Just in time for a bit of planned guerilla planting, or more accurately sowing, our eldest son and fiancée arrived at the end of the first week in June. Following the wettest day in 3 months, a quick trawl beneath soggy meadow copse shrubs and trees gave me the ammunition I needed. 48 yellowing snowdrop seed capsules, each containing several large creamy white, seed nuggets. As is their way, these were already sprouting growing roots, inside their protective capsule. Leave snowdrop seed to dry out and the viability declines rapidly – they’re naturally meant to fall to the leaf litter covered soil within their capsules. Perhaps even be buried intact, and the seedling root develops unseen, throughout the summer and autumn, before sending up its first leaf next spring.
Thus armed, and with a brief forecast respite in the rain, we headed off for a favourite walk.
As we walked uphill, my brain developed the concept. I had a planned place, and design. But how to lay it out? Fortunately Will’s fiancée teaches maths, so as I divided the pods into 4 small pots, the question to her was:
With roughly 9 inch spacing between pod contents, marked out using 4 identical wood sticks I’d grabbed before leaving, and a vaguely triangular form for the planned shape, how long should the sides be, and what about the vertical height from one triangle apex to the mid point of the opposite side?
Job done. The only concern being an enormous fat slug I noticed amongst the beech leaves. Slugs will certainly take out snowdrop flowers occasionally and damage leaves, though rarely fatally. Fingers crossed that this doesn’t scupper my plans.
The hope is that it’s ideal snowdrop territory, although there are no snowdrops within a couple of miles, and the few people who walk this route in the depths of winter in about 5 years’ time might start to see the design outline appearing, to delight them, and wonder how it got there.
Lest readers are appalled by this act of rural vandalism, from the years and thought involved with my Welsh historic snowdrop hunt project, I’ve become convinced that snowdrops only end up at a site (unless it’s beside a river) if someone has moved them, or some seed, there. In a location like this one, pollination is extremely unlikely, so over decades the outline should stay relatively intact, with only rodent, mole, rabbit or squirrel disturbance likely to disrupt the growing clumps.
Perhaps in 50 years’ time, the trees will still be there. Perhaps the snowdrops will have thrived.
And people will still be around and able to visit them.
And have hearts lifted in the depths of winter.
It was wonderful to hear Jackie Morris, the illustrator of the fabulous book “The Lost Words” interviewed this week on BBC Radio 4’s “Front Row” about the latest award for her collaborative book of poems written by Robert Macfarlane, which I’d featured on these pages around the time of its publication in 2017. Click here.
The starting premise for the book was that before every new edition of The Oxford Junior (English) Dictionary (OJED), an assessment is made of words which are dropping out of usage, on the basis of computerised trawling of millions of written words directed at the appropriate age range. Click here for the initial outrage and discussion on its ditching of 50 “natural” words from its latest edition. Click here for more on Jackie’s and Robert’s approach to creating the book, which is a large format, beautifully illustrated work, with full page illustrations to accompany the poems or spells that Robert has written for each of the words, from the natural world, which no longer feature in the OJED.
Examples of the “Lost words” are wren, otter, weasel, willow, acorn, bluebell. No longer used sufficiently often by youngsters to merit definitions.
After winning the Beautiful Book award for 2017, the book has just won the Carnegie Cilip Kate Greenaway medal for 2019, as well as having 8 reprints. The book clearly resonates with the wider public. What’s more amazing is how it’s even been distributed, thanks to many local crowdfunding campaigns set up to raise funds, to ensure that copies of the book end up in the libraries of all the primary schools in many counties of England, Wales and Scotland.
There’s even an audio version of the book with additional natural soundcapes. Click here for a brilliant flavour of what the audio book achieves, with readings of Robert’s poems, or “spells” by well known voices, accompanied by a backing soundtrack of natural sound recordings by eminent natural sound recordist Chris Watson.
Nature still has the power to move all of us. And so does writing. I noticed that one of the reviews of Macfarlane’s poems or spells referenced the writing style of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Shamefully I have to say that I’ve only discovered some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ work within the last 3 weeks, (how wonderful!) and read that perhaps his greatest sonnets and work were written during a burst of creative writing when he was based at a Jesuit college in North Wales. In today’s celebrity obsessed world, it’s also fascinating to read the biography of this intelligent, deeply religious man, whose poems weren’t even published until about 50 years after his death, yet have come to be recognised as some of the most influential in the English language, and revolutionary in style. Click here for more about GMH.
I first read the following sonnet, and was instantly struck by the alliteration and use of repetition of sounds of the words.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speak and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Chríst – for Christ play in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Do click here for an analysis and discussion of what inspired Hopkin’s writing, and his developed style, including his ideas of “inscape” which are beautifully captured in his poem “Windhover”, beginning thus:
I caught this morning morning‘s minion,
kingdom of daylight‘s dauphin,
in his riding
I also discovered today that Jackie and Robert are currently working on a new book – “The Book of Birds”. Conceived and imagined to capture the beauty of many of our native birds which, like the lost words, are disappearing fast from our landscapes. Click here for more about another book to look forward to.
The grey dank gloom draws me,
To sit awhile in light a little brighter than below.
But you’re already there, sycamore circling, and
Filling water laden air with your transporting,
Transported simple semi-quavered madrigals.
Perhaps rehearsed on long flights North,
Perhaps just learned with youthful enthusiasm.
You’re undeterred as I plod slowly up
Amongst your richness. Too fast and vast to numbers
Count. Whilst rustic, rust chested cousins
Join your hunt. Their sharp forked tails
Tracing trails and slip streamed silhouettes
Outside the Hut’s wide opened doors, as I
Sit. Still. Invisible man. Invisible bugs,
Open mouthed, rejoicing.
Above the wet wind beaten meadow
Flopped down, near late June’s pinnacle
Of Splendour. Today the scene’s more still
And warm. Unseen by me, your preys’
Split pupal cases. Sucked fresh damp air
Down finest tracheal tubes. And Flown.
Synchronised. Yet numbered safety vain, and slain,
Your vicious pod’s arrival, a hunting pack.
Balletic, stark mono-chromed livery.
Such aerial Orcal carnage. Winging
And skimming. Twisting and Plunging.
And circling. Always circling.
Incessant two toned banter. Carefully crafted
Symphonic poem, or mere manic hunting cries?
And herding. Were you herding? For so it seemed,
My darkened, hand held eye; unblinking iris
An unconscious radial focus.
Just once, amongst the thousand
Mega pixelled snaps, I’ve caught it.
The simple unnamed blurry fuzz. That every minute
You’ll snatch. Eight hundred each
The daily fuel for such efficient revelry.
Yet anagrammed and classic Chelidon. Urbane sophisticate martel.
Sleek ebony and ivory killer Martin, and cousin Swallow,
Too long, too thick, too wide you’ve woven.
The warp and weft of lives and dreams,
Stitched close with fickle foolish man.
The houses still are there.
Sometimes the barns still stand, lie still,
Open doored and un-converted.
But morning feasts are few, far flung.
Such feeding frenzies fickle.
Ten years hence, or twenty,
Perhaps such simple words and
Still, grained, ageing images, mined amidst the richness of
Your flight, above the morning metalled meadow
Will be the epitaph. Of herded hatches.
We’re at that time of the year when our focus is easily distracted away from the garden and into the meadow. In part because we have to try to work out when we’re likely to get weather appropriate for hay making. In part because the almost daily changing scene is fabulous, with colours and impressionistic intermingled patterns, created by the plant palette, changing light, and weather conditions.
Then the weather gods relented and off we rushed, though this year it’s been a wrench to cut plants still in their flowering prime. We’ve now got vastly more meadow buttercups and white clover in flower, all being worked by bumblebees, but we simply have to cut some at this stage. We can’t manage to process huge areas of hay at one time with our labour intensive, semi-manual approach, and cutting now should still mean some flowers emerging at the tail end of summer before we need to graze this field.
In contrast our commercial friends clear whole hillsides in a couple of days, though the harvest is shockingly flower free in these days of haylage, silage and NPK fertilisers.5 different vehicles in use on the hill above, starting at dawn on a Sunday morning to shift the above crop and clear the field in just a few hours.
The other corollary of June’s mixed weather is that the honeybees have had limited chances to forage. A consequence of this for the 3 recently swarmed and rehoused hives, is an inevitable shortage of food, which manifested in one of the hives robbing the last to swarm, and weakest hive, during the last week. I’d spotted the tell-tale signs of a different type of flight by some bees outside the hive entrance, as well as obvious aggression by guard bees towards these would be scavengers, and taken the advised precaution of reducing the hive entrance (though probably not by enough, and probably too late). Two and a half consecutive wet days meant no opportunities to fly at all, and after haymaking on the third day, when I popped down to check around tea time, the hive was clearly being overwhelmed with invaders, with evidence of some freshly broken comb at the entrance. They’d even started to lever off my simple entrance restriction. How did they do that? Pulling or Pushing?
Although this third small swarm had only been in situ for about 4 weeks, it had clearly built-up sufficient stores for the robber bees to find this source of stored nectar easy pickings, compared to flying to lots of flowers.
The robbers were almost certainly from the first swarm hive located about 100 yards away, since there was a similar burst of frenetic activity outside this one – though with bees returning heavily laden (first image below).Within just 24 hours the small swarm hive had clearly been trashed (above). The landing board littered with wax debris from plundered honeycomb.
A savage lesson for me about vicious Apis mellifera asset redistribution. And another aspect of the learning curve that comes with any new set of experiences.
A lucky choice of route down the hay field after a hay turning session took me past a small butterfly nectaring on some still flowering Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica. It was even there when I returned with the camera. My initial thought was that it was a fritillary of some sort – we’ve seen Marsh fritillaries here occasionally in the past, but subsequent images show that it was a female Small Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, Boloria selene. The first time I’ve ever seen one anywhere, and a real treat, since they’re a declining species across the UK.Click here for more on the life cycle and ecology of this pretty butterfly, which uses Common Dog-violets, Viola riviniana, or Marsh violets, Viola palustris, as a larval food source. We have Marsh violets growing in our lower wet meadow and after scattering seed, an abundance of Dog-violets in both the garden and our upper hay meadow close to where I found the butterfly. Shown below in flower in April 2019.
A continuing feature of the garden insect activity has been the lack of honeybees within much of the garden and meadows for most of May and June, whilst the scene has been dominated by vast numbers of bumblebees. The ranks of Phacelia tanacetifolia, which I’ve sown as a nectar source along strips of the vegetable beds for the honeybees, has been completely ignored by honeybees, even though it’s barely 15 yards from the original hive.
Yet it’s attracted tens if not hundreds of bumblebees per day, whatever the weather. So, it really seems to be the case that for the first half of the year at least, honeybees prefer tree and shrub blossom. This may not even change as we move past mid-summer and into the flowering period of brambles and rosebay willow herb. There are no large-scale arable plantings around here that might appeal to them, so the risk of on-site honeybee hives impacting negatively on our native bumbles and solitary bees, at least this year, seems to be slight.
One thing I’ve also noticed is that whilst many honey bees return and die outside the hive, or indeed die inside and are then pushed out by other bees clearing the dead bodies, many bumbles seem to die on flowers.
Is there a better place to be, during one’s last hours I wonder?
As energy and life drifts away.
Hooked on, with multiple talons, close to the nectar and pollen which in your brief life has sustained you.
And in decay, returning your body’s nutrients to support the very same plants and flowers for next year’s generation.
A real thrill this year has been finding native orchids popping up in many places around the house in the terrace garden and cobbled paths. 25 years on from starting with no plants at all, and just smashed concrete and shale in these areas, it’s amazing how diverse a mix of plants we have in this part of the garden.Because such a vibrant insect community is thriving here as well, this helps to ensure excellent flower fertilisation and subsequent seed fall, so increasingly, many areas of the garden are now becoming self-sustaining plant communities.
I was fascinated to read an article by Dr. Noel Kingsbury where he relates his own trials over 7 years, using denser than normal planting regimes, and how plants begin to behave differently when grown in such a way, having to respond to the competitive pressures of growing amongst a range of other plants. Such a situation being entirely normal in natural environments and plant communities, but not the case in many gardens, where individual plants are often planted and valued as discrete and distinct entities.
Well worth reading, click here for his piece from the Plantsman, titled “ Competition Time”.
As a potential wake up call for anyone not aware of the risks, I came back from a few days R&R near the coast with a small, non-itchy red papule on the inside of my elbow. It was only after a few days when I saw a black crust developing, that I put on my reading glasses and noticed the tiny legs! A bit of a shock to see that I’d picked up a tick. As an ex-vet, I was familiar with the much bigger, grey, sac like adult ticks on dogs and cats and was well aware of the potential risk for the very nasty tick transmitted Lyme disease, caused by a spirochaete bacterium, Borrelia borgdurferi. But I was completely ignorant of just how small and insignificant these tiny larval or nymphal forms are. The photo below shows it at its worst after I’d removed the tiny tick, so nothing really exceptional to look at, if you’re constantly working outside in a garden.
Enter the world of Russian roulette, and time bombs. Was the tick actually carrying the bug? Who knows, most aren’t – but in a reflex quick removal of the tiny beastie, I didn’t save it – it could have been sent off for analysis if I had. There are serological tests for blood antibodies which one’s body should develop once exposed to the bacteria, but they’re not 100% accurate and can take a long time to show up a problem.
I mention all this only to raise awareness. Most ticks that transmit the disease to people are apparently tiny, like mine was; often smaller than poppy seed size. So take preventive measures – no shorts or T shirts in a likely tick area, or a likely time of the year (typically late spring and early summer, and again in the autumn), and particularly check wrists and ankles after a walk. And if you do find one, then remove it in an appropriate way, save it, and maybe get it analysed. Before you remove it, I’d advise having a quick read through the very good website of the Lyme Disease Action group, click here, and also NHS Direct. Click here.
And a final word of advice. Should you opt for a pre-emptive course of the most appropriate antibiotic, good old doxycycline, do read both the drug company’s insert leaflet, which I did, AND the detail of the pharmacist’s small print label, which I didn’t. Hopeless!
That way I’d have picked up the pharmacist’s very relevant warning about avoiding skin exposure to sunlight, or even bright daylight whilst taking the medication, as being important.
I wish I’d discovered that before a few days of haymaking!