Archive for August, 2013

Big Fleas

Butterfly With Smaller Fly on its Wing

Butterfly With Smaller Fly on its Wing

I was flicking through some pictures today, looking for something interesting to show you. I almost flipped straight past this pic – we have done white butterflies quite recently and I do try not to bore you with over-much repetition. By chance I twiddled the wheely thing on the mouse and the image expanded – and there was that tiny fly sitting on the butterfly’s wing – I’ve circled it in the photo. How strange is that?

This brought to mind the silly rhyme :

Big fleas have little fleas, upon their backs to bite ’em
Little fleas have lesser fleas, and so on ad infinitum.

I had always thought this came from the master satirist Jonathan Swift so I poked around on Wikipedia to see where he said it. Well, he didn’t, not quite. He did say something similar in a poem he wrote, but it was actually Augustus De Morgan an incredibly clever mathematician who put it into the form I remember it.

Augustus’ daughter Mary De Morgan was an ‘enfant terrible’ and upset many adults in her circle – but children loved her fairy tales. Among those who tripped gaily through her audience were, William Morris the great textile designer and between-the-wars writers, Rudyard Kipling, Angela Thirkel and her brother Denis Mackail.

She told stories to story tellers – and so on ad infinitum, indeed.

Which Witch

Rowan Berries

Rowan Berries

Google thinks Rowan (Mountain Ash) berries are edible, but he doesn’t advise eating them. They taste terrible. They have more vitamin C than Lemons and you can tell straight away. The best I could find was a recipe for Rowan jelly, I assume it’s a bit like Crab Apple jelly. Crab Apples are a fruit that you wonder why the tree bothered. They are hard and bitter. They may not poison you but they try their best. I’m guessing that Rowan Berry jelly will be the same – you need to use loads of sugar and even then it makes a better accompaniment to savouries than a jam. Perhaps like having Apple Sauce with pork, for instance.

But it’s as a protection against witchcraft that Rowan really comes in to its own. A house with a Rowan growing nearby is protected against all sorts of things that go bump in the night. If you want to upgrade to the ‘Pro’ version though, it isn’t so straight forward. Pieces of Rowan tree must be placed carefully over the front door of the house, the door to the cowshed and pigsty too. They must be put there by an unknown person who must not speak to anyone when he comes to do the job. The branches should not really be cut with a knife but a kitchen or other household knife is acceptable. The branches must be cut from a Rowan tree that the branch collector did not know existed and, having found his tree and cut his branch he must return home by a different route.

As all this had to happen on St Helen’s Day, around the beginning of May. The countryside must have looked like Piccadilly Circus on that day.

The Company You Keep

You shouldn’t really be looking at this picture, so try to just glance at it out of the corner of your eye. I’m very much afraid that it has been known to keep very bad company and you wouldn’t want to be tarred with the same brush now, would you? It hasn’t happened just once or twice either, this unfortunate alliance has been going on for quite a few years. This chap, Himalayan Balsam, Impatiens glandulifera, was deliberately introduced in the UK in around 1839. He came over on the same boat, as Giant Hogweed and Japanese Knotweed. He was recommended to gardeners for his Herculean proportions and his splendid invasiveness. Well, they were absolutely right about the invasiveness. He’s everywhere – across Europe, America and Australia.

Where it grows along streams and rivers, apparently it is best not to try to pull it up, you just tend to make things worse. It’s better to concentrate on improving the quality of the water and it will go away on its own. It really doesn’t like riverbanks that much and it is only there for the free lunch. Remove the excess nutrients from the water and it will wander off. The other thing about it is, although it may out-compete the occasional local plant, it does provide shelter for various local fauna that wouldn’t be there otherwise, so it isn’t all bad.

It really does seem to be trying its best to integrate.

A Bit of a Steel

Railway Line

Railway Line

The other day The Dog and I wandered round to the railway crossing, as we do every other day or so. We found two guys in yellow jackets there, in the middle of the crossing. One of them was obviously keeping watch for trains, while the other was walking backwards across the road, between the railway lines, making chalk marks every so often on the steel of the rail, as he did so. This was too much for both The Dog and I, so we went on down to the crossing to see if either of them were in a talkative frame of mind.

It turned out that they were both pleased to have someone ask them what they were doing, exactly. Several months ago we suffered a weekend of round the clock din and disruption while the track laying machine trundled its way across our embankment. This is a fantastic machine. It pulls up track, sleepers and ballast and replaces it while, itself, running on the track it is rebuilding and replacing. It takes about twenty four hours to to work over a couple of miles of track – and from our own experience, it is a very noisy business.

But apparently, it can’t do level crossings. They still have to be done by hand. My two guys were measuring up the rails at the crossing so that they would be able to put the new lines in exactly the same positions as the old ones. They did the work over a Saturday night – Sunday morning and I’m pleased to say we heard nothing.

As you can see the new rail is just starting to pick up a bit of a polish.

Religious Nuts

Horse Chestnuts

Horse Chestnuts


There was a guy out watering his hanging baskets as The Dog and I walked past the other day. We stopped for a chat about the global issues surrounding the need for a more water retaining compost mix, to help hanging baskets to maintain an even internal moisture content, so he didn’t need to water them so often. I mentioned vermiculite, with some conviction. After some discussion we came to the conclusion that it was called something else these days. He favoured coconut fibre, himself.

At this point in the conversation, it became necessary for us both to lean against something, so we took advantage of a convenient wall.  “You see those trees?” he said pointing to a few youngish trees fighting their way through the hedge surrounding the field across the road. “I planted those. They flowered for the first time this year.”

As we were both now comfortably supported by the wall, there followed a fair amount of hand waving and discussion until the trees in question were identified amongst the Hawthorn, Elder and Wild Cherry that occupied the corner of the field just over the road from us. “Yes,” he said “My wife’s sister went on a pilgrimage to Walsingham. When she came back she brought me a bag of Horse Chestnuts. So I planted them.

“Those are Holy trees, those are.”

Long Ago

Long Meg Stone Circle

Long Meg Stone Circle


I think that as you get older you become a little more cynical about the world and its people. All right, as I get older I’ve become more cynical, shall we say even more cynical, then? You see, I don’t believe that people are capable of just leaving things alone. The longer things have been lying around, the less, I believe, is our chance of ever knowing what it was originally intended for.

We set out, the other day, to find Little Salkeld Watermill where we believed we would find coffee and cakes. It took us a while to find – but then Cumbria is a lovely place to wander around in. The coffee and cakes were gorgeous. We had decided on Little Salkeld Watermill because we also believed that we would find Long Meg and her daughters nearby, and so we did.

First the facts. Michael Scot, a very clever Scotsman who lived around 1200, and who everyone knew was actually a powerful magician, happened to be passing and came across a coven of witches, (Long Meg and her daughters in this case) so naturally, he turned them into stone. As you do.

Now, on to the more uncertain history of the stones. They may be somewhere between two and five thousand years old. They are built near Eden River.(What a surprise. We are moving massive blocks of stone around and we choose, as their final resting place, a nice flat place by the river we floated them down on.) There are many people who think that over the last five-odd thousand years there have been no changes and that we may be able to work out what use the original constructors intended for the circle. I think we need another magician.

By the way – the photo shows My Sister and Long Meg – you can decide which is which.

Military Milfoil

Achilles, either the one with the heel or an apprentice of Chiron the Centaur , possibly they were one and the same – you know how it is when you’re dealing with mythology – thought very highly of Yarrow. Yarrow is a corruption of the old Saxon name for the plant, which now has a great many names, Herbe Militaris, The Military Herb, for instance or from the Latin, Milfoil or Millefoil, Thousand Weed, a reference to the fact that the leaves are finely divided and have a feathery appearance.

It has a strange affinity for blood, it seems to me. If you roll a leaf up and stick it up your nose – it will make your nose bleed. Apparently, this is useful if you want to know if your lover is true to you. The Achilles who had a spot of bother with the Trojans, used it to heal his soldiers wounds, although it doesn’t seem to be much help in cases of arrow-in-the-heel.

The I Ching makes use of the manipulation of fifty Yarrow stalks to produce the hexagrams used for divination. The process of producing the six lines of the hexagram from the fifty (or forty nine, actually) Yarrow stalks, requires no mean mathematical skill, as well manual dexterity – and knowledge of the necessary formulae.

I prefer to use the coin oracle myself – it’s much simpler.

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