A Beautiful Day

Robin
Robin

It was just too nice a day today to worry about taking photos, or stepping it out in order to get there, because we needed to be back. The Dog and I set out and within a few steps we were lulled by the soma of the sun, warm on our backs and the almost absence of the recent cold breeze. The air was still and cool as we wandered through a shadowy part of the lane, in fact there were still traces of frost in some colder nooks. The buzzards were mewing over the rookery and the rooks were making a raucous racket in answer. It must be too early for there to be any chicks, I guess the buzzards were just practising. When I came to write today’s episode, I though you might like this picture of a robin for no special reason.

Yesterday, we had to manage without electricity. A hole needed to be dug in the road and so the power must be turned off. Wanting something to do while we waited for a return to civilisation and the ability to produce a cup of coffee, The Dog, Jackie and I ambled down the road, past the Road Closed sign, to the hole with its attendant red and white barriers. There we found two men busy cutting the electricity cables. Where they putting a new wire in? I enquired. No, they were replacing the junction box. It appears that our current cables pass through a box that is over sixty years old and like any sixty year old, it needed to be replaced.

This was something I felt I could identify with.

Any Old Iron

Iron Fluer De Lis
Iron Fluer De Lis

The western area of Cumbria was once the main source of iron ore in Britain. Strange to think of it that way when today it’s all about tourism, walking and climbing mountains – you know, fresh air and exercise. Not the sort of thing you could expect if you were down a mine, hacking away at an iron ore seam, out under the sea bed. Well, exercise enough may be, but not much fresh air. You breathed what was there – no fancy ventilation in those days.

The ore was hauled to the surface by men working a sort of windlass with the rope wrapped round the drum and a bucket on each end – so one rose as the other fell. If the windlass operator missed his grip, with the weight of a full bucket on it’s way up, the uncontrolled spin of the handles could easily take his arm off. I’ll bet the bucket loaders at the bottom of the shaft stood well back while a load was rising.

Next up was the horse ‘gin, and yes, that is an apostrophe in front of the gin – ‘gin was short for engine (or may be we should say engin). A complicated toothed ratchet mechanism, probably designed and installed by the same people who were used to building the internal works of wind and water mills, stood over the mine shaft and instead of a water wheel, a horse plodded round in a circle to drive it until the loaded barrel reached the top and the empty barrel sank to the bottom. Then, the horse had to about face and travel the other way round his circle to reverse the process.

Fresh air and exercise, maybe – but I’ll bet he would have swapped it for a desk job.

Boo!

Daffodil
Daffodil

In the morning, The Dog and I set out determined to find something to photograph. The first part of our walk is the drive, it’s about twenty yards long and takes us along the edge of our wood between two banks a tall one on the right and a small one under the hedge on the left. At the moment, the small bank under the hedge is covered in snowdrops. Both the bank under the hedge and the higher bank to the wood have a considerable covering of green shoots. As we walk down the drive we often muse on the eventual outcome of this green petticoat showing from under the wood’s brown winter skirt. Bluebells maybe?  Crocuses maybe? Daffodils maybe?

At the gate, where we have to make the first decision of the day, whether to turn left or right, with our heads still wrapped around the mystery in the woods, we very seldom pay much attention to the roads immediately outside our entrance. It came as quite a shock today to find, right in front of our nose, just across the road a fully open daffodil. I’m almost sure it wasn’t there yesterday.

The word daffodil, is thought to be a corruption of affodell, which is a corruption of asphodel, this word was pinched from the Greeks, but exactly what the Greeks used it for doesn’t seem to be known.

Croceus

Crocus
Crocus

If you’d like to look this up on Google – or in your dictionary if you have a low threshold of Internet access – you will find that ‘croceus’ is an adjective that describes something as saffron coloured or golden yellow. Saffron is the yellow stuff that is collected from crocuses. It’s actually the pollen, so can be collected even from purple or white flowers. There are frescos from the Minoan period on the Greek island of Santorini that show crocus pollen being harvested, it’s been going on for ages. Just a note here, once again this plant comes from the Balkans, this time it wasn’t the British who stole it. Around 1650 the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador in Constantinople sent a few bulbs to his friend in Holland. Interestingly, the flowers that the saffron is collected from are autumn flowering plants, not the early spring varieties we are used to.

Croesus on the other hand, was the king of a little bit of Asia Minor that had a river, flowing through the capital city, that was overflowing with gold. This made King Croesus very rich. By the standards of any time we mean very, very rich. He went down in history for two things. Firstly: As we’ve already mentioned, he was very rich. Secondly: The Oracle at Delphi told him, if he attacked the Persians he would be destroying a great empire. So, he attacked – lost the battle, was captured – and his empire was destroyed.

I think he could probable get his money back on that one.

Mary’s Rose

Daisy
Daisy

Well, here we go, off to the Middle Ages again. Here, we have a daisy. We found it snuggled down, in among the snowdrops. At one time it was known as Mary’s Rose, says Wikipedia without explanation. If it can’t explain why, then how does it know? Is there a Medieval copy of Wikipedia in a museum somewhere where these details can be found? It also mentions that Chaucer referred to it as ‘eye of the day’. Again, how do they know that he was talking about the daisy? There are people who think that daisy is a corruption of day’s eye, due to the daisy’s habit of only opening in daylight – but so do many other plants, dandelions for instance. I’m not convinced.

Woundwort was another name, this time the explanation is that the juice extracted from crushing the plant, was used by the Romans to soak bandages in, to bind bruises and sword cuts. I can believe the Romans would need something along those lines – and daisies are fairly abundant.

Then, there was the famous bicycle built for multiple occupancy. Composed in 1892, when he arrived in America from England, by Harry Dacre. He had complained to a friend, William Jerome, that he had had to pay import duty on his bicycle. Jerome jokingly replied “You were lucky it wasn’t a bicycle built for two, you’d have had to pay double!”

The phrase stuck with Dacre and in the end he made a profit on the deal.

Push Comes To Shove

Three Wise Alpacas
Three Wise Alpacas

War is not something that we like to believe that we can’t manage without. Yet, so often we find things, not in the least related to violent death and brutality, that came about because of an armed fracas.

Hugh Lofting was born in Maidenhead here in England. He went off to America and did a year on a civil engineering course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he finished off at the London School of Economics. As a civil engineer he travelled the world, eventually marrying and settling down back in America. He was still a British subject though and when World War One raised its ugly head, he joined the Irish Guards and was shipped to France.

Wanting to write home to his children but not wanting to write about the things around him that he considered “either too horrible or too boring”, he began writing little stories for their entertainment. After the war, back in America, these stories began to be pushed and pulled into a children’s book. The theme of these first stories was one that greatly occupies aspiring writers. How to get paid for doing something, you are probably going to do anyway. In ‘The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed’  the Doctor went off to Africa, looking for a solution to this problem.

In real life, the Pushmi-Pullu is a Gazelle/Unicorn cross. That is, two horns at one end and one horn at the other. Nothing to do with Alpacas, Walt.

Rob In The Wood

Robin
Robin

Or maybe Robin Hood, or maybe half a dozen different variations on a theme. He may have lived in the Barnsdale area in Yorkshire and he may have been any number of real people who lived at various times. He may, of course, not be any of the above, but the name Robin Hood may just be an amusing epithet, a sort of ‘Bogey Man’ used to refer to the dangers of wandering in the wild woods. There are references to a similar name used in this way,  in fragments of verse and the like that go back before the earliest that Robin himself was supposed to have taken up his trade.

One evening, while accompanying The Dog on her final comfort break before turning in for the night, I heard birdsong. This was well after nine o’clock and I wondered who could be up so late, given that most birds are supposed to be early risers. I followed the sound and it seemed to lead towards a street light. Might it be a nightingale? I thought we were too far north to be in nightingale territory. There was moreover, something familiar about the song. At first I found it hard to place. In an earlier life, living in a more urbanised area I had often noticed that the blackbird would sing quite close to the street lamp in early spring, until quite late in the evening. I had always presumed that there were good pickings to be had among the insect fatalities that litter the pavement under the light.

The closer I came on this occasion the more the song prodded irritatingly at my memory. Then I saw the light. It was a robin. No doubt claiming the street light’s bounty for his own.

Whether the Wether Will Weather the Storm

Weather Vane
Weather Vane

Yes indeed! What’s in a name? Or what’s missing is probably a more pertinent question. Weather has always had bad vibes attached to it and it can be traced way back and still just means a howling gale or a storm. A vane is a corruption of the old word for sail so a weather vane is a sail for catching the wind. More interesting, is the sometimes used ‘Weather Cock’.

Some Pope in the Middle Ages, when most things of interest happened, didn’t seem to have been able to find anything to watch on television. As he sat there, twiddling his thumbs, he realised that the bleeding edge of technology was passing Christianity by. It came to him suddenly, that most churches didn’t have weather vanes. It was decided to immediately issue a thingumy to require all steeples to be surmounted by one. This decision was passed to the legal department to be checked for possible loopholes. It was sent straight back with a note pointing out that, in fact, quite a few churches already had weather vanes, the top of the steeple was the ideal place to put one, as it would be visible for miles up there.

This, of course, was not to be tolerated. Religion of the period held the populace in a fist of iron and good Christians of that era just did not do things before The Pope said they could. The Church in Rome instantly issued a Very Important Thingumy to say that, as Jesus had prophesied that St Peter would deny him three times before cock-crow, the cock was the only thing that a decent church would have on it’s roof – so those who had jumped the gun better get their act together.

I suppose I ought to mention, although I don’t want to cause any embarrassment, that a wether is a ram or billy-goat that has had one of ‘those’ operations.

Whether you choose to believe me or not, is up to you.

Fink

Chaffinch
Chaffinch

Chaffinches in Sweden tend to be on the macho side.  Linnaeus noticed that all the females pack up and move out over winter, leaving the males to go hunting and trapping and to spend their time sitting around log fires, while the sauna heats up, telling tall tales with their mates. When he was sorting out which bird was what, Linnaeus decided to give the Chaffinches the Latin equivalent of ‘bachelor’ as their name.

In the 15th Century – that’s around 1400 and something – I do wish either the centuries had lined up better or that people who use the ‘somethin-th century’ would just say what date they mean. The whole problem is that the first century happened in the years before we had counted up to a hundred. Let’s not even go into that problems they caused because they started counting from year one and not from year zero. So the years one-hundred-and-something were all in the second century. It was only a hundred years, you’d have thought we could have waited until it was over before we started counting, wouldn’t you? Any way, as I was saying, in about 1400, Abbott Robert Bruyning thought it would be nice to have one of these Missal thingys that were all the rage, so he set a few monks to work. The really interesting thing about the Sherborne Missal, as it came to be known, is the pictures of birds that decorate some of the pages. Some of them are a bit on the mythical side but there, in the bottom corner of page eighteen, is a really good picture of a chaffinch.

Chaffinches have so many names, they’ve forgotten most of them, but ‘they’ say that the finch part comes from the “fink, fink” of its call.

 

Solar Energy

Sunlight On Holly Leaves
Sunlight On Holly Leaves

Holly bushes have been around for who knows how long. At one time laurel and holly forests covered huge areas of what was to become Britain – as soon as someone opened the door and let the North Sea in. Then, the climate changed. It’s difficult to understand why this should happen as none of the trees, at that time, used spray on underarm deodorants. The whole place was absolutely invaded by these wretched deciduous foreigners who have no morals and no shame. They stand around naked for half the year and they actually enjoy it, for goodness sake.

Holly leaves are a hangover from their ancient roots and are waxed and shiny to stop the water escaping from the tree during cold spells, when the ground is frozen and the water in it is locked up in ice. We had a nice sunny day today and walking down the lane it was easy to be dazzled by the sun reflecting off the shiny surfaces of a holly bush full of leaves. It made me wonder if all that reflected solar radiation could be used to boil a kettle or grill a sausage, maybe we could take the windmills down and plant holly bushes – they’re bound to produce more electricity than a windmill, they would look nice and be returning the countryside to its previous biological status.

Before we celebrated Christmas, holly branches were brought into houses during winter, to protect the building and occupants during the long, dark days, from goblins. Who were, we must assume, more of a problem in those days.

Plant a holly bush. What more could you ask, goblin free and free electricity?

Tree Sparrows

Tree Sparrow
Tree Sparrow

We were quite confused when we saw this guy on the feeder. He looked like a sparrow, but he had chestnut coloured head and a white collar. He wasn’t quite big enough to be a sparrow either. Next I decided that he was a goldfinch, we do have a couple of goldfinches around. They are quite difficult to separate out as they tend to congregate with the sparrows and dunnocks and other small brown birds, not that goldfinches are a brown bird, but you have to catch sight of them from the right angle and in the right light to see them in all their glory. Then we managed to take a reasonable photo of our newcomer. Definitely not a goldfinch. Off to the RSPB bird identifier.

About the same size as a robin? Yes. This produced quite a long list! We started to click our way through. Linnet? No. White Throat? No. And so on, until almost at the last bird, we came to the tree sparrow. Although the drawing wasn’t overly like our photo, when we clicked on the tree sparrow’s home page, the picture there could have been the same bird we had in our photo.

They aren’t common these days. In fact they’ve managed to decline onto the RSPB’s Red List of birds that need a little extra TLC. We felt quite honoured to have them pottering round our garden.

Not A Snowdrop

Lamb - Just Bored!
Lamb – Just Bored!

Are you ready? You’ve had autumn leaves, you’ve had trains and you’ve had snowdrops. Here we are then with the first of this seasons – drum roll please – lambs! There’s nothing like keeping it seasonal, is there? We were walking down the lane yesterday, between its high banks surmounted by a dense hedge, when we happened to pass a place where the interlocking branches didn’t quite interlock so tightly. Taking a peep through into the field, you never know, mushrooms, rooks, rabbits, we would be interested in anything that wasn’t a snowdrop,  there we saw a few lambs lying around with their mums.

We backed up to a place where the bank was climbable and stood and watched. Well, I stood and watched, The Dog had noticed a line of rabbit scratchings in the bank and begged to be excused. At first all was peaceful, very pastoral in fact. Then, this little guy (three pictures, from left to right) started grumping around, “I’m bored. You lot are no fun. Why don’t we DO something?” He eventually lost interest in the other lambs and when over to one of the reclining ewes and butted her, when that produced no result, he went round and climbed all over a sleeping lamb. He then walked right up the ewe’s back and butted the back of her head, which by this time she had raised, to see what he was up to. He missed his footing at this point and fell off, picked himself up and climbed right back up on her back again. At this point she felt that the game had gone far enough, so she stood up and he slid all the way down her back and off over her tail.

I’m sure if you look at the pictures again now you know the story, it’ll all make sense.

Perseverance

Snowdrops Persevering
Snowdrops Persevering

We went all the way round the block today. With the miserable light and the ever present possibility of snow or rain, or even both, with a little hail thrown in for good measure, it’s been hard to conjure up any enthusiasm for a long walk. Yesterday was a really good day light-wise, clear and sunny with a gently breeze. Today wasn’t as good – but it wasn’t that bad either, so we decided to do a quick jaunt round to see if everything was still in place, in spite of our inattention.

I’m pleased to be able to pass on to you, that most of the items on our check list received, at least at ‘C’ for a good effort and many are straight ‘A’s for being on target and coming in under budget. The pine trees are fired up and ready to move as soon as word comes. There are small proto-flowers sitting comfortably in the leaf clusters and the needles themselves are a newly minted green. The beech tree with the low branches that we often pass and finger the leaves, has definite, dark, coppery buds forming at the tips of the branches. It isn’t a copper beech, so I presume that they will lighten up once the weather isn’t so serious any more.

The small beck/ditch that runs alongside the road near the railway tunnel has been cleaned out and many of the overhanging branches have been cut back. During the cleaning out process the silt and sludge from the ditch channel was unceremoniously dumped on the banks alongside the road. This was a little unsightly, but we assumed that once spring arrived, it would all disappear beneath new growth.

And the first heralds of the new growth? Snowdrops. A little dirty perhaps, from having to push through all that extra depth of covering, but there’s nothing you can’t do with a little perseverance.

Thermals

Buzzard
Buzzard

Wherever they’ve been, they’re back. We counted seven circling over the fields, while we were out walking today. The first hint we had that they were around and about was that strange mewing sound they make. It is a mewing sound in name only of course, it doesn’t sound anything like a cat and it sounds far more sinister than the image that the mewing of a cat conjures up. It is definitely a hunting call.

I’ve always wondered why animals give hunting calls, perhaps the idea is to panic their prey into making a dash for safety and so give away their hiding place. A bit like fanatical birders will beat the bushes that are believed to hold an interesting specimen – just to make it fly out so they can legitimately claim to have seen it and cross it off their list. Making a loud and penetrating noise when you are trying to creep up on someone always seemed a little counter-productive to me. On the other hand, if you were the one being hunted, you might not see it that way.

Looking around on the Internet for something new and interesting, I notice that buzzards rely on thermals for their hunting, preferring to hunt from a soar or from a perch. This being so, they are generally late risers, giving the sun plenty of time to warm the air up for them in the mornings.  I often feel that I could quite happily be a buzzard. I too, like to give the central heating a few hours to warm the place up before I leave the roost and we have had a few days lately, when thermals would have been appropriate. It’s just the carry on with the carrion the concerns me.

Perhaps a bit of road kill would be all right if you could have it with chips.

Whatever

I Love You
I Love You

The St Valentines – there were at least three of them that we believe did actually exist – don’t seem to be connected in any way with hearts and flowers. We don’t even know for sure who they were and when they lived. The problem is that there were some people named Valentinus, with various levels of religious affiliation, around and about in 200 AD or so, a time that would be useful if you were looking for a St Valentine stand-in, but none of them left any evidence that they sent greetings cards on 14th February, let alone a bunch of roses and a box of chocolates.

Then, there’s the Lupercalia brigade. This, so they say – believe them at your own risk, is a celebration of Romulus and Remus, unique to the city of Rome. You know, Lupus – wolf. Romulus and Remus, rescued from the Municipal Recycling  Depot by a wolf. Then there are those who feel that Lupus was the Roman equivalent of the Greek God Pan and that the mid February rite was a fertility rite, particularly important to shepherds. Or possibly a festival marking the marriage of Zeus and Here that produced, among others the God of War. Shakespeare and Chaucer are in there too, helping to muddy the waters for all they are worth.

So, if you sent or received a valentine’s card today, you are continuing a tradition that has ancient roots indeed – and no-one actually knows where or how it all originated – and that’s much more interesting and intriguing, don’t you think?

The Right Kind of Snow

The Right Kind Of Snow
The Right Kind Of Snow

The wind was gusting from nothing to the full twenty six kilometres per hour that the forecast promised when The Dog and I set out this morning. Neither of us faced the prospect of traipsing round in semi-blizzard conditions with enthusiasm but, intrepid as ever, off we went. We set ourselves the level crossing as our objective. The road round to the level crossing is relatively sheltered compared to walking the other way. That way takes us between the fields and over the beck, with only a few places where there are trees along the road to provide what windbreak bare branches can.

Down the drive we strode, out of the gate and up the hill. Here, with the hill to shelter us, the snow drifted down in a gentle flutter of confetti. This makes you think that perhaps, the answer to the litter and environmental concerns expressed by places of worship used for nuptials, would be to arrange for it to snow on the happy couple. This would have the knock on effect of encouraging the wedding guests to stay inside the church while it snowed on the bride and groom, thus saving wear and tear on the church lawns. The pigeons, sparrows and the Church Blackbird might miss the rice of course but, too much polished rice in their diet is not good for them anyway.

It shouldn’t be too hard to organise – religious establishments have all the right connections.

Rheged

The Kingdom Of Rheged
The Kingdom Of Rheged

When the Romans followed the cares that infest the day, and folded their tents like the Arabs and silently stole away, they left behind that nice long wall right across Britain. The wall had been there for close on three hundred years so, by this time, the wild and dangerous tribes it was built to protect the empire from, were more likely to be in-laws than outlaws. Anyway, the Saxons, moving up from the south were a far more dangerous enemy than your neighbours who lived through one of the gates in the wall.

The Saxons had trouble at home. The bits of Europe they called their own were becoming a little soggy. It was ‘climate change’ you see, probably caused by the methane generated by all those chariot horses used in Roman Circuses, and the sea was encroaching where they would have preferred that it didn’t. Lacking a carbon trading framework the only sensible thing to do was to invade Britain – so they did.

In the south, where a goodly number of Saxon mercenaries had been called in to fight the locals battles for them, it was no problem for the soldiers of fortune to make their fortune usurping their employers. But in the north the inhabitants, as the Romans had found, were a grumpy lot. Urien Rheged, from his base around Carlisle, had put together a coalition of the grumpiest he could find and they held the Saxons back for nearly a hundred years.

Then, as with most historical figures, he was assassinated, and his son, who took over, just didn’t have that je ne sais quoi.

Impatience

Hawthorn Coming Into Leaf Early
Hawthorn Coming Into Leaf Early

This looks like Hawthorn to us and it shouldn’t be coming into leaf yet. Admittedly, this is a sunny, sheltered part of the road, the place where the frost and snow (and even ice a couple of times this winter) melts first. It’s half way up the hill and on the south facing side. I guess that this gives it the benefit of whatever sunshine there is going to be and shelter from northerly winds. The hawthorn was called the hedgethorn in German long before we corrupted it into hawthorn. It’s interesting to think that a having a hawthorn hedge along a field boundary is continuing a tradition that goes back thousands of years, people have been walking along hawthorn hedges trimming them into neatness for as long as we’ve had fields that needed some form of demarcation. A slightly wry thought, as animals were generally allowed to graze on common land that long ago, hedges were probably, mostly there to keep them out of the crops. These days, hedges there are mainly to keep the stock in the fields. Hedges aren’t popular in fields with crops.

Bakers were always keen to have hawthorn wood to burn in their ovens as it burns longer and hotter than any other. Hawthorn has a fine grain for veneers and will take a high polish. The wood is very hard and durable, useful for the teeth on cogs in machinery used in mills – and of course if you need a stake to put through the heart of a vampire, there’s nothing better than a nice piece of hawthorn.

Snow and Ice

Snowdrops - February
Snowdrops – February

The Brothers Grimm, whose lives flipped from well to do to poor and starving, collected peasant tales almost by accident. They issued a small book in the hope of supplementing their meagre income. It was sadly, perhaps not a complete failure, but not far from it. Jacob (the eldest) and Wilhelm, next tried a ‘Small Edition’  – and that did better. The Grimms, particularly Jacob, were not storytellers or interested in children’s tales at all. They were collecting stories told in inns and workplaces to salvage German heritage from Napoleon’s over-rule. Luckily, by the time they produced the Small Edition, Jacob had become bored with the whole business and become involved with an extensive treatise on German grammar. This left Wilhelm to realise that stories for children were the new big thing and he started to knock the tales in the book into shape for this market, removing as much of the sex and violence as he could without detracting from the stories. So, by 1857, they were perhaps, not quite completely Disney-fied – but they were well on their way.

Snow White had a taste for apples and miners. Hi. Ho. Snow White and Rose Red took in bears that had a taste for dwarves. The Snow Queen, on the other hand, was a nasty piece of work from a Hans Christian Anderson tale.

The Ice Queen aka The White Witch lived in the back of a wardrobe.

Think of a Name

Ground Ivy
Ground Ivy

When you have a subsistence economy, if you have something that there is lots of, then you find a great many uses for it. You will probably give it a large selection of different names, too. Here we have Ground Ivy, naturally it is completely unrelated to ivy, in fact, it’s a member of the mint family. It is one of those herbs that can be used to treat almost any ailment. You can make a tea from the leaves with a high vitamin C content. You can eat the young leaves raw in a salad. You can use the dried leaves to flavour and clarify beer. It grows anywhere and everywhere, if it’s given the chance.

This is possibly the place to mention something we came across last year, Meadowsweet. This was the herb used, to refine and flavour mead, by the Saxons. Ground Ivy, under the pseudonym Alehoof, they used to flavour and clarify their ale. I had hoped to be able to give you a recipe here, but no one seems to know exactly how much the Saxons put in to produce the required end result. Interestingly, a fermented grain drink made with hops used to be called beer, as against a fermented grain drink flavoured with something other than hops – which was called ale.

Ground Ivy is here a little early, its table is actually booked for March – but the door was open, so it came in and sat down.

Bird Table Visitor

Sparrowhawk
Sparrowhawk

Here we have a sparrowhawk, he just dropped in to see if there was anyone on the bird table that he fancied. It seems that he is fairly well known and even has a few admirers, imitation being a sincere form of flattery, and all that. The cuckoo has a similar size and under parts design. This means that she will have easy access to the nests of the birds chosen to be step parents to her eggs – as the owners of the nests are inclined to remember a prior appointment when she appears on the scene.

Sparrowhawks have quite a reputation among falconers. They are said to be very difficult to tame and to train but they are tenacious hunters and will often land and pursue their prey on the ground if it tries to escape by running into the undergrowth. They are also considered to be not very bright birds and when their blood is up they will often kill themselves in impossible pursuits. A little too much focus here, perhaps?

In the middle ages, when social standing was the only thing that mattered, because of the sparrowhawk’s small size, falconers considered it to be a bird suited to a woman or a priest.

The best thing about it of course, is that its name is derived from the Norse, Saxon and Old English name for – a sparrowhawk.

On the Bright Side

Dog And Head
Dog And Head

Every one knows that ostriches hide their heads in the sand whenever danger threatens. There are still a few ostriches left in the wild. There are many more in captivity. Isn’t that interesting? It’s only the decision to domesticate the big birds that has kept them from following the dodo into extinction. It seems a pity, with hindsight, that we didn’t domesticate the dodo when we had the chance. It is possible that they couldn’t have survived outside their rather restricted habitat but we’ll never know, now.

Back to the ostrich. If it can survive in the wild and if it buries its head in the sand whenever danger threatens then that would suggest, as a survival tactic, burying your head works. Perhaps its predators won’t eat anything they can’t look straight in the eye before they kill it. The head in the sand ploy will certainly lead to a large number of frustrated ostrich eaters. Humans of course, have no manners and kill things when they aren’t looking.

If you look at the picture closely, you will notice that protruding from the earth in front of the log dog, is someone’s head. He obviously has tried it the ostrich way but found that you aren’t able to see what’s going on so, he has decided to do it the other way and bury his body leaving his head sticking out.

It certainly makes more sense.

Par for the Gorse

Gorse In February
Gorse In February

It’s not bad stuff, actually. It can be made into a good winter feed for cattle just by bruising it and chopping it up, horses enjoy eating it too, but sheep aren’t so fond of it. It flowers for most of the year but when there are new flowers in spring you can make a very nice wine from them. You need a bucket full of flowers to make a bucket full of wine, thinking about the thorns, it could be quite time consuming collecting a whole bucket full of those little flowers.

It is a legume, which shouldn’t come as a surprise when you look at its pea-like flowers, and it does all that nitrogen fixing stuff that legumes are into. It’s not keen on releasing its hard won ‘N’ so it has to be shocked into it. This can be something as simple as cutting it back or you can just set fire to it – it burns very well and as with anything we do well, it actually enjoys it. If you were thinking about the security of having a gorse hedge around your house, you might want to bear that in mind. This is no doubt why any witch with a princess or two in a castle or two will usually choose roses or brambles for  impenetrable hedges.

A gorse hedge that would disappear in a puff of smoke may suit a genie but it’s not going to seem much of an deterrent to Prince Charming. Is it?

Summer Is Icumen In

Geese Heading North
Geese Heading North

A bit premature perhaps, but never the less the geese in this picture were flying north. They must know something. They, after all are closely integrated with nature and have the seasons in their bones. As birds bones are hollow, to give them a decent strength to weight ratio, there is plenty of room for all four seasons in there. Of course it could just be that they have been reading about global warming on the Internet and are heading back to see if the ice caps, like those on Mars, have melted yet. The ice caps on Mars you know, are made from something like carbon dioxide or dry ice and so are inclined to vanish, theatrically, in a puff of smoke at a suitably dramatic moment.

These geese were definitely heading back. It doesn’t seem that long ago when there were skeins of them going over, all heading south. Wherever they’ve been, it looks as if they have outstayed their welcome. I should think their hosts must be heaving a sigh of relief – they’ll probably go to bed for a week!

Cloudberry caused much alarm and despondency and a series of fairly fraught adventures for his brothers when he went to Spitsbergen with a flock of geese. It would have probably been about this time of year he set off.

Dr Dolittle went to the moon on a giant moth – I’ve not seen any large moths fly over. I must keep an eye out for one.

Save the Planet – Eat Mushrooms

Oyster Mushroom
Oyster Mushroom

Mushrooms and fungi are always difficult. Google has a real problem with them and I don’t blame him at all. When it comes down to it, they all just look a bit like mushrooms. Even some that have gaudy colour schemes when they have been around for a bit, still look like mushrooms for the initial period of their lives. I suppose it’s because they are really just the fruit of the plant and it’s only when they’ve had time to get their act together that you can tell if they are a plum or a greengage.

The really interesting bit is what the rest of the plant is doing while we stand around trying to decide if this is a mushroom or a fungus or even if there is a difference. There must be a joke in there somewhere – on the lines of “What’s the difference between a stoat and a weasel?  Well, you you can weaselly tell a weasel, because a stoat is stoatally different.” Come on, there must be some way mushroom and fungus can be twisted together.

Sorry, the thing I wanted to mention is related to the ‘rest of the plant’ rather than the fruit that catches our eye. Fungi generally are rotters. They will reduce any living wood to a mass of dead wood in no time. They do this because dead wood it what fungi like best (don’t tell Tiger). So they will happily live on any old garbage – and producing garbage is something we humans are good at. They are wonderful things, they just love bacteria and nematodes and so can act as filters to remove microscopic nastiness – from Salmonella to oil in sea water. We definitely need to eat more mushrooms.

It’s the chips, bacon and beans that are going to be the problem.

Literary Connections

Scotland over the Solway
Scotland over the Solway

In around 1910, Richard Hannay arrived in London from the, then, British colony of Rhodesia. He had been a mining engineer, had worked hard and stashed his savings away sensibly. He thought he would live the high life that he had dreamed of out in the wilds of Africa. He soon grew disgruntled with the London social scene and, when he found himself invited to talk to a group of elderly maiden ladies, he decided that he would be better off back in Africa. Luckily for John Buchan, Hannay soon became embroiled in a series of murders designed to make him out to be the murderer.

As time was the essence of the murderers scheme, Hannay decided to leave London and try to conceal himself somewhere until after June 15th. He looked at a map and decided that the place that looked reasonably unpopulated but easy to get to would be the Scottish Borders, so he caught a train out of London with that in mind.

This is where the coincidences start. Just after the war (as in WW II, I know, a lot’s happened since then) our family moved out to Africa, to Rhodesia as it happened. Much later I decided to return and made my way to London. Full Disclosure: I have had none of Richard Hannay’s adventures.

John Buchan often visited his grandparents who lived in the little village of Broughton, just north of Moffat so he knew the area well, no doubt why he brought his hero here.

Now, I live just the other side of the border. Hardly thirty nine steps away from the scene of the action.

John Buchan ended up as Governor General of Canada – I wouldn’t mind Canada..

Getting Our Ducks in a Line

Mountains And Mountains
Mountains And Mountains

I had thought to write a short piece on Skiddaw but The Dog thought I ought to check to see exactly which lump it was that was sticking up in our picture. The trouble is, I’m not too sure where we are with respect to everything else. What I could do with is a compass and a map. Not just any old map, though. Road maps concentrate on roads – and roads, very sensibly, don’t climb mountains. So people who want to know where roads are going to, or coming from, should be content with that much information. They should not ask awkward questions about the names of the large, very obvious, bits and pieces of scenery, that really just irritatingly, prevent straightforward progress. The other problem is I don’t have a compass.

So we thought we’d give Google Earth a try, we’re all for modern technology. The Dog would like it to be noted that she does not wish to be included in the above statement. She has heard hints of food bowls that open automatically at a pre-set time and collars that allow you to leave and enter by a flap in the door. She feels that there are enough little black things sticking out of the wall as it is, and she does not want to have to remember to put her collar on charge every night. Even worse there are vague whisperings that suggest that the ‘Private Dog Door’ is actually a ‘Cat Flap’. Well, really!

So we looked on Google Earth and this could be Knott, Binsey or possibly Skiddaw. Or even Knott with Skiddaw behind it – you know a duck in front of a duck, a duck behind a duck and a duck in the middle. How many ducks?

Fly Away

Agusta A109 Power
Agusta A109 Power

The Dog and I think that this is probably an Agusta A109 Power. As a general rule we like helicopters. It’s not just that, historically speaking, we are air force, mostly it is just that, unlike other aircraft whose approach can only be detected by the howl of their departure, helicopters are usually in our field of vision long enough for us to switch the camera on and point it in the general direction required.

Leonardo da Vinci, whose name must always be mentioned in any discussion of helicopters, was a prolific diarist. He jotted down things as they came into his head, in case they might be useful later. He doodled a sort of flying thingy that was unusual for the time – and for Leonardo da Vinci. It tried to use the principal that the corkscrew used to push through cork, to rise through the air, rather than a flapping sort of thing trying to imitate bird flight.

You can almost follow his train of thought. He had just spent a great deal of time studying precisely how birds managed to fly and was racking his brain for a way to reproduce that complex wing motion mechanically – so that he could produce a flappy sort of flying machine. “There has to be an easier way” he mutters in Italian. And then he came up with the screw idea.

Ah. Yes! Genius at work.