Old Nog

“What’s your movie?”

Is a the title of a song written by Mose Allison; I’ve got a (possibly bootleg) recording of him singing it at Ronnie Scott’s and I only mention this because Henry Williamson cornered the anthropomorphic market in herons with Old Nog, (who came to life in Tarka the Otter), and I hesitated to name my first thought when we passed this heron on the canal today. Anyway, the song asks a question that’s often asked of literary portrayals of animal life. The worst of them – dare I suggest Watership Down – simply transposes human emotions and dispositions into more or less cuddly animals – which utterly diminishes both the reader and the subject.

“What’s your movie” asks what film character we most identify with or act out – I often listened to its merciless takedown of human weakness on my way to therapy sessions. It always served its purpose in getting me in the right frame of mind for lying on the couch (oh yes) waiting for a word in the silence. A bit like saying your prayers except God was sitting behind you.

What’s your movie?

Are you the artist that’s misunderstood?

The bad guy tryin’ to do good?

Or just the nicest fella in the neighborhood

Mose Allison

So I really enjoy(?) the song but at the risk of trespassing on Henry Williamson’s territory, sometimes another life form – a heron for instance – irresistibly brings someone human to mind. Snakes, donkeys, foxes and butterflies are two a penny but I confess that this bird instantly became a member of an extreme Baptist denomination known as “the strict and particular Baptists“. Heaven only knows what remote root of the luxuriant tree of heresy divided the already strict from the not particular enough members of the original congregation but it must have been fun. I passed what could easily be their only church, driving to Southend one day. But I can find no hope in this heron’s unsparing gaze. He sits absolutely motionless for hours on one or another of his fishing grounds and strikes mercilessly at some poor dace like Amos Starkadder spotting a sinner in the third row of the quivering brethren; gripping the edge of the pulpit and growling “you’re all damned”.

Some animals; dogs for instance but not cats; robins but not peregrines; tench but not pike, can almost convince me that some communication is happening – some thread of negotiable common ground; but not so the heron whose launch into flight seems to defy the possibility of lifting off and yet makes a far better job of it than a mute swan that needs to run on the water before launching. I guess I’ve got nothing that a heron needs enough to bother learning how to flatter me.

I’d have said the the octopus was another creature that failed the common ground test, until we saw recently the remarkable documentary “My Teacher the Octopus” (on Netflix) which seems to suggest that we’re not trying hard enough. If you haven’t seen it you should try, but be warned, you’ll probably never want to eat another octopus. Craig Foster, who made the film (and another equally disturbing/stirring one about tracking animals for food in the Kalahari desert) is apparently now a vegan.

If we’re ever going to find our proper place on this planet we’re going to have to learn a great deal more humility in the face of all its other occupants, from moulds to mountain lions. I don’t, by the way, go for the conventional graphic of evolutionary progress from protozoa to humans, we’re so inextricably part of one another that once you start to zoom in it’s hard to see where one life form begins and another one ends – just ask my gut bacteria! So the poor old heron would have every right to resent being compared to a human preacher.

The daily walk continues to challenge and delight us as the very earliest foliage begins to emerge, intensely green, like a promissory note from the future. More and more of the winter heliotrope are coming into flower and so their elusive fragrance often has you wondering whether it’s the plant or a passer by wearing a tiny trace of perfume. I should stop and watch which insects are visiting, but kneeling down on the towpath risks the danger of being flattened by runners and cyclists locked in their musical islands and breathlessly pursuing their 10K dreams. There are loads of other sturdy beggars of the plant world strutting their stuff in the cold and mist. We’re so lucky to have this all so close.

We were looking at some crime statistics this morning and it appears that 70% of the recorded crimes in Bath are committed in our district. If you include the area immediately across the river it goes closer to 80%. Obviously the figures don’t include undeclared taxable income on property, or white collar fraud. Strangely we feel perfectly safe here and it’s a wonderfully diverse community where you can hear a dozen languages being spoken just while walking into the centre. We’re what happens when you cut whole sections of society adrift. Today we passed Ken Loach – film maker – remember Kes? on our walk. Madame said hello and the poor man looked startled although he’s seen us at any number of meetings. If we lived in the posher parts of Bath we’d have nothing but bedding plants and weed free grass to remind us of nature, but here – down amongst the social housing we can tell a ragwort from a tulip – although you’re more likely to see a red kite than a house sparrow, sad to say.

I notice that the BSBI (Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland) at their virtual AGM had a session on a year of plants growing in the pavement. I think I caught a radio programme on the same theme a couple of months ago – absolutely fascinating. Sadly only 66 people had accessed the BSBI video on YouTube. Does that say something about our national priorities?

asparagus autumn biodiversity chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging garlic global climate crisis global heating growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness Hotbeds intensive farming lockdown meditation no-dig polytunnels potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Sunset, dusk, twilight.

I could have titled this post ‘Nocturne‘ – a bit posey; or – ‘Be careful what you pray for!’ – except that usually applies better to well deserved comeuppances, so I settled on the one it’s got because today we walked through and enjoyed the subtle differences between all three evening states and now as I write this I’m looking through the window at the night – not Van Gogh starry night or Whistler night and especially not Turner night but just the car park, the backs of the terrace and the fast food joint chimney.

We wasted much of the day waiting for a delivery from Royal Mail that never arrived. To recycle a quip from John Mortimer, writer and barrister, “it’s like tantric sex; you’re in all day and nobody comes.” So (moving rapidly on) we didn’t set out on our walk until 3.00pm. Years ago we were walking in Leigh Woods in Bristol when a tramp – ‘rough sleeper’ carries a whole different set of connotations nowadays; this was a man who had chosen to live in the woods for whatever reason. Anyway he came rushing up to us in a state of high excitement and begged us to follow him. “I’ve been living here for ten years and I’ve never seen one before”, he said, and he led us off into the wood where he had found the first thorn apple he, or we, had ever seen there. Jimson weed, devil’s Snare or thorn apple, it’s got a bit of a reputation for being poisonous/hallucinogenic and the RHS entry for it spends almost as much time describing how to kill it as it does to grow it. We, however, were pleased to see it, thanked him and went on our way.

Yesterday I mentioned here that we haven’t yet seen the otters on the river and blow me if we didn’t meet a man who had – earlier today. Yesterday too, I mentioned that we hadn’t noticed the resident heron for a few days and there we were near an improvised shelter (bender) on the bank watching a larger heron that we haven’t seen before when this man came up to us and told us that only this morning he’d seen a female otter with two cubs, swimming at the exact spot we were standing in. It was beginning to feel as if we were on a roll.

What next? Well, a little further on we saw in one spot – without moving – two swans, one cormorant, one kingfisher, our usual heron and two – yes two peregrines. Admittedly the peregrines were about 60 feet up on St John’s Church spire but that was a bit of a moment to savour, and remember; this is all in the very centre of Bath. A group of young men were passing and joined in the peregrine watching. “They’re up there on the nest platform” I said; and one of them replied “I know, my dad made the nest box and two of the little ones have got together and had babies!”

There were hordes of people out walking in the parks and on the canal in spite of the slate grey and rain bearing clouds overhead. Somewhere up there there was rain falling high above us because a rainbow had gathered together all the sunlight that we weren’t seeing and formed an inverted bowl over our heads. Dogs, children, adults, students in careless groups of eight and ten oblivious to the wide birth we were giving them. It was an almost joyful atmosphere as we grabbed what fresh air we could before retreating into lockdown and endless repeats on the television.

As we walked along the river beneath the railway station a long express train pulled in and we noticed for the first time that the lights inside the carriages were glimmering on to the platform. There’s a marvellous sense of inside/outside as it gets darker and the whole townscape slowly changes from day to night. The sky was washed with Paynes Grey, possibly my favourite watercolour; and stationary tree trunks that the spate had brought downstream were riffling the water, making the street lights dance. We quickened our pace to get back where the otters were before it got too dark to see them, but it wasn’t to be. Still; now we know where they are, we can take the binoculars and search for a holt. It was a lovely walk, and completely, unexpectedly rich as walks so often are.

And as I’m writing I remember that among the plants in flower that I listed briefly yesterday, I forgot the hedge woundwort and prickly sow thistle near the canal. The woundwort looks very like a pink/purple nettle, but the killer trick for identifying it is the smell of the crushed leaves that can be anything from mildly unpleasant to almost nauseating. It’s supposed to be effective against boils and such like. I just love the English names of these medicinal herbs; they’re little poems – two or three syllable haiku. Latin names are more useful but I wouldn’t be without Mrs Grieve and Geoffrey Grigson’s lists of local names. I remember an old countryman telling my sister the local name for dandelions – ‘pissabeds’ and giggling as my mother glowered at him. In fact she knew them all very well but never mentioned the more earthy ones.

And then back home, hungry as horses, we fell upon homemade and home grown baked beans; our own borlotti and our own rich tomato sauce mopped up with our own everyday sourdough. Life doesn’t get any better.

It was all going to be so easy

The weather forecast was pretty clear – the present heatwave would end in the usual thunderstorms and torrential rain earlier this week, and the plan was to get on with jobs in the Potwell Inn kitchen – like processing tomatoes into sauces, and passata for the winter. This is the third day we’ve scanned the sky and not spotted a single cloud, and so with the temperature climbing to 34C in the shade, watering has become an exhausting necessity. Plants in pots, even large ones, suffer from stress very quickly. The only plants truly loving the heat are the greenhouse chillies, and there are enough ripened now to freeze and keep us going until next year.

But at the top of this post is a picture of some calendula flowers that we’re wilting before extracting from them in almond oil. We’ve never done this before but the calendula is so useful as a companion plant on the allotment it makes perfect sense to get an effective second benefit from it and so we have oil, beeswax and jars waiting to store this first attempt. We find the commercial cream incredibly effective, and so we’ll soon know whether our home-made version is worth the expense – organic almond oil isn’t cheap. They’re wilting well enough to move to the next stage tomorrow. I really hope it cools down a bit because the thought of reducing 10 kilos of tomato pulp in a kitchen that’s already airless and at 30C is a bit daunting, although the fruit is ripening in a box on the kitchen floor and there’s at least as much again ripe on the vines.

The decision to put ourselves on a pretty savage diet has been helped in one respect by the heat. Who wants to eat in this weather? But the other half of the plan – doing a brisk five mile walk every day before breakfast – has been a struggle, but a fight that’s worth winning. Got to get rid of the lockdown lard!

So we’ve been hiding from the heat indoors most of the day and I’ve been redeeming the shining hour by watching a series of webinars organised by the BSBI – (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) – on the Irish grasses and grassland. There’s plenty of overlap with the UK to make them very useful indeed, and I’m gradually discovering just how useful a knowledge of the grasses is, in searching for their more glamorous relatives. Grass looks like grass, and fields – from a distance – can all look the same, but imagine how powerful it would be to go in to a meadow, take a look at the grasses and the easily identifiable flowers and know that it’s worthwhile searching for something special like orchids. If you search for BSBI on You Tube you can watch them all.

Botanising in this heat has been a no-no, and so the photos are a selection of bridges in Bath, taken in the last 2 days. The still air and unruffled water have created some lovely reflections along our morning route. The odd one out is the heron that likes to perch on Bath Deep Lock. It’s pretty tame, and this is the closest I’ve ever got. I really love this place, but it’s hard to escape the fact that the heatwave, which is affecting gardeners, allotmenteers and farmers, not to mention the people who have to work indoors in it; is a symptom of something terribly wrong with our climate. Our clean air zone has been postponed until next year, and today a white van driver ran his engine outside our flat for at least an hour, to use his air conditioning – like that’s going to help!

The birds come to us at Bath Deep Lock

It rained today at last, or at least enough to wet the ground and keep us indoors most of the day and so I redeemed the shining hour by making a Dundee cake; some – or rather a lot of smoked mackerel paté; and some mushroom soup which, today I thickened with stale bread in the way the French do it sometimes. When you bake all your own bread you agonise about throwing any of it away and so you become ever more inventive at using it up. Fresh; it needs no embellishment, and then toast speaks for itself. But there’s still bread and butter pudding, soup thickening and finally breadcrumbs just so you don’t waste a crumb. When we used to buy bread we seemed to throw away as much as we ate – it was all mouth and no trousers so to speak. Now we probably eat rather more than we should and never waste it. Keeping the bread supply going always reminds me of moving goods on the old canal network – it’s very slow, but as long as you think 24 hours ahead you’ve always got fresh bread, and sourdough keeps rather better than yeast bread.

I managed to lay my hands on 500g of dried bakers yeast today because I do still bake yeast bread and rolls – usually when I forget to start the sourdough in time. I try to leave the dough fermenting for as long as possible and so I’ve gradually cut the yeast down to one level half teaspoon for a two pound loaf. My completely unscientific feeling is that adding too much yeast makes the bread unappetising and stale much quicker. What you gain in rising time you lose in freshness.

Once the kitchen was clear and the cake on a rack, we went for our usual walk up the canal under grey and rainy skies. As we passed by Bath Deep Lock we saw Bath Nats President Prof David Goode intently watching the local heron as it walked purposefully alongside the lock and dropped down to fish from the bottom of the gate. We followed the bird up the canal, and I managed to get a couple of shots with my phone – not great quality I’m afraid, but I’ve never managed to catch a heron taking off before. It’s such an awesome sight to see this big, prehistoric bird winching his way into the sky.

The lock isn’t so named out of any local bragging rights – it really is very deep indeed, quite daunting to exit the canal into the river when it’s flowing fast, and all too easy to lose control of a narrow boat as it’s swept to the left by the current.

Next, as we passed the big pond at the head of the lock, a swan emerged from her nest in the reeds, bringing four cygnets across to see us. They’ve become very used to being fed and were quite tame, although they soon abandoned us when it became clear we had no food for them.

Not long afterwards the skies opened and we turned back towards home taking a shortcut that brought us out on to the river once more, facing St John’s RC church. There was David once again watching the tower intently. It’s an urban nest site for a pair of peregrine falcons who have fledged four young this spring. I had no binoculars so I couldn’t see very much, but we chatted with David for a while – he’s a notable pioneer and expert on urban ecology, and if you ever get a chance to look at bogs and mosses with him you’ll learn so much. But he has a terrible memory for faces and names and depite having been on a dozen meetings and field trips with him he asked us (for at least the twelth time) “what were your names again …?”.

As we were standing there the male (tiercel) flew back to the nest and there was a terrific noise from the hungry young birds because they’d fluttered down to a lower perch and the food had landed a short flight above them, on the official nest platform. Apparently this is a dangerous time for them because in high winds they’re liable to be blown off these insecure perches and into the river.

So all in all, not a bad crop of wildlife, bang in the centre of town. I had to laugh this morning when my Google phone informed me that we’d visited three cities last month. I scrolled down to see which cities we were supposed to have visited. They were Bath – no surprise there then; Severn Beach which used to be a bit of a joke for Bristolians hunting for an end of the world location and certainly not a city, but happens to be where we store the campervan. Finally Bitton came up as the third city. We like to think of it as a very pretty overgrown village.

Make it simple

I was very tempted – ‘though not for long to get a bit above myself, for reasons I’ll explain later. We spent most of the day, as ever, on the allotment except for a brief trip to a garden centre to buy a couple of new watering cans. After the driest and sunniest spring on record we’ve become experts on watering cans, not least because a dud one can lengthen your arms and drive you crazy while it dribbles its contents anywhere but where you want them to go. Watering cans can make watering purgatorial, but ironically we’ve discovered that the cheap as chips plastic ones often work better than the hand crafted artisanal brass and galvanised steel jobs. In our hard water area the expensive ones also suffer from limescale. Anyway, we snaffled up the very last two cans which – from the look of things – had been flying off the shelves along with everything else. There were very few plants, no pots, no vermiculite and no organic slug pellets. The only thing that worked seamlessly was the queueing system and the safety precautions inside. All praise to them – there was abundant hand sanitizer, the trolleys were all wiped down and the one way system kept us apart from the other (small number) customers. Even the payment was made to a protected booth – good for them we thought.

The two photos at the top are of our old and very broken wheelbarrow repurposed as a home for a couple of summer squashes, and the other shows the ever changing interior of the greenhouse, now housing chillies and aubergines.

But the reason I had to check myself was because while I was clearing out the third patch of broad beans and planting out calabrese for later in the year while Madame was moving the winter brassicas into new temporary quarters I was siezed by the disparity between two images of gardening and – sorry about this – two Greek philosophers popped into my mind. In the blue corner – the Plato Garden, beautiful and still, full of the essence of garden but essentially timeless – possibly with a timeless honeybee buzzing around in a philosophical sort of way. And in the red corner the Heraclitus Garden whirling in orbits and sub orbits like an astrolabe on speed.

I think I go for the red corner. The Heraclitian garden that’s constantly in motion; never stationary but always passing through trailing the past in its wake and the future just around the (circular) corner. There’s never a moment on the allotment when we can honestly say – “That’s it” because it’s always becoming “it” or leaving “it” behind. In fact to drift across the track like an out of control F1 pumpkin, in the perfect postmodern garden there would be no “it” at all. That’s something they always get wrong at Chelsea where some clever clogs thinks that shoving a factory chimney in the middle of a Gertrude Jekyll border makes it Postmodern.

So that’s the end of today’s philosophy lecture and straight on to my holiday snap – taken on the canal yesterday. There in the first pound after Bath Deep Lock was this heron sitting on a very rough and ready perch. There’s a large heronry about a mile away above a Honda garage, but perhaps this is his summer fishing spot.

First field trip of 2020

IMG_20200105_114148

Don’t worry – it gets better than this. Everything of any value was removed from this wreck years ago and all that remains is a heap of rusting steel plus an empty can of cider in the boot. The sheer effort of getting it down a muddy track must have been a piece of heroic, almost Fitzcarraldo stupidity, and a fitting memorial to our culture I think. Anyway there was much more to enjoy today apart from my delight in collapsing sheds and old wrecks. There is nothing quite as exciting or challenging as going out on a field trip – OK a long walk – with some genuine experts on hand. Today we were spoilt for choice with a (county recorder level) botanist, a local historian and naturalist, a leading ecologist and an ex president of the British Mycological Society quite apart from some heavyweight birders and a botanical artist. Walking can get quite slow when the objects of interest are so frequent, and so it took us twenty minutes inspecting a passing stream for Signal Crayfish before we even set off. Apparently a local resident has perfected the art of trapping them and eating them for breakfast! – we found his creel lurking there, baited (we were told) with cat food.

From the outset we were away not with just one heron, but a whole heronry of about half a dozen nests with three birds perched high up in the trees overhanging a Honda car dealer. What was it I wrote yesterday about urban wildlife? As we walked on we saw (and heard) all the usual suspects like thrushes and robins, but also a young buzzard, a kestrel, nuthatch, goldcrest and to cap it all we were shown a nesting site for ravens at the end of the walk inside the Bath Abbey cemetery.IMG_20200105_125957

Within the plants, it was good to see rosettes of primrose leaves in the same graveyard (they’re brilliant places for wildlife – you need a PhD to walk through Smallcombe Cemetery with any intelligence). But there were Winter Heliotrope in full perfume for once, and a pair of Arum cousins, one a native – Lords and Ladies and the other its ornamental relative from Italy rapidly making a nuisance of itself in this country and called – surprisingly perhaps – Italian Lords and Ladies.

There were numerous other goodies around, but having someone on the walk who combined expertise on bryophytes and fungi kept us looking at the limestone walls and paths.  Incidentally, he was carrying a second pair of binoculars which he used for close scanning. I tried it on the carpet when we got home but neither of our binoculars would focus down below about 7 or 8 feet.    There’s no point in bigging up your knowledge under these circumstances, the best thing to do is watch and learn with your notebook at the ready. I know a few fungi, and they’re not plentiful at this time of the year but we spotted Wood ear and Yellow Brain fungi.  My photos weren’t very good because I had only taken my mobile phone.

But the biggest excitement of the day was getting close up to some bryophytes. Unlike most humans, they actually look more and more beautiful the closer you look. The thing is they’re often very small and inconspicuous so you tend to overlook them.  That’s not a bad strategy since I’ve just spent over an hour trying to identify one photograph because there are a great number of things that you might (I might) casually describe as ‘moss’, ‘fern’ or ‘liverwort’.  Actually until today I had very little idea what liverworts actually looked like, and there’s the best reason for joining a natural history society and going on field trips, because there will be someone that really does know and the chances are they’ll be a great teacher who’s only too keen to share their expertise. So here’s what a liverwort can look like very close up –

Aren’t they stunning? the textures are unlike anything you can see in most plants. I’m not completely sure about the Targiona hypophylla because I identified it myself, but the other was identified by a national expert so you can bet your boots on it. Even I think I’m sounding a bit breathless about all this but we had such a good time today among some lovely people, we learned a lot from them and, best of all, I discovered that there’s a whole world of winter lists out there to satisfy even my propellor headed tendencies.

IMG_20200105_104419

And below are a few things I didn’t manage to identify, apart from the Maiden-hair Spleenwort on the left. I was intrigued by the reason for it being so named.  A quick flick through Wikipedia suggests it was once used to treat diseases of the spleen, but I couldn’t find any corroborating evidence for that use, only for chest complaints and menstruation problems, for which there are many more commonly used treatments.  So it’s a lost etymology as far as I can see.  One other interesting fact popped up, though. There is another plant called maidenhair fern – whose leaves are exactly like miniature versions of the leaves of the Maidenhair tree – Ginkgo biloba. 

So here’s the rogues gallery of today’s unsolved mysteries.  I really like having a few of these because it keeps me going back.