Sunday, 1 October 2023

A Guest is a Gift from God

Is a month long enough to have a half written blog post waiting around? Probably. So I will also tag on the end a list of the others that have also been read in the last month since I went to Devon.

'Elena Knows' by Claudia Piñeiro is not a detective novel. I keep reading that she is known for this genre, and while a death occurs and police are involved that is not what this book is about at all. Unless, I suppose, it is an investigation into a mother/daughter relationship. It was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize last year, probably how it appeared on my radar. Elena and her daughter Rita seem to have developed ones of those bickery but can't imagine life without you kind of relationships. We jump into their lives in the moments after Rita is found hanging in the church belfry and Elena insists that she did not commit suicide. She can't get the police to take her seriously, despite her repeated pestering, though the local detective placates the grieving mother by continuing to meet her and listen to her growing list of suspects. The main problem is that Elena has Parkinson's disease, and is incapacitated to a significant extent, and so realises she is going to need help with her investigation. There is only one person she can ask, who she feels owes Rita something, and the book follows her struggle to get to this person.

"Mum, enough, she said and she stood up, walked over to the stove, turned the flame to maximum, and set the pamphlets on fire. When the flame was about to burn her hand she let them fall, the charred pages fluttered to the green tile floor, landing beside the uncooked pieces of pasta that her mother had spilled.
Rita stood motionless watching the paper as it blazed, cracked, and danced until it changed colour, melted away, turned to ashes, and finally, went to the place that fire goes when it burns out." 

She despises Roberto, Rita's boyfriend, and his mother Mimi; here she is, under protest, having some beauty treatment, because Rita is disgusted by her hairy chin.

"Mimi said, your feet are a disaster, how do you even wear sandals with those heels? I just put them on, she answered, or Rita does it for me when I can't. At least put some lotion on them at night, Elena, that helps with the roughness. And even though Elena showed no concern for the roughness of her heels, Mimi said, I'm going to send you some calendula cream with Roberto. It'll just go to waste, Elena thought, because she wasn't willing to add any more chores to the unending list of daily challenges: walking, eating, going to the bathroom, lying down, standing up, sitting in a chair, getting up from a chair, taking a pill that won't go down her throat because her head can't tip back, drinking from a straw, breathing. No, she definitely wasn't going to put calendula cream on her heels." (p.98-99)

The pain and struggle she goes through to find out what really happened tells you more about her relationship with Rita than all the bickering. I liked her, she was so lacking in self-pity.

'Resistance' by Anita Shreve was a typical Anita Shreve picked up at Claire's house. I went through a bit of an Anita Shreve phase some years ago and loved her small town america stories. This one is set during World War Two however and concerns a shot down airman rescued by the French resistance. Lovely, atmospheric, and without the predictable ending, which was nice.

'Hard by a Great Forest' by Leo Vardiashvili, was won in a Caboodle competition and is not actually published until next year. Written by a Georgian writer about the war that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent exodus of the family concerned. It is a part of the world that I know little about and it was a real eye-opener. Forced to make hard choices and haunted by the people they left behind, many years after their departure Irakli returns to Tbilisi on unfinished business. When he vanishes both his sons follow in a desperate search to find the truth. Well worth looking out for.

Quote from near the end:
"But then I remember one night from my childhood. I was in a bed, all alone in an unfamiliar bedroom. We must have been visiting someone. Pools of darkness filled the corners of the room - perfect hiding places for some other family's monsters. I kept my eyes open owl-wide. There was no way I'd sleep.
Irakli appeared in the doorway, haloed by cigarette smoke and lamplight from the other room. He came and sat down, shifting the bed with his weight. He didn't say much, and what he did say I can't recall. Vague words of comfort. Faint smell of tobacco and wine on his breath.
He put a hand on my chest. And finally, I slept.
Laid out on the lumpy wet forest floor, I try to feel the weight of my father's hand on my chest." (p.216)

'Lonely Castle in the Mirror' by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel, was pressed on my by Monkey because she wanted someone to discuss it with. I was confused, because I thought it was going to have more fantasy element, but it turned out to be a bunch of lonely teenagers learning about real friendship via a magical mirror world. Not my usual kind of thing but we had some interesting chats about it anyway.

'Wild Things' by Laura Kay was a lovely comfort read for me. El decides to have a year of doing scary things. But then suddenly she and a bunch of friends buy a house together when one of them breaks up with a girlfriend and is going to abandon their plans. It's all very cosy about them getting to know the locals and making their house and garden into a home. The main character faces her fears and has some personal growth, that kind of sentimental stuff. Sappy and heartfelt. I like one of these occasionally.

Currently reading 'A Widow for a Year' by John Irving, and not sure how I feel about it. Life a little in flux at the moment and struggling to hold it together. Stay safe. Be kind.

Post script: 
'A Lost Lady' by Willa Cather, picked up in the charity shop on the basis of having enjoyed My Antonia, was a small story of a woman's vulnerability. A young boy watches and idolises a local beauty, watching as her life's fortunes change, feeling both protective and often angry at her poor choices. While it was interesting it was mostly as a study of patronising misogyny: Marian fails to live up to to Niel's idea of what a woman should be and how she should behave.

Monday, 25 September 2023

Mantis Shrimp


We have found a new puzzle game to add to the daily list, called Metazooa. You have to try and figure out the animal, based on some pretty obscure clues with lots of long latin words. It's fun anyway.
The other day the answer was the Mantis Shrimp.
What's not to love.

Tuesday, 29 August 2023


'My Friend Anne Frank' by Hannah Pick-Goslar is the story of Hannah, childhood friend of Anne Frank, and the story of her war, a completely different one than Anne experienced. But before that it is the story of their friendship, having met at the age of 5, both German immigrants to Amsterdam, thrown together by circumstances but forming a bond that outlived Anne, and that meant Hannah spent much of her adult life educating children across the world about the Holocaust. It is both harrowing, for she experienced suffering that in some ways Anne was shielded from in hiding, but also heroic. Not only did she survive but she saved her young sister Gabi who was only a toddler when they were incarcerated; one by one the rest of her family died and they were left, and she devoted herself body and soul to caring for her sister. They spent nearly a year at Westerbork in the Netherlands and then over a year in Begen-Belsen, ending up on the lost train as the Germans tried to move prisoners as the allies advanced. She was a child, one of so many millions, forced to grow up too quickly, who experienced things that nobody ever should. This is from 1943, just after her mother has died in childbirth, one of so many losses she barely had time to grieve:

"My mother was my confident, my cheerer-on, she who knew me best. She had loved me and spoiled me in the small ways she could. I would have done almost anything for one more Wednesday afternoon crossing Dam Square to reach De Bijenkorf, our hands gliding over the silks and satins of dresses made in Paris, sipping our cups of warm hot cocoa for me, coffee for her. I missed her devotion to me, the intimacy we built over those years when I was the only child, fortunate in my devoted, doting parents. Where was I in this world that kept getting darker if she was not there to help me find my way? I'd sometimes creep into the bedroom she had shared with my father and open her wardrobe to hold her dresses to my face, eyes closed, imagining I could still feel her here with me. On my fourteenth birthday, one week after she died, I thought of the word 'motherless' and realised that's what I'd be for the rest of my life. People I knew - meaning the best but breaking my heart - said that I was 'quite the little mother' for Gabi. But I didn't want to be her mother. I wanted our mother back.
Papa told me that the lessons Mama had taught me through the way she lived her life were now part of me too, woven into my heart and there to tap, even if I did not understand that now." (p.108)

After liberation she went to Palestine, became a nurse and married, living to the ripe old age of 93. Surviving and thriving seems to me to be the only way to deal with such inhuman treatment and horrifying experiences, and I was very much left with the feeling that her childhood full of family love and friendship fortified her, gave her resources to draw on and she was certainly an amazing woman.

Also this, the moment she and Anne become friends:

"We went into a classroom where there were lots of children looking extremely busy. Some sat at small desks, playing with wooden blocks; others traced letters or sat on mats working on their writing. I spotted a girl with glossy dark hair that was almost black. I couldn't see her face as her back was turned to me. She was playing on a set of silver bells. In that moment, she turned around and looked at me. In a flash, we recognised one another. It was the girl from the corner grocery store? We instantly rushed into each other's arms as if we were long-separated sisters, sentences in German flowing between us like a volcano of connection. My clenched stomach released; my anxiety vanished and I smiled.
'My name is Annelies. You can call me Anne,' said the girl."

Monday, 21 August 2023

Butt-faced Miscreant


I have started a new rota and feel discombobulated by having days off.
Algorithms can sometimes be handy and Netflix sent me back to Gilmore Girls the other week. When you are in a funk what you need most is to sit and watch something that is so familiar you barely need to pay attention and definitely not bother to pause when you pop to the loo. So Rory calling Logan a butt-faced miscreant has been the best moment of today.
The cucamelon in the kitchen has died from neglect, and the lovely batch of basil plants that I put on my bedroom windowsill for the best sunshine became completely infested with whitefly and utterly inedible ... I never even got the chance to have a chicken and basil bagel. 

Stay safe. Be kind. Tidy up your dead plants.

Saturday, 19 August 2023

Weddings and all that

We should have been at Horton Grange three years ago, but you know ... covid. It was worth the wait. Lewis and Rachel have been a couple for about 15 years now and finally last Saturday they got married. The day was perfect. The food was lovely, the place was lovely, and the threatened thunderstorms did not materialise. 
This moment as the boys stood waiting for Rachel to arrive was what set me off first. 
Hopefully we will get more photos at some point but a few people shared ones they took. I love photos of my children together ... they are so few and far between these days. I wanted to take one with my two daughters-in-law but somehow it didn't happen.
Much fun was had by everyone. Lewis split his trousers on the bouncy castle and Mindy's shoe fell to pieces, and you can call it a success if that's the worst that happened. And I did have the most lovely lunch with Ady.
Stay safe. Be kind. Relish the special time.

We're all related to Charlemagne

Yet another book that has to go back to the library ... why are there people out there wanting to read the same books I am reading. I mean it's not new out or anything, look at it, it's really battered. 'A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived' by Adam Rutherford is utterly fascinating and I am just going to have to re-reserve it to read the other half. This is just going to be a quickie as I have other more important things to write about than the history of the entire human race. While he tries very hard to make it accessible to the lay reader I did flounder a bit in places with the vocabulary but I liked him because he is brutally honest about the fact that the subject is so complex that we are barely scraping the surface of genetics:

"Even when we know the genome intimately, and the pattern of inheritance, and the history of the DNA, and the migration patterns of the people who carried it, and the evolutionary pressures that led to the perpetuation of the genes and phenotypes - even when we know all that, how it manifests can still be mysterious and surprising. Anyone who says differently is selling something." (p.104)

And then it got even more brutal about the random people who make grandiose claims about their ancestors ... because when it comes down to it, you don't have to go back very far before everyone is related to everyone else:

"You are of royal descent, because everyone is. You are of Viking descent, because everyone is. You are of Saracen, Roman, Goth, Hun, Jewish descent, because, well you get the idea. All Europeans are descended from exactly the same people, and not that long ago. Everyone alive in the tenth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne, and his children, Drago, Pippin and, of course, not forgetting Hugh. If you're broadly eastern Asian, you're almost certain to have Genghis Kahn sitting atop your tree somewhere in the same manner, as if often claimed. If you're a human being on Earth, you almost certainly have Nefertiti, Confucious or anyone we can actually name from ancient history in your tree, if they left children. The further back you go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases, though the knowledge of our ancestors decreases. It is simultaneously wonderful, trivial, meaningless and fun." (p.152)

Because the study of DNA is mostly interesting and useful on a grand scale, because it is teaching us about the history of the human species rather than the history of any particular person. Because genes are not deterministic, they indicate that something might be the case, or is likely over a population holding a particular gene, not that you will definitely have blue eyes, or die of cancer.

Stay safe. Be kind. Respect your genome.

Tuesday, 8 August 2023

Much poetry


Poetry all from the library ... it's been a delight to find so many there when I search someone's name, mostly from reviews in the Grauniad. 'So Many Rooms' by Laura Scott is one I would buy. They are interesting, pithy poems, never wishy-washy. I liked all the first few with references to Russian literature. I like poets unafraid to be clever. A smattering of memories and observations, the little things you mostly pass over. Some are 'descriptive' but mostly they ask you to pause a moment and consider something. It is ok to use the word profound? 

The soft thud of it
as it hit the car,

feathers floating 
up like smoke

rising into the blue
on a packet of gitanes.

I've always thought
too much of death,

let it hang around
my ankles like a child

you drag across the floor.
I never found

the right broom
to shoo it away.

'All the Men I Never Married' by Kim Moore is a fabulous feminist rant of a book, venting the poet's frustration at the state of the world and the complexity of human relationships. They cover uncomfortable moments in taxis, and on trains, unsolicited opinions, ex boyfriends, deepfake porn and rape. Sometimes harrowing, but I don't mind being harrowed by poetry, it doesn't feel manipulative because it is honest.

The night I left home, walked away even though
he told me to come back, I caught the night bus
into the city. Around me were young women
wearing the clothes I used to wear,
bra-straps showing, bare-legged, lounging like cats.
Their laughter washed over me as the bus
staggered and leaved itself around corners.
I didn't move as they swayed and fell into each other.
Through the window I watched a man
skirt a puddle, his briefcase against his chest,
a strange and solitary dancer.
He looked at me, then looked away.
I wish I could say I stayed out all night,
had a life-changing encounter with someone
homeless and lonely and worse off than me,
or even that I'd sat in McDonald's,
drank cup after cup of lukewarm tea,
vowed never to go back home again.
The truth: I was too afraid to stay out all night
because everything wild within me had gone.
I went to my sister's, though I knew
he would find me. The path in darkness
the crunching of snails underfoot.
The many small deaths of that night.
His fist on the door, again and again.
Realising he would not leave, pretending to her
that it would be ok, that this was an ordinary row.
Making myself go downstairs and get into his car.
And what happened next, and what came after,
I do not remember. I see the same things you do now.
Him walking down the path in his leather jacket.
Me following after. The back of my head. His smile
as he opens the car and mock bows me in.
My sister standing in the light of the porch,
her arms crossed, angry and silent.

I love Mary Oliver, I mean what kind of self respecting poetry reader doesn't love Mary Oliver, but I was underwhelmed by 'Why I Wake Early'. They are very descriptive, unprovocative, almost sentimental. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it. Several religious references put me off. I give you, unseasonably:

The snow
began slowly,
a soft and easy

of flakes, then clouds of flakes
in the baskets of the wind
and the branches
of the trees - 

oh, so pretty.
We walked
through the growing stillness,
as the flakes

pricked the path,
then covered it,
then deepened
as it curds and drifts,

as the wind grew stronger,
shaping its work
less delicately,
taking greater steps

over the hills
and through the trees
until, finally,
we were cold,

and far from home.
We turned
and followed our long shadows back
to the house,

stamping our feet,
went inside, and shut the door.
Through the window
we could see

how far away it was to the gates of April.
Let the fire now
put on its red hat
and sing to us.

Stay safe. Be kind. Take a moment.

Fox and Goose

Obsession has been the subject of both these books, but rather different ones. 'How to be Human' by Paula Cocozza (who should get herself a website) was the one the library had after I read a review of 'Speak to me' in the Guardian. In it Mary, recovering badly from a recent breakup, becomes obsessed with a fox who visits her garden. She is jealous of the neighbour couple's 'perfect' life and tiny baby and is plagued by inadequacy and insecurity. Her imagination runs wild, along with the fox, and she thinks she has formed a bond with it. Does the fox really deliver the neighbour's baby to her doorstep ... it seems unlikely? It felt more like a story about an emotional breakdown, and she uses the fox, like a force field, to defend herself from the controlling boyfriend when he tries to inveigle himself back into her life. It was surreal but utterly engaging, magical realism allowing the reader to enter into the world she finds herself in and just go along for the ride. 
"Mary had spoken quietly. But the trees were listening, and all the half-awake things in the woods were listening, and in her ears her voice boomed. She scrambled to a stand, tugging down the ankles of her jogging bottoms against another assault on the nettles. Her ears buzzed with a distant drone. She strained in the direction of the scent, trying to glean some reliable outline from the darkness. 'Are you there?' she called again. She felt herself to be in the eye of an intense, unlocatable gaze. Not a shadow flinched. She stared at the place where she thought she smelt him. 
'It's me,' she said again.
She pictured his ears pricked into two pointed portals opening up their dark, Gothic chapels, snuffing out all the night sounds like wicks till the only flickering was her breath. She inhaled with a flutey whistle, which winged its way towards him. Soft and sad." (p.181)
'The Book of Goose' by Yiyun Li is about Agnes and her childhood obsessional friendship with Fabienne. Fabienne makes her life more exciting, is the leader in all their adventures, but you sense as they have gotten older she is wanting to grow up, where Agnes wants things to continue the same forever. They live a dull rural life in a nowhere small town, and knowing their lives will unfold in a predicable and unavoidable path Fabienne instigates their writing of a book of disturbing stories that the local postmaster takes to a publisher. The ensuing media interest is avoided by Fabienne who refuses to put her name to the book, encouraging Agnes to take the limelight. It results in Agnes being taken to England to a finishing school, which she hates. Poor Agnes, I felt like everyone was using her. Fabienne just seems to enjoy having a pawn to control. The publisher and the school headmistress are just exploiting her celebrity for their own gain. But maybe Fabienne has done her a favour by forcing her out into the big wide world? This one quote I noted down seems to sum up everything:
"Nothing is more inexplicable than friendship in childhood. It is not companionship, thought the two are often confused. childhood companionship is forced upon the children: tow playmates whose parents like to share a drink on the weekend, a boy and a girl assigned to sit next to each other at school, families renting the neighbouring holiday cabins every summer. Childhood friendship, though it has to meet the same geographical and temporal prerequisites, is something rarer: a child does not seek to bond with another child. The bond, defying knowledge and understanding, either is there, or is not; once a bond comes into existence, no child knows how to break from it until the setting is changed. It baffles me at often songs and poems are written about love at first sight: those who claim to experience the phenomena have preened themselves, ready for love. There is nothing extraordinary about that. Childhood friendship, much more fatal, simply happens." (p.107-8)

Much reading happening ... very little blog posting. Many library books need returning. Trying not to beat myself up about it.
Stay safe. Be kind.

Thursday, 27 July 2023

Garden Chaos and Flowers

Feeling slumpy ... and damp. It has rained for weeks. Went outside and the plants have been loving it.
I failed to prop up the tomatoes so they are just lying on top of various other stuff ... but lots of fruits:
The sun shone briefly and made some flowers glow:

I have read some books ... but mostly have been to work then slumped.
Stay safe. Be kind. Try not to slump.

Saturday, 1 July 2023

July in the Garden

Above is the flower that has emerged from a 'decorative' carrot plant, one of many things that survived the winter and has just quietly been doing its own thing.
Below is something else that overwintered, it is chicory catalogna gigantic di chioggia from Vital Seeds. I found the leaves quite bitter so just abandoned it, then in the spring it started growing again and put up this huge statuesque shoot, about 6 feet tall:
I waited several weeks for the flowers to emerge and they are a complete delight:
I have been planting seeds on and off over the months. There are some meagre basil seedlings on the inside kitchen windowsill but the nicotiana on the outside are coming along quite well:
I chopped down the triffids the other day because the flowers had finished but the garden has another monster ... the squash:
which has also finally put out some flowers. I am excited to see what fruits I might enjoy later this summer:
The garden blooms on all over, enjoying the warmth and the regular rain:
Stay safe. Be kind. Grow something tasty.

Thursday, 29 June 2023

Some weeks of reading

What do you do when you finish your Japanese degree? Why get yourself out on a charity shop trawl for some new reading material of course. Unfortunately Monkey did not find anything that appealed ... whereas I had a ball. I have had a busy reading time over the last few weeks and enjoyed all of them. The pile, however, was lingering unreviewed, and you know how I hate that ... so this will be a race through.
First up, 'Chorus' by Rebecca Kauffman was a family saga, seven siblings go out into the world after the early loss of their mother, each with their own memories of childhood, their bond with each other bringing them back home in their turn.
"What Bette really longed for, oddly, was precisely the people whom she had done her best to avoid for many years: her sisters. Wendy, who always knew what to do. Maeve, who was always good for a laugh. Lane, sensitive and kind. Bette and Lane had not been particularly close at any stage of life, but lane had offered very comforting words to Betty she she first learned of Ray's death. Lane had lost her own husband, John Winthrop, a number of years earlier, to the war, and Lane had remained a widow since, raising her son, Thomas, now a teenager, on her own. Bette longed for the presence of all, or any, of her sisters, whose attempts to remain in touch Bette had casually cast aside over the years. She longed for the familiarity, the immediate and unceremonious intimacy of sisterhood." (p.119)

'The Last Resort' by Jan Carson takes place on a run down caravan park and tells of the dishevelled lives of the people living and visiting. They are all very caught up in their own problems but come together in a crisis. Here Vidas, one of the refugees:
"The first time I bumped into Frankie, he was standing outside, smoking in the middle of the night. He said his caravan was about to fall off the cliff. He couldn't sleep for worrying it might take him with it. This is the third time we've met like this. It helps me put the night in. Mostly, Frankie talks and I listen. I don't mind. I know what it's like to have no one listening to you. I miss a lot of what he says - Frankie's from Derry; his accent's so thick he might as well be speaking another language - but I can tell i'm helping, just by listening. I feel useful with Frankie, like there's a point to me again." (p.46)

I have read several other by Jon McGregor and 'The Reservoir Tapes' was up to his usual standard. Kind of similar to Last Resort in that each chapter is told by a different person who has a particular perspective on the situation in hand. Here a young girl has gone missing and each of the people have some connection to her. Their tales combine to build a picture of the community.
"Ian still walked past the old quarry site, now. He liked to make sure the fence was in good order. It was a peaceful place to be. Not like it had been back then, with the dust and the noise and the bare blasted rock. Now it was a clear blue water, trees, birdsong. The evening air beginning to cool after a long hot August day. Dragonflies zipping about above the water, no doubt. Swallows skimming low across the surface. It seemed likely there'd be some good fishing down there, if you could get to the banks. Grayling, maybe even trout. But there was no chance he'd be trying anything like that. Trouble with all the regeneration that went on at these places, it tended to disguise the dangers. You make everything look pretty enough, some idiot would forget why the fence was even there." (p.117)

Back in March I went along to a Manchester Literature Festival event at the library and listened to Sebastian Barry do a wonderful reading from 'Old God's Time', and got a signed copy. Only very loosely tied to the family clan that populates many of his novels it is the story of Tom Kettle, retired policeman, reflecting from the quiet of his new life on the love and pain of earlier times. I wanted to write a long review of this one but sometimes I just have to let it go. My mum finds him depressing but I have loved all his books and get attached to the character and their lives. Tom's love for his deceased wife peppers the book and his longing for her is exquisitely poignant, never mawkish. I felt it, and mourned with him.
"The glad embrace, just on the verge of embarrassment, as if a few days apart had nearly made strangers of each other, and the options open were: fall in love again, or flee. The weird giddiness of it. He was sure mere age couldn't blunt that. He trod along between the beautiful houses, their high walls, their perfected oldness and rightness, thinking of what it would have meant to him to grow old with June. Was it not one of the ordinary rewards of love? Crawl with each other at hospital appointments maybe, but also revel in the allotment of days still left. Talk about the children with the reverence and pride of former owners. He could only imagine it. I|t was given to you either to live, or not to live, there was nothing else. A soul like him left on earth without the person he had loved - what sort of creature was that?" (p.59)

'The Ghost in the Throat' by Doireann Ni Ghriofa has been on the library list for a couple of years now and while it didn't disappoint I feel I would have got more from it if there had been a pronunciation guide for the names, I found it frustrating not knowing how to say, in my head, the poet's name. In the book a nameless woman finds herself, while raising her children, obsessed by Eibhlin Dubs Ni Chonaill, translating her famous poem and excavating the past in search of the truth about her life. It's difficult book to sum up because it's like nothing else; part novel, part detailed research into Irish history and the invisibility of women in it.
"I never grew out of the habit of reading by fingertip. Now, wherever I search archives for references to Eibhlin Dubh, the line of my scalpel-scar mirrors the pale space between lines of text. My skin remembers that blade well, but it is rare that these antique papers remember her name. I try to find her. I try and try and fail and fail. Eventually I return to Mrs O'Connell's enviable access to the letters of her brothers. Perhaps the compulsion to lay a woman's life before me and slowly explore each layer started in the dissection room; so many of our most steadfast patterns are begun in those years between childhood and adulthood." (p.115)

I have a whole pile of new things to consider now, including some more non fiction, and a nice book about gardens. 
Stay safe. Be kind. Read.

Thursday, 22 June 2023

Red in tooth and claw

30 Days Wild is very much a cosy 'isn't nature beautiful' kind of challenge, and I enjoy a pretty flower or butterfly as much as the next person, but sometimes nature hits you in the gut with the reality of survival of the fittest. Casually watching a trailer on Youtube earlier this afternoon a link to a goshawk nest cam came up in the suggestions (probably because I watch the ospreys regularly ... and you know ... algorithms). So Monkey and I popped over and started watching, and goshawklings are completely adorable. There was a bit of something half eaten at the back of the nest so we scrolled back looking for the moment when the parent arrived and dropped off some food. We are in for a nasty few minutes. We arrive at a moment when one of the bigger chicks starts pecking at the little one, it looks like a bit of a squabble. It can't get away and the big one persists. We watch in horrified fascination. The two other siblings move, as you can see in the screen shot, to the edge of the nest, pretending not to notice what is going on. It begins to dawn on us what is going to happen and I scroll forward twenty minutes or so (because it's pitiful squawks and efforts to escape are heartbreaking) and the little one is a bloody mess twitching in the corner while their big brother or sister is eating. I slam the computer shut and we sit stunned. Once it decided its sibling was food it was the inevitable outcome. That is one pretty determined goshawk and it is good for the gene pool that the tough ones survive. The trouble is we now have to go back tomorrow and check how many are left. (About an hour later one of the parents arrives back and begins feeding the corpse to the remaining chicks.)
Stay safe. Be kind. Give your siblings a wide berth.
Here's a dragonfly, seen at the park today, to cheer you up after the traumatic story:

Wednesday, 21 June 2023

Corvids and all that


We regularly see a variety of crows and rooks in the parks and we were recently discussing needing to know more about how to distinguish between these very similar birds. So I asked the interweb and found some very helpful answers. The video above, very much worth a couple of minutes if you are interested, comes from the British Trust for Ornithology website. Also this pictorial guide from Country Life magazine is excellent. But of course, then the search takes a different turn and we came across this wonderful list of collective nouns for all different bird species ... go and check out your favourites ... a parcel of oystercatchers, a squadron of pelicans and a committee of vultures.
Stay safe. Be kind. Identify some birds.

Tuesday, 20 June 2023

Tiny flowers

I have a tiny garden. 
It is about 12 feet by 10 feet. 
I love things that have tiny flowers. They delight me.
So I went around the garden finding the tiniest.
Last visit to the garden centre I bought a miniature rose.
It delights me. The leaves are tiny, the thorns are tiny, the buds are tiny.
The flowers are exquisite.

(This looks big, but it's really close up on the ivy-leaved toadflax)

Stay safe. Be kind. Tiny joys are the best.

Forget Me Not

I read 'Forget me not' by Sophie Pavelle last month and it had been buried under more recent reads. It was a most engaging read, and, despite being about some of the UK's most endangered species it was pretty upbeat. While giving us the lowdown about the environmental loss she also gave the positive stories of the people working to research and improve the chances of each one. The book charts her journeys (mostly during gaps between the lockdowns) around the country to understand in person what is happening to our wild environment. She covers the more relatable subjects like the harbour porpoise, the grey long-eared bat, the mountain hare and the marsh fritillary (butterfly) but also the more unlikely ones like the dung beetle and the seagrass. Each one has its very specific needs and niche. You can almost see a theme developing because it's precisely the narrowness of the niche that makes each species so particularly vulnerable; like the marsh fritillary that becomes isolated in small pockets of suitable meadows, meaning its protectors are struggling to create corridors to connect these pockets. 

The story of the mountain hares was very striking to me. Climate change has already affected the length and temperature of the winter, meaning the snow is disappearing earlier leaving the hares with their white winter coat exposed to predators. However, the grouse 'industry' means there is extensive control of predators in many areas of Scotland, which offers them some protections. This conversely means that there is not the pressure on them to change. It is a fine balancing act, one kind of human activity has one effect, then different activity also affects them. 
"So, what's happening on grouse moors in Scotland is that we're meddling with their potential to evolve because by removing the majority of their predators, we are releasing a vital selection pressure that would, in theory, trigger an evolutionary answer to the problem of sticking out. Nature made mountain hares the right colour for each season, but our meddling has painted their fur in an unseasonal hue, and now hares are unwittingly wearing the wrong shade. Oh honey.
'It's the most likely explanation for why they have not evolved to match the 'new' shorter snow seasons,' Markets admitted. She considered how wonderful it would be if we reintroduced more golden eagles and other key predators that have been lost across much of the Highlands. But this could be bad news for the hares, as predators will find them more often. 'To restore the natural systems successfully, we must first understand all the players in the game.' Holistic with a capital H." (p.266)

The news yesterday concerning the rising sea temperature was most depressing and it often feels like time is running out. I have to balance the news with something encouraging. From the seagrass being planted by armies of volunteers to the ambitious rewilding project at Knepp Castle estate the book is full of stories of enthusiasts doing wild things and making the world a better place. It left me uplifted rather than despondent. 
Stay safe. Be kind. Try and think positive.


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