Monday, 26 October 2015

Blogging hiatus

Apologies if you checked in to read the previous post- I managed to delete it and couldn't face re-writing it all!

A quick one from me to say I'm having a bloggy break. Not sure how long for. Might be a week, might be longer. It's half term this week and after that I've a number of college assignments to do before the winter break plus I like to get Christmas organised ahead of time. I also want to set some time aside to write a book and can't do that without reorganising my time.  If it's ok with all of you, I'll drop a post in here and there when I've got something to say, otherwise hopefully I'll be sharing a book with you at some point in the future ( assuming it's readable).

I'm typing this on the mobile so hope it works!!

Keep well all and I'll catch up with you all soon.


Thursday, 22 October 2015

A Lesson In Camouflage, And In Making Very Rich Puddings

Ma looked at the Merveille Du Jour pics from the other day and said it looked like it was covered in Moss. They are adapted to Oak trees, and blend in with lichen. Every time I see one of these lovely moths (about once a year in October) I tell myself I must photograph it on lichen to show how amazing the camo is. Anyway, ma's comment was the prompt I needed and here are the results (courtesy of our lovely old Apple Tree who wears his lichen patches Very Handsomely)....

Even though I was expecting it to be good, once I'd taken my eyes off the MDJ and then tried to find it again I really struggled (to the extent I had a small panic and worried that a bird might have hopped down and pinched it while my back was turned).

Step back a few feet and it completely disappears, even when you know where it is. Remarkable.

 Can you find it?

Putting them against the background they're adapted for just shows how brilliantly clever the camo is. Autumn moths seems particularly good at camouflaging themselves. Here's a Pink Barred Sallow which shows up clearly against the brown leaf, but would be hard to spot among a pile of the orangey/brown ones...

 A few others who have come over to say hello this week include...



Common Marbled Carpet

Yellow-Line Quaker

I found a toadlet this week, under the refugia which I keep in the garden for our snakes. A tiny little fellow, he tried to bury himself in the soil and then when that didn't work, settled for peeing on me instead :o)

Poppy, in particular, was very interested in him. She didn't get any opportunity for mischief though, because she'd snatched one of my moths earlier and pegged it into the garden with jaws clamped shut, the little monkey, and I was watching her closely. She was soundly told off for Moth Gate, but as usual my admonishments bounced off her. This is the possibly the reason why she decided to drag her blanket out of her bed and tow it round the house, making a Jack Russell Point....

I'll leave you with a pud I made up and threw together from leftovers over the weekend. Salted Caramel Raspberry Doughnut Bake. I warn you: it is VERY rich, VERY fattening, VERY full of cream and sugar, so best avoided if you're on a diet, otherwise, go for it.

1. Take a bunch of (stale but fresh will do) raspberry doughnuts, rip them up and put them in an oven proof dish. Sprinkle some raspberries over and around them.

2. In a saucepan, melt 300ml double cream, 175g soft brown sugar, 50g butter and 1/2 tsp salt. Stir to make sure it's all melted and folded in together.
3. Pour over the donut and raspberries.
4. Cook at 150 degrees for 20 mins or until the donuts go crispy on the top.
5. Eat with ice cream.

Admittedly, it doesn't look all that pretty in the dish because the lighting wasn't great for photos and, it has to be said, the dish is also a wee bit on the old side (about 35!) and bares the noble scars of a lifetime's use, but believe me, it is YUM. And dead easy to make, which is always a bonus. 

I'll leave you with our Nuthatch, who is loving the bird feeders all being back out in the garden...

And wish you all a Happy Thursday.

CT :o)

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Into The Trees


I went into the woods on Sunday. M was running in a race and I had an hour to spare. It wasn't a wood I know well, so I had a little chat with the trees first, by way of an introduction, before slipping among the branches.

This is an old, old wood. It has been here for well over a thousand years: unhurried, slow-growing, certain. It is a place of gnarled holly groves and the twisted arms of oaks and beech thrown up in supplication. The paths that navigate through it belong to the creatures who live here, they whose ancestors roamed the leafy roads long before mankind came. It is cocooned, deep and soft with the accumulated leaf litter of the centuries.

I didn't go far, but you don't need to. A hundred yards or so and you are lost in a world of trees that deadens the sound of Man and suppresses all knowledge of time. It could have been a thousand years ago, for very little can have changed in the wood since then. There aren't many places you can stand and imagine yourself in another time so completely and with such little effort.

As I stood still and silent, listening to the trees breath, I became aware of the soft sounds of the wood and it's many small, gentle movements. A Robin flew down to the ground and drew up a worm. A Wren darted up a tree trunk and then bobbed along a branch, pausing to watch me in that openly curious way of theirs. Slowly, deer crept out of the undergrowth and, cautious, reticent, paused on the edge of the clearing, watching, waiting, sensing. Evidently concluding that I wasn't a threat they moved out into the open, nibbled a little at the grass, crossed the path and were swallowed into the forest again. 

Time moves differently in Woods. I glanced at my watch, expecting twenty or so minutes to have passed and realised it was more than double that. I was about to head back when a group of ponies came clattering suddenly through the undergrowth. Their agitation caused the air in the wood to tighten suddenly, as if drawing its secrets back into itself. Heads flung up, nostrils flaring, the tension in the sinews of the ponies' muscles broke the silent spell of the woodland. 
They ran on through the trees and a second later the deer reappeared. Not slow and cautious now - they burst from cover, fled across the clearing as if the Devil were at their heels, and tore back into the unsettled trees. Blackbirds began pinking in alarm, a Magpie jarred his warning and a Woodpecker screamed out danger. The Robin disappeared and the Wren bobbed once and vanished. The air in the wood churned in agitation as Time came rushing back.

The cause? The first of the runners was returning home through the trees.

I had the same sense of timelessness standing in our woods this morning, listening to the trees breathing. There has been a wood on this site since at least the 1400s, but I suspect it is much, much older. The trees and I have whispered conversations of The Wildwood, that place that existed after the Ice Retreated before people came. We know each other well. It is friend, confidant and adviser. 

While the dogs were off exploring and I was standing beneath the Elder, mourning the passing of the old apple tree which has been cut back somewhat harshly (but I trust the intention, because I know the human Guardian of this wood is wise in Forest Lore), a Marsh Tit appeared, perched in a branch above my head and sneezed in a friendly manner a few times before flying off towards the stand of pines. A Wren called out from the Sweet Chestnut tree on the bend in the path where the owl box is and Nuthatches squeaked to one another conversationally as they tapped acorns into holes in the Oak. In the new coppice a Robin sang, the liquid notes pouring joyfully into the misty air of a late October morning.

Back home, and it seems the whispered prayer I sent to the Oak Trees for a Merveille Du Jour late last night was heard. Beautiful.

Hope you're all well?


Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Highwayman

Thanks to the lovely Mel for pointing me in the direction of Loreena McKennit's version of The Highwayman. I listened spell-bound so thought you might like it too. After that is Andy Irvine's version. Just him on a stage with his guitar and his voice. Me thinks I shall be playing both to the first years so they can see how a poem is transformed by the way you use your voice. And after those, because I love the fact this song has been sung for three hundred years, Planxty's version of Raggle Taggle Gypsy performed at the National Stadium in Dublin in 1973.

Happy Days!

CT :o)

Friday, 16 October 2015

Out In The Countryside On A Chilly Day

First of all, I Greatly Appreciated all your comments from the last post. It turned out to be a real thought-provoker for me and also comforting when so many of you stood up and shared similar stories. 

I am still feeling a bit jittery (recovering from a migraine last Sunday doesn't help) but having gone through the diary and cancelled a number of things that were threatening to sink the next three months in the run up to Christmas, life feels more manageable. No doubt that will eventually filter down and sooth the ruffled nervous system, given time :o)

I mentioned the need to jettison things and slow down to one of my lovely bosses at college this week and it turns out he is feeling the exact same way himself. I think perhaps it's modern life, sending all of us the message that we need to be stretching, stretching, stretching all the time if we're to be of any value. Nonsense of course, but a pervasive sense nevertheless.

My session with my First Years this week gave me a much-needed boost. We worked on public speaking, which most of them are very worried about but which they will all have to do more than once on the course. I got them all reading a verse each of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. It's such a great poem to read out loud among a group of people and for public speaking exercises it's top notch, having a good pace, a cracking story, good rhymes and lots of punctuation marks as hints for where to pause and breath. We messed about with ideas like walking about the room instead of standing still, looking up at the audience at the end of each line etc. There was laughter; there were some interesting theatrics and interpretations and most of all there was improvement and engagement. They were fab and I was proud of them all. It isn't an easy thing to step outside your comfort zone but every single one of them did it. We celebrated with chocolate eclairs and congratulatory smiles and applause at the end.

I spent a nice hour or two out on The Chalk this morning, which as you know is my Favourite Place To Be. The dogs are furious because they weren't allowed to come. Poppy has expressed her annoyance by Illegally Removing A Plant Pot from the greenhouse and throwing it into the middle of the lawn where I can't reach her without her seeing me approach, thus giving her plenty of time to grab it and run off. She's busy ripping it to shreds as I type. Ted, meanwhile, contents himself with casting Long Reproachful Glances my way and emitting the occasional small, disgruntled woof, when he isn't dragging the new dog bed noisily across the room while I am trying to write an essay. This is done by him holding one end of the raggedy old pheasant toy while Pop sits inside the bed holding the other end and being pulled across the floor. I will try and get a video for you. I have promised them a decent walk tomorrow and on Sunday.

We were collecting samples on The Chalk from our nitrate/ cover crop trial, or trying too this morning. It's been so dry there was nothing in the pots. I got there a bit early and went for a wander to admire the hedge that runs across the arable field. At first sight it looks raggedy, unkempt, a bit sparse and thin here and there and mostly dominated by ivy...

But as you walk along you begin to notice signs of Ancient Hedgeness in the number and type of species growing there...

Ash, Oak, Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Hazel, Ivy, Spindle, Willow, Purging Buckthorn, Yellow Lichen, Mugwort, White Dead Nettle, Nettles, Thistle, another type of lichen.

Hooper's Rule states you can age a hedge by the following formula: number of woody species in a 300 yard stretch multiplied by 100. I walked broadly 300 yards, so by that calculation this hedge is 900 years old.

It's not impossible that it is that old, although there are flaws to Hooper's Rule, not least of which is that hedges have been ripped out and replanted here over the last 50 or so years and the replanting tends to happen with a number of species in the mix, so a hedge that is actually 20 years old could be taken as being 1000. Even so, I have a feeling this is an Old Hedge. A Guardian of The Chalk.  In all likelihood a remnant of Ancient Woodland.

Chalk isn't especially fertile. The vegetative communities that have grown up on it and which we still have (on the Downs at least) today are the result, mostly, of human activity. Animals have been grazed on it since the Bronze Age, and as these were mainly sheep, who close-crop the ground and don't give much back in the way of fertilizer, Chalk soils tend to be low in nutrients and the vegetation growing on them tight and compact, ergo (great word) not much use for farming. Until Haber and Bosch came along anyway.

I've heard their process (which enabled Hydrogen and Nitrogen (from the air) to be combined under extremely high pressure to create Ammonia, and therefore the mass production of artificial fertiliser, and the destruction of vast swathes of the countryside and the explosion in the world's population to boot) called the most important invention of the 20th century. They were working on it in the early 1900s and went into production in 1913. As an ecologist I wouldn't put it that way: we're picking up the pieces now, in polluted ground water levels and river water and in the widespread loss of habitats in the countryside and the damage done to ecosystems which ultimately rebounds on us as they provide us with the air we breath, the water we drink and the soils we grow our food in.

Anyway, Chalk being largely low nutrient stuff it was more or less left alone until the Haber Bosch process meant it could be forcibly made fertile. Since then we've ploughed it, stuffed it full of fertilizer and stuck vast swathes of it into agricultural production and as a result, we've lost much of the rich botany and invert life it once supported. The Downlands are the last refuge for much of it. All of this explains why I suspect the hedge is as old as it seems. Because it's sitting right in the middle of an ancient landscape that has more or less stayed the same for the last 5000 years, and only really shifted in the last 50.

It was cold out in the fields, but the Hedge offered an amazing amount of shelter. It deadened the wind entirely and the air on the lee side was definitely a few degrees warmer. You forget how important that simple word "shelter" is when you live in a house with heating and electricity available at the merest touch of a button, and you have access to warm, thick, waterproof clothing and somewhere to hang it to dry.

One of the things I love best about being outside is the way nature reconnects you to the most basic elements of life. It's more realer than any other environment (as Granny Weatherwax would say). I don't have to hunt my food and I can sleep at night in a warm, safe bed, but I would really hate not to get out into the woods and fields, the hills and valleys, and pick up a sense of what life was like when life was like that.

I'll leave you with some people who have made a much-welcome return to the garden this week and wish you all a pleasant weekend filled with nice, calming, happy, relaxing things.


CT x


Wednesday, 14 October 2015



Steadily, over the summer, a feeling of change has been growing. 

I woke up early this morning and realised that I need to navigate differently from now on.

The fifth decade is a significant time of transition for women. We pass the baton of fertility  on to our daughters and, despite a great many of us feeling knackered, emotional, a bit shell-shocked at the changes, and on top of that having to contend with hot flushes, irregular cycles, increased headaches, adrenals kicking in at odd times and producing inexplicable surges of anxiety and worry, and tiredness bordering on exhaustion, we are expected to carry on with life as normal, with barely an acknowledgement that we are passing into a new and important phase of life and that the transition into it is, at times, hard.

I am far happier and more fulfilled in my forties than I ever was in my twenties. I listen to the life J is loving living at Uni and the smile on my face is one of happy reminiscence, not envy.
I am content with the things I do, but I've been allowing something (media pressure? The world's expectation?) to make me feel that the simple, undisturbed peace I find in my way of life somehow requires defending.

What I woke up realising this morning is that it doesn't. I have changed this year, but I like the change, I have accepted it and I will embrace it and everything else will shift to accommodate it, and if it doesn't, then out it goes. 

I am steering my children through their teenage years, their times of transition, and that is proving a big challenge at times. It robs me of energy, it cuts me to my core at times, but because it's normal it isn't acknowledged as being any big deal. I am working towards my second degree and an academic career I hadn't anticipated having in the latter half of my life, and doing that with a family and a full life already in place is also a challenge. I have to work hard not just to fit it in but to summon the requisite brain power to get the concepts and understand and apply them. I have taken on a couple of jobs because I'm interested in them- that too is a challenge and time needs to be found for them, because they too are important. And I am involved in various projects which I also learn from and feel energised by, but they too require the setting aside of time. Learning the lesson that time is finite is one I never seem to get permanently, but rather, need to keep re-learning.

These shifts when they come are significant and only accommodated I think by looking honestly at your life and navigating differently as a result.

How about you?


Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Marbled Orb Weaver, Strictly And A Little Craft

You may remember a couple of posts ago I was lamenting the loss of my Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus).This is unusual for me as spidery folk are not usually top of my list when it comes to favoured creatures, but I must admit I do have a soft spot for a Marbled Orb Weaver. 

Have you seen one before? 

Aren't they pretty? All mine look like this, with the very defined central brown band, but as a species they can be much more marbly or mottled. The similarity of the markings in mine suggest they are a community who has been living and breeding here on our bank without input from other differently marked individuals for quite some time. 

We found one in the front garden when we were clearing out an old bed a couple of weeks ago, then I discovered another one also in the front garden on what we rather grandly call our Wild Bank (largely because it gets no attention and is, if you like, a physical manifestation of the current Rewilding Craze that is sweeping conservation circles- rewilding, in case you've not heard of it, being a way of managing the land that involves not managing it at all, in other words, allowing natural succession to take place. In the UK this means you'll eventually end up with a broad-leaved forest). Anyhoo, the second MOW was living in the Bean Tree on the bank, and just as I was all set to photograph her to show you, she vanished.

I generally sweep an eye over the Wild Bank a couple of times a week all year round because it is always full of Interesting Creatures (perhaps underlining the value of rewilding?), and over the weekend guess what I found? Another female Marbled Orb Weaver mending her web near the Bean tree (perchance my original one returned), and then M discovered two more a little further along, one in an old dock and the other among the hydrangeas. Their territories weren't overlapping, but they were all in a line along the one stretch of bank. In the first pic below you can see how she's working the strand of silk she's producing to weave it into her web. And in the second pic you can see how she's keeping contact with a single thread from the web so she knows when she's caught something.

Marbled Orb Weaver webs are usually found in shrubs or woody plants near wooded areas and close to a source of water. This part of our garden has a stream running close by the bank which is itself covered in woody shrubs, and we also have lots of trees round about too, so it explains why I find them in this section of the garden rather than the others. In the other bits of the garden Garden Orb Weavers (Araneus diadematus) proliferate instead.

Girl Marbled Orb Weavers tend to be bigger than boys and spend most of their time tucked away hiding in leaves at the very edge of their webs, which is what I've observed them doing. They fold the edge of the leaf over and secure it with silken thread. Baby Marbled Orb Weavers make their retreat out of silk only. The adults hold on to a single thread which is attached to the centre of their web so they can tell when they've caught something from the way it vibrates. They re-spin their intricate tracery of interlocking lacey threads every day to create a new web. Babies are laid in egg sacks in October where they remain until hatching out in the Spring. If MOW's are worried by anything or feel themselves to be in danger they'll drop to the ground and hide until they feel safe again. Makes you feel Quite Tender towards them, doesn't it? (or is that just me). Here is one of our girls hiding in her leaf having completed the redressing of her web....

Also observed in the garden over the weekend amid the glorious warmth and sunshine were a Specked Wood, rather aged and bedraggled. Unfortunately, he ended up in one of the aforementioned Ubiquitous Garden Orb Weaver webs shortly after I took this photo. Such is nature.

Our Comma is still Going Strong and Looking Beautiful...

And of course, I can't resist another picture of the Callicarpa who seems to have settled in well :o)

I have also been doing a Bit More Sewing, making Crimble Prezzies and a fox purse for my friend Mrs M as a thank you for supper on Saturday. I've made this too, out of some left over fabric, but I can't decide what to do with it. Any ideas? I'm thinking a drawstring duffle bag. It's not huge but with a border around the edge would be big enough for a medium-sized duffle I reckon...

And finally, now that Bake Off has ended (well done Nadiya- a worthy winner), a quick mention of That Jive on Strictly on Saturday night. I know a lot's been made about his professional dance training on line, but ignoring all of that, wasn't that dance just brilliant to watch? It's the only one I've replayed and watched again because it was just so thrilling :o)

Hope you're all well and enjoying the week,

CT :o)