Friday, 27 May 2011

Nearly Missed It!

Trundling around on the bus, as I do from time to time, I'm free to read posters and look in windows and indulge in so many activities that are not possible when driving.
So this morning I was delighted to see that I have not quite missed National Flea Month, which is May.
Just a few days left for the action, then.

National Flea Month, also billed as Flea Awareness Month, should really be called Flea Extermination Month on the posters displayed in the several vets' practices along the route of the 44 bus.
It seems to be about getting your pets de-flead in this month of great flea fertility.
Which is understandable, and good for cats and dogs and vets, but could we not also be celebrating a creature of immense power, durability, adaptability and ingenuity; a species which has probably been around for longer than we have, and has travelled the world?

A flea can lay 50 eggs a day, and so produce another thousand of its type in three weeks. It has specialised and adapted so finely that there is a specific moorhen flea, never mind just those that like dog, cat or human blood.

Standing on its tiny flat feet it can jump 200 times its own body length, and it does this, not by muscle-power, but by using a special protein called resilin.
Now why haven't humans learned how to harness a power like that? Imagine the saving in time and fuel. On the other hand, imagine the confusion of mass-landing sites, with all the young commuters leaping over to Canary Wharf every morning.

It has learned to combat its enemies with a tough little body, hard enough to withstand scratching and deliberate mashing by its unwilling hosts.

Its babies, immature larvae, are smart, too. They can lurk in cosy places, under the sofa, in the carpet, and emerge when they sense the vibration of a passing potential host. This is equivalent to a human baby deciding to pop out when it knows there's a smart new nursery ready and the weather is going to be good for a few weeks.

So in the few remaining days of this special month perhaps we could show some true appreciation, celebration and respect for the flea.
I'm not sure how, but I'll do my best to think of something.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Corvus Rules - OK?

Once upon a time, three years ago if I remember rightly, I took pity on an immature jackdaw who seemed to have taken up residence on my bird-table.
I say, 'took pity' but actually I capitulated to a very loud and fairly constant clamouring for food. I guessed he had been abandoned by his parents, or deemed old enough to fend for himself.
Aaaahh - poor little chap!

I say 'him' because, as the mother of sons I found something familiar in the assumption that the matriarch figure was the provider of food and attention. But he could easily have been a girl. It only really matters to another jackdaw.

Every time I went out into the garden he would follow me, shouting loudly, flying back to the bird-table, shrieking if it was empty, flying to me again, blue eyes (that's how I knew he was young) fixed in a steely glare, so that I went into the kitchen for a bit of grated cheese or a few sultanas.
He had me trained within a very few days.

He became a source of entertainment to visitors, with his constant querulous presence, but a source of disruption to conversation. A peaceful evening in the garden was punctuated by his harsh croaking yells, sometimes so loud and so constant that my guests and I would go indoors.

Then he learned to look in through the windows, slithering and flapping on the narrow stone window sills, banging his beak on the (luckily) double-glazed panes.
He worked his way round the ground floor, kitchen, study, sitting-room, looking through the windows with first one eye, then the other. When he saw me he would yell again. And again.

One morning I was sitting up in bed, having a cuppa, when there was a slithering outside and a glaring face at the window. He was able to work his way around the upstairs as well. He knew I was in there somewhere, and so was the constant, but diminishing food supply.

He knew me, and had me trained. He was suspicious of others bearing food, although he would accept it, having first made a visual check that nothing was available from me. He did not shriek at other people, nor follow them round the garden, nor lie in wait for them.

Autumn came, and winter, and I forgot about him, but the following spring he was back, with partner. He taught his partner to use the birdtable, but she (and I say 'she' in a purely speculative way) was never that impressed by me, and certainly didn't want to peer through the windows at me.
However, the new challenge was over roosting sites. It seemed my roost was his roost, and he wanted to move in. So determinedly did he try to move in that I had to keep doors and windows shut, and to hang a bead curtain over the kitchen door for the occasions when opening was necessary.

This year he is back, icy white eyes glaring in a familar way. He is back and so are half a dozen others, so the partnership obviously worked. He knows me still, and has the occasional shriek at me, but is generally busy arguing, bossing, shouting at the rest of the family.
He watches me in the garden, and is familar with the tools I use, not seeing them as a threat. He watches me through the kitchen window, and knows about saucepans and suchlike.
I thought I would photograph him for this blog-post, and have been trying for several days. The minute I raise the camera he yells and dashes off.

Just how clever are these amazing rooks and crows and jackdaws? How can they be so observant of us that they note such a small change in behaviour? A big shiny saucepan, a pair of shears, a spade are safe in a human hand, a small shiny camera is not.
The small shiny camera makes a little chiming sound when it is switched on. Today there's a starling making a perfect imitation of the little chime.

I'm never alone in my garden. There are countless beady eyes and super-sensitive ears trained on me all the time.

(The photograph of the jackdaw in my garden was taken by Pohangina Pete some years ago, so it's probably an ancestor. Pohangina Pete's camera is backed up by rather more patience than mine!)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

What on Earth......?

Prompted, as I so often am, by a comment from my writer/photographer/philosopher nephew,'Pohangina Pete' I stretch my mind from thinking about what slugs are for (in my previous post) what I am for.
A dangerous business, possibly leading to depression and sleepness nights. Easier to think about slugs.

Once there seemed little doubt about my purpose in life. As a wife and mother, a bread-winner, a dutiful daughter, my purposes were clear and clearly endless. Or so it seemed.
In retirement and widowhood life changes, and needs to change.
What am I for now?

I am a mother, a mother-in-law, a niece, a cousin, an aunt and a great-aunt; no longer central in the scheme of things, but there consistently, marking a space of familiarity and safety.
No longer first with anyone, but reliably someone who knows where the old photographs are kept, where there might be a bike-pump, a favourite scarf, a special book.

I am here for keeping the family home in good shape, the beds made up, the meals ready for visitors. It is no longer the primary home, but it is still the place where memories are stored, along with the piles of stuff in the attic that no one is prepared to take to their own primary home.

I am here to be a friend, to make people laugh, or at least smile, and I am here for caring about people - lots of people, and actually caring for some of them.

I am here to stay upright, to try not to fall off the ladder while pruning the vine; to stay fit enough to go to 'medical school', and to try not to create problems for others.

I am here for arguing with the County Council about consessionary bus passes, among other things.

I am here, trying to be good at last, an old-fashioned notion involving purity of heart. When horizons are restricted, choose the good bits.
I am here to accept my changed role in life with as much grace and calm acceptance as I can muster. (I loathe than poem about growing old disgracefully.)
Not a very impressive justification for being. Quite slug-like in fact.

The photograph through the cloisters in Worcester cathedral was taken by my niece, Josephine.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Slug's Eye-Level.

In the garden I try to be compassionate towards all creatures great and small.
I believe in organic gardening, eschewing artifical chemicals, letting the garden and its inhabitants find their own balance.
I feed the birds, feed the plants (on chicken manure), nuture the soil, compost everything compostable.

And then I face the slugs.

After weeks of unseasonable heat and dryness we have had glorious soaking rain, and the wonderful fresh greenery leaps back to life.

And so do the slugs.

They have hauled their slimy little bodies out of whichever damp crevices of the rockery they found for survival. They have got the old protective mucus going and now they are at it again.
This is a hosta leaf today, shining with health and succulence. By tomorrow it will probably be little more than a rib.

I really try to believe that most creatures in the garden bring some benefit. Even wasps pollinate things - I suppose?
But can anyone tell me what slugs are FOR?

Perhaps they are thought to eat decaying matter and tidy the place up? But they don't. They eat fresh young plant material faster than the plant can grow.

They might be useful for feeding thrushes. But they're not. They coat themselves in offensive mucus to make themselves inedible.
For a few years we had free-range bantams in the garden. They mopped up the woodlice and the snails, but they were appalled by the slugs. They went into a state of shock when they met one and would stand on tip-toe, staring pop-eyed, clucking anxiously before turning tail and running away.

Hard to believe, but it was thought (in Southern Italy) that swallowing a whole live slug would cure a gastric ulcer. It didn't, although the exact processes of this discovery are better left unexplored.

I know there are various strategies involving salt, crushed egg-shells, copper strips. I personally have faith in a strong pair of gardening gloves and an old tennis racquet (although sometimes they stick to it or, even worse, get sliced into slug goujons by it).

It still doesn't answer the question of what they are for.

Sunday, 1 May 2011


The word 'commoner' has been revived, heard and read repeatedly in recent weeks. It seems to have come with quite an emotional charge, of the 'I'm better than you' sort, and yet, within that crowd in Westminster Abbey there were only a very few people who were not Commoners.

Her Majesty isn't one, but Prince Harry possibly could be because within some definitions a Commoner is anyone who is neither the Monarch nor a Peer of the Realm.
Which means virtually all the rest of us.

The term is so ancient, and so hedged about with terrible English snobbishness and one-up-man-ship that its definition becomes quite emotional.
This sort of acute social awareness seems peculiarly English, perhaps British, but I know only of the English variety, and the out-dated English variety at that.
Perhaps it happened because of having to live packed together on this over-crowded island, and having to be so much more aware of place and position.
Perhaps because it has been so instilled into previous generations.
Recent experience has taught me the foolishness of trying to explain such a nebulous system to a niece from New Zealand.

My grandparents, and those before them, knew their places and stayed within them.
My parents knew their places but made the rules slightly more flexible while still being able to place their contemporaries socially after hearing a couple of sentences spoken.
I was brought up to know my place and tried to disguise it, and I doubt if my sons have any sort of place awareness at all.

Living, as I do, beside this wonderful stretch of ancient Common Land, I would have held rights and privileges in days long gone.
Being a Commoner was a most positive thing, and is still.

There were Grazing rights (one cow or two sheep, I believe, possibly also a few geese); Piscary rights - the right to fish the shallow and murky pond over the hill where the dogs now swim.
There were very old rights of rights of Turbary or sod cutting, and Marl, or sand and gravel collecting, and I could probably have turned out a couple of pigs in autumn for Mast rights, so that they could scoff acorns and beech mast and any other fallen nuts.
All year round I could have Estovers, fallen branches and dry twigs to keep the woodburner going.

Today I and countless others can wander the Common at will, and in so many areas of the country it is the failure of people to keep up their Commoners' Rights that has made 'Conservators' essential to properly maintain the open spaces.

So, long live the Commoners and their Commons, and those who care for them and protect them for others.
And if one or two of them become Less Common I wish them even better life and luck!