Washes all your sins away

The temporarily increased tempo of our morning walks to implement our fitness binge precludes any detailed botanising, and so I’ve resorted to noticing a new plant on the first morning and, if necessary, returning to it the next day. That way I can do two or three new i/d’s a day without slowing down too much and annoying Madame. This works really well – for instance I’ve got my eye on a tiny grass which has emerged from the ruins of a recent strimming and set seed at no more than a couple of inches high near the edge of the canal, and I’ll gather a sample tomorrow. Today, however, the soapwort – Saponaria officinalis – in full flower didn’t need much more than a quick photo. This one, like most of them is almost certainly a garden escape because there’s a well tended cottage style garden close by. The name is a bit of a giveaway and apparently (I’ve never tried it) the macerated leaves contain sufficient saponin to make a froth and wash clothes or whatever. Nowadays, soap nuts claim to do much the same thing and are gilded with virtue. I know they’re natural but so are arsenic, foxgloves and (dare I say) syphilis; which brings me back to soapwort because Nicholas Culpeper and Mrs Grieve swear by it for that complaint. I can hardly imagine anyone asking their teenage children to “pop out to the garden and pick some soapwort for you father’s syphilis – the mercury hasn’t worked at all this time!” But I can imagine the unflappable Mrs Grieve striding into the garden in tweeds and brogues and sweeping the herb into her basket for application to the dishonourable member.

So with that thought provoking start to the day, and a trip to the Farmers’ Market to get some onions – because our small crop is already used up. Then a few press ups and squats on the landing reminded me that I’m not thirty any more, and the main work of the day began. The first pickings of the tomatoes have begun and today we brought out the passata machine, cleaned down the kitchen and set up our respective workstations so we could plunge, peel, chop and puree the first six kilos of tomatoes. This lot were to be made into a rich tomato sauce – hence the onions and a rather large quantity of butter. We’re a good team and these days we can knock off six kilos in half an hour. The random quantity is because the pulp fills our biggest pan to exactly the right height to prevent too much splashing as it bubbles down for hours. We make it without any further flavourings or seasoning so that it can be used as a base for any number of more complicated sauces. Thankfully we’re pretty much self sufficient in tomatoes which we preserve and bottle rather than freeze, because our freezer is so small. We also make a good deal of straight passata which bottles very successfully.

During the lockdown tomatoes and all the subsidiary products became almost unavailable here, so it was just as well we were well stocked. I’d definitely recommend getting a cheap, manual passata machine, though, because once you’ve put six kilos of pulp through a chinois you’ll never want to do it again. By all means – if you can afford it – get a fancy stainless steel and electric one, but quite honestly cranking it through is fun and the cleaning takes as long whether it’s a manual or an electric machine.

The Farmers’ Market is gradually coming back to life but it’s much smaller than it once was, and it’s organised for maximum safety so it’s a one-way browsing experience. There are a couple of non organic veg stalls there, and often the organic group make an appearance as well. We were queuing for the onions when a man in a loden coat and a tweed cap pushed directly in front of us, quite oblivious of his lack of manners. I thought I dealt with it pretty well, and bit my lip and waited until our turn came up again. But then the two press-ganged teenage helpers on the stall worked in extraordinarily slow motion, clearly wishing they were anywhere but where they were. We loaded the rucksack and left but as we went down the ramp to Green Park I noticed that my heart was beating furiously. I’m in no position to criticise anyone else for allowing themselves to get so stressed, and I imagine it’s almost ubiquitous in this post lockdown phase when anyone could be a threat.

And it’s been getting busier on the Green, with homelessness and drug dealing more apparent every day. A couple of days ago we tried to help an unconscious young man lying in front of the flat. He was completely lifeless to all intents, but a couple of off duty nurses came out to help and they found a pulse. However the moment an ambulance was mentioned he got up and stumbled off into the woods – we’ve seen him several times since, alive but very unwell. Then, to crown an inglorious week, a young man was killed on the towpath about a mile down river and two people have been arrested.

All the businesses here are desperate to get back to normal, but if this is the new normal then there’s no way we want to live normally any more. The dam holding back all that pent-up anger and aggression is leaking through a crack already and it’s deeply concerning. Thank goodness for the Potwell Inn kitchen.

Surviving in a hostile environment

I realized a while ago that I was going to have to get much closer to some of my botanical subjects in order to identify them properly and study them in more depth, and I’ve invested in a very useful 20x LED hand lens. Then a friend – out of the blue – offered to lend me a microscope, which will be a tremendous help. My desk is getting pretty full at the moment, not least because I’ve been experimenting with my Panasonic camera with a Leica 45mm macro lens photographing against a lightbox background.

I was casting around for something to practice with yesterday, and I spotted a piece of stonecrop – Sedum acre – that I’d collected while I was doing the plant survey of the car park. My desk is a mess at the best of times, and at the moment it’s also dotted with bits of drying and dying plant material that I seem to have a resistance to throwing away. So amongst the dead and dying this piece of stonecrop caught my eye and I set up the camera on a tripod (it’s almost impossible to take macro photos without one) got the flash unit going and after a few duds, got the picture.

The contrast between set-ups and the phone camera is absolute. I’ve said before that they each have their place and I wouldn’t be without either, but there’s nothing spontaneous about the set-up photograph. You’re forced to think what do I really want to see in this shot? and so I can use a small lab clamp, studio lamp, wireless flash and anything else that helps to capture the principal details. On a good day the aesthetic and the observational combine and you get a cracker, but most of the time they’re reference material for the future. I only wish my cataloguing skills could keep up but my tiggerish instincts are always racing on to the next excitement.

Anyway, enough of the technical stuff because what blew me away when I looked at this sample was that it is clearly alive and waiting patiently for the good times to roll again. They don’t put Sedums on wildflower roofs for nothing. Plants have their survival strategies and these can seem very smart indeed. The rue leaved saxifrage that lives on the wilderness of the fire escape survives by flowering and setting seed before the summer sun bakes its remains to a crisp. One of the abiding challenges of amateur botany is the brief lives of many species. Finding some plants is like getting six numbers up in the National Lottery – right place, right time, right weather ….. and so it goes on.

This gift of resilience is a marvellous thing, but I don’t at all underestimate our capacity to chemically outstrip the most resourceful life form – ourselves included. I’m reading Mark Avery’s book “Fighting for Birds” at the moment and he shows the way that extinctions are brought about so often by changes in farming practices which are not just to do with chemicals but also times of harvesting and sowing. But when the going gets tough …. and the real survivors are the kind of plant species – now totalling 26 – that can survive in the hostile environment of our car park.

But is that the kind of world we want to live in? Although I sing the praises of the sturdy beggars below my window, is that all I want? Of course not, but desperation drives us all. Yesterday as I looked out on the Green I saw a previous Director of the National Botanical Garden of Wales kneeling down with his phone to photograph some wall barley. Good for him – perhaps I’ve won him over at last, or perhaps he’s doing a survey of the Green where we’re making small progress on preserving an un-mown strip around the edge.

And if this was simply about preserving some hobby examples for grumpy old botanists and birdwatchers then you could maybe concede the point that it’s an unbalanced and unsustainable view of the world. But if we regard the reduction of our ecosystems to a few super resilient survivors, if we treat the symptoms like the canary in the mine – then it’s horribly clear that we may be the next species to disappear.

I’ve spent the greater part of my life thinking that our self-destructive way of life would end with a bomb and a nuclear winter. In many ways a sudden end to everything would be a more comforting vision than the possibility of a relentless decline into anarchy with terrible flooding, mass migrations from areas no longer capable of sustaining life and the desperate search for food, water, and ultimately air to breathe. I don’t want my grandchildren or their descendants to end impoverished lives like fish writhing on the deck of a boat, gasping for air.

I’ve written before about denial being one of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s symptoms of grieving. But there has to come a moment when denial is overcome and a new life – with all its difficulties and disappointments – has to begin; and this is the moment. Right now.

Please welcome Eric – he needs your help.

Admittedly this is a pretty terrible photograph, but since I lost my telephoto lens when it fell out of my camera bag and into a bog somewhere up on the Mendip Hills, I haven’t had much luck with long shots. The macro lens on my camera helps a bit, being dual purpose, but in my efforts to get a picture of my dear friend Eric the herring gull I managed to knock over a jam jar full of parsley that was perched on the window and by the time I’d cleared up the mess there wasn’t time to find the camera, change the lens and blah blah blah – so there was just the phone.

Gulls are not, by their nature, the kind of creatures you can normally feel an attachment to. If you’ve ever looked into the cold eye of a greater black backed gull, you’ll know what I mean. I think it was Adam Nicholson who most accurately described these birds as being from a different world. Theirs was the ocean and ours was the land; or at least that was the way of it until plastic rubbish bags and fast food came along at which point they moved in. Noisy, garrulous, thieving creatures as they are, their principal virtue in cities was that at least they cleared up some of our mess before the rats moved in – although in our neighbourhood the sight of the ripped open bags with their contents strewn across the streets on a Thursday morning became the kind of issue that gets councillors elected.

In years past, the council removed nests and eggs, and recently they’ve taken to using a falconer who annoys the nesting birds with a beautiful Harris hawk. Most recently the absence of tourists has led to the quietest breeding season in many years. Where there were once dozens of gulls strutting their stuff on the roofs and parapets, now there are no more than a handful and – of course Eric.

I won’t bother with the whole sorry story of my interest in gulls except to say that it started in St Ives one January morning when I realized to my shame that there were any number of seabirds out there and I hadn’t the faintest clue what any of them were. There’s a link to it here, if you’re interested. Maybe it would have been quicker, easier and far far cheaper to have categorised them all as “seagulls” and moved on to something more obviously important, but I didn’t and – as a result of my resolution that day, I am able to say with confidence that Eric is a herring gull. If he were a lesser or great black backed, a black headed or anything else in that line I’d also be reasonably certain of not making a fool of myself. I should qualify that by saying that I have give him a gender but my knowledge of gull sexing is sparse to non existent so he/she could be an Eric or an Erica. But in my long history of accidental pastoral work it was usually angry men who, spotting my dog collar, would approach me on bus stops and railway stations and harangue me as if it was my fault that their partners had seen the light and dumped them. So on that entirely circumstantial evidence, I think Eric is a male

So – gull schmull – you might think; Eric is a solitary. Something terrible has happened and he wanders disconsolately around the green every day being mobbed occasionally by jays and sidling up to young rooks who really aren’t interested.

Back in the day, Hercules would have dealt with him. Hercules was an enormous tabby cat who kind-of belonged to the whole street. He had an owner, but when she moved to Greece she left the flat, and Hercules, in the care of her son who appeared not to care whether the cat lived or died. Maybe he just got fed up with clearing up the remains of Hercules’ last hunting adventure. Hercules was streetwise, independent and fierce and could probably take down a bull terrier, god willing and a fair wind. And so he took to patrolling our street and living on handouts from just about everyone. Every doorstep had empty tins of tuna (this is an upcoming area) and someone even made him a comfortable bed on the step. Then his owner returned from Greece, by which time the cat weighed about three stone, and she posted angry signs all down the street forbidding us to feed him and so we stopped. Shortly afterwards our beloved piratical moggie disappeared forever – he probably died taking on an otter for a laugh.

At least Eric the herring gull is safe – but not in a nice way. These most sociable of creatures have excluded him for some unimaginable breach of gullish etiquette. Sans partner, sans flock, sans everything – he wanders about on the green alone and my pastoral heart goes out to him. People feed robins and blue tits, but random gulls never get a look in. I wondered for a brief conspiratorial moment if the council has set up a top secret experiment to try to stop them breeding and Eric is the first graduate – I really hope not.

In these months of lockdown I can occasionally lean out of the window when the other gulls are circling and playing; shut my eyes and imagine we’re back in St Ives on holiday. Then I open them again and it’s the same old grey world. The Brazilian woman working out with her collection of rubber bungees, the dealers hanging about on the corner, the couple who meet up secretly everyday in an earnest huddle, the smokers, the drinkers and the sturdy beggars in from town because the tourists have gone, the couple practising their strange martial arts routine, the deranged, the homeless and the affluent; the cyclists whizzing past on their way to somewhere they can be important. They’re all part of the natural history of being human. And there’s Eric. What can we do to make him happy!