Thursday, 30 June 2011

Knowing your umbels

It has been a soggy June north of the border, following on from one of the wettest Mays on record. Parts of west Scotland recorded rainfall levels of 250% the monthly average. Watching news coverage of parched earth and stunted cereal crops in East Anglia it is sometimes hard to credit we live in the same small isle. On the plus side, nothing grows without rain and it has been a season of rampant growth. Hedgerows, meadows and lanes are ablaze with wild flowers and it is hardly possible to go for a country walk without wading through a strangle of brambles and nettles and tall stems of hogweed with its profusion of white and pinkish flowers.

The unkindly named hogweed is a member of the carrot family, a very large group of mostly white or yellow flowering plants which includes many important culinary species like chervil, cicely, caraway and angelica and others with medicinal properties. Many of them grow to a great size, none more so than hogweed which often reaches shoulder height. The giant hogweed, not native to Britain although widespread here, may tower to ten feet or more.

Typical flat topped umbel of common hogweed
Like most of the carrot family, common hogweed or Heracleum sphondylium bears its small flowers in spoked clusters called umbels (think umbrella). These may be the breadth of a hand span and are typically flat topped and borne high about the stout hollow stems. For novices like myself telling umbelliferous plants apart can be confusing as they may be very variable and the individual flowers are often indistinct. Usually the shapes of the leaves give better clues and fortunately they often grow together, making for easier comparison.

And identification is important, for mixed in among these aromatic herbs and also bearing white umbels are some of the most poisonous plants to be found anywhere, the hemlocks and water dropworts, which are potentially lethal to humans and livestock alike even in comparatively small doses. Some of them are all the more dangerous for being common and all parts of the plants are toxic; leaves, seeds and especially roots. Hemlock poisoning, which causes respiratory paralysis while still conscious, was apparently a favoured means of execution in classical Greece. Its most celebrated victim was Socrates, put to death for his outspoken criticism of Athenian democracy, whose demise is told of by Plato in the Phaedo.

Outermost flowers of each cluster are larger
Common hogweed isn't poisonous, nor is it something you would probably want to try to eat, but it does have a taxonomic name with classical associations, Heracleum. I wonder whether this is simply a reference to its size or whether like Achillea, the yarrow - which Greg wrote so interestingly about- there is some other significance that I am missing.

It is fairly straightforward to identify from the flowers alone. They are often pink when still buds, the ones in the centre of each umbel being the last to open. There are five petals and flowers at the outer edges of the cluster have a pair of larger petals, projecting outwards, shaped rather like miniature fish tails. The flowers are much frequented by insects including bees. They give off a mildly unpleasant scent which I have only really noticed on hot, muggy days when the flowers are very abundant. Hogweed's attraction of insects potentially makes it a valuable companion plant for crops because it may aid pollination or pest control. Certainly it is often found around field edges but I think it unlikely that its seeds have been sown purposely as it is naturally invasive.

I don't suppose hogweed will feature high on the list of favourite wild flowers for many people and I must count myself among them. But I associate it with countless country walks on summer days when the sky is blue and the air is hot and fizzing with insects. And in our current, decidedly unspectacular Scottish summer, that surely can't be bad.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The unruly sun

'BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?'

From The Sun Rising  John Donne

Today is Midsummer's Eve and for days the local newspapers have carried advertisements from country hotels inviting us to bonfire parties in their gardens. In true Scottish tradition the thunderclouds have been brooding all day but no doubt the venues are well prepared with marquees from which spectators can enjoy their rib roast and solstice-themed cocktails while staying dry.'Experience all the excitement of a real Celtic fire festival!' one advertisement enticed. I suppose in these challenging times they can't be blamed for trying but it was tempting to let them know that Midsummer bonfires have little to do with the Celts. While undoubtedly pagan, the parts of Britain with the strongest traditions of bonfires in June are Norse or Anglian, not Celtic.

So Midsummer is upon us, that curious time after the solstice when the sun, at the extreme limit of its station, appears to hover unmoving and undecided in the sky, rising and setting at almost the same time each day. It is, after all, what the word solstice means, from the Latin solstitium, or 'sun-halting'. Like its counterpart at the other end of the year, 24 June has been conveniently commandeered by the Christian calendar as the Feast of John the Baptist who, the Gospel of St Luke tells us, was born six months before Christ and 'jumped in the womb' on learning of the Virgin's conception.

At school we learned that the summer solstice occurs each 21 June and like much else we learned at school, while generally true it is not universally so. In fact the solstice may fall on 20 June (as it last did in 2008) and may be as late as 22 June (although this last occurred in 1971 and won't happen again in any of our lifetimes). This year, in Britain, it fell a little after 6.16pm on the date my school approved of, although those of us living in the northern half of the country could be forgiven for not noticing as it poured with rain and barely seemed to get light all day.

The mathematics behind the precise calculation of the solstice is complex, so perhaps my school should be excused for wanting to keep things simple. But I can't help thinking the lack of punctuality exhibited by something as big as the sun would have been a cause for some consternation among my teachers. It was hardly setting the right example!

With the mixed blessing of hindsight, it seems now that much of my schooling was a sequence of learning and unlearning in this way. We were taught absolute truths only to have them dismantled a term or two later once we were deemed ready for subtler lessons. Thus we learned that electrons orbit around the nucleus of an atom in distinct 'shells', so many electrons to each. Our calculations of valency and compound formation relied on this certainty. Well, no actually, it's not like that at all.

It wasn't so bad a preparation really. The rest of my life, too, has involved as much unlearning as learning. But the trouble with unlearning is that it is often painful, reluctant and incomplete. We don't like to let go of what we thought we knew. We don't want to hear that Shakespeare didn't write every word of his own plays or that Columbus didn't discover America, or that water doesn't go down the plughole the opposite way in the southern hemisphere any more than we don't want to hear that our friends will sometimes let us down or our government doesn't have our best interests at heart.

Anyway, I digress. To get back to the solstice, the problem (if indeed that's how we choose to see it) of the unreliable timing isn't anything to do with the sun. The Earth wobbles on its axis like a spinning top, its orbit is disturbed by the gravity of other planets and, above all, our calendar is just not clever enough. An average orbital year is 365.242199 days. Our Gregorian calendar gets as close as it can. Its sophisticated cycle of leap (intercalary) days in years divisible by four, but not if they are divisible by 100 unless they are also divisible by 400 (still with me?) is a big improvement on its Julian predecessor. But it still means we'll be about a day awry every 3,300 years. Further refinements have been proposed but never adopted, perhaps because a further consideration then comes into play, the spinning of our Earth is slowing down so days are set to get longer!

But that's quite enough arithmetic. Celtic or Norse, Julian or Gregorian, our forebears knew better than to reduce the solar calendar to mere numbers and fractions and we should follow their instincts. Sunsets and sunrises remain high on may people's lists of their most memorable experiences, eclipses and other solar special effects even more so for those lucky enough to see them. We may no longer be attuned to the stations of the sun quite as we once were but there's no questioning the power of our own private star to stir wonder and awe in us.  I'm sure gatherers at damp hotel bonfires will have a good time this evening whether the skies are clear or not, but I wish them at least a glimpse of the star of the show.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Euphemia de Clavering

Her name is musical, her tomb mystical and like most women of her time, high born or otherwise, we know precious little about her. She died some time around 1320. We don't know what she died of but by medieval reckoning she was an old woman, in her fifties. There are records of her having at least fourteen children but with one exception we don't know how many of them survived infancy or what became of them. We know the names of her parents, her husband and one son, but that's about all. There are no surviving descriptions of her, not even stylised eulogies, and her tomb bears no inscription. What did she look like, I wonder? What was her character?

In 1343 her son, Ralph Neville, Second Baron of Raby, enlarged the south aisle of the church of St Mary (formerly St Gregory) in the village of Staindrop (a mile or so from his family seat at Raby Castle) to house his mother's tomb. Her effigy lies inset into the south wall, mounted by an ornate canopy. There are other effigies nearby, including one of a child. They were not re-discovered until the nineteenth century during restoration work in the church. They will also be members of the powerful Neville dynasty, but their names are lost to us.

I like to think Ralph Neville loved his mother dearly. Effigies such as Euphemia de Clavering's are not uncommon in English medieval parish churches but hers is especially finely done. The detail is very personal and moving, from her peaceful countenance, eyes closed, lips slightly apart, to the long lines of buttons on the sleeves of her tunic and the patterning on the band of her headdress. Most touching of all are the reclining angels to each side, their hands stroking her head in gentle consolation.

For nearly seven hundred years she has slept in silent prayer in her alcove. She has weathered the vicissitudes of cold and damp and careless worshippers. She has survived the internecine feuds of her family, the upheavals of Reformation and Civil War and the fluctuating tastes of centuries of church restorers. She has come through all that intact and, with our modern sensitivities to conservation, it is hard to believe she will not now lie there for another seven hundred years and beyond.

There are other, grander tombs in St Mary's, Staindrop, although none so old as Euphemia de Clavering and none as deeply devotional and personal. For all her historical anonymity she has achieved immortality of a sort. It is what I believe Philip Larkin meant by the closing lines of his poem about another tomb: 'to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.'

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Let's hear it for the garden warbler

We should be honest, in the appearance stakes the garden warbler has an image problem, a reputation for being our dowdiest of birds. In a land where the non-enthusiast complains there are plenty of LBJs ('little brown jobs') for company, the garden warbler (he or she, for the sexes are alike) has made an art of plain dressing. He has no crest to strike a pose, no rufous breast to square up to a rival; he has no flashing wing bars or cocky eye stripe with which to woo a mate. His absence of distinguishing features, the RSPB notes with an exclamation mark, is itself a guide to identification. So who will speak up for the garden warbler? What can be said for this drab little bird?

To begin with, it is rather misleadingly named, unless you have the kind of garden that requires the services of a modern-day Capability Brown. Its taxonomic genus Sylvia gives a better clue to habitat. The garden warbler has a liking for woodland, especially for mature broad-leaved, deciduous trees from which it may venture into parks but never strays far. Sylvia borin is the specific name - not 'Sylvia boring' as I have heard before now.

Garden Warbler from Wiki Commons
What else? Like all our British warblers it diets mostly on insects, from which we can deduce several things. It is a summer visitor when food is plentiful, a long distance migrant. The garden warbler comes to us from central and southern Africa and its annual stay is a short one. Usually it has left again by early August. Catching enough insects to fatten up for the return flight is hard work, so warblers are active birds, rarely staying put for more than a few seconds. All in all its nondescript plumage and tendency to flit about in dense leaf cover makes the garden warbler a challenge to spot.

But if we can't see it we can always listen, and here is the reward for our effort. I suppose it ought to be a lesson to us that this plain little bird has one of the loveliest of songs. It comes in short bursts of a few seconds, like an out of practice soprano with plenty of power but short on breath. The notes are are all sweet without any of the scratches and whistles often associated with other warblers. But it is also elusive, never quite resolving into a 'tune', never quite repeating a refrain. Apparently the song contains much mimicry of other birds but it is delivered at a speed that makes this hard to discern. It would be revealing to hear a recording slowed down.

Many connoisseurs of birdsong have been lyrical in their praise of Sylvia borin. Sir Edward Grey, Liberal MP and British Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916, took much solace from birdsong in the dark days leading to the First World War. In his The Charm of Birds (1927) he places the garden warbler in the first order of songsters, running a close second to its stable mate, the blackcap. 'To my ear the opening notes of the blackcap's song and those of the garden-warbler are so alike that I hear them with a doubt of which bird I am listening to; but the garden-warbler goes on and on for a longer time and yet never seems to liberate its voice upon the air so completely as the blackcap does. In other words, a garden-warbler's song seems always on the point of an achievement to which only the blackcap attains.'

Another keen ornithologist, French serialist composer Olivier Messiaen was in awe of birdsong all his life. In the 1970s he published La fauvette des jardins, a thirty minute piece for solo piano, as his tribute to the supremacy of the garden warbler. The composition makes no attempt to imitate the song, but instead draws original inspiration from its tinkling beauty.

I have just spent a week camping in the quiet countryside of Teesdale, county Durham. The song of the garden warbler was part of my daily alarm call, some mornings rather earlier than I might have wished for! He (or she) had a favoured bush close by, a stopping off point on his territorial rounds, from which a few bursts of notes were rendered before moving on, ever restless, ever hungry. But even further afield his song was loud enough to lift above the general chorus. Like Sir Edward Grey, I was charmed. Like Olivier Messiaen, I was inspired. In a country of 'little brown jobs' there is nothing boring about Sylvia and we do well not to judge a bird by its cover.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The first thousand

'Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.'     Anais Nin

Since opening dysnomia... in April with no real purpose in mind beyond posting some of my favourite pictures, I have just topped my one thousandth pageview today. That might not seem like much to the seasoned bloggers among you but it is rather more than I anticipated. So, welcome to dysnomia... to those who have dropped by from Germany and Russia, USA and Canada, Spain, Portugal and France, Denmark and Ireland.. and of course to my viewers closer to home. Thank you for leaving comments, especially for your kind words in times of recent sadness. A special thanks to Cricket for helping me create dysnomia... and to Madzia, Ben, Greg, Nevine and Karime for signing up as followers and to others I know are following. Please keep the comments coming, send me interesting things and spread the word.

I shall be away in a tent minus computer and internet for the next week but will be seeing new things, gathering images and ideas for future posts. Looking forward to the next thousand. Dysnomia... has no borders and never closes.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

She sells seashells

I post this picture as a modest tribute to Mary Anning, fossil hunter extraordinaire and one of my first childhood heroines. Two hundred years ago in 1811, at the age of just twelve, she and her brother Joseph uncovered the first ever fossil skeleton of an ichthyosaur, from the cliffs of Black Ven, Lyme Regis (and still on display in the Natural History Museum, South Kensington).

Over the next twenty years Mary went on to further dramatic discoveries in the treacherous Jurassic mudslides at Black Ven, helping to transform our understanding of geological time and evolution in an age when Biblical creationism still held sway. Despite her expertise, as a woman of little education from an impoverished background she had no hope of being accepted into the scientific elite, although they were happy enough to visit her at Lyme and let her guide them on local expeditions. Most of her life she quite literally scratched a living, selling her own fossil finds from a local shop and was immortalised in the famous, if slightly disparaging, tongue-twister She sells seashells on the sea shore. The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure.

As a child I always imagined myself making a spectacular find of my own whenever we went anywhere with rocks and cliffs. My parents lived briefly in Lyme Regis and we spent a happy day in Mary's footsteps. Somewhere I still have the fragment of ammonite I found that day.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Hawks among the headstones

Quite a crowd had gathered by the time I arrived and at first it was difficult to see the attraction. But as the bodies parted, I saw him, just a few feet away on the other side of the railings in the grounds of Edinburgh's Cathedral of St Mary. 'Oh!' I exclaimed. 'A sparrowhawk, how exciting!' And there he was, a male bird with striking grey and pink barred plumage, glaring defiantly back at us. Beneath his talons, stunned but still living, was a stricken feral pigeon. In a characteristic pose he made a canopy with his wings, concealing his prize. The more squeamish members of the crowd made shooing noises. One woman pleaded 'can't you make it stop?' Another asked 'why doesn't it fly away?' Male sparrowhawks are not large birds, sometimes only half the weight of their mate. The pigeon was simply too heavy to lift, too tasty to leave. It was a showdown.

This dramatic photograph is not mine. It was taken by Jane Barton of the Hampshire Ornithological Society. I hope she will not object to me reproducing it here as it captures closely the scene I witnessed.

In the general gloom of declining bird populations the urban sparrowhawk has been something of a success story. The Edinburgh Hawkwatch project, which monitors local sightings of the birds, estimates that 30 or more pairs may breed within the confines of the city, a remarkable recovery from the former indiscriminate persecution suffered by all our birds of prey. Sparrowhawks nest high in trees and Edinburgh is well endowed with inner city woodland. Prime sites are some of the older, less manicured cemeteries. Other bird species do well too in the dense cover of the graveyards and that's good news for sparrowhawks which diet almost exclusively on small birds.

My favourite corners of Edinburgh's cemeteries will remain my secret and they give the appearance of being largely forgotten. They are certainly not the parts frequented by tourists in search of famous graves. In fact I doubt they receive many visitors at all. I encounter occasional dog walkers but that's about it. I find this rather surprising given the general appeal of all things gothic. Headstones bearing all manner of symbols and memento mori emerge like crooked peg teeth from a sea of undergrowth and the crumbling, ivied mausoleums are picturesque in the true aesthetic meaning of the word. They are best in dappled sunlight or when a breeze shakes big drops of rain from the broad-leaved canopy after a downpour.

At each end of the day in particular the cemeteries are busy with birds. Blackbirds and dunnocks rummage in the leaf litter, song thrushes entertain from high perches and wrens trill or tick angrily from crevices in the masonry. In winter flocks of redwings comb the grass, seeming to move as one as they search for worms in the iron ground, and fieldfares strip the shrubs of berries. I have heard laughing woodpeckers and, on lucky days, the shrieking calls of sparrowhawks.

I know of at least one cemetery nest site near the centre of the city and it can be a noisy place in May and June. The nest itself is well hidden but the birds betray their presence with their calling. Roles at the nest are clearly defined and account for the pair's difference in size. Exclusively the female incubates and watches over the vulnerable newborn chicks while the male hunts. His returns to the nest are greeted by volleys of banshee catcalls that sound eerie among the surrounding gravestones. It may be just my imagination but other birds seem to grow quiet and watchful when the male is present, although I have never witnessed him hunting so close to the nest.

In common with all raptors, the predatory habits of the sparrowhawk and its effects are widely and sometimes wilfully misunderstood. There is aboslutely no evidence that the return of the birds to our urban spaces has contributed to declining songbird numbers. Mortality rates among small birds are very high anyway. The hawk, a highly territorial bird, is an integral part of the population equilibrium, and simply wouldn't stay to breed if there was not an adequate food supply. Nevertheless, sparrowhawk nest sites remain vulnerable to persecution, which is why I am not telling where mine is.