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 Dubh 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.

Monday 19 June 2023

Bugs and all that

This large red damselfly was spotted in the garden back at the end of May, and it's the first time I have seen anything dragonfly-ish. The British Dragonfly Society has a very informative and helpful website if you want to identify flying beasties of this kind.
This little critter below was on the little table this afternoon while I was potting up some seedlings. My best guess is a leafhopper. The British Bugs website helped me out identifying this one, I just clicked around the gallery until I found what was most similar. It is an excellent site, lots of detailed photos and general information about bugs (Hemiptera):
The leaves of the random wildflowers in the with crab apple tree have been particularly targeted by the leaf cutter bees but I had not seen any, and in fact was worried it was just the dreaded vine weevils which also do something similar:
Then I spotted one, but it flew off before I could get a photo. I was about to give up when it came back for another bite. The bee guide says it is a patchwork leaf cutter bee, easy to identify by the orange pollen brush on it's underside (clearly seen if you look close): 
Stay safe. Be kind. Love all the bugs.

Sunday 18 June 2023

Losses and Wins

I wrote about the blue tits back at the beginning of the month, and unfortunately the news is not good.
While they could cope with some disruption the builders went on to remove the soffits and guttering immediately above their nest site and at that point the parents admitted defeat. On the plus side the roof is nearly done, and look at that lovely new guttering, we are anticipating a snug and dry winter with no leaks.
Over at Lock Arkaig there was an owl strike one night shortly before the hatching was due and one of the three eggs was lost.
Happily a couple of weeks ago one of the other eggs hatched and the hatchling is going strong. It seems the final egg is a dud, still sitting on the nest in the way, but they will probably remove it when they climb up and tag the baby in a few weeks:
Stay safe. Be kind. Put some water out for the birds.

Saturday 17 June 2023

Blue flowers and another Bee

I had lots of nigella last year, and they have a reputation for easy spreading but only one has popped up so far, in with the crab apple tree. I love the delicate spiny leaves as well as the multi-layer flower.
The Jacob's Ladder was bought last year I think as a tiny plant and it grew into a huge bush, but has only finally flowered this year. It doesn't like drying out and will wilt very quickly, and I read that it prefers partial shade so I may move it to somewhere it will be happier.
This is some flax (the RHS website tells me) that was in a random dried out pot and I have been watering since the spring in the hope that it was something, and it rewarded my efforts today with these delightful flowers:
And yesterday my mining bee (yes, I get personally attached to each and every bee that visits my garden) paid a return visit to the exact same leaf as the other day. It is a bad photo as he is mostly under the leaf but I think it may be an ashy mining bee as it was definitely greyish fluff. The Urban Bees guide describes how they stuff their nest holes with chewed up leaves, rather than pieces of leaf like the leaf-cutters:
Meanwhile in the kitchen ... cucamelons:
Stay safe. Be kind. Rest in the shade.

Thursday 15 June 2023

Blooms for Bloom Day

There is so much going on in the garden it is hard to keep up. Things are thriving despite the heatwave. The violas (above) continue to delight and flower continually. These were a few scrubby plants that overwintered under the bench and now are earning their spot in the sunshine.
Below some verbena, in with the fennel and rather crowded out, but managing to make itself seen:
The scabious have been popping up all over the garden, self seeding like mad after having a few last year:
This salvia is flowering, though the other one behind is biding it's time:
The oxalis that colonises the side bed is recovering from yet another bout of the rust mould that means I chop it right back. It hasn't as much room as previous years but is a huge favourite with the bees:
Orange marigolds grown from seed this year. The plants are still quite small but they are beginning to flower:
The triffids by the back door are still producing copious amounts of blooms though the flowers on the really tall stems have pretty much finished. It's been fun but I think my space is too small to accommodate this giant so I will not be sorry to see them die back.
Campanula is another that I planted for the first time last year and have self seeded all over the place. They are a delight:

Trees for 30 Days Wild


We went away on a magical mystery tour last week to visit the deep south, ending up at the Eden Project in Cornwall. It was a wonderful place, full of information about the planet, both the damage we are inflicting, the work that is being done to repair it and the resilience of natural environments. The two domes are a mediterranean one and a rainforest one. The tree above is an ancient olive tree (presumably transplanted as the place is only 22 years old) and was my favourite on in the first dome. Tish took the picture below showing the contrasting lushness of the rainforest dome.
As I mentioned the other day it was most disconcerting to walk along the wildflower meadow and see nary a bee. It felt a scary sign of the magnitude of the decline of insect populations that somewhere like the Eden Project was not humming with bees. I may have to go and sit outside for a bit now to make myself feel better.
Stay safe. Be kind. Show the trees some love today.


I'm guessing most people have heard of Wordle that had a bit of a moment a year or so ago, and spawned lots of offshoots and variations (Monkey and I do the Dordle and the Squareword too) but then we also found the Worldle: the challenge is to guess the country by it's outline. We had such an interesting time today because it led us down a fascinating pathway. The country in question was Turkmenistan. Monkey is pretty good at recognising the 'Stans' but nearly missed it because the large body of water on the west coast is not part of the coastline as it appears as a casual glance. It is in fact the Kara Bogaz Bay:
and is separated from the Caspian sea by a spit of land, and is in fact the third saltiest body of water on earth (the Dead Sea is 5th, I had always assumed it was the saltiest). It has an area of 18,000 square kilometres (larger than Northern Ireland). So then you have to wonder what the most salty one is???
It's the Gaet'ale Pond (in Ethiopia):
It appeared in 2005 when an earthquake restarted a thermal spring, bringing water at 50 degrees into a small pond, with a salinity of 43.3% (for comparison normal sea water is 3 or 4% salt).
Then looking at the map again and seeing the desert was named Kara Kum we had a little look at that too. It covers 70% of the area of Turkmenistan and has a rainfall of 3-6 inches a year:
Here endeth today's geography lesson. Call back tomorrow for random factoids about another country.

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Extra bee delight

Today's bee delight was several red-tailed bumblebees. All the others were around too, lots of honey bees. I managed to catch a photo of the elusive furrow bee, he is pretty tiny and doesn't sit still for very long. You can compare the size as they are both sitting on the same kind of flower:
Then in watching the ones on the window sill I spotted this new delight:
It is a phacelia that I grew from seed this year. The flowers are tiny but have these lovely long stamen. I think this plant was the only seedling that survived my neglect (or overwatering as the case may be). 
And two pale yellow poppies growing with the plum tree are also wonderful:
Stay safe. Be kind. Protect your shoulders, wear a shawl in the sunshine.

Monday 12 June 2023

Saving the bees for 30 Days Wild

After an hour of watering I sat and watched more bees than I saw on the wildflower meadow at the Eden Project and felt very smug. This, I discover, is probably trailing bellflower, a type of campanula, that covers my walls and is the favourite haunt of the bees. So we had honey bees:
tree bumblebees:
what I think, from Alison at Urban Bees June Guide, is a vestal cuckoo bee (they are more common than other similar species):
I had to keep a close eye on them because the spiders were on the prowl, twice attracted by the nearby vibrations to dart out towards a foraging bee. This huge one (meaning probably female) living by the insect hotel:
and this smaller red one on the dog rose (though they are probably both common garden spiders):
I also saw lots of furrow bees and what I hope might have been a mining bee of some kind. I didn't want to leave him to get my camera but just watched him, not on the flowers but munching the edge of a geranium leaf. I am excited to spend more time watching over the next few weeks and see what new species might visit.
Stay safe. Be kind. Spread some bee love.