Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Bit of a botanical binge

Went for a walk along the clifftop in the direction of Porth Dinnlaen and somehow decided to start recording plants in flower. I had, in a sense, gone equipped because I’d taken a GPS and a notebook and pen, and it did rather slow us down. We were out for two and a half hours and managed to walk three miles in total. It was a very grey day after a night of rain and so we wore gaiters in anticipation of mud, but in fact the land here seems to drain very well and we didn’t really need them. Stella has bought a new pair of 3/4 height walking boots to try to support her ankles and so in order to match her I put on my old Scarpas, the ones I did the Camino with, and we set out looking rather imposing I imagine. My old boots are probably the most comfortable I’ve ever walked in but they have the fatal (potentially) flaw of suddenly giving way on wet rock, which makes clambering around on beaches extremely hazardous. Happily there was only one slip today, but it rather puts me on edge.

I was thrilled with the total of 37 plants in flower. It’s the most I’ve ever recorded in one day, and it took several hours back at the cottage to double check and verify them. I was surprised how many I’d got almost but not quite right, however it’s a step in the right direction and I’m getting better at checking for the vital information to record, and taking the right photographs for reference later.Here’s the list – the BSBI record numbers are in the big black notebook but I couldn’t fit them here tidily and in any case they don’t matter just for the diary. I wonder if I should send them to the County Recorder – there’s nothing at all rare or unusual but they do mark the existence of a plant for future reference (global warming, for instance). One plant in particular I’d never heard of Tutsam – Hypericum androsaemum – I was excited to ID it. I was also delighted to recognise 2 different species of Heather.

Achillea millefolium Yarrow
Armeria maritima ssp maritima Thrift
Atriplex prostrata Spear Leaved Orache
Bellis perennis Daisy
Calystegia sepium Hedge Bindweed
Centaurea nigra Lesser Knapweed
Chamerion augustifolium Rosebay Willowherb
Cirsium arvense Creeping Thistle
Crithmum maritimum Rock Samphire
Digitalis purpurea Foxglove
Erica cineria Bell Heather
Erica tetralix Cross Leaved Heath
Filipendula ulmaria Meadowsweet
Heracleum spondylium Hogweed
Holcus lanatus Yorkshire Fog
Hypericum androsaemum Tutsan
Hypochaeris radicata Cats Ear
Impatiens glandulifera Indian Balsam
Jasioni montana Sheeps Bit
Leontodon saxatilis Lesser Hawkbit
Lonicera periclymenum Honeysuckle
Lotus corniculatus Birdsfoot Trefoil
Origanum vulgare Wild Marjoram
Plantago lanceolata Ribwort Plantain
Plantago major Greater Plantain
Plantago maritima Sea Plantain
Potentilla anserina Silverweed
Pulicaria dysenterica Common Fleabane
Rubus fruticosa agg Bramble
Sambucus nigra Elder
Senecio jacobaea Ragwort
Silene dioica Red Campion
Sonchus asper Prickly Sowthistle
Taraxacum officinale agg Dandelion
Torilis japonica Upright Hedge Parsley
Trifolium pratense Red Clover
Tripleurospermum inodorum Scentless Mayweed

As well as plants we had some delightful moments on the beach, where a grey seal came quite close inshore and stared at us with apparent interest. After a minute or so she slipped beneath the waves and disappeared from view, but on our return walk we spotted a very similar looking female hauled out on a rock. She was very pregnant and looked as if she might give birth to her cub at any moment. Big as she was, her movement across the rock was so ungainly and must have made her very vulnerable. We guessed she might have come inshore to find a safe place to have her cub. She was a truly beautiful animal.

We also saw a Shag with three fledged young, sitting on what seems to be a favourire place. There were also a number of Ravens around. We saw five in a field, scrapping in a desultory way halfway between playing and fighting. The only butterfly was a Common Blue feeding on Birdsfoot Trefoil which seemed rather sleepy and allowed me to get close enough with my phone to take a picture.

Later we drove to Whistling Sands to look for the sloe trees we picked from last year but they’d been flailed this year and there was no fruit to be had. The afternoon was turning increasingly grey and miserable and apart from being too warm could have been mistaken for `November it was so gloomy. So we drove through Aberdaron but didn’t feel tempted to get out in the drizzle and came back to the cottage. As a long shot we decided to see what the sloes were doing in the garden and the lane down to the beach and to our great delight we picked five and a quarter pounds of lovely ripe fruit, enough to transform two bottles of gin! With the Damson Vodka we’ve already made we’ll have more than enough to keep us going for the whole of 2018.

I had forgotton to mention that it’s the second anniversary of our retirement.