsaum75 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10568386
The ancestral avocado or criollo (Photo Two)

The avocado goes back much further than 10,000 BCE however. Like many fruits with large stones, it is believed to have evolved with the megafauna of the Pleistocene, who would have eaten the avocado whole and then deposited the stone, with a handy heap of dung, some distance away. Possible candidates for this dispersal process would be the giant ground sloth or megatherium, and the gomphotheres, a group of ancient elephants. Strangely enough, the skin and flesh of avocados is harmful to most domestic animals, and some humans are also allergic to it.

Photo Three byBy Marcus Burkhardt - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69094108
Megatheriums (giant sloths) (Photo Three)
Photo Four By Unic - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24434273
Gomphotheres (Photo Four)

Now, no current animals in Central America are big enough to disperse avocados, and indeed their propagation can be something of a problem. The tree takes a long time to mature, and commercial growers depend on grafting to get the fruit to ‘come true’. Furthermore, the plant will sometimes produce tiny seedless avocados called ‘cucks’ – you might think that the growers would be delighted, but sadly the size of the fruit makes them nothing to get excited about, although some enterprising farmers do sell them as ‘cocktail avocados’. Some varieties, such as the ever-popular Hass, don’t crop regularly every year, with a bumper year followed by a ‘meh’ year (technical phrase).

Photo Four byBy Nsaum75 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11556392
A seedless avocado or ‘cuke’ growing alongside its bigger siblings (Photo Four)

Now, although I can never find an avocado at the perfect pitch of ripeness, there is no denying that an avocado can be a thing of absolute beauty. And goodness, is it a versatile ingredient! Of course there’s the standard avocado on toast, though I always think that a warm egg on top of cold avocado is a bit of a strange thing. But guacamole? Now you’re talking. And I’m increasingly seeing avocado being used in vegan cooking, wherever you need something fatty and unctuous.

And how about an Indonesian avocado ‘milk’ shake with chocolate syrup? I think the jury’s out on this one as far as I’m concerned.

Indonesian-style avocado milkshake with chocolate syrup

Incidentally, I have seen (and even on one occasion made) recipes that include baked avocados, but in my experience the heat turns them bitter. Any thoughts, readers?

And I rather like the sound of this Ethiopian drink – ‘It is also common to serve layered multiple fruit juices in a glass (locally called Spris) made of avocados, mangoes, bananas, guavas, and papayas‘.

Photo Six fromhttps://new-faces-new-places.com/2016/03/12/away-in-addis-ababa/dsc00190/
Spris in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Photo Six)

Now readers, you would not want me to leave the subject of avocados without sharing a little of the folklore around them. They have something of a reputation as an aphrodisiac, probably because their shape could put one in mind of a testicle if one was that way inclined. But the piece de resistance is this wonderful tale from Guiana, recounted on Richard Niesenbaum’s blog. It’s one of those stories that just keeps getting worse and worse. See what you think.

According to Aztec legend, a man named Seriokai living in Guiana, a country in South America, loved avocados and usually spent the day gathering them. One day while he was out, a tapir wandered into his camp and made Seriokai’s wife fall in love with it. The next day, Seriokai and his wife went out to collect avocados. As he climbed down one tree, his wife hit him over the head, causing him to fall and sever his leg. She ran away with the tapir and the basket of avocados. A neighbor found Seriokai and helped him heal, replacing his leg with a wooden stump. Seriokai then followed the trail of growing avocado trees that had grown as they fell out of his wife’s basket. He found the runaway couple at the end of the world, and shot the tapir in the eye. The tapir leaped off the edge from the pain, and Seriokai’s wife followed her love and jumped as well. Seriokai also jumped off, and the three are said to have turned into Orion (Seriokai), Pleiades (the wife) and Hyades (the tapir with a bleeding eye) in the sky (Neal 2017).

So there you go. And here is a tapir, just in case you’ve never seen one. Not an obvious love object, but people can be very idiosyncratic.

Photo Six from 
Vauxford / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
A very attractive Brazilian tapir (Photo Six)

And finally, a poem. This makes me happy/sad – I have two colleagues who are just off on their maternity leave and I am both envious of them and resigned. Sometimes, the things that we hope for in life just don’t work out, and not managing to have children will be something that makes me a little melancholy for the rest of my days, I suspect. Still, there are plenty of children and animals who need love, so I will never be short of somewhere to put all that sweetness.

Eating the Avocado

BY CARRIE FOUNTAIN

Now I know that I’ve never described
anything, not one single thing, not
the flesh of the avocado which darkens
so quickly, though if you scrape
what’s been exposed to the air it’s new-green
beneath like nothing ever happened.
I want to describe this evening, though
it’s not spectacular. The baby babbling
in the other room over the din
and whistle of a football game, and now
the dog just outside the door, scratching,
rattling the tags on her collar, the car
going by, far away but loud, a car without
a muffler, and the sound of the baby
returning again, pleasure and weight.
I want to describe the baby. I want to describe
the baby for many hours to anyone
who wishes to hear me. My feelings for her
take me so far inside myself I can see the pure
holiness in motherhood, and it makes me
burn with success and fear, the hole her
coming has left open, widening. Last night
we fed her some of the avocado I’ve just
finished eating while writing this poem.
Her first food. I thought my heart might burst,
knowing she would no longer be made
entirely of me, flesh of my flesh. Startled
in her amusing way by the idea of eating,
she tried to take it in, but her mouth
pushed it out. And my heart did burst. 

Photo Credits

Thoughts from an Open University Course 3 – Deep Time – Lessons from Geology

Photo One from https://slideplayer.com/slide/8485989/
Bacterial fossils from the Fig Tree chert formation in South Africa (Photo One)

Dear Readers, this week my OU course was concentrating on the concept of Deep Time, and so I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned with you, to see if I’ve understood it myself. Consider yourselves guinea pigs! And all questions and comments gratefully received, as always.

The earth has been in existence for approximately 4.6 billion years, and while humans are a very recent addition, the first bacterial life popped up as long ago as 3.5 billion years. Some tiny fossils have been discovered in rocks known as the Fig Tree chert in South Africa, and these appear to be caused by the first bacteria, who lived in those ancestral oceans. If you look closely, you can actually see those ancient life-forms dividing, just as they do now. Other fossils show lines of bacteria joined together in long filaments. It’s thought that these bacteria were the fore-runners of the cyanobacteria that came into their own a mere 3 billion years ago (see below), and like them, they lived in the oceans, where all life originated and where, for most of Earth’s history, it stayed.

Chert is a sedimentary rock, usually composed of siliceous ooze – this was the bacteria-rich deep ocean floor, where bacteria both lived and died. Flint nodules are a form of chert, as are agate, onyx, opal and jaspar. How easy it would have been to miss the tiny bacterial fossils, and indeed for a long time they were contentious. However, the finding of similar patterns in cherts in Greenland and Canada seems to have settled the issue – there were bacteria on earth, quietly dividing and getting on with their lives, a billion and a bit years after the earth first formed from space debris.

Photo Two by By Minghong - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=509405
A layer of erosion-resistant chert in the Tung Ping Formation in Hong Kong (Photo Two)

These tiny bacteria are already beginning to affect the atmosphere by producing nitrogen, but for oxygen to be produced, we have to wait for the appearance of the cyanobacteria 3 billion years ago. Also known as blue-green algae, these organisms are still with us today – they create long filaments that mix with sediment and form molehill-like structures called stromatolites. Because they photosynthesize, turning energy from the sun into oxygen, these creatures slowly begin to produce the key ingredient of the air that we breathe.

Fossilized stromatolites from Banff, Canada (Public Domain)
Photo Three by By Paul Harrison - Photograph taken by Paul Harrison (Reading, UK) using a Sony CyberShot DSC-H1 digital camera., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=714512
Modern stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia (Photo Three)

So, the cyanobacteria work away over millenia, releasing oxygen into the oceans. However, at first it doesn’t stay there. Oxygen is an extremely reactive gas, and at this point there are endless sulphur and iron-rich rocks laying about. These absorb the oxygen to start with, preventing it from becoming available to anything that might be able to breathe it. In the early years, iron-rich rocks are banded in green and white: this is thought to show that the iron has reacted with the oxygen released into the sea water, turning it green (all such banded rocks come from the ocean).

These banded iron deposits may show that, to begin with, the cyanobacteria could be poisoned by their own waste product (oxygen) when it built up too much, hence the periods when the iron was oxygenated, followed by periods when the algae died back and there was just sediment. Later, the bacteria evolved to be able to protect themselves from this poisoning, and this signalled the start of the Great Oxygenation Event of about 2 billion years ago. Nonetheless, the iron deposits that we mine today are largely banded iron formations (BIFs).

Photo Four from http://jsjgeology.net/Banded-iron-formations_files/image016.jpg
Banded iron formation (Photo Four)

Once all the iron in the ocean has been used up, we start to see bright red, iron and oxygen-rich rocks instead, which shows that there was a constant supply of oxygen produced by the cyanobacteria. A tipping point has been reached, and the oxygen not only oxygenates the oceans, but starts to leak into the atmosphere as well.

Ironstone (Public Domain)

The effect on the atmosphere is two-fold. Firstly, the oxygen displaces the carbon dioxide and methane, leading to cooling, and possibly the first period of global glaciation – some have called this ‘snowball earth’. Secondly, an oxygen-rich enviroment seems to make it possible for more complex forms of life to appear, and for cells who carry their genetic material in their nucleii to develop. Between 700 million and 545 million years ago, many forms of multicellular life appear for the very first time. The Earth is no longer ruled purely by bacteria. By about 440 million years ago we are gearing up for the First Mass Extinction event, but for now life is starting to diversify and become rich in a way never seen before. It’s the age of the trilobite, and of many other creatures besides. This is the era of the Burgess Shale, and it’s almost as if nature is trying out many forms of life that we can’t even begin to understand now. What a remarkable time period this would be to study! What I’m loving about my course is the sheer variety of paths that it explores. Who knows which of them I’ll decide to come back to?

Photo Five from http://www.thefossilforum.com/index.php?/topic/91589-my-trilobite-of-the-week/&page=7
Trilobite (Photo Five)
Photo Six by Todd Gass https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Climactichnites_wilsoni,_Blackberry_Hill,_Wisconsin,_Cambrian_-_Todd_Gass.jpg#/media/File:Climactichnites_wilsoni,_Blackberry_Hill,_Wisconsin,_Cambrian_-_Todd_Gass.jpg
Tracks of a Cambrian ‘sea-slug’ ( Climactichnites wilsoni) from Blackberry Hill, Wisconsin (Photo Six)
Photo Seven from By James St. John - Agnostus pisiformis fossil trilobites (Alum Shale Formation, upper Middle Cambrian; Andrarum, Scania, Sweden) 5, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40021575
Mass of fossil trilobites (Agnostus pissiformus) from Sweden (Photo Seven)

Photo Credits

Photo One from https://slideplayer.com/slide/8485989/

Photo Two By Minghong – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=509405

Photo Three By Paul Harrison – Photograph taken by Paul Harrison (Reading, UK) using a Sony CyberShot DSC-H1 digital camera., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=714512

Photo Four from http://jsjgeology.net/Banded-iron-formations_files/image016.jpg

Photo Five from http://www.thefossilforum.com/index.php?/topic/91589-my-trilobite-of-the-week/&page=7

Photo Six by Todd Gass https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Climactichnites_wilsoni,Blackberry_Hill,_Wisconsin,_Cambrian-Todd_Gass.jpg

Photo Seven from By James St. John – Agnostus pisiformis fossil trilobites (Alum Shale Formation, upper Middle Cambrian; Andrarum, Scania, Sweden) 5, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40021575

Netflix – My Octopus Teacher

Photo One By SeaChangeProject - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93993491
Photo One (see below)

Dear Readers, Netflix has been a life-saver over the past few years. When Mum died, I spent a lot of my time on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket and unable to do anything sensible. Instead, I watched the whole back catalogue of The Great British Bake-Off, Project Runway, and ten whole series of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Then, when I became a (part-time) working woman, I had a lot less time, and so it was all about an hour’s simultaneous knitting and watching after work. It’s amazing how many episodes of First in Fashion, Masterchef-The Professionals and Sugar Rush you can get through if you multitask.

But in lockdown, I find that Saturday nights are often spent huddled in front of a ‘proper’ film. I’m still not happy about going to the cinema, what with our Covid-19 numbers doubling every week, and so sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea has much to recommend it. And so it was that this week we settled in to watch a documentary about a man free-diving in the kelp forest off the coast of South Africa, and his relationship with a wild octopus.

Craig Foster is a wildlife film maker, and yet it’s clear that life has lost its meaning. He spent time with the San people of the Kalahari desert and was inspired by how they are so much part of their environment. For Foster, there’s a strong sense that he no longer wants to be a mere observer, he wants to be part of something. And it’s this that drives him to start free-diving in the freezing waters. Over the course of a year he learns to hold his breath for longer, and he makes a decision early on to eschew the comfort of a wet suit. This is a man who desperately wants to belong to something bigger than himself.

And then, he meets the octopus. When he first sees her, she is covered in shells and sea urchins, and the fish are moving curiously around her. Foster doesn’t realise that she’s an octopus until she bolts for her den. He feels an instant connection with her. How he knows that she’s a ‘she’ is one of the unanswered questions of this documentary. If you are hoping to find out a lot more about cephalopods I’m afraid that you’ve come to the wrong place because although there are lots of observational snippets about the extraordinary intelligence of the animal, the context doesn’t come out of this film.

In other words, it’s more of a Netflix film than an episode of The Natural World on the BBC – it’s about one man’s ‘journey’ to understand a wild animal, and his feelings about her. It’s about how she changes his view of the world, and of his relationship with his son.

This is not to say that Foster doesn’t map not only the geographical features of the area where the octopus lives, but all the different interactions between predators and prey. I feel that he really is immersed in the life of the kelp forest, and I could relate to the way that he wants to be part of what’s going on. The way that he decides to dive in the same small area every day speaks to me of how he wants to go deeper. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem ‘When Death Comes’:

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.’

However, there is little of this complexity in the film. We see the nuanced approaches that the octopus takes to the different kinds of sea creatures that she eats: one theory as to why octopuses (which are, after all, molluscs like snails and slugs) are so intelligent is because of the varied prey that they must deal with. Most animals that are ‘intelligent’ by our standards are social animals, who are thought to have developed their large brains to deal with complex interactions, but octopuses are extremely anti-social, except when they breed.

We also see the ways that the octopus outwits her most persistent predator, the pyjama shark – the scenes of the shark hunting by scent for ‘our’ octopus are nerve-wracking. And we see the octopus playing, and the way that she curiously interacts with Foster. What is she getting out of these encounters? Foster is extremely careful to be respectful of her and to not interrupt her day to day life, and is deeply remorseful if he frightens her. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable that this short-lived animal has not only Foster but another cameraman popping in to see her on a regular basis. I admire that Foster generally doesn’t intervene to protect the octopus, which must have been very difficult, but I still wonder how things changed because he was there. We never really know what we do, because however much we want to be part of a habitat we are still big clumsy animals. I am reminded that people who live in areas of Nepal where there are tigers consider the highest respect that they can pay to the animal to be to never see it.

Still, this is a lovely film, with some stunning underwater shots. I liked Foster a lot, and admired his dogged determination. I love that his relationship with his son blossomed as a result of his experiences, and that he has founded a charity, The Seachange Project, to protect the kelp forest. It’s just that the octopus, who could have been the star, is instead just the catalyst for Foster’s dramatic rebirth. As Elle Hunt puts it in The Guardian,

if a documentary’s success is measured by how well it represents its subject, I’d say My Octopus Teacher falls short.’

Let me know what you think! Am I just being a curmudgeon? It wouldn’t be the first time…

And here’s the official trailer. Enjoy!

Ivy – An Environmental Friend?

Photo One by Daderot at en.wikipedia / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
Ivy -covered house, Boston Massachusetts (Photo One)

Do you look at this picture and shudder in horror? Or does it fill your heart with happiness that someone has created such a wildlife-friendly vertical habitat? Well, I think for me it’s a mixture of both. But in New Scientist last week, writer Clare Wilson suggests that an ivy-covered wall can have lots of benefits that I for one hadn’t considered.

I have always admired the splendid ‘plant walls’ that are being created, both indoors and out, but they seem to be very difficult to maintain – the requirements for watering, feeding and protection from exposure seem daunting. When it’s done well, it can be spectacular.

Photo Two from https://www.flickr.com/photos/kotomi-jewelry/19543682519/
Green wall at the Athenaeum Hotel on Piccadilly (Photo Two)

However, most of us don’t have the money, time or know-how to create something like this. Wilson suggests that the Hedera species are a quick way of covering an ugly outbuilding or fence, and notes that birds like the berries, and many pollinators relish the flowers, including the recently-arrived ivy bee.

Photo Three by Charles J Sharp / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) (Photo Three)

However, there are other benefits to an ivy-covered wall. For one thing, it can help to insulate your building. In a study by Tijana Blanusa at the University of Reading, it was found that ivy helped to slightly warm a room in winter. It also cools a room in summer both through creating shade and through the water evaporation from its leaves. It is better than either Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) or climbing hydrangea (Pileostegia virburnoides) at reducing the temperature in summer, probably because the leaf cover of ivy is so dense.

But, I hear you say, doesn’t it also destroy my walls? The RHS say that ivy doesn’t normally damage walls unless the masonry is already cracked – the aerial roots of ivy can’t penetrate sound mortar. Having said this, though, Wilson admits that once ivy gets going it can take over very quickly – in fact, she recommends only growing it where you’re happy to get on a ladder and prune back any eager shoots that are reaching for gutters or roof tile. Apparently anti-graffiti paint also works: it contains an ingredient called silane which reduces the attachment of the roots.

Wilson also suggests containing the plant by popping it into a pot, or putting it in a small patch with a few bricks – the words ‘good luck with that’ spring to mind, as in my experience you only have to go on holiday for a fortnight to come back and find that your garden has been transformed into an ivy-covered version of the Sleeping Beauty’s bower. Still, this is an extremely useful wildlife plant in the right place, and one of the very last sources of pollen and nectar for autumn insects.

Photo Four by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
Myathropa florea hoverfly on ivy flowers (Photo Four)

I should probably put in a word here too about ivy in forests. I know people who loathe the way that the plant seems to smother trees, although it is only using the branches and trunk as a support. According to the BBC, ivy will not normally harm a healthy tree, which is big and strong enough to continue to photosynthesise in spite of its ‘hanger-on’. However, trees which are already weakened through disease or age can be brought down by the sheer weight of ivy, especially in high winds. I can think of a couple of trees at the edge of Coldfall Wood which are gradually being brought down by the volume of ivy.

Photo Five by Paul Hutchinson / Ivy covered tree, Marldon Lane
Ivy-covered tree (Photo Five)

On balance though, my personal belief is that ivy can be a good friend if you keep an eye on it in the garden, and tolerate it in other places. As we go into winter, it provides places for all kinds of animals to roost and hibernate, and it can brighten up all kinds of miserable concrete structures that would otherwise be an ecological desert. But what do you think? Let me know whether you’ve had to wrestle this plant to the ground, or if you have fallen in love with it. I’d love to know.

A Revisit to Coal Drops Yard

Dear Readers, you might remember a previous visit to Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross – I was very intrigued by the planting, but it was February and the plants were very new. So the first day of October seemed like an ideal time to pop in and see what was going on. It was also a good place to meet up with my friend S, what with it being outdoors and all.

As you can see, the plants have certainly had a good summer. There are swathes of bright red persicaria and yellow rudbeckia, plus the trademark Piet Oudolf-esque grasses (though I should point out that the garden is actually by Dan Pearson). I think Pearson has also taken a leaf out of Oudolf’s book when it comes to autumn and winter interest – Oudolf once said that ‘brown is also a colour’, and there are many shades of taupe and chestnut, chocolate and ochre to add depth to the scene and to contrast with all the bright hues.

I have no idea what this pretty little mauve plant was, but it reminds me rather of a sparkler. Any ideas, readers?

Here we have the persicaria mingling with a dark blue/purple salvia, maybe Amistad? It’s such a punch of colour. And there seems to be a cheeky thistle at the front too.

I rather like the frothy Mexican fleabane with the Hotlips salvia here too.

There are white and pink Japanese anemones – these seem to have a strange arrangement of petals, almost as if some of the flowers only have three. That bright orange middle certainly catches the eye, though.

Last time I was really fascinated by the seedheads on these Chinese licorice, so it’s fun to see them at an earlier stage.

There are massed banks of Michaelmas daisies as well, always a favourite with the hoverflies.

And just around the corner, near Waitrose, there are nerines coming into bloom amidst the Russian sage.

I was glad to revisit the site today, not least because in my most recent copy of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) magazine, there’s an article about the Middlesex Vice-County ( a recording area that encompasses most of North-West London) by the Vascular Plant Recorder, Mark Spencer. Coal Drops Yard would fall into this area, and he has this to say.

Sadly, much of inner London’s canal system is now vigorously tidied and in many areas, plants, both native and non-native are dwindling. This affect has been particularly severe in the areas around the King’s Cross and Olympic Park developments, nearly all of the semi-natural urban vegetation has been destroyed and replaced with prairie-style horticultural plantings. We are eradicating our urban natural heritage in favour of a colour-by-numbers floral arrangement to please the eye’.

Blimey.

I have been rather in favour of this style of planting, because it contrasts so much with the typical attitude of ‘bung in some bedding plants’. I like the mixture of grasses, perennials and bulbs, and the beds were certainly abuzz with pollinators, even on this grey, sad day – there was a queen bee as big as my thumbnail on the salvia, wasps and honeybees on the ivy and lots of little pollinators on the Russian sage. Inner city areas can be a desert, and this is certainly an improvement. On a previous visit to King’s Cross, there were sparrows and a wasps’ nest to get excited about too.

Queen bee centre-right if you squint 🙂

However, I do take Spencer’s point about the loss of wild plants. The canal was historically a site for all kinds of plants to thrive, and it’s a shame to lose them. We are losing many of our brownfield sites, which are a haven for rare plants and invertebrates of all kinds. Where will the nationally vulnerable Bur Medick (Medicago minima) go if we build on every spare inch of waste ground and blast the rest with herbicide? The report this week that 40% of the world’s plants and fungi are at risk of extinction should give us all pause. Plants are responsible for a large proportion of the oxygen that we breathe after all, and fungi are what increase the fertility of our soils.

Photo One by By Fornax - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3982929

Bur Medick (Medicago minima) (Photo One)

Also, I wonder if we could use more native wild plants in these plantings, without them becoming too unkempt – I’m thinking of the completely natural ‘bed’ that I’ve been keeping an eye on next to Muswell Hill Playing Fields, which looks very ‘blooming’ pretty to me, at least in summer.

Of course, you might not want all that creeping thistle, but knapweed, ox-eye daisy, lady’s bedstraw, mallow? Maybe there’s a middle-ground that could be achieved here. There is no doubt in my mind that many of our pollinators much prefer the plants that they have evolved alongside, although the more adaptable of them will use our garden plants if there isn’t anything else. Personally, I am glad to see any square inch of space that’s being used to support our stressed ecosystem, but we can always be more imaginative.

Photo Credit

Photo One By Fornax – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3982929

 

A Dipteran Army

Twin-spot Centurion (Sargus bipunctatus) Photo by Leo Smith

Dear Readers, I do love it when people ask me to identify insects, and I love it even more when it’s a creature that I haven’t seen before. So today, I’d like to introduce you to the family of soldier-flies, rather splendid creatures that can go completely unnoticed. My friend Leo spotted this one at the nature reserve at Gunnersbury. At first glance you might think that it was a simple greenbottle, but have a look at those fine orange legs, and the narrow pointed abdomen. Plus, the ‘twin-spot’ centurion has two white spots just in front of the tiny short antennae. Furthermore, females have a bright orange patch on the abdomen, and, as this fly doesn’t have such a thing, we can safely assume that it’s a male.

There are 48 soldier fly species in the UK, and they  were so named because their bright colours reminded people of ceremonial uniforms. The smallest ones are referred to as soldiers….

Photo One This image is created by user Dick Belgers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Three-lined soldier (Oxycera trilineata) – 6mm (Photo One)

Then we have the majors…

Photo Two byJanet Graham / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Four-banded major (Oxycera rara) 7mm (Photo Two)

Then the colonels…

Photo Three This image is created by user Dick Belgers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Common green colonel  8mm (Oplodontha viridula) (Photo Three)

Then the brigadiers….

Photo Four This image is created by user B. Schoenmakers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Ornate Brigadier (Odontomyia ornata) 12-14mm (Photo Four)

And finally the generals (though there are a few legionnaires and centurions about too, who don’t fit neatly into any of the size categories).

Photo Five by Siga / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Clubbed general (Stratiomys chamaeleon) 12-15mm (Photo Five)

Now, have a good close look at the back of the Clubbed General (the last photo in the series). On the yellow ‘bit’ just above the wings (known as the scutellum) you’ll see two spikes sticking out. This was another reason that the group were known as ‘soldier flies’ – they seem to be carrying their own spikey armour. In Germany, this family are known as Waffenfliegen or ‘armed flies’. Different species of soldier fly have a different number of spikes, and this is a way of identifying the flies.

What spectacular flies they are! The adults zip about pollinating wild carrot and hogweed, but it’s the larvae who really do the work – they consume ridiculous amounts of dead and decaying matter, everything from algae in ponds to rotting vegetation. One species, the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) is widely used as a way to consume the dung produced by poultry farms. The waste is fed to the larvae of the soldier flies, who then pupate. The pupae are then fed back to the chickens. This is an incredibly efficient process: the eggs turn into larvae in just four days, and by the time that they pupate, the larvae have taken chicken manure and converted it to 42% protein.Levels of e-coli and other bacteria go down when the larvae are used to clean up the waste. Black soldier fly larvae are also being used in fish farms and to feed exotic animals that are kept as pets.

The adult soldier flies are extremely relaxed creatures, who neither bite nor sting and are apparently very easy to catch, and this seems to be their downfall. It does just show, however, that without the detritivores of the world munching up our waste, we’d soon be buried in the stuff. We have much to thank flies for.

Photo Six byBy Didier Descouens - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29228852

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) (Photo Six)

Incidentally, my go-to books on flies (everyone should have a go-to book on flies I think) are both by Erica McAllister – the first is ‘The Secret Life of Flies’ (from which many of the facts here have been extracted) and her new one is ‘The Inside Out of Flies’, which is about the structure and anatomy of flies. Both are fascinating and great reads to boot. If you’ve never considered the humble fly before (or your first reaction is to wap them with a rolled-up newspaper) these books might give you pause.

Finally, two remaining facts about soldier flies, courtesy of Erica. Firstly, she calls soldier flies ‘fat-bottomed flies’, as some species have abdomens that are almost as wide as they are long. The Ornate Brigadier photographed above is pretty well-endowed on the back-end front, and so are the generals though the angle is wrong for the one in the photo. There is an African species called Platyna hastata where the rear-end is actually wider than it is long, but I can’t find a photo, sadly. Suffice it to say that if a stripey creature which is broad in the beam lands next to you, it might well be a soldier fly.

And finally, one species of soldier fly has the longest Latin name on the planet: ‘Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyiodes‘ which roughly translates to ‘near soldier wasp-fly wasp-fly like’. And here is the poor little thing. I think someone must have been having a laugh.

Photo Seven by Norman E. Woodley / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

The animal with the longest name in the world (Photo Seven)

Photo Credits

Photo One This image is created by user Dick Belgers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Photo Two by Janet Graham / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Photo Three This image is created by user Dick Belgers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Photo Four This image is created by user B. Schoenmakers at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

Photo Five by Siga / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo Six By Didier Descouens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29228852

Photo Seven by Norman E. Woodley / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)